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50 YEARS A BOOKSELLER

by George Cowmeadow Bauman

 

At first I was just a book-obsessed, pre-ministerial student hanging out in the campus bookstore, reading Steinbeck, Dorothy Sayers, and John Hersey in the newly-respectable, pocket-sized format. I would have done that at any college I’d gone to, but this campus store happened to be managed by my mother at Geneva College, in Beaver Falls, PA.  Her sister, Peg, taught at Geneva, and was my inspiration to reading, books, and bookselling. 

          Occasionally I’d volunteer to help unload textbooks, supplies, or Golden Tornadoes sweatshirts from trucks at the loading dock. 

          “You might as well get paid for helping me,” Mom said.  That was how I got my first bookstore job that autumn of ’64, when the #1 books were John LeCarre’s fictional “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold”, and “Reminiscences” by General Douglas MacArthur for non-fiction. 

          While there I read Christopher Morley’s “The Haunted Bookshop”, and a seed was planted:  I wanted to have a bookstore.  I became one of the lucky ones who knew early on what he wanted to do with his life.

          Thirteen bookstores, dozens of great and no-so-great colleagues, and 50 years later, I’m still book-obsessed.  After working for 34 years, I now co-own the Acorn Bookshop in Columbus, Ohio.

          It’s been a wonderful career.

Want books in 24 hours?  Today that’s possible.  Back when I started, it took 6-8 weeks to receive an order from a publisher.   Computers wouldn’t significantly affect bookstore operations for 30 years; inventory management was manual and cranial. 

The one thing that’s stayed consistent is customer service.  It’s still a joy to welcome booklovers into the store and offer to help them find what they’re looking for, or to offer a recommendation.  I’ve sent over a million books out into the world, book-children which may still be around and readable, for books (other than textbooks) don’t depend on updates, on new versions.  Books printed in the 15th century are still accessible today.  Paperback editions of Charles Schulz, Leon Uris, and Kurt Vonnegut that I sold in the ‘60s may not be in the greatest shape after several decades, but you can still enjoy the text without an upgrade. 

I’ve sold new books, and I’ve sold used books – from 35¢ paperbacks to a $27,500 “Book of Mormon” (1837).  I’ve sold books in a mall, in an airport, and on four campuses, including one named Slippery Rock – where we stocked Abbie Hoffman’s “Steal this Book”…under the counter.  I’ve encouraged readers in downtown Columbus and in the hills of West Virginia.  And managed The Map Store that could have supplied you with maps of all those places.

   At Bethany College in Bethany, WV, (1974-84), I managed the bookstore and became known as “Bookstore George”, appearing all over campus, at literary happenings, sporting events, concerts, partying along with everyone – it was the ‘70s – and hosted a campus radio program.  Titled “Bookstore & Co.”, it featured literary news and interviews.  I loved my time there.

Intrinsically I knew how to promote a bookstore through my personality and my ability to convey and share my passion for books. 

Still at Bethany in 1981, I attended a poetry reading in the Wheeling library, and ended up marrying that poet from Pittsburgh – Linda Mizejewski. 

My last two years there I wrote and edited the town-oriented, semi-monthly “The Bethany News”, which hooked me on small town life, and on writing for readership.

The one bookselling job that may have been the best was on board the

S. S. Universe as it sailed the world, carrying 500 students enrolled in the Semester at Sea program.  What a gig! 

SAS is an ongoing educational program, administered now by U of Virginia, but by Pitt back in 1984.  The Universe sailed from Florida, stopping at ports in Brazil, South Africa, Kenya, Sri Lanka, India, Hong Kong – with a side trip into China, concluding with Taiwan, and Japan. 

          Students onboard needed books – or at least they did in those pre-electronic-reader days.  And they needed a bookstore to get all the necessary books and supplies into student hands.  I raised my hand and got the job.  SAS permitted Linda to go along as my “Assistant Manager” – a $40,000 benefit, for that was the charge to the 50 wealthy adult passengers who voyaged with us.

