(Pictures 30 September 2008 & 1 November 2008)
The Happy Bookseller opened in another world than ours, a world called 1974. In some ways, it was a world very like our own, but in other ways it was very different. You might, were you to find your deLorean transported there, be able to find your way around town with very little trouble -- Although buildings have come and gone since then, the major thoroughfares and landmarks of today's Columbia largely existed. What you would have trouble navigating would be the media landscape. Columbia had three commercial television stations: WIS (channel 10) for NBC, WOLO (channel 25) for ABC and WLTX (channel 19) for CBS. Of the three, only WIS occupied a coveted spot in the VHF range and only WIS had good reception throughout the Columbia metro area. The other two UHF stations (and the fledgling ETV network station WRLK on channel 35) worked best if you put tinfoil on the rabbit ears and stood in just the right spot in the room. Few people had cable, and those who did only got a few extra "trash" stations like WTBS out of Atlanta -- there were no CNN, BRAVO or MTV. Nobody had a computer at home. The ARPANET barely existed and few dreamed it would become The Internet, or what that might mean.
Printed media was a different world as well. Dutch Square had been open a few years, and there was a Waldenbooks there which focused on paperbacks and bestsellers. Capitol Newsstand on Main Street was mainly magazines with a modest number of new paperbacks; there was a small specialty bookstore in Trenholm Plaza and the various locations of The Richland County Public Library and that was about it for Columbia and books.
Richland Mall at the time was still an open-air promenade anchored by J. B. White, Woolworth's, The Redwood Cafeteria and grocery stores. The Happy Bookseller started in Richland Mall on the far side of the promenade (the side away from Beltline Boulevard), and if I recall correctly, just a bit Whites-ward of Woolworths; that is you would come out of Woolworths, cross to the other side and head just a bit towards Whites to get to The Happy Bookseller. Along the way, you would pass some of the concrete animals which gave the mall a homey touch -- I remember a grinning turtle in particular.
When the ill-conceived "upgrade" to Richland Mall started (the process that has left us with the largely empty "Midtown at Forest Acres" [though I refuse to call it that]), The Happy Bookseller found itself priced out of a home and made the move down Forest Drive, towards Trenholm Plaza, to the spot it occupied until yesterday. The new location was quite a bit larger than the original store, and the staff took advantage of it by increasing their stocking depth. I recall that when I was in grad school, I even found a copy of Doug Comer's XINU book on operating system construction -- a pretty obscure computer science topic for a general interest store.
I don't know where the name of the store came from for sure -- I've always assumed it was playing off the bestselling (and notorious) 1971 book called The Happy Hooker, drawing an amusing contrast between two very different paths to happiness, but I could be completely wrong about that. At that time, it was certainly a name that caught your attention, though that was hardly the only thing the store had going for it. In particular, despite it's initially rather cramped quarters, Rhett Jackson decided to make The Happy Bookseller a real general interest bookstore in a way the others in town largely weren't. You could certainly get paperbacks and bestsellers at The Happy Bookseller, but they tried to have a bit more depth than that. I know that I really had only a limited appreciation of that in the beginning, given that I was 13, but over the years I would notice that the store always had a slightly different mix in science-fiction and humor, the two sections I perused most, and later that they were quicker than the chains to pick up on the fact that (some) graphic novels weren't just well-bound comic books and when I became interested in history, I found much more depth there than anywhere but the main library.
Jackson and the store were interested in bringing literature to Columbia and in promoting Columbia literature as well. An author I know had a number of signings for her books there though she has never been approached by one of the big-box stores like Barnes & Noble, even though she is with a well-regarded national publisher, has been well reviewed and sells a respectable number of books. They simply don't devote resources to local authors unless a directive comes down from corporate.
So, after lasting 34 years and being widely beloved, why did The Happy Bookseller close. Well, look in the mirror -- I know I have. Apart from retirements, tragedies, and the like, stores generally close when they aren't making money, and they don't make money when people don't shop there. I was amused when I was working in Augusta and Macy's pulled out of Augusta Mall. When the plan was announced, some of the locals started a petition saying how much they loved Macy's and how it should stay. My thought was that while someone in Macy's mailroom might appreciate their petition, what would keep the store in town was enough people buying stuff there that they made money. And it's the same, I'm afraid, for The Happy Bookseller.
Remember that different world of 1974? Well, we're not living there anymore, for better and for worse. Just on the local retail level, Columbia has four big-box bookstores that have more floorspace than The Happy Bookseller could ever dream of. They can get volume deals from publishers that a local store can't, and even when they are indifferently run (and not all of them are) they can stock in depth in a way a small store simply can't due to the laws of physics and the inability of more than one object to occupy the same space at the same time. And that's just local retail. I haven't even mentioned The Internet yet.
I recall that once, after my father stopped driving, he was looking for a particular book and wanted me to take him to The Happy Bookseller. I don't recall what it was, probably something about opera or English literature, but as it happened, they did not have a copy. That's understandable, I think it was fairly obscure. Anyway, we were in the stacks looking where it would be, and I suggested we drive over to Books-a-Million and see if they had it. He said he would rather have The Happy Bookseller order it. I argued that might take a while, and it's possible we could find it that same day. He looked at me, and said with one of his old fashioned turns of phrase Yes, but I would rather give this store my trade.
In the end, that's what not enough of us did -- give this store our trade. I include myself. I enjoyed browsing the store, and if I saw something I liked, I would buy it. But.. If I discovered I needed a technical book, or found an interesting sounding book mentioned in an online forum I was much more likely to point my browser at Amazon.com than drive to The Happy Bookseller even though it was only a few miles away. That's disintermediation, and it's been even worse for music stores. Given my general night-owl nature, I was also much more likely to find myself in a big-box store at 10pm wandering around drinking coffee and buying books I saw there rather than remembering what they were and getting them at The Happy Bookseller. So, as we shopped online, or shopped elsewhere The Happy Bookseller did what it could. They tried a coffee bar, which didn't last too long, and then a lunch counter which did a bit better, but at the end of the day, the numbers just weren't there to continue and so at the end of the day, they couldn't.
So, thanks folks, for helping us out of that 1974 media wasteland. I know that in the end the future didn't turn out as any of us expected, but it was a great ride!