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Thursday, June 3, 2010 01:41 am

Treasures from faraway seas

Attending from the University of Shadid in the ’60s

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A cover story on Shadid’s by James Krohe Jr. appeared in the Jan. 21, 1977, Illinois Times.
The advantage of pursuing an education in a bookshop rather than a school is that at the bookshop young readers can pick out books that teachers and parents think aren’t good for you. I had bought several books by the historian Richard Hofstadter, then the DeWitt Clinton Professor of American History at Columbia University. Reading one of them during a free period at Springfield High, I was chastised by a staff member for reading a book written by “a Jewish man.”

For all the fact that the cosmopolitan nature of their wares, the proprietors of Shadid’s Book Mart on Sixth Street in downtown Springfield – Mitch, Woody, and Gladys Shadid – were old-fashioned small-town retailers. “Once when I bought a couple of Henry Miller titles – I think they were The Cosmological Eye and Colossus of Maroussi,” recalls John Garvey, the book writer and Commonweal columnist, late of Whittier Avenue.  “Mitch, knowing Miller’s Tropic of Cancer reputation, called my father and said that if I ever brought home anything he didn’t approve of, Dad should feel free to return it. Dad reassured Mitch that I was free to read what I liked, but thought it was nice that Mitch should take such fatherly concern, even if it went beyond his own.”

Shadid’s had the best magazine rack in town too; it was after all how they got started. Michael Skube was a Springfield kid before he became a Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic. He recalls becoming aware of the old newsstand as he transferred from the South 15th Street bus to the North Walnut Street bus en route to Cathedral Boys High School during his freshman and sophomore years. “In the afternoons, I would stop off to browse the stand for out-of-town papers and magazines. Each had its own smell, just as books do, and I must have been curious sight pressing them to my nose.”

In ways that people younger than 30 cannot appreciate, magazines were then what the web is today. The Paris Review and Art News were there, exotic treasures washed up from faraway seas. I bought Downbeat in days when jazz was still worth reading about and the New Republic in the days when politics was still worth worrying about. And Model Railroader.

Shadid’s had the best magazine rack in town, with exotic treasures like Paris Review.
Such attractions made Shadid’s what today would be classed as a “destination retailer,” at least for bookish boys on a lark. “My brother David and I grew up in Springfield in the 1950-60 era,” says William Howarth, who has taught American literature and history at Princeton since 1966 and recently co-authored his first novel. “We were dedicated book rats. Our usual routine was to browse current titles in the old Lincoln Library, then grab a Coney dog at Allen’s cigar store, before ending the day with a visit to Shadid’s Book Mart on Sixth Street.” The only way that one might have improved on that day would have been to have two Coney dogs.

Selling books is a tough racket. Mitch once told me that it was only buying by college students home for the summer that kept the store afloat in the early days. They must have had more money than we junior-high and high schoolers did. Like many a penurious bookish boy, I would pass up a 50 cent paperback if a 35 cent one looked even half as good. Years later, when ringing up my purchase of the Webster’s Third New International Dictionary — by far the most expensive book I’d ever bought, as she well knew — Gladys gave me the wholesale price, or something near it. I seldom use the book today, but cannot bear to think of getting rid of it, out of respect for that kindness.

Job Conger recalled his visits as an eighth-grader to the shop in his web autobiography. “What I couldn’t afford to buy, I read as I browsed,” he wrote. Will Howarth recalled that Mitch offered discounts in the slow seasons. “Our challenge was to bargain with him over paying little for a hefty volume, whether Faulkner or Michener. ‘Hey, that’s a big book,’ Mitch would say, asking another quarter for its bulk.”

A town of more than 90,000 ought to have been able to sustain one modest, well-run shop, but only a few of those citizens were serious readers, meaning the kind of people whose best living room chairs are often occupied by books. Nor did all of the serious readers in those days buy all their books at Shadid’s. For her birthday, around 1967 or so, one of my high school teachers got from her husband a charge account in her name at Kroch’s and Brentano’s main store on Wabash Avenue in Chicago. I was puzzled at her elation — as long as Shadid’s had books in it that one hadn’t yet read, what need would one ever have for another bookstore?

Mr. Krohe also wrote about the store last week, in “Making Springfield a better place.”  

Contact James Krohe Jr. at peptobiz@mindspring.com.

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