*This story is all legend and faded memory…
Almost immediately after entering the book business in Sept 1980, I began hearing stories of Johnny “G.” He was a legend…of sorts… in the DC Region. Older booksellers would say Johnny did this… Johnny did that… I was just a new guy, so I was all ears—all the time. I knew I had LOTS to learn on the bookstore owner’s side of the sales counter. So I always paid close attention to every other bookseller’s modus operandi. I’d imitate their successes. I’d be sure to avoid their failures.
I became partners with Carl Sickles, owner of Book Alcove, two months after I’d taken a “summer job” with him at their Gaithersburg store. Indeed, from 1980 until early 1983, I was “Book Alcove of Frederick.” He was pretty much a silent partner beyond matching $1000 to mine for the first and last month’s rent at our first location on West Patrick in Frederick. The $2000 also paid for the first load of 12′ x 8″x 1″ #2 pine boards, some cheap wall paneling (to nail on as backing support), a gallon of Minwax “Special Walnut” stain, and a few pounds of nails. I supplied my own hammer and circular saw and sawhorses. He did let me pull some duplicates off his shelves to help with opening stock. He gave me some house calls so I’d have something on the new bookcases I was building every day. Twice a week that summer we would take vehicles out to the legendary Clifton Book Company on a 300 acre farm near Shepherdstown WV. We would leave at dawn and spend the day picking all the books we wanted from the sprawling barns and quonset huts for a quarter apiece. I had a 1977 Ford F150 pickup with a cap over the bed. Carl, Ray (his son) and I would emerge about 4 hours later filthy but with full loads of books in their van and my truck.
Carl would always stop and buy us lunch at the American Legion across the Potomac in Boonsboro. The burgers were also a quarter apiece.
But Clifton Books, with their bookworm logo “Skoob” and the millions of books left on that farm, is a story for another time. This story is about Johnny and the Tall Tales that were told about him over bookstore counters, in between bidding at country auctions or over beers.
Carl called one afternoon, “Leslie is selling her shop in Wheaton. Do you want to go make an offer?”
I was desperate for books even though I wasn’t selling many. I still had not had my first day “over.”
Carl would call every evening for me to report my sales figures.
“Were you OVER?”
“OVER” meant, “Was your take over $100 for the day?”
It took some months for my daily sales to break $100. I do remember celebrating the first evening they did at La Paz with margaritas and guacamole and tostadas and refried beans. I still enjoy those dishes in 2017 as well as the margaritas—salt, rocks.
I was building five or six bookcases every day and constantly creating new aisles in my 1500 sq/ft bookstore, so I needed ANYTHING and everything to avoid having completely bare shelves. I’d learned early that empty spaces on any bookcase gave the impression to customers you didn’t have enough books—or, worse, you’d sold the best stuff and they were looking at dregs…
So we set a time to meet at the little storefront on University Blvd just off Georgia Ave. Wheaton MD had been a hub for me as a book buyer from my early teens on. We’d moved to Rockville when I was 13. I’d cajole Mom or Dad to take me to Barbarian Books or Attic Books or any of the other bookstores in the Wheaton “Triangle” area. Except Leslie’s. I’d walked in there once and within a couple minutes walked out. Hers was a romance bookstore. Almost all she stocked were mass market paperback romance. Rows and rows of Harlequin Series Romances arranged not by author but by the catalog number on the spine. #887 was shelved between #886 and #888. The uniform bindings lined the bookcases along the walls. Hard to believe but there you go. Love was different in the early 80s. At least love books were.
Carl had told me early on how important series romance was to the daily take at the Book Alcoves. At that time there were four. Gaithersburg—Carl and Eleanor’s store—the flagship. Ray’s store in Loehmann’s Plaza on Randolph Road near Rockville Pike and their other son, John’s, location in Herndon VA. I was #4.
We walked around the shop after being greeted by Leslie—a 40-something, attractive blonde.
Carl said under his breath, “This is one of Johnny’s stores.”
I knew what he meant. I’d been told Johnny had opened many bookstores over the years. He would find a cheap storefront to rent and load it with leftovers from a charity book sale that he’d picked up for free. As soon as he opened, he’d put out a “Bookstore” sign, an “Open” sign, and also a… “Bookstore for Sale” sign!
The legend was Johnny was not so much a bookseller but rather a bookstore seller!
He’d set up shop and hope for a retiree or anyone with a little money to walk in.
How the book buyer was transformed to a bookstore buyer is a mystery. Perhaps they sought the romance of the bookseller’s life. Sitting behind a counter collecting money. Reading or chatting in between sales. Plus—everything was set up and ready to go. A turn-key used bookstore.
I don’t know how he made the pitch when someone inquired. Was he retiring, in distress, moving to Florida…?
…come in said the spider to the fly…
“She’s selling the bookcases too,” Carl whispered. “That’s what you really want.”
Apparently, after she bought the bookstore from Johnny, she’d retrofitted it with bookcases. I guess Johnny had used cheap tables and odds and ends he’d picked up for nothing to display his opening stock.
“What should I offer? A thousand?”
Carl turned and looked me in the eye as if I was crazy.