          We sold everything from textbooks to translated fiction of the nation we were heading to, from language guides to many hundreds of rolls of Kodak film, and from sweatshirts to Saltines, our biggest seller – which helped with sea-sickness.  

          The bookstore was sealed by customs in most ports.  Which meant time for a safari in Kenya, wine-smuggling in South Africa, a lost camera on a Sri Lankan train, Snake Alley in Taipei, broken ribs in China, and a thought-provoking visit to Hiroshima. I met Arthur C. Clarke in Sri Lanka – where he lived, and was honored to introduce his presentation to the shipboard community. 

I bargained in local craft markets: leather bags in Brazil; woven Masai baskets in Kenya; colorful batiks in Sri Lanka;  and cloisonné jewelry in India.  We sold all of it, doubling the previous sales record. 

Which led SAS to hire me as a bookstore consultant to create a Policy and Procedures Manual for future shipboard bookstore managers.

I constructed that document in Iron-Curtain-ed Romania for a year, as my wife had been awarded a Fulbright grant to teach there in 1984-85 under Nicolae Ceau┼čescu’s severe dictatorship.  I sat in our heat-, gas-, and hot-water-challenged 8th-floor flat working on the SAS Manual while Linda taught.  There were microphones in the light fixtures, so Securitate – Romania’s KGB – could listen to the tickety-tap of my typewriter, one of the few such machines in the country that wasn’t registered.  They suspicioned that I was typing reports for the CIA, and several times searched our apartment looking for incriminating evidence.  We somehow survived the difficult year, and I completed my SAS assignment. 

          Semester at Sea was perhaps the best bookstore employment of my life, and the second shortest of my bookstore jobs.

My shortest and worst employment was working for Waldenbooks, though I’d sworn I’d never work for any bookstore chain. 

When we came back from Romania, we settled in Pittsburgh, near Linda’s parents, as she had been awarded a fellowship to work on her Ph.D. at Pitt.  I could find no other bookstore work anywhere, and we were broke, so…

          Right away I had conflicts with the Waldenbooks’ District and Regional Managers.  Both came from general retail; neither had overseen a bookstore before, and I had 18 years’ experience.

          After a couple of months, I received a call from the Regional Office.  “George, I know you’ve been bugging us about getting authors for a signing.  I’ve landed someone big!

          “We’re going to host…’Boom Boom’ Mancini!”  she exclaimed.

          “Isn’t he the boxer who killed a Korean man in the ring?” I asked, incredulously.

          “Yes!  And that’s on the video tape that he’ll be signing in the center of the mall!”

          I was upfront with her, saying, “He’s not an author at all.  That’s not what I meant, and you know that.”

From that moment, I knew I was leaving soon – a three-month mistake.

The airport job (1986-88) in Pittsburgh was interesting.  For Benjamin Books, I managed two real full-line bookstores, an alternative to airport newsstands/gift shops and their book selection limited to bestsellers, mysteries, and romance – John Grisham, Agatha Christie, and Nora Roberts. 

          It was fascinating to see people from all over the world striding past – and often into – our bookstores.  We met the towering Yugoslav volleyball team as they bought maps of Pittsburgh and books on sports.  Mary Travers of Peter Paul & Mary was a regular, for she had Pittsburgh family. 

          Our favorite celebrity sighting occurred shortly after we opened.

          One day an assistant and I were arranging a large display of Stephen King’s “It”.  We saw a tall, square-shouldered black woman striding up the busy concourse.  I nudged my colleague and she found a copy of “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”.  The woman kept heading straight for us instead of turning toward Ground Transportation.  We turned the book over to check out the author’s photo on the back, just as the traveler stepped into our shop and stopped just short of us. 

She looked down from her height and caught our gaze.  “Yes, I am she!” Maya Angelou said with her deep voice.  We laughed at being caught out and asked how we could help her. 

