Shadid’s Book Mart
An essential Springfield institution
January 21, 1977
I’m plumb wrote out about Shadid’s, a fine little bookshop in Springfield that was run by even finer people. I did this 3,300 word feature in 1977 for Illinois Times, added two IT columns in 2010, and a rembrance of one of the owners on his death in 2018. Theses piece elicited many responses from readers, including many from old friends who, like me, had regarded Shadid’s as the essential institution of their youth. The Shadids are dead now and the bookshop is long gone.
"It's a good day." Woody Shadid was sitting at his desk in the back room of Shadid's Book Mart, flipping through the morning mail. "No bad checks." He smiles to himself. He's been doing this most mornings for the last eighteen-and-a-half years.
Woody puts down the mail long enough to light up a smoke. He is in his mid-fifties, compactly built, balding. He is a partner with his older brother Mitch in Shadid's Book Mart, Incorporated, on Sixth Street in downtown Springfield. The store, like its owners, is a downtown fixture, having long since outlasted the expectations of its critics, even its owners. It is an American success story of the sort that people profess to deride even as they strain to duplicate it, built on the strength of family and hard work and a little luck. For thousands of book-loving Springfieldians over the years it is also a habit, for some even a necessity, as familiar a place as their own living room.
* * *
It's close to noon, and the lunch hour browsers are beginning to file into the store as they do every work day. The store is maybe ten times longer than it is wide, sort of a hallway with shelves. There's hardly a square foot of floor or wall that doesn't have books on it. The Shadids guess they have 50,000 books on display, and. that guess is, if anything, modest.
The store has a bestseller section, a mystery section, a pets section, a gothic section, a how-to section, a children's section, a religious section, a sports section, a reference section and, of course, magazine racks. But for the real book fan the best part of the store is in the back. Back there the books are organized by publisher, not subject, a system adopted in part because, as Woody jokingly admits, he "doesn't know where to put half of them anyway."
The more expert of the Shadid regulars pore over those shelves like archeologists looking in a cave for jawbones. In the process they acquire a knowledge of the stock that even the Shadids themselves are hard pressed to equal. More than once, when they are busy, they have asked one of their regulars to help a confused customer find a book.
Once Mitch was asked by a longtime customer why he didn't reorganize the back of the store, maybe by subject. "Listen," he replied, in a conspiratorial whisper, "this is the way it works. You come in here, you look for a particular book. By the time you find it, you've found three others you want to buy too but didn't know were back there. I'm happy, you're happy."
* * *
"We got started in the business when I was ten years old," Woody recalls, "and we've been at it ever since." Mitch got started even earlier. He ran a newsstand at Sixth and Monroe in front of Allen's Cigar Store when he was still a student in high school, back in the days when, as Mitch remembers, "there was a stand on just about every corner downtown. Every intersection had two, maybe three stands, and there was a couple that had a newsstand on all four corners."
One of those corners was at Fifth and Washington in front of Broadwell's Drug Store. That's the corner where Woody ran his first stand when he got back from the war ("that's World War II, you know") in 1946. Woody later took over the stand at Fifth and Monroe, too.
Putting a buck together a dime at a time was hard work, but it was possible—barely. The Shadids sold magazines and a few paperbacks at their stands. The corner newsstand was a social institution, a trading post where you could pick up the latest gossip and ball scores as well as the newspaper. Hundreds of people would no more start their day without a stop by one of the Shadids' stands than they would go without their morning cup of coffee.
Woody's sister Gladys pops through the doorway of the back room. She's short and dark, and to the exasperation and amusement of both is often mistaken for Woody's wife. "People's Almanac?" she asks. "They promised us tomorrow," Woody answers. Gladys works in the front of the store with sister Linda, who came to work full-time five years ago, after the death of her husband. For eight hours a day, with some outside help, they answer the phone, ring up sales, locate books, and—in a ritual both high-spirited and predictable—gripe to the customers and each other about the weather, publishers, book reviewers and, when things are slow, each other. The personalities of these two are as much a part of the furnishings at Shadid's as the carpet or the book racks; they are what makes Shadid's Shadid's.
* * *
In the back room, Woody talks about the early years. "In 1953 business really took a nose dive out there on the corners. That was when television first hit town. Mitch and I decided we better start looking for something else." That something else was the bookstore.
Shadid's Book Mart wasn't the first stab the Shadids made at running a bookstore. Mitch especially had been thinking about it for years. So, just after the war they opened a small shop stocked with magazines and a few paperbacks. The place was called "The News Nook" and it was hidden in what Mitch remembers as "a little hole in the wall" south of Adams on Sixth. They opened on April Fool's Day, 1946. ("A lot of people," says Mitch's wife Francis, "thought we were.") The shop didn't do too badly, but Allen's shoe store wanted to expand into their space, so the Shadids moved out. It took them another ten years to get back indoors from the street corners, into a store of their own.
Opening the store may have been inevitable, but its success was not. "We wanted to stay in the same business, you know," Woody explains. "We'd had newspapers and magazines at the stands—only a few paperbacks then. They weren't too strong then.