“Two hundred,” he said. “For everything. She’s closing no matter what at the end of the month. She’ll have to pay to get the stuff hauled away if we don’t take it.”
After we’d circled the shop, we were again before Leslie’s sales counter. She looked up at us expectantly.
Carl let me do the talking. It was how I would learn. He was to be a terrific mentor to me and in many ways like a second father to me. My own father had died suddenly five years earlier. My mother soon after.
I hemmed and hawed. Nervous. Shy. Embarrassed. Would she scream at me for making such a ridiculously low offer?
“Uh, umm, I’m afraid all I can offer is two hundred. For everything. Including the bookcases.”
She looked a little crestfallen.
Carl whispered in my ear, “250.”
So, I’d bought my first bookstore! It was a dreadful one to be sure. Over the years, I’d buy dozens more. Almost always they were bookstores no one else wanted to take over or buy for themselves. In almost every case I was thanked for “taking all the books.”
We arranged a date to come and begin hauling the “Love” away.
Carl took me to lunch after we left. I think at the Old Anchor Inn.
“She probably paid Johnny two thousand. I think that’s usually his going price. She took over his month-to-month lease, paid someone to build and install the bookcases, and decided that since she loved reading romances that is what she would specialize in. She worked Johnny’s crap out the door one way or the other. Maybe she donated them!”
He laughed aloud at the irony of Johnny’s charity leftovers going back to a charity.
“She filled the shop with ‘Love'”—he emphasized the vowel ‘LUUV.’ “And expected to at least make the rent and have her days pass reading in between customers.”
“How long ago did she open?”
“Maybe four years. I think she got a second mortgage on her house to keep the place going.”
“That’s terrible!” I blurted “I feel terrible!”
“She’ll be ok. I think she’s getting married. Again.”
We picked up all the romance, and for a year or two my store had a large subspecialty in the literature of love.
Paper back romance stills sells well in 2017. The money it generates subsidizes some areas that are more scholarly but don’t flip dollars as quickly.
Her bookcases were very much like the ones I was building from scratch but a foot shorter. I quickly learned how to make 1 foot “bookcases” to nail to the top of Leslie’s so her shelves would be uniform with mine. Leslie’s hodgepodge bookcases became part of my store. They still are! They’ve moved with us twice as we grew to larger locations in Frederick MD.
Over the years, fellow book dealers would tell me their Johnny stories.
One said a friend once entered one of Johnny’s shop and found him in his storeroom busting up pieces of pumice with a hammer. He would put out in his shop as “Moon Rocks.”
Another said he’d heard Johnny had pounded wooden stakes into the ground throughout a subdivision and used a staple gun to attach poster board signs hand lettered to read, “Donate Your Books. They Will Be Picked Up at Your Curb. Saturday June 4.”
Did he really scrawl famous authors’ names in their books? Never claiming they were autographed or even raising the books’ prices? Just playing on human nature—like The Maltese Falcon, “The stuff dreams are made of.” I could envision buyers quickly paying for their Hemingway or Faulkner and doing a little jig out the door.
Over the years, I bought a number of Johnny’s “Appleseed” bookstores.
Some actually took root and did well as the new owner actually learned how to buy and sell books. In those cases, I’d get called in when the owner was really ready to retire due to age or infirmity. But usually the stores failed in a year or two. The new owners hadn’t any training. To many beginners maybe a book is a book is a book.
More than once I got called by a landlord who’d been left with a bookstore and unpaid rent. Johnny hadn’t found a buyer for the store and gave up on it.
How did I know they were Johnny’s?
Well, a Johnny Appleseed Book store had a definite ambience to it. First, the stock was mostly crap books tossed up willy-nilly in little or no order. You really couldn’t get stock much worse if you tried.
The last I’d heard he’d moved west. A Chambersburg PA storefront was the final sighting I’d heard of.
I’d never seen him. I guess you don’t really ever see legends.
I’d wondered sometimes at charity sales or country auctions if that little old wizened man I saw out of the corner of my eye was Johnny. Or that one…
Come to think of it, no one I’d known had seen him either. The stories were always in the third person.
But he existed. I saw proof on one bookstore buy in Martinsburg WV. The owner of the storefront downtown had called me in.
“I need to get these books out of here so I can lease the space. You can have them for free—if you take them all AND if you can get them out by the end of the month.”
I vividly recall that buy not because the books were anything special but because it was the only time I saw tangible proof that there really was a Johnny.
After I’d packed and rolled the final boxes out, I’d wandered around the empty ghost-of-a-bookstore seeing if there was anything else I wanted. The landlord had said I could take anything. The sales counter had some office supplies—a stapler, paper clips, pens pencils and erasers…Hey, back then a buck was a buck. Still is.
There was a little stack of mail on the abandoned counter. I couldn’t resist peeking. Bills. Unopened bills from the electric company, phone company…all addressed to “John G…”
The bills had piled up and Johnny had bailed out.
After Chambersburg, what had happened? Maybe he kept moving west. Maybe he’s still out there where rents are cheap and there are retirees with some money, looking for something to keep busy and romantic dreams of being part of the used book business. I hope he is. He’d have to be over a hundred now. Maybe he was 100 year old back then.