Closing the book

“It’s kind of like a funeral,” independent bookseller Fred Hughes says of the customers who shuffle in and out of Paperbacks Unlimited to pay their last respects. “Except I’m not dying — the store is.”

After 36 years on Woodward Avenue in Ferndale, the store is closing Sept. 15. Hughes is calling it quits and, with his departure, a Detroit cultural institution caves. The loss of Paperbacks Unlimited is saddening because the store played a part in Detroit’s history. From its nascent days as Highland Park Newsstand (established 1918) on the corner of Woodward Avenue and Manchester Street across from the Ford plant to its reincarnation as Paperbacks Unlimited in 1957 to its shift to Ferndale in 1969, the bookseller, owned by Hughes and his deceased business partner Charles Harte, has been a part of the Motor City for almost a century.

Everyone wants to know why Hughes is closing up shop. National Public Radio has paid a visit; so have four other newspapers. Hughes, 67, with silvery hair combed forward, admits to being exhausted by the attention from everyone, including all the loyal customers — many of whom have become friends — who want to know what brought on the decision and where he’ll go next.

There are a lot of people who would, without knowing better, blame the store closing on the ever-growing power of corporate ne’er-do-wells like Borders and Barnes & Noble. Maybe even But according to Hughes, that just isn’t the case. Back stock has always been the bread and butter of indie bookstores, supplying the bulk of their incomes. The advent of the computer, however, has made research more convenient and, as a result, circumvented an age-old tradition of people turning to books for their learning.

Traditional booksellers have been crippled by the growing number of book buyers who are, according to Hughes, “almost exclusively interested in what’s being advertised and what’s new.” Readers used to consider visiting a bookstore a valuable experience rather than an impersonal convenience. Customers wandered aisles as entertainment. “People were led to titles by various means, chasing down books by an author, or referred to it by another book they read or political commentary or a review,” Hughes says. But these days, “They’re just not interested in back stock. The cult of the new has finally taken over.”

Pallets of Dan Brown books wrapped in plastic and conveniently delivered to the back of a Wal-Mart, religious offerings like the latest Harry Potter release and a talk-show host such as Oprah who can make or break book releases (even rerelease) are all part of the problem. Most consumers aren’t willing to wander a bookstore in search of that undiscovered gem, like the original novelization of Raiders of the Lost Ark almost buried on Paperbacks Unlimited’s cluttered action-adventure shelves, its pages yellowed and its spine unbroken from never being read. Where else can you find such an anomaly? And if you’re unconvinced, look to Borders and Barnes & Noble, where Hughes says you can yearly mark the dwindling space both devote to back stock.

It’s not necessarily that people aren’t reading — it’s what they’re reading that is an indie bookseller’s problem. It’s not difficult to see in Hughes’ aging face that this doesn’t sit too well with him, though he has accepted it with grim resignation.

“I’ve always had a fascination with the written word. That’s what got me into this business in the first place,” he says. “I realized when I was growing up there was a whole world of books out there I didn’t know much about, so I started to investigate what other people were reading.” People are forgetting to turn to the past to learn how best not to live the future. For him, that’s a burden he will soon no longer have to bear.

Hughes points to a New Mexico atlas on the table behind him and explains that he’s off to the Southwest in the spring to visit Pueblo, Apache and other Native American groups he’s been reading about for the past eight years. “I enjoy traveling to areas I’ve read about.” After the store closes in September, his first move, however, will be to Roscommon, a village up north, where his family has owned a house for the last quarter century. There he has two daughters, a young grandson, and, in a strange twist of fate, an ex-wife whom he’ll be moving back in with.

Recently, a federal judge from Miami wrote Hughes to say she was sad about the closing, that she still remembered her days spent there as a young girl, in high school, and later in law school. The store was an integral part of her memories of Detroit. So it is kind of like a funeral. Except it’s not just Paperbacks Unlimited dying.


All books are 60 percent off at Paperbacks Unlimited, 22634 Woodward Ave., Ferndale; 248-546-3282.

Cole Haddon writes about books for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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