San Diego For 38 years you knew where to look for Henrich Boll, Celine, Jack Kerouac, Jane and Paul Bowles, William Burroughs, and Gertrude Stein. Sometimes Jim Thompson and Stendahl would be there, or you could catch Djuana Barnes hanging with Anthony Burgess, George Orwell next to Joyce Carol Oates or Cynthia Ozick, and maybe Doris Lessing rubbing spines with Stanislaw Lem or Primo Levi. You might find them at other bookstores around town, but at any given time most of them would be on Fifth Avenue in Hillcrest, between University and Robinson at the Blue Door Bookstore. Soon enough, if you want to find them in the same room within a few paces of each other and in good shape -- good freakin' luck.
Sixty-six-year-old Tom Stoup draws Black Shag tobacco smoke through his bent-stem briar pipe and looks around the backroom of the store he has owned since 1987. "I want to get a wetsuit and bodysurf, learn to play an upright bass, and play with my grandchildren," he says. He is a tall man in good physical shape. He doesn't appear overly wistful or sentimental about selling the store but admits, "I'm gonna miss this." He is in the store at 9:30 on a Saturday morning to do paperwork. He eyes my coffee cup from Starbucks on the corner and frowns. "I never buy coffee from Starbucks," he says.
"Really? Why?" I ask.
"It's a big corporation," he tells me. I agree that it is. It turns out Tom Stoup may be just as fussy as who he sells to as who he buys from.
Stoup grew up in Sioux City, Iowa, "went to Catholic school and was a jock," he says. "I got a football scholarship to Nebraska, lettered in track doing shot-put, flunked out, went into the Navy for two years, came back, got a business degree from Nebraska in '56. I moved to Omaha and worked for Univac as a computer-sales trainee, got fired from that, and went into the life-insurance business in Omaha. I married an airline stewardess from Del Mar and moved out here, became a mortgage broker then went to San Diego State, got a teaching credential and taught English at Point Loma High School starting in '67. I taught English in the city schools for 22 years.
"I had an epiphany when I was in the Navy," Stoup says. "I could read, but I didn't. I was down in Jacksonville Beach with some enlisted guys who were talking about Harper's magazine and I'd never heard of that. I went to the base library and found that magazine and then I found the Saturday Review and Atlantic and American Poetry Review. This was in '52. I was 20 years old. Since that time I've read a book a week for 50 years."
The kingpin of Hillcrest's literature traffic for 12 years used to teach at Madison, Taft Junior High, and Twain. Owning a bookstore was always a dream. "When I worked for Union Title in 1960 I met Bill Peccolo, who started this store in 1961. It was a dream of mine to have a deal like the Unicorn Theater and the Mithras Bookstore, and here was the Blue Door and the Guild. Bill died in 1987 and I thought, 'Oh hell, I could never do that,' but I walked in here one day and Bill's wife Mary said the store was for sale, and I was in escrow in three days and retired from teaching."
"Do you remember a guy who used to work here..." I don't finish my question, Stoup knows who I am asking about.
"Elton," he says, "Elton Ellis." Stoup smiles. Elton Ellis was a fixture at the store either as an employee or customer for many years. The amiable and literate neighborhood character would easily be engaged in conversation on a wide range of literary topics. Smiling wide-eyed from behind heavy-rimmed glasses and a toothbrush mustache, it would be unusual not to hear Ellis's voice (which always reminded me of Liberace's) discussing history, science fiction, or politics. "He worked here for 27 years," Stoup nods, drawing on his pipe. "He lives in El Cajon but comes in almost every day and reads the magazines. Interesting guy. Eccentric."
On the topic of other bookstores, Stoup says, "Dennis's [D.G. Wills Bookstore] is the only other store in town I really respect for the reasons I like bookstores. I like City Lights [in San Francisco].