"The guy who ran Coe's Bookstore said we wouldn't last six months, and sometimes I thought he was right.But we saw that they were the coming thing." So they rented the front half of a store at 322 South Sixth (the back was a jeweler's repair shop). That was in August of 1958.
"When we first started we couldn't afford much rent so we moved in here," Woody notes. "We're in the low-rent district down here. Move north of Monroe and your rent triples or quadruples." Mitch remembers having had his eye on the place for quite a while: "It was the best of the bunch. My wife had stood across the street from it and counted how many people walked by it. I knew that was the place for us to go." What economy decreed in 1958, tradition has since ratified. The Shadids expect to stay put—because, among others reasons, that is where their customers expect them to be.
Shadid's is a family operation in the old style. There are nine children in the clan altogether. Gladys sketches in a familiar portrait of immigrants making good. "My father came to America from Lebanon when he was fourteen years old. Our mother was only thirteen. They met in Texas and got married there. Then they came to Springfield. We've got six girls and three boys."
The family deployed its talents cleverly to guard against failure. From the beginning Woody, Gladys, and Mitch have shared book-buying responsibilities, with Mitch handling the trade or quality paperbacks and hardbacks while Woody looked after the mass-market paperbacks. (That arrangement was interrupted because of Mitch's recent serious illness which has kept him on his back and out of the store for nearly a year.) Gladys worked as store clerk from the start, and was joined five years ago by sister Linda. Woody's wife helps keep the books. When he's home from school, Gladys's son Larry puts in time behind the cash register. And sister Dorothy ran the SCI bookshop on the campus of Springfield College in Illinois (then Springfield Junior College) for several years.
The Shadid most often identified with the store, though, is Mitch. He is also the Shadid most active outside the business—a joiner, a Roman Cultural Society "Man of the Year" (for his work in building William Chamberlain Park), a national board member of Pony League baseball, a man who has become such a familiar figure in local amateur sports circles that the announcement of his recent illness was printed in the sports section of the local paper.
But it was the enthusiasm of the family, more even than the brothers' business sense, that guaranteed the store's success. George Bunn of the Marine Bank once came by to look over the Shadids' shop before approving a loan request. "I can see why you're making it," he later joked with Mitch. "You got all these people working for nothing."
* * *
The crowds usually thin out after lunch, as the lunch-hour browsers get back to work. Last month was different, the browsers replaced by Christmas shoppers. The Christmas shopping season, though not up to expectations, was still a good one. The Shadids have topped their sales figures every year since they opened, even though it looks like this year they'll be lucky to equal last year's figures. Even so, there's new carpeting on the floor and the customers sometimes clog the aisles like straphangers on a subway at rush hour.
It wasn't always that way. Woody recalls: "We were in here about five years before we made a nickel. During that time our sole income was derived from the stands." (As insurance, the brothers had kept hold of the newsstands for a few years after the store opened.) Their only serious competition was from Coe's Bookstore up the street, which was bigger and, perhaps more importantly, better-known. Woody remembers the beginning with the good-humored calm of a man who knows that the closest he'll get to hard times now is the remembering of them. "We didn't take anything out of the business in those early years. We couldn't have taken anything out if we'd wanted to. There wasn't anything there."
* * *
Gladys worked for nothing at first. "When they first opened up, our mother says, 'Maybe the boys could use a little help. How about helping them out for a while?' That was eighteen years ago." Gladys is sitting at the counter of Bachmann and Keefner's drug store at Sixth and Capitol. It's the unofficial employees' lounge for the Shadids. Gladys has been coming here to drink a cup or two of coffee and have a smoke for as long as she's been working at the store; Mitch and Woody even longer. "I think they paid me something like $5 a week," Gladys laughs. "Oh, they bought me my lunches and paid my bus fare. We couldn't afford any help in those days. I used to have to eat my lunch at the counter, standing up. One day we took in thirty-five bucks. We thought that was great." A half-dozen times this Christmas they took in $60 on single sales of Wyeth at Keurners.
When Shadid's first opened its doors in the summer of 1958 there was only Coe's (now Haines & Essick) plus one or two specialty shops like Templegate. Now there are nine general bookstores or book departments, a full dozen specialty shops whose shelves carry everything from right-wing political tracts ("Pro-American, Anti-Communist. Outdoor Flag Poles. Congressional Voting Records") to organic nutbread recipes to hard-core porn. Add to that array the grocery and drug stores around town, who now stock bestsellers next to the avocados and denture powder, and you have what the economics texts like to call "healthy competition."
The Shadids have greeted suggestions that they move or expand politely but coolly. "We could have expanded here if one of our neighbors had moved, but they never have," says Woody, jerking a thumb in the direction of the optician next door. "Besides, I think the smallness of the place gives it more of a personalized feel."
The brothers thought about moving into one of the new shopping centers—but only for a little while. "I was afraid of the rent you have to pay out there. It's ridiculous. Only a chain outfit can afford those rents. Besides," Woody explains, "I'm not interested in making that much more money. I don't need the extra pressure." Woody pauses to handle a telephone call (Gladys: "Can you answer the phone, Woody?" Woody: "Sure. I've done it before") then goes on. "You know, when you're in business everybody thinks you're rich. My daughter's at Ursuline [Academy] and her friends say, 'Oh, your dad owns that bookstore. You must be rich.' But we're not rich. It goes out the back door as fast as it comes in the front."
