Tulsa's independent bookstores
BY JAMES D. WATTS JR. World Scene Writer
Thursday, December 02, 2010
12/02/10 at 12:44 PM
These days, the word "bookstore" brings to mind those gigantic chain stores, with their coffee bars and game tables, multimedia displays and monolithic shelves, and names that always seem to begin with the letter "B."
But in the past, Tulsa was home to a number of independent bookstores. These were locally owned shops, lovingly operated by people who knew and loved - and in some case, wrote - books.
Lewis Meyer published eight books, including "Off the Sauce" and "Preposterous Papa." But he was best known for the eponymous bookstore he ran for 60 years on Brookside, and for the TV program he hosted, "Lewis Meyer Bookshelf," that ran for 42 years.
When Meyer died in 1995, former Tulsa Tribune columnist David Lloyd Jones took over the store, renaming it The Happy Griffin. The store expanded into a coffee shop, then a gourmet restaurant, before closing in 2000.
Novel Idea started out in 1984 as a small shop at 81st Street and Yale Avenue. Over the next 19 years, it became one of the city's largest and most eclectic bookstores, with two locations, one of which also featured a fine-dining restaurant.
Tulsa even had its own mystery bookstore - the Mystery Book Company at 37th Street and Harvard Avenue - from 1996 to 1998.
But the influx of Borders, Barnes & Noble and (more recently) Books-A-Million - not to mention the rise of Internet sales through Amazon and the price-cutting measures of retailers like Walmart - meant that most independent bookstores simply couldn't compete.
These days, locally owned bookstores tend to be those specializing in used books or that focus on a very specific market, such as religious books.
Here's a brief look at some of the uniquely Tulsa places where one can slip between the covers.
Oak Tree Books
2812 E. 15th St.
Hours: 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday
Oak Tree Books "has everything," said owner Rick Dingman as he carefully wrapped two volumes - Darcy O'Brien's "The Silver Spooner" and "The Mullendore Murder Case" by Jonathan Kwitny - in Bubble Wrap and cardboard before shipping them off to a costumer.
"We carry literature, mystery, science fiction, history, biography, poetry," he said. "But we specialize in Native American history and out-of-print books. If there's a book you want and can't find, we'll find it. And it's not just the high-dollar books, either. If you're looking for a paperback published 20 years ago, we'll track it down."
Dingman's brother Scott founded the store in 1993; Rick Dingman took over the business about six years ago.
"I knew the basics when I started, because I had done some book scouting for Scott when I lived back East," Dingman said. "But I've learned a whole lot in the past six years."
One of those lessons is that books, he said, are like oil - it's all a matter of supply and demand. The fewer copies of a title that exist, the more it will cost - as long as it is in good condition.
"Condition is everything in the book business," Dingman said. "Just because a book is old doesn't mean it's valuable. It has to be in good condition, and it has to be something somebody is willing to buy."
Still, he said, "books are the one thing whose value doesn't fluctuate. If you have a book that is in good condition, with a dust jacket that's been protected, that's kept out of the sun and moisture, it will never depreciate in value.
"Besides," he said, laughing, "books are a lot of fun, too."
Gardner's Used Books
4421 S. Mingo Road
Hours: 7 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturday, noon-6 p.m. Sunday.
Not many bookstores have had a gigantic figure of the Hulk to greet its customers. But then, Gardner's Used Books and Music tends to take things to the extreme.
Its 23,000 square feet of space makes it the city's - and likely the state's - largest used bookstore, with estimates of 800,000 to 1 million books on its shelves.
Gardner's didn't start big, however. When Richard Gardner began the business in 1991, he had a total of 384 books to sell, stored in boxes on his office floor. Now, the shop has rooms devoted to mystery and romance novels, along with large sections devoted to science fiction, general fiction, military history, horror, history, biography and general nonfiction.
The store expanded to carry used video and DVDs, music records and CDs, comics and associated collectibles.
In 2007, the store opened a coffee bar called Espresso by the Book, that this year became the Gatsby's Grill, offering coffees, pastries, sandwiches and more substantial entrees such as meatloaf and chicken-fried steak.
The Frugal Bookworm
5932 S. Lewis Ave.
Hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday, noon-5 p.m. Sunday.
Karen Bussell said her only experience in retail was as "a serious book shopper" before she opened The Frugal Bookworm in 2007.
"I wanted to take all the aspects of my favorite bookstores and put them into a single store," she said. "I wanted a store that was clean, that was well-organized, that had excellent customer service and that offered unique and unusual gifts."
