Thursday, February 25, 2010

One of Us, Now Gone

Almost five years ago, I had a meeting in Chester County, Pa. After we were finished with business, I asked how close were we to the Chester County Book & Music Company. Less then 15 minutes, I was told.

"You're going to love it there," breathed the person I was meeting with.

I'd heard about this book nirvana and needed to see it for myself. Hopefully I wasn't too hasty in saying goodbye as I high-tailed it over to the next town.

And see it I did. Immediately, there is a comfortable-ness about it. You get the sense you're among friends, which you are, and that they don't care how long you linger and that their sole purpose is to help you find that perfect book or that perfect song.

It is hard to put into words how incredible this place is. Maybe a photo will help?

These don't do the store justice. Just as its name suggests, it is 38,000 square feet of books and music and stationary and magazines and oh, yes ... a restaurant! I was so impressed with the place that I insisted that The Husband and I make the more than hour long drive and go that following weekend. We did, and enjoyed a few Betty and Boo-free hours eating, talking, and browsing.

I bring this all up because on the Chester County Book & Music Company's Facebook page today was a post, just saying "Please read." Michael P. Rellehan, news editor of The Daily Local News, had written a wonderful tribute to Bob Simoneaux, the founder and owner of CCBMC, who died several weeks ago.

It doesn't matter if you've never been to the store or if - like me - you never met Bob. (I don't claim to have known him, although I am pretty sure I talked with him on an occasion or two when I visited the bookstore.) I never knew Bob, but for some reason, his death saddens me very much.

Because, for all of us lovers of books, he was one of us.

Here's Michael P. Rellehan's article, in its entirety:

Bob Simoneaux was one of the reasons I love living in West Chester. He is gone now, dying at the age of 64 on Jan. 11, but it is no stretch to say that you and I have the ability — some might go as far as to say the responsibility — to insure that the contribution he made to our community lives on for years to come.

Bob was, along with his wife, Kathy, the founder of the Chester County Book & Music Co. He was a native of New Orleans, La., and worked there as a police officer, but wound up in New York City at some point and found himself in the book business. He and Kathy opened their bookstore in 1982 in the Parkway Shopping Center, where I discovered it shortly after moving here and starting my career at the Daily Local News. Walking in there the first time, I knew that it was a special place and would help me adjust to my new surroundings.

Bob and Kathy were friendly people, and made you feel at home walking through the stacks and stacks of books they put on display. Because they took the trouble to know their customers by name as much as possible, the feel of their bookstore was comfortable and welcoming at a time when the trend in bookstores was to be more corporate and indifferent. They made sure that a sense of discovery hung about the place, as you could find some written work you had never heard of before; had heard of but never found; or had simply stumbled across as you made your way through the piles of novels and biographies and travel books that seemed to grow volume by volume from the carpeted floor itself like a beautiful house plant.

I loved the old place on South High Street for its intimacy, but grew to adore the new larger location Bob and Kathy opened later on Paoli Pike. They added a restaurant that served some Louisiana specialties that reminded Bob of home, and gave my friends Patrick, Greg, Marian, and Meg and I a table to sit at on weekend mornings to read the papers and gossip our time away before wading into the stacks looking for a new book to read. I do believe that Meg, who lives in Washington, D.C., would agree that a trip to see the West Chester branch of her family would not be complete without a trip to the bookstore.

I would venture to say that I have not gone more than six weeks without spending some time at the bookstore, and my shelves at home are filled with wonderful results of the money I spent there. Going to the bookstore always gave me the anticipation of bringing joy between two covers home. My friends and family have all received gifts that I found for them at Bob and Kathy's bookstore, and I hope that their lives are better for it.

Bob was a constant presence at the bookstore, and I remember him sitting at one of the restaurant tables and drinking a cup of coffee and smoking a cigarette. He always had a dry comment to make about something of interest in the local news, and spoke kindly with Marian and I whenever we would see him. He kept tabs on what was going on behind the scenes in West Chester, and dropped tips on stories off at my table on occasion.

He and I never spoke about the weighty issues that his battle to keep the bookstore open must have presented. In an age of chain stores and Amazon, independent booksellers like the Simoneauxs are fewer and farther between. They are incredibly important, however, because they do not dictate to the reader what is necessary for them to digest, nor do they trade familiarity for savings. The book by the local author about his or her memories of growing up in West Chester is as available for the reader as the new bestseller; the loyal staff who populate the service desks are there to wind the customer through the shelves to find exactly what it is they are looking for, not simply what the cheapest flavor of the month is.

A few weeks ago I stopped in looking for "River of Doubt," a tale of Teddy Roosevelt's trip down the Amazon River in the years after he'd left the White House. I'd never known the book existed, or that the trip had occurred, until a few days before I went looking for it, but it was there waiting for me on a shelf at the bookstore as if I had always known I would want it at some point. I did not see Bob, had heard he'd been sick, and feared for the worst.

Robert Ross Simoneaux may not have lasted in life as long he should have, but we, his neighbors, have the chance to keep a bit of him alive simply by stopping by the bookstore he opened 28 years ago and buying a book. Or two.

I plan to do just that. Sooner rather than later.


southernmatrix said...

What a great tribute. I really want to visit that book store!! Sounds like you could "hold up there" there forever.....heaven! So enjoy your blog...thanks for sharing.....

Mandy said...

What an amazing store and Bob sounds like an even more amazing man. What a great tribute to him!

Priya said...

That looks amazing! I really want to go there now.