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    “Keep Louisville Weird” is a cute enough marketing slogan meant to prompt local people to think locally. Harold Maier probably never considered such things, but he’s surely done his part to enrich Louisville culture for more than two decades. His Twice Told Bookstore has been a veritable salon for many of Louisville’s most intellectually ambitious folks. Sadly, several facets of reality have conspired against him, and Harold will soon close his doors. It is the /files/storyimages/of an era, as Paul Kopasz writes in [this elegy]. —Cary Stemle

    Several busts, including Einstein, Tom Paine and a Darwinian monkey, reside atop the stacks.
    It was Harold Maier himself, the proprietor of Twice Told Books, who suggested the following title for this article: “The Death of the King of Bardstown Road.”

    Fair enough, I thought; it establishes Maier’s bona fides and gets it immediately out of the way that the impending closure of the venerable bookstore most definitely represents the /files/storyimages/of an era. Harold, as the King of Bardstown Road, and Sean Garrison (as I once wrote) as the Pope. But as Garrison (a local artist and musician and an employee of Twice Told for 17 years, as well as a frequent LEO contributor) says, “It ain’t the /files/storyimages/of an era if the place doesn’t get sold.”

    Realtor John Paul Straub disagrees about the site’s salability, saying, “That corner of Bardstown and Bonnycastle is the best location in the Highlands.”

    “The place was an integral part of my adult development,” says Sean Garrison, who's worked at Twice Told for 17 of its 23 years.
    Twice Told is a Highlands institution and all that, the coffee shop up the block as well as the bookstore. It’s a shame to see it go, but it won’t be closing anytime soon and, sure, a lot of nostalgia is involved when a quirky place like Twice Told lasts 23 years. Moreover, Maier is both a gentleman (as we shall see later) and a scholar, with three master’s degrees (in education, philosophy and clinical psychology). A former teacher, counselor and jazz promoter (with an outstanding vinyl jazz collection), he knows people well and almost always likes them. His gentle presence is, indeed, one of the store’s chief assets. So let’s all shed our tears now, shall we? Maier will still be selling books online and at the Louisville Antique Mall, and he may even open a coffee shop, so he’s still in the game.

    But there is a larger story against which the demise of Twice Told provides significant context. We have been told for years that people now read less, that the publishing industry is on its knees because of (take your pick or feel free to combine): movies, TV, video games, computers, iPods, Attention Deficit Disorder or laziness. This is simply untrue. Bestsellers continue to thrive as they arrive (not always according to quality). It is clear plenty of people are still avid readers. What has changed is where and when and how they obtain their reading material (and where and how that material is published or made otherwise available).

    In his Beatnik-hungry youth, Louisville musician and artist Dave Pajo created this impressive William Burroughs' illustration.
    Recently, Thomas Benton (a pen name), an assistant professor of English at a prominent Midwest liberal arts college, wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education of the disappearing used bookstore.

    “… even in the mid-’90s,” he writes, “the writing was already on the wall concerning secondhand bookshops. Rising real-estate prices and competition on the Internet combined to drive the brick-and-mortar booksellers out of business, particularly in expensive urban areas like Cambridge.”

    If a quality used bookshop cannot survive on the banks of the Charles, within walking distance of Harvard, then, indeed, where can it survive? The hard and cold economics of which Benton speaks are perfectly manifested in the Twice Told situation.

    “Why have,” Benton asks, “a brick-and-mortar shop in a place with exorbitant rents when you could create an online business with a warehouse near enough to a city to obtain inventory but far enough away to pay low rents?”

    Detail inside store
    Why, indeed. It’s a question Maier has been asking himself a lot lately. “It’s economic,” Maier tells me straight off. “It’s partly the Internet, but there are other factors as well.” Maier has been doing the lion’s share of his business online now for a good long while anyway. “Several years ago,” he says, “we got online and did a real thorough job of it. We were way out front, at least we thought we were. Nowadays, everyone and their brother is selling stuff online, and we’ve just been left behind.”

    There are even more ominous storm clouds looming on the horizon of this particular business. “Did you know,” Maier posits, “that there are CORPORATE used bookstores?”

    No, I did not. There’s a place out on Hurstbourne called Half Price Books