"A good bookstore, to me, has a really good backlist of important literature. And in this store I also try to buy current events with a lot of, I would say, left-wing politics. I've got a lot of readers who like [Noam] Chomsky, for example, and biographies, and I probably sell more poetry than any store in town. That's important."
Does Stoup consider himself left wing? "I like to say I'm apolitical, but you can't be that, so, I guess, yeah."
This leads to a discussion of a mutual friend who died a few years ago, Larry Barnwell, a literate man with eclectic tastes in books who would hold court on the patio bar at the Old Town Mexican Cafe. A gold plaque above his barstool now commemorates his tenure as resident book critic. "Larry and I used to bodysurf every day in the summer," Stoup says. "I haven't been in the water for 11 years. I want to buy a stand-up bass and learn it. I want to get a 1990 Lincoln Town Car, get on the road, and do some traveling, enjoy my grandchildren. I just want to get out of here. When I bought this place, I thought I'd die here. Now that my daughter can't be here all the time because of her baby, I have to spend so many hours here, and I want to go play."
Stoup was president of the Hillcrest Business Association in 1991 and 1992. "I was on the board for many years," he says. "Hillcrest is the only neighborhood with any character. If you go north of I-8 it's all cookie-cutter places. It's all Radio Shacks with a Starbucks next to it. I'm afraid this neighborhood might lose it. There is a landlord here who controls a lot of property, and he wants big business here. He's got City Deli and the Gap, and he's pushing on people all the time for higher rents. My rent was doubled two years ago, but that was probably fair because it was pretty cheap."
Speaking of pressure and competition, Stoup says he does not sell bestsellers because he cannot compete with discount chains. "It's mostly junk anyway," he says. "On San Diego Online and on the Union-Tribune website on a little blurb I've said, 'If you wanna buy John Grisham, go somewhere else.' I'll order Danielle Steele for you or Stephen King, but I don't carry it. Mysteries I don't mess with too much either. I mean, Michael Jordan books and NASCAR books and books on how to lose ugly fat, books on what's-wrong-with-you...." he trails off and shakes his head.
How picky is Stoup about who he sells to? "A guy came in here and said he was interested in having a bookstore and a hobby shop and I said, 'No.' I think that someone who buys this store would have to have a pretty strong literary background and convince me that they would keep the store essentially like it is. I think it's important in the neighborhood. If I can't find someone to do it, I'll close it, but I don't want to. The front window is etched, 'established 1961.' I hate to see them tear that window out, and a lot of people feel the same way. A lot of people love this place and consider it their bookstore and their only bookstore. So I feel I owe it to the community and those people to not sell it to the F Street bookstores." Stoup laughs.
"What," I ask him, "about a lingerie store?"
"No," he's not laughing anymore.
"Any words of wisdom, encouragement, or caution to a new owner?"
"If you love books it's really enjoyable. You get to look at all the stuff that's coming out from the university presses and small presses, look at the whole array of catalogs of books that come out and to be able to choose what you want for the store.... But the most important thing is the wonderful, interesting people you get at this location. I've made friends over the years. I don't know what I'm going to do. That's a little worrisome for me, but I'm sure I'll figure it out. I'm also looking forward to it."
We reminisce briefly about signings and readings held at the Blue Door over the past ten years, everyone from Gore Vidal to poets Steve Kowit and Richard Katrovas and suspense novelist Michael Nava to Chicano writer Victor Villasenor. We commiserate and gripe about publishing conglomerates Bertelsmann-Doubleday-Bantam-Dell, and Random House-St. Martin's-Barnes & Noble, et cetera, how much more difficult it is for new authors now, in a business that has always been half impossible in the first place. After a time we lapse into silence, an unspoken what are you gonna do?
Stoup mentions a ballpark figure he will ask for the business and, while I'm no authority, it struck me as low and reasonable. As it includes the opportunity to surround yourself with much of the great literary work in the English language and some of the best and brightest book-buying clientele in what we keep telling ourselves is America's Finest City, that figure sounds like a bargain indeed.