Thursday, July 21, 2005

Wessex Books & Records, 1975-2005

To paraphrase Mark Twain, "Suppose you wished to open an independent bookstore. Suppose, too, that you were an idiot. But I repeat myself." Idiot or no, I've wanted to own and manage a used bookstore for many years, but probably missed my opportunity when Menlo Park's Wessex Books & Records came up for sale earlier this year.

Wessex was one corner of what I termed the "Golden Triangle of Books" in Menlo Park, the other two stores being Kepler's and Feldman's Books. All three stores were located within one hundred yards of one another and their selections were complementary, too.

Wessex admirably filled the role of small, narrow-aisled, somewhat-dimly-lit-but-by-no-means-dark, eclectic-music-playing bookshop with used volumes (and LPs) stacked floor to ceiling and helpful eccentrics behind the register, just the sort of place where one could lose oneself for an hour or two between History, Literature and Poetry, with only the unobtrusive specks of dust vying for space between the aisles. In contrast, Kepler's is larger, lighter, cleaner, far more populous and sells only new books, while Feldman's strikes something like the middle ground. Great bookstores each, and each befitting a particular mood.

Sadly, Menlo Park's Golden Triangle is no more. Wessex, which had been in business for thirty years, didn't find a buyer, and an antique store now occupies the modest building at 558 Santa Cruz Avenue where the little bookshop once stood. Tom Haydon, the long-time proprietor of Wessex Books, was quoted as saying he couldn't find a buyer who was interested in the long hours and low pay that are the lot of the small, independent bookseller.

It's a shame Tom didn't hang on another two or three years before trying to sell, as I have this indistinct notion that come summer 2007 or 2008 I will leave the software/technology field and sign myself up for those long hours and low pay. It isn't that I'm dying to try my hand at retail or that I'm driven to own a business. Rather, I simply enjoy reading and talking to people about books. And while that motivation does not make the most compelling business case -- and no doubt has led to many short-lived bookstores -- I would sooner fail compellingly than continue my path of quiet resignation.

Wessex held a liquidation sale leading up to the store's close on June 1st of this year. I had $85 in store credit earned from trade-ins that I considered recouping during the sale but, in the end, felt I owed Tom that much or more -- for the use of his shelving, which I had leaned against so many hours; for the many books I browsed but did not buy, and for all the other intangible goods that a great bookshop and bookseller impart on loyal customers. Thanks, Tom -- Wessex Books will be missed.

-- Mark

Wessex Books & Records


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