Jesse Rifkin, Scholarship Winner: The grim future of a local bookshop

By Jesse Rifkin
Student Columnist
University of Connecticut
Jean Norman gazes around Paperback Trader, the small bookstore she had owned since 1980. Her eyes pause at the rows of comic books. “A young man named Jay used to stop by often for the comics,” she remembers. “He graduated in 1987 and lives in Florida now. But I still mail him his comic book subscriptions.”
Jesse Rifkin
Jesse Rifkin

No more. The entire building complex will soon be demolished.

Norman, age 82, has owned the space in the Storrs Commons & Marketplace complex since Jimmy Carter was president, but now she is being priced out. Construction work is being done next door on the Storrs Center, the new project in the southeast section of campus described as “one of the most ambitious publoic/private initiatives in the history of the state.” Any businesses that wanted to remain in the same location will have to move next door to the more expensive new complex.

Progress and expansion benefit the economy and consumers and provide the gears that make the machine of the free market turn. Yet it is worthwhile to remember the people who can be adversely affected in the process.

“I received a notification telling me that my rent was going up,” Norman said, “Up to two and half times the current rent. If I can’t pay, I have to be out of here by April 1.” She can’t pay.

She looks at the thousands of books covering the shelves — one with yellow pages looking unopened in decades, another one by J.K. Rowling. She looks at the old-school vinyl records collection for sale prominently displaying a used copy of The Very Best of the Everly Brothers. She looks at the toys and G.I. Joe action figures, the T-shirts including one with the Green Lantern logo, and the Pez dispensers at the checkout counter.

… there is something unsettling about the thought of a local landmark … being turned into a parking lot.

The Storrs Commons & Marketplace complex is perhaps best known among the UConn student body for restaurants and bars including Wings Over Storrs, Husky Pizza and Tequila Cove. Yet Paperback Trader has lasted longer than any of them. Which of the current businesses in the complex were here when Norman first began? “The barbershop,” Norman answers, ranking her brain for a few moments. “And that’s it.”

Norman has been a member of the UConn family since 1947, when she arrived as a freshman majoring in psychology. “Tuition was $67 a semester.” she muses. “Hard to believe that now.” Her roommate that year had hometown friend named George and the roommated intoduced Jean and George to each other. They are still married today.

Norman spent many years as the administrative assistant for the dean of the UConn Business School before opening her store. The store has survived the expansion of mega-bookstore Barnes & Noble and Borders, The explosion of the Internet and the popularity surge of e-readers like the Amazon Kindle. “[Technology] has had no impact on our sales,” Norman claims. “None. People come here because they want.” Now they will not be able to.

On the whole, Storrs Center seems like a bright spot in what is otherwise a stagnant economy. Retail, restaurant and office space will total 200,000 square feet. The estimated construction budget is $230 million, the majority of which will be financed from private equity and debt sources by the developer, with retalitively minor contributions from taxpayer dollars. The project may have the potential to revitalize and transform an area largely dependent on an agrarian economyinto perhaps one of the preeminent destinations in the eastern half of Connecticut.

By all means, the project should proceed full steam ahead. But, there is something unsettling about the thought of a local landmark — where readers get lost in science fictin, where children excitedly pick up comic books, where the last true small independent bookseller in town survived yaear after year — being turned into a parking lot.

I bought Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton, “The Da Vinci Code” by Dan Brown, and a copy of Nelson Mandela’s autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom.” It was perfectly quiet inside the bookstore. As I left, the only sound I could hear was the loud grinding of construction equipment.

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Jesse Rifkin, a sophomore majoring in journalism and political science at the University of Connecticut, is the first place winner of the 2012 Jeff Zaslow College Columnist Award of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists Education Foundation

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