The Frugal Bookworm specializes in modern fiction, with about 28,000 books on hand. Among the gifts it offers are artist-made jewelry and purses, with some items available for as little as $10.
"We try to support local artists as much as we can," Bussell said.
The success of the shop necessitated a recent move to a larger space two doors down from its original locale.
"Probably the best way to describe our customers is that we had a number of them volunteer to help us move," Bussell said.
The Old with the New
The Book Place
732 W. New Orleans Ave., Broken Arrow
Hours: 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday.
The Book Place recently celebrated its 10th anniversary, but the store itself dates back at least another decade, when it was known as Paperbacks Plus. Janice Mills Riker bought the shop from the original owners and has run it ever since.
"We're unique in that we sell new and used books," Mills Riker said. "We sell new books, such as the current best-sellers and the titles that students in the Advanced Placement courses need, at 15 percent off retail. And the turnover is pretty impressive - about 500 new books a week."
Still, the bulk of the shop's business is in used books. The 4,000-square-foot space houses some 100,000 books in all subjects - with paranormal romance, Mills Riker said, being one of the most popular genres.
"I remember we once had this one little shelf for vampire romance novels and the like," she said, laughing. "Now, it's cases and cases of them."
The Book Place has a unique connection to this genre, as Kristin Cast - who co-writes the best-selling "House of Night" series of young adult vampire novels with her mother, P.C. Cast - worked at the store while she attended high school.
Mills Riker said the store tends to get more books than it needs in trade. These excess books are donated to Broken Arrow Neighbors, a local charitable organization. "We'll give them 15 to 20 boxes of books a week, which they resell," she said. "It's a way to give back to the community."
And the community of book lovers that patronize The Book Place is one that Mills Riker treasures.
"We have some customers that we know so well, they'll call up and say 'I need a new box of books,' and I'm like their personal shopper, because I know the sort of things they like," she said.
Steve's Sundry, Books and Magazines
2612 S. Harvard Ave.
Hours: 7:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday.
Books were not part of the inventory when Steve Stephenson opened his store 64 years ago.
"We always carried magazines," said Joanie Stephenson, who now owns and runs this Tulsa landmark. "Then one of the magazine distributors said his company was going to start moving paperback books and would we be interested in carrying them."
Nowadays, Steve's Sundry, Books and Magazines is the city's oldest bookstore, with about 60,000 books in stock, in addition to one of the city's widest arrays of magazines and newspapers. Steve's was also at the forefront of the "bookstore as eatery" with its popular soda fountain.
While the store carries a full range of books, Joanie Stephenson said, "the regional titles we carry are probably our best sellers."
These include not only books about Oklahoma, but books by Oklahomans. The store hosts book signings almost every weekend, be the authors well-known best-selling novelists or neophyte authors promoting a self-published memoir. That is one reason why Tulsa novelist William Bernhardt dedicated one of his books to Steve Stephenson, calling him "a treasured friend to anyone who ever wrote a book."
Steve's also continues to endure, Joanie Stephenson said, "because we have a lot of really loyal, devoted customers - in some cases, we have three generations of the same family coming to the store. And we have a great staff that among them has about a bazillion years in the book business. We know the book world, and we know what we have in the store."
6029 S. Sheridan Road
Hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday
Steve Scott was a customer of The Hussar for years before he started working there.
"I was stationed at Fort Sill in Lawton, and I'd drive up here at least once or twice a month," said Scott, who started working at the store about five years ago. "I was very into military miniatures, which is what the store specializes in."
In addition to miniatures and supplies for creating dioramas, The Hussar sells model kits, military prints and some memorabilia. Even so, books on military history make up the lion's share of the business at the store Mike Davidson started in 1981.
"But the books really are a complement to the miniatures," Scott said. "We get some people who are buying books to read, but the majority of our customers use them for research to create their miniature displays."
Books on World War II are the most in-demand, as that conflict is one of the best documented, and makes up a major portion of the military miniatures world.
"Still," Scott said, "we get calls on a daily basis wanting to know if we carry doll houses, sports or political things. We try to send them to places where they can find what they're looking for."
James D. Watts Jr 581-8478
Rick Dingman, owner of Oak Tree Books, says the bookstore helps customers locate hard-to-find books. JAMES GIBBARD / Tulsa World
Gardner's Used Books estimates it has 800,000 to 1 million books on its shelves. JAMES GIBBARD / Tulsa World
Steve's Sundry was at the forefront of the "bookstore with eatery" with its popular soda fountain. JAMES GIBBARD / Tulsa World