Blue Bicycle Books turns 20 this year, but, like Don Draper, that has not always been our name.
In February of 1995, three years before I started here, Lee and Jim Breeden opened Boomer’s Books and Collectibles at 420 King St. The name was eponymous of the Breeden’s basset hound.
Lee had been a development professional at Spoleto Festival USA. Jim was a popular professor at Southern Methodist University known as Doc. He’s now a popular gym rat at the MUSC Wellness Center and known as Boomer, eponymous of the store.
The space at 420 King was originally occupied by Furlong and Sons Printers, which printed books like Magic of Japanese Wood-Block Prints for a Gibbes exhibition and Music in Charleston. After Hugo it was an optometrist’s office (the layout still retains the old exam rooms, now the kids, military, and literature sections of Blue Bicycle) and then a short-lived kosher deli.
Herbie Engel, the building owner, initially refused to rent the space to the Breedens because he thought they wouldn’t make it either. “The building next to us was abandoned with windows broken out and holes in the roof, a place for the homeless to hang out and pigeons to roost,” Jim says. “The two Condon’s Department Store buildings across the street were boarded up … One didn’t wander past the old public library after dark.”
At the time, there were three pawn shops and nine loan shops between Calhoun and Spring.
“Our own accountant told us we would not make it and a friend of his told Lee that she could make more money as a stenographer,” Jim adds.
Jim continued to teach in Dallas, sending books from garage sales and working in the store on breaks.
“For the first seven years, Lee ran the place pretty much alone,” he says. “She taught herself the book trade — and quite well.”
She welcomed street people and gave them free paperbacks. They helped keep an eye on the store and on her. (Jim worried about her leaving work on winter nights.) Boomer’s succeeded, thanks to, as Jim says, “sheer determination, a good product, and kick-ass service.”
I started working here in 1998, leaving my job at the Charleston Place Waldenbooks. Switching to a mom-and-pop that didn’t have arcane void protocols and preferred reader cards was an absolute joy.
Smarter than a bookseller?
Bookstores are funny spaces. To some people we represent centuries of collective knowledge, and it manages to bring out a lot of insecurities.
Once an older man came in and asked for books on trains. I started down the hallway with him and asked where he was from. He said Oklahoma. I said, “We just had a couple in from Oklahoma this morning.” (Don’t judge me. This is retail.) He abruptly turned and walked out. An hour later he called to complain, claiming I’d actually said, “I didn’t know people from Oklahoma could read.”
We also provide the service of allowing you to scoff at our ignorance on a particular subject: “I know so much more about Bangladesh than this person who wears glasses! She’s surrounded by books 24 hours a day and yet knows nothing about Gary Bass’s history of the 1971 genocide.”
The best way to sound erudite is to ask for a foreign language title and then turn your nose up at the translation. “Oh, you only have the Ginsburg? It’s so pedestrian. The Mandelbaum is really the one I was looking for.” Works every time.
The book of love
Some people find bookstores romantic. We’ve been the setting for several engagement photo shoots and at least one actual engagement.
A young man asked us to hide a ring in the poetry section. We were going to be the last step of a much-too-elaborate proposal. He spent the day taking her around town on a scavenger hunt of places significant to their relationship. It was August, he was wearing a dark suit, there was a bout of dehydration, the limo driver got lost.
They finally showed up about four hours behind schedule, just as we were about to close. He left her by the counter, grabbed the ring from behind a copy of Milton, and ran off to make a dinner rez. Five more minutes and that sucker was ours!
Still crazy after…
I bought the store on Jan. 1, 2007. While a lot has changed — back then the only new book we carried was Robert Rosen’s A Short History of Charleston — it’s hard to express how vital it was having a thriving business to start with. Lee showed me the accounting and how to file sales tax returns. Jim continued to pick up the occasional shift (for free) and came along on some buying trips. For my first year we pretty much only sold books they had bought.
We no longer have the quarter-book rack out on the street or even the dollar rack. (My staff has strictly forbidden me from making my spiel about the flat-lining of book prices and the general devaluing of our product.) But we are still essentially a weird combination of thrift store and high-end antique store, and like any retailer, get our share of characters.
Once a woman brought in a rooster wearing a diaper.
Once a drunken Bret Easton Ellis fan threw up on the counter.
Once Ryan Adams came in and bought a $200 atlas of the moon.
Once Bill Murray was flipping through an old Life magazine about The Graduate. I asked him if he knew Dustin Hoffman (I’d forgotten about Tootsie), and he said, “Yeah, sure,” then grabbed his hair with both hands and yelled, “I’M NOT FUCKING ROBERT REDFORD!” My daughter, two at the time, was sleeping in my office and his Hoffman impression woke her up.
And once Dana Carvey punched Adam Sandler in the eye while Chris Farley was making out with Molly Shannon. Oh, wait, sorry, that’s from my SNL memoir.
Whine and cheese
Selling books in Charleston is different than selling books in Seattle or the Berkshires. There’s a documentary called Paperback Dreams about two iconic bookstores in the Bay Area. One devoted customer brags, “Some people buy shoes, I buy books.” Well, people here buy shoes. Also candles and cocktails and fancy appetizers. Charleston’s got a lot going on. People bike, fish, garden, play cornhole, do hipster crafts. My staff and I identify as “book-lovers,” and certainly many of our customers do too, but we can’t afford to wait around for the Shoeless Lady. We want to be a shop that anybody would appreciate and want to hang out in. Working in a place like this is an absolute joy and a privilege, and we don’t take it for granted.
We are grateful to so many for an amazing 20 years — the Breedens, all the authors who’ve come through, our amazing staff, our customers, my family.
And thank you for indulging me here a little. Have to say, I’m surprised. I didn’t know people from [insert: your home state] could read.
Blue Bicycle Books will host a 20th anniversary party on Sat. Sept. 19 from 6-9 p.m.