“I need that very title you’re holding,” she said, dramatically.  “I’m reading tonight at Pitt, and left my copy at home.”

In 1999, my lifelong dream of owning a bookstore came true, when I partnered with the founder of the Acorn Bookshop in Columbus, Ohio, where my wife – that former poet and SAS shipmate – taught at the Ohio State University. 

My business partner soon retired.  For 22 years, the store has earned its place in the Columbus literary community, doing our best to encourage folks to recognize both the entertainment and the educational aspects of reading.  Books can change the world, as well as the reader.        

Selling used books and antiquarian material is much more interesting than being limited to new books.  Anything that’s ever been published can enter the door – over 400 years’ worth of possibilities, though, of course, most of a general bookshop’s stock is limited to the last hundred years.  Exposed to never-seen-before books each day, I am constantly humbled by understanding the limits of my knowledge of the book world, even after 50 years.  Every day can be an education, if you’re paying attention.  

Each bookstore experience generated hundreds of store-ies.  I’ve written around 150 about that interesting life in a bookshop. 

“Bookshop Days” is the name of the series, true anecdotes which I call “bookstore-ies”.  Some are humorous, others are touching, or outrageous:  a desperate, third-generation owner wants to sell what he insists is a valuable signed first edition of U.S. Grant’s memoirs – though Grant died before publication;  a woman finds the first known photograph of her firefighter grandfather;  a woman selling her deceased alcoholic father’s books can’t quite part with the AA title that transformed the family’s life; a mystery fan paces in front of a display case, nervous about spending a thousand dollars for a first edition of Sue Grafton’s first mystery.

Since the late ‘80s I’ve also been working on an annotated bibliography of the literature of American bookselling.  Histories, memoirs, travel guides, how-tos, and even fictional representations of bookstores, bookselling, and booksellers.  Several hundred books have focused on our privileged profession. 

It’s the only category I seriously collect, though I read widely.

Bookstores used to have the book market of their community to themselves, competing only with other locally-owned shops in town. 

          But by the 1990s, regional and national chains cut into local stores’ business, closing many.  I was the general manager of Nickleby’s Bookstore Café in Columbus just after “Publishers Weekly” had named it the best bookstore in America in 1994.  No chains had come to town.  Two years later Barnes & Noble and Borders had opportunistically settled in.  Ultimately Nickleby’s – a Columbus institution – couldn’t compete.  “You’ve Got Mail” hit home to a lot of booksellers.

So many changes in the book business in 50 years. 

None more helpful – and more damaging – than the computer and online selling.

By the late ‘90s, electronic technology came to even small bookstores, and online selling began in earnest.  The market shifted, again.  Books new and used could be purchased online, often cheaper than the local store had them.  It meant also that we all could participate in that lucrative online market, selling books around the world, even as walk-in traffic began to decline. 

Amazon was spawned; more bookstores went under. 

E-readers were invented; book sales declined further.

After nearly two centuries of stability and growth, the future of locally-owned bookstores is in doubt.  There are no locally-owned general bookshops left in Columbus.  The area had about 10 open used bookshops when we moved to town in 1991.  Now there are just two of us open shops left, both owned by seniors.  Young people tell us that it’s easier to sell online. 

I think retiring in a couple of years or so might be the right time to get out.  I’ve got lots of memories and notes to turn into more store-ies.

I’ve done my 50, paid my dues, shared my joy and my love of books.

I didn’t go into the ministry and preach the Good Book.  But I’ve had a wonderful life distributing good books.

When my customers come in these days and ask how I’m doing, I happily reply, “After 50 years, I’m still getting paid to hang out in a bookstore!” 

 

© 2014   GEORGE COWMEADOW BAUMAN

 

 

 

 

 
   
       
 
Acorn Bookshop, 1464 West 5th Avenue, Columbus, OH 43212 - 614.486.1860