1000 Words: Booked

Now that Caveat Emptor has reopened under new ownership, the east side of Bloomington’s courthouse square is back to being a vibrant book destination.

I stopped in Friday afternoon, Dayna Thompson’s grand re-opening day for the place. The floors were squeaky clean, the shelves neatly ordered, and the total inventory reduced to a manageable amount.

There are, in retail, two polar opposite merchandising philosophies. One says fill every available square inch of your floors and walls with goods. Empty space, so this thinking goes, is not generating revenue. Then there are those merchandisers who design their floor spaces to include broad aisles and a limited number of choices. Adherents of this philo. believe customers can zoom in on key items and not be overwhelmed with a jillion things to look at.

Caveat re-joins the Book Corner as downtown Bloomington’s book headquarters. The Book Corner has been open for business on the northeast corner of Walnut and Kirkwood since 1964 when the original owner, Jim Spannuth, bought the bank building there and turned it into his retail space. Spannuth had run a thriving newspaper, magazine, and book shop farther east on Kirkwood Avenue, nearer to the Sample Gates. He was a customer of the bank and when its owner told him he was building a new location down the street, Spannuth bought the building and moved in when the bank moved out.

There was a small concrete foundation in the front corner of the first floor where a safe had been installed and the basement contained at least two big vaults, as far as I could tell. Trust me, many Book Corner employees have scoured every inch of those vaults for whatever stray hundred-dollar bills someone might have left behind, but none ever turned up.

The first time I walked into the Book Corner, I met Ruth Paris, as fire-crackery a person as I’ve ever met. I asked if the place was hiring and was told no but I should leave my name  and number with the owner, Spannuth’s daughter Margaret Taylor. I did so and then proceeded to call the store every week for about a month until, I suppose, they got tired of hearing from me and just gave me a job. I’ve been there going on 14 years now, even though I’ve taken several long leaves of absence due to a succession of health challenges that make Alexandre Dumas (fils)’ character, Camille, look robust.

Both the Book Corner and Caveat Emptor regularly carry tomes authored by such as the Dumases (pere et fils) as well as the latest Colleen Hoover efforts. As I’ve written herein previously, it doesn’t offend me that quadrillions of people are reading Hoover and her wannabes these days, as long as people are reading. We can even look at Hoover as a gateway drug; if a certain number of her readers find themselves so drawn to reading, they might next turn to the 19th century Gallic father and son scribes. Or at least Bill Bryson and P.G. Wodehouse.

Even if they don’t, even if they continue to read modern romance novels solely for the next few decades, at least their faces aren’t going to be buried in their smartphone screens. Well, every second of the day, that is.

As I say, Ruth Paris was a firecracker. One that was likely to go off, unexpectedly, at any moment. She was passionate about politics and world events, but that doesn’t do her ardor any justice. Calling her passionate about those things is like saying Elon Musk is doing okay, financially. One day, about a week after I started at the Book Corner, I heard Ruth getting into a noisy argument with a customer. He was spouting all the then-canards about Barack Obama — that he was an Islamist, that he was schooled in a terrorist madrassa, that he was born in Kenya, that he was a commie. Ruth went toe-to-toe with the guy. Then she spun on her heel and stormed off, proclaiming loudly, “Some people are just too stupid to argue with!”

I figured she must have known the man to have engaged so ardently with him. A few moments later I asked her who he was. “”I don’t know,” she said. “I never saw him before.”

Sadly, Ruth died in the summer of 2014. Then again, maybe she was lucky. Had she been alive to see the likes of Donald Trump ascend to the presidency, her head would have exploded — and not just with the force of a little firecracker.

Anyway, I got introduced to Janis Starcs, the founder of Caveat, early on. Our stores each acted as though we were two sides of the same coin rather than cut-throat competitors. Booksellers in each place told customers to go to the other place if they couldn’t find what they wanted in the first place. That tradition carries on today. Dayna told me she’d directed somebody to the Book Corner within an hour after opening her doors.

Throw in Morgenstern’s bookshop/cafe/community center on the east side and Bloomington’s book-loving populace is well-served.

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A couple of years back the Pew Research Center took a look at who doesn’t read books in America. Pew’s September 21st, 2021 report revealed a few things about America’s reading habits. To wit:

  • Nearly one in four (23%) Americans polled hadn’t read a single book in the previous year
  • People with only a  high school diploma were more than three times as likely not to have read a book in the past year as those with college degrees (39% vs. 11%)
  • Thirty-one percent of people earning less than $30,000 a year hadn’t read a book in a year while 11% of those earning $75,000 or more hadn’t
  • Surprisingly, more older people, 55 years old-plus, hadn’t read a book in the past year than younger people, 18-48 (28% vs. 19%)
  • Less surprisingly, more men than women hadn’t read a book in the past year (26%-21%)

By the way, I can thank Janis Starcs for pointing out Pew’s study. We readers — and we booksellers — like to help each other out.

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