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Local bookstores battle in a changing marketplace

One of Oklahoma City's oldest bookstores is closing, but local competitors say they will survive.
by Steve Lackmeyer Modified: July 14, 2013 at 7:00 pm •  Published: July 14, 2013

Paula Walker can barely contain her sadness as she speaks about the beloved Aladdin Book Shoppe she and two friends bought together back in 2006.

Started in 1930 — or maybe even earlier — the shop was the oldest bookstore in Oklahoma City when the prior owner prepared to close for good. It was then that Walker, along with fellow retired librarian Sue Jenkins and friend Robert Cote, pooled their money and saved the store.

“We thought it was an Oklahoma City institution,” said Walker, managing partner. “It's been around 83 years. It's important to the city and the state of Oklahoma.”

But the store never was a source of income for the partners — a reality they accepted until health issues and age began to challenge them from pursuing their ongoing passion. On July 31, Aladdin Book Shoppe will be added to a list of at least a dozen other new and used Oklahoma City metro bookstores that have closed over the past couple of years.

“It took us six months to get our heads around this,” Walker said. “We tried to sell it. We would still love to sell it so it can be around for everyone else. But we have our health facing us. We have surgeries waiting.”

Connections lost

Fans of Aladdin Book Shoppe point out it wasn't an ordinary used bookstore, and its charm always seemed to attract people like Walker, Jenkins and Cote to keep the literary candles burning.

The longest-serving custodian of the flame, Jerry Nelson, worked for the telephone company in downtown Oklahoma City. Every day she walked by a little bookstore at NW 3 and Broadway. When it came up for sale in 1959, she arranged for early retirement and indulged herself in every book lover's fantasy. She bought the store.

When Nelson began to face health issues of her own, she turned over the keys to librarian Saundra Shuler. Nelson died shortly afterward, but Shuler kept the store open until 2006. And it was then, while in the midst of closing, that Walker and her partners took over.

What's being lost, Walker notes, is the opportunity for an exchange of ideas and interests among the store's many shelves. Aladdin is the sort of place where a lawyer in business attire ends up looking at out-of-print science fiction titles next to a leather-bound, long-haired, tattooed motorcyclist.

The pair began to talk about their favorite titles. Walker muses the two customers now routinely visit the store and grab lunch afterward.

“You're losing people who know and love books to the top degree,” Walker said. “You lose the connection to other people and to our history.”

Health, a changing business model and competition from digital books and the Internet are all taking their toll on book sellers. But while customers are feeling the loss at Aladdin and other closing stores, not everyone is ready to surrender.

Full Circle Bookstore in 50 Penn Place is the largest and one of only two surviving independent new bookstores left in the metro (the other is Best of Books in Edmond). Full Circle dates back to the 1960s when it was a counterculture shop in Norman called Bread and Roses.

Founder Mark McGee opened a second store called Full Circle Bookstore in 1970 at NW 25 and Military Avenue, then relocated to the former Veazey Drug Store at NW 42 and Western Avenue.

Jim Tolbert bought the store in 1977 as a fulfillment of a dream. He relocated to 50 Penn Place in 1980, when the mall was filled with upscale shops. In the 1990s he faced an onslaught of competition from corporate stores and was surrounded by Waldenbooks at Penn Square Mall, Borders on Northwest Expressway, and Barnes and Noble on May Avenue.

Today, only the Barnes & Noble remains, and the chain just lost its CEO, William Lynch, amid news that revenues from the chain's entry into electronic readers, the Nook, were down 34 percent. A visit to local stores shows that the most prominent display space is dedicated to the Nook.

Book sales still strong

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by Steve Lackmeyer
Business Reporter
Steve Lackmeyer is a reporter, columnist and author who started his career at The Oklahoman in 1990. Since then, he has won numerous awards for his coverage, which included the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, the city's...
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