Still, the Shadids know that they've lost a lot of business to the shopping centers and that they're likely to lose more. "It'll hurt when that new White Oaks shopping center opens up," Gladys predicts. "It's bound to. People don't like to come downtown anymore." Shadid's leans more heavily than ever on the regulars who still come downtown, such as state workers, professional people, and tourists.
The Shadid "regular" is hard to describe, though; the only thing that most of them share in common is an affection for books and reading and a loyalty to the store. There are the lunch-hour browser who gobbles Gothics like potato chips, the dedicated mystery fan who not only reads every Agatha Christie but remembers the plot of each, the people who consult the bestseller lists to learn which books they'll like this month, the students and penniless intellectual types who spend as much time looking as they do reading.
One of the reasons a lot of their customers keep coming back is that the Shadids, particularly Gladys, know books—something rare when the help in most bookstores nowadays think that Holt, Rinehart and Winston is a Wall Street law firm. Most of the family earned their knowledge on the job, but Gladys' came at home, after work. Gladys is the reader in the family. “I love to read," she says. "Even when I was a little girl, when people'd ask me what I wanted for Christmas, I'd always say, 'A book.' I've always got a book stuck in my face."
Gladys is also the Shadid who deals most with the customers. "There are some of our customers I'd knock myself over backwards for," she declares. "The nice people outnumber the grouches. Like this one lady. She lives in the Town House, and I swear it's like a ray of sunshine when she comes in. Thanks you for every little thing you do for her, when we ought to be thanking her—you know, she buys an awful lot of books from us."
"They aren't all nice, of course. One time—this was several years ago—I had this state senator call us up, his secretary did, that is, and she said he wanted to buy some books. She asked me how much and I told her, 'So-and-so dollars,' and I added, 'plus forty-seven cents tax.' She said, 'Oh, he doesn't have to pay tax,' and I says, 'Does this go on a state voucher?' and she says, 'No, these are for personal use. He's going to pay with a check,' and I says, 'He's one of the ones who voted that tax in and he's going to have to pay it like the rest of us.' She says, 'I'll have to ask him about it.' After a while she came back to the phone and says, 'You say that was forty-seven cents?'"
Some of the Shadid "irregulars" are better known than the regulars. Governor Stratton used to personally pick up his papers at Shadid's, Guy Lombardo dropped in once with his band while passing through town, local nature writer Virginia Eifert was a regular, as was United Mine Worker President John L. Lewis, and baseballer Joe Garagiola made a special trip up from St. Louis ("that's just the kind of guy he is," explains Mitch) for an autograph party there. Red Skelton stopped by once, and before he left had bought thirty-three dollars worth of books. He and Gladys matched joke for joke until he begged her to stop. "Young lady, please!" he pleaded. "The jokes are my department."
Then there was Pearl Buck, who materialized unannounced one day while in town to speak at a women's club meeting. Buck asked Gladys—who did not recognize her—whether she liked the books of Pearl Buck, Gladys told her that Good Earth was a favorite, but that she didn't think so highly of some of her other works. Gladys, who knows a Pearl Buck fan when she sees one, proceeded to try to sell Pearl Buck a copy of Pearl Buck's latest book. "I thought I'd die when she told me who she was," Gladys says now. Mitch has pleasant memories of the encounter, too, although of a slightly different sort. "Man, she bought about a zillion books," he recalls.
* * *
Ask how they survived those lean years and the Shadids will mention the many friends who backed them up, people who shopped there themselves and who recommended the store to their friends. Tops on the list is the late George Bunn, Jr., president of the Springfield Marine Bank. As Mitch remembers him, Bunn was "not at all like a bank president"—an understatement that Bunn himself would have appreciated. Bunn spent his early years as a New York newspaper reporter and ran a book review syndicate for a while with Sinclair Lewis. He was an avid reader and liked books enough to write, illustrate, and print them as a hobby. "He had a lot of friends, and I think he told every one of them that they ought to shop at our store. That business was what got us through at first."
Dr. Paul Graebel, who when he was alive was minister of the First Presbyterian Church, was another ally. "Every Sunday he'd mention a book in the sermon," Mitch remembers, "and he'd always mention he bought it at our store. At that time his sermons were broadcast over the radio all over town." Mitch laughs remembering it. "We should've made him a partner."
Then there were the kids. "In those early years the college kids really saved our summer. We just about died in the summer until word got around about us and the students started coming in. They read literature—real good books—and they liked what we had." There's more than a couple of those kids, many of them now writers, teachers and professional people, who bought their education in the back shelves at Shadid's.
Woody is unsure about the future of the store. "I'm fifty-four and Mitch is sixty-four. I don't know if any of the kids will want to take it over. We'll stay here as long as we can make a living at it." Woody looks out through the door of the workroom toward the crowded store. "You know," he says, "I think the town-will lose something if we close." ●