Tuesday, February 28, 2006

O Kay's!

Only once have I worked in retail sales, and that was in a large, musty, chaotic bookstore in downtown Cleveland, in 1975. Kay’s Books occupied three floors of a building that resembled a warehouse but had once been a restaurant, in the days when Cleveland was the home of John D. Rockefeller. The floors and some of the walls were covered with mosaic tiles. I had been shopping for books there since I was a kid, collecting early editions of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novels with red covers and brown pages.

The autocratic, blue-haired owner, Rachel Kowan, was renowned for retroactively raising the price of books. A customer would hand his selections to Mrs. Kay, who looked at them over her glasses, weighing their worth as though for the first time, and then say something like, “This won’t do. This is worth at least $7.” Then she marked the new price on the cover of the formerly $5 book with a black crayon. Customers usually protested but I don’t remember Mrs. Kay, who stood behind the cash register on a raised platform and literally looked down on everyone, ever budging.

In size and inclusiveness, Kay’s was a rust belt mutation of Borges’ Library of Babel. There wasn’t merely a Metaphysical/Esoterica section; whole shelves were devoted to Madame Blavatsky, Rudolf Steiner, Eckankar (“Religion of the Light and Sound of God”) and another outfit that linked the Great Pyramid to the pineal gland. I was a college dropout and looked upon the sprawl at Kay’s and the people who purchased it as the graduate school I never attended. We sold pulp novels about pimps, penned by Iceberg Slim, and we sold pornography. The Anarchist Cookbook was popular and so were Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book and books about con men like “Yellow Kid” Weil.

My job interview was simple: Mrs. Kay randomly pulled a dozen volumes off the shelves and told me to alphabetize them by author’s last name. I passed. My first assignment in the store was to alphabetize thousands of Signet paperbacks in the section of the basement built under the adjoining business, a bar patronized almost exclusively by blacks. From the Domino Lounge came the sounds of people hollering, dancing, flushing toilets and playing the jukebox. Some of the Signets dated from the 1940s. As I lifted a pile of brown paperbacks from the top shelf, they crumbled in my hands and fell, along with cockroach remains, in my face.

On another occasion, the late Tiny Tim and two members of his band visited the store. They were interested in our collection of old sheet music, which was heaped below the stairs between the first floor and the basement. Tiny spent hours digging through the mess and bought a pile of it. Before he left, we had him autograph the wall.

After that, the event I remember most vividly occurred shortly before I left Kay’s in September. A new translation of The Iliad had arrived, and the boxes were carried to the second floor, where I worked. One of my co-workers was Gary Dumm, now a comic book artist and frequent collaborator with Harvey Pekar, creator of American Splendor. Gary said there must be a mistake, because poetry, literature and books about the ancient world were shelved on the first floor. One of the senior clerks, however, said, “No, it’s in the right place,” and pointed to the drawing of the Trojan horse on the cover. “Put it in equine science.”

Kay’s was sold in the mid-1980s to a wholesaler from New Jersey. When I revisited Cleveland last fall after a long absence, I wanted to see the old building on Prospect Avenue. The first floor is now occupied by a store catering to blacks with retro tastes in fashion. The mannequins in the window were dressed in the pimp-chic, proto-Disco, “Superfly” style of some 30 years ago, when I worked at the bookstore. I remember the layout of Kay’s in astonishing detail and still occasionally dream about it.


Anonymous said...

Hey, I was Mrs. Kay's last stock clerk! If you never saw them you wouldn't have believed the catacombs that were the basement stockrooms. There were three of them- under her part of the building and also under the jewelry store next door (which used to be her magazine store) and the third under the bar on the other side. And the roaches were legion- up on the high shelves where they'd eat the glue from paperbacks and on the wall by the furnace. I kept a can of Raid down there and hit them with a dose when I turned the lights on each morning. There were four aisles in each basement (three under the bar) and two of the basements had pull strings on bulbs down the aisles- four in each aisle; the bar basement had flourescent lights. It was spooky turning them on each morning and darkness would creep after me as I turned them off at night.
I worked there from March 1982 thru July 1983 when Mrs. Kay, having her first year in the red, decided she wasn't going to finance the store out of her savings (which were quite considerable- she'd always be going over to Ohio Savings to play with her money markets as Harry said) and closed the store. She was 71 so it was getting hard on her. She did a nice thing for long term employees- she gave them $100 for each year of service; Harry got $3000 and Gary Dumm $1600.

Mrs. Kay was siad to have been quite beautiful in her younger years- she was a girl friend of Reuben Sturman's. She'd traveled widely in Europe.

After retiring she did volunteer work at Mayfield regional Library till she got cancer. I kept in touch by Christmas cards. She died in December 2000 which would have made her around 88.

Her longest term employee was Harry Condiles, an overweight old gay guy,who wore shirts with the sleeves cut off; he was her right hand man and did all the ordering for thirty years. His boyfriends would come in to see him and Mrs. Kay, not politically correct, would say "Get out of here- you creep!" Harry had no education- couldn't spell- but talked like an Oxford professor. He was usually quiet, sitting on a chair behind Mrs. Kay's podium, doing his ordering unless he got up to help someone find something. Once in a while he couldn't be bothered such as if a book was in a section up on the far end of one of the platforms that ran the length of the store. He would direct the customer from his chair. One day he was irritated and the customer couldn't find the book; he started saying "Oh, it's up there by that cocks,,,,,- that godd... bastard sunovabitch motherf.....it's over by that f...ing thing there". I looked around to see if anyone was scandalized and saw a young lady just cracking up. Harry was a trip. He used to let my girlfriend Marsha, now my wife, know when it was safe to sneak downstairs and see me as Mrs. Kay didn't me interrupted when I was working.

Working at Kay's is a a priceless memory of old Cleveland when there were six major department stores and people shopped downtown before the shoppng malls were built and the suburban chain bookstores took over. It didn't pay much and there were no benefits except vacation but it was one of my favorite jobs. Mrs. Kay would occasionally be mean until you snapped back once and then she was your best friend. Some people didn't learn this and quit. I did and had no problems.

I met my wife Marsha there- she was a customer. As it was the largest bookstore in Cleveland anyone who loved books, no matter how prominent, would be in sooner or later. This is the first thing I found on the Internet about her or the store. Jim Neff did an article on the store once; I'd like to see it posted. Far as I know there was never an obituary of Mrs. Kay. R.I.P.
Bill McCroden, native Clevelander

Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

I have a friend named Jim McKee who worked at Kay's Books in the '70s at some point or another. He has spoken frequently of working with Gary Dumm and a number of other people, including Harry. I'm sure he'd love to hear from Gary and some of the other folks from Kay's Books. Jim lives in Florida now and has been coming into my comic shop since around 1986. If you want to reach Jim, I will be happy to forward your messages. E-mail the shop at: comicworld_beyond@yahoo.com

Anonymous said...

My brother and I worked at Publix Book Mart down the street until the very early 70s. It is hard to believe, in today's Internet and chain store world of Border's and Barnes & Noble (and Amazon), that there were these wonderful places with their selection, personality, and local feel. Whether their demise is a good or bad thing one can debate endlessly, but demise it was.

Anonymous said...

it was a great store in a formerly great city. u werent a clevelander unless u knew kays.period.

pearl&eddieskid said...

Great article! I used to go to Kay's as a kid and was introduced to Doc Savage and great movie books there. What a great store it was!

Anonymous said...

Oddly I never had Mrs. Kay raise the price of a book on me. As a teenager I first encountered the works of H. P. Lovecraft and my sister found Kay's was the one bookstore in Cleveland that stocked them and the other Arkham House publications. Mrs. Kay's policy on these - at least for me, was that as long as they remained original to her stock she sold them to me at their original prices - even when they were long out of print. She remained a friend until her death. I was also allowed to occasionally go looking through the sections in the basement to see if there was anything I wanted. I never met her husband who founded the store, who was apparently scholarly but went blind prematurely and died before I discovered the store.

Unknown said...

The wonders of Google. This morning I came across a book I purchased at Kay's in September, 1969 (The Victor Book of the Opera, 1936 copyright - $2.50) The cash register receipt with the store name was tucked inside. This has led me to your great blog about the store. I first discovered it when I went to work at a print shop across the street in the Caxton Building (April 1958). I purchased countless books there, many for a dollar or less. Happily I never had the price raised on me.

Lisa Knowles Maciag said...

I moved to Cleveland in 1980 after I got married and loved downtown Cleveland. It was full of delicious nooks and crannies for shopping and one of my first adventures was going out the back door of May Company and into the front door of Kay's! My first test for Kay was a book I had been searching for for over 8 years. I was told by others that I would never find the book but gave Kay a try. She had it in my hands within two minutes. I was astounded!!! Thirty years later I am still on the West Side but seldom venture to downtown anymore since all the great dept stores are long gone. It is an era I sadly miss! Lisa

I remember said...

I just found this blog. I was the Kay's nephew and began working at the bookstore when it was located on E 9th St. close to St. Clair. I helped move the store to Prospect Av. and worked at the stores during Jr. and Sr. high school and briefly after graduating. I also worked in the two warehouses that they owned. Michael Cowan (Mr. Kay) was a graduate of OSU. Served on the Army as a Captain in the intelligence dept. during WWII. He was a diabetic and became blind as a result of that disease. It was a "trip" to work there. Characters of all descriptions floated through the store, some famous and some infamous.
Books and magazines were bought by the pound at a Salvation Army depot. Mr. Kay would stand by conveyer belt and select books and magazines. It wasn't unusual to haul #600 or more pounds of items from a visit. Somehow a wheel on the dolly would not quite be on the scale thus "lightening" the load. I remember Mrs. Kay being a striking redhead in her younger days. She worked seven days a week and was the reason the bookstore was successful. There is much of a personal nature I could include, but it's better to leave those comments remain as such.