It’s a fantasy we all have: Let’s open a really good old style bookstore. We’ll buy an antique building in a sleepy little town on the outskirts of some major metro area and hope that with a lot of sweat equity our store will flourish and breathe new economic vitality into that little town even as it becomes a destination for book lovers from all parts of the state.
Hold that thought: Now let’s do it Texas style: Let’s do it BIG!
Meet Jim and Connye (pronounced Connie) Hart, both now 76, of the Published Page Bookshop. He’s a fifth generation Texan with a soft Central Texas drawl. They are based on the Courthouse Square in Cleburne, Texas.
Their specialties include vintage science fiction, firearms, Texana and petroleum geology. They also carry a wide assortment of general fiction and non-fiction as well as CDs and vinyl records. An average sale, according to Hart, is “about $25”, with a few individual items reaching $2,500.
Hart, a former software engineer, and his wife have been in the book business since 1997. They’ve sold retail in a shop and antique mall and built their online business too. At one point most of their inventory was in storage. When the lease expired they decided to take all their books out of storage and buy their own building.
What would have been an ambitious venture under any circumstances, is considerably more exciting when you are already in your 70s. They bought a 140 year old 10,000 square foot two story commercial building that has stood empty for 20 years and maximized the risk by using owner financing to acquire the $250,000 property.
Now, let everything take longer than you thought and burn through your reserves, turn the screws with an unexpected foreclosure and bankruptcy, toss in some serious health issues, get hit full blast by a global pandemic, and then, just when those clouds start to clear, let the equally old historic building next door collapse.
Well you get the drift: here you have one of those only in Texas stories where the indefatigable older couple and their stash of books surmount every obstacle and somehow come smiling out the other end. In the meantime their inventory has grown from an initial 20,000 volumes to “55,000 that are now cataloged, out of a total of more than 200,000 books, right here in our building in boxes.”
Jim Hart is still predicting an upbeat outcome. He cites a surge in property values and his continuing confidence that Texans will beat a path to Cleburne, a small former railroad town (population 30,000) in Johnson County, Texas, 30 miles south of the center of Ft. Worth and a bit farther away from Dallas. (The metro DFW area has a population of over 7 million and growing.)
“When we first opened,” Hart said, “two people were critically important. Wyoming bookman Jim Arner came to Cleburne in his motor home and stayed for six months helping us get the shop up and running. A little while later I hired Cindy Miller. Cindy is on disability and can only work part time, but she has been a joy and a blessing with more than thirty years of bookstore experience. These two people were integral to the success of our shop.”
Rare Book Hub Monthly wrote about the Harts when they opened in November 2017. We revisited them in May 2019 when they tried a GoFundMe campaign to fend off their creditors, and now in August 2021 we’re just about to call our agent to see if this story could have the makings of a Hallmark movie? Because only in Hallmark movies (and in Texas) does the s**t hit the fan in such a colossal fashion and still have a heartwarming ending.
They went for seller financing on a vacant 140 year old building
Explaining the financial side of recent events Jim Hart commented: “When we bought the building in 2017 the seller carried the note. Initial repair costs were more than expected, and took much longer. We were closed with no income, and big expenses for almost six months. This meant when we did get open we had used a lot of our reserves.
“The community did welcome us and business grew. However, after about 18 months we were struggling while trying to balance our growing income with the ongoing expenses of renovating a 140 year old building that had been long neglected.
“Our lien holder agreed to take partial payments during this period. We had a somewhat successful GoFundMe campaign. Then, without warning in August, 2019, the lienholder escalated the note and tried to foreclose on the building. This was in violation of our contract, but we spent a lot of money warding off the foreclosure.
‘In December, 2019, the building declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy,” Hart said. “We have the building ownership in an LLC, separate from the bookstore. Our plan, paying 100 percent of secured and unsecured debts, was approved. We have been making payments for 18 months, and are no longer in bankruptcy, though the plan runs another 3-1/2 years. We will need to refinance before the end of the plan.” As for the money, “it came out of our pockets, and our reserves keep shrinking.”
As Dr. Seuss likes to say, “But that is not all…”
As they were dealing with restructuring the finances, “The pandemic hit hard,” Hart said. “It was the final straw that caused us to declare Chapter 11. We were closed for more than a month. Then for weeks afterward we were limited to delivery or curbside pickup. When we did reopen we had the social distancing and face covering protocols.
“Our business for 2020 was off 40 percent from 2019. Several of the smaller boutiques and a few eating places went out of business, but all in all, the community pulled together and we weathered the storm.
“For us personally, I had projected our sales to take about five years to get on solid footing. COVID just threw us a year behind. Presently,” he said, “revenues are running about 20% ahead of 2019. I’m in favor of just forgetting about 2020.”
His wife gets sick
But there’s more: “This summer “Connye's long running digestive problems took a turn for the worse. We finally got surgery scheduled for June 21. There were a total of seven different procedures. Her initial recovery was about a week. But when we got home she was having severe pain. An endoscopy revealed an ulcerated esophagus that resulted in more time in the hospital. She came home on July 4 and is still convalescing, but I believe she is recovering quickly. We actually went out to see a movie for the first time in about two years.”
The building next door collapes
And then, to frost the cake, there were problems with the structure next door: “These two buildings are contemporaries. Ours was built in 1880. The neighbors' in 1884; they share a common sidewall.”
“The building next door has long needed structural repairs. My neighbors had rented for twenty years before buying the building last year. Although they planned repairs, the building didn't wait. The night of June 24 the lower back wall had a catastrophic collapse. The following night there was a further collapse with about 40 percent of the back of the building falling.
“After the first collapse the city closed us until their structural engineer was satisfied our building was safe. The city contracted to have the neighbors' building stabilized. The engineer verified our building was safe, and we were allowed to reopen after being closed for a week. The damaged building will require a huge investment to save.”
He’s still smiling
Through it all, Hart is still upbeat:
Not only has his inventory expanded and his average sale price risen, but “we also have a growing population of regular customers. Initially our clientele was primarily older people. These were/are long time residents who try to support local business. We are increasingly getting a younger mix, college students, young parents, teachers, and a substantial number of homeschoolers too. Traffic from the Dallas-Fort Worth area is increasing and we are beginning to be seen as a destination for book lovers from all over Texas.”
“Until the pandemic, we were becoming an active community center with regular group gatherings, activities and events. We had just started reactivating these types of activities when the building collapse next door occurred. Although we were allowed to reopen, the city did a complete reinspection of our building, and presented me with a checklist of repairs they wanted made. The list was longer than the one they gave me when we bought the building. I'm trying to work through the logistics of complying while still keeping the shop running.”
Cleburne, Texas is doing great
Looking on the bright side, he commented: “Cleburne is doing great. One of the things that we liked when we chose Cleburne was the active merchants group downtown. This group has continued to grow and work together. It is constantly coming up with activities to bring visitors to our shops. It has grown from less than twenty merchants to more than seventy. As a group they are all positive, energetic, and supportive of each other.
"We are also seeing an influx of investment. One long-vacant building downtown has been bought and construction has started to convert the upper floors to residential lofts and the ground floor to retail. Another old eyesore of downtown doctors’ building has been sold. The new owners are demolishing it, and building a three story mixed use, residential-retail building. We have had several other old buildings purchased, renovated, and put back into use as retail. I truly believe the next few years will see dynamic growth in this community.”
Looking back on the saga he reflected, “We were the first activity on courthouse square, the first new active business in many years. Us being there made a difference. Even though it’s been difficult for us, it was a good move. I see us recovering and growing, and the value of our property is going up. He even hinted that he’s had a few nibbles from developers who are interested in buying them out."
Published Page Bookshop
On the Square
10 E Chambers Street
Cleburne, Texas 76031
10-6 Wed. - Sat.
1-6 Sun. Closed Mon. & Tues.
Other hours strictly by appointment.
Store phone: (817) 349-6366.
On Facebook at www.facebook.com/bibliotreasures
Read Rare Book Hub Monthly’s earlier coverage
Nov. 2017 Used Bookstores are Back www.rarebookhub.com/articles/2310
May 2019 A Bigger Job Than We Realized www.rarebookhub.com/articles/2600
Reach RBH writer Susan Halas at firstname.lastname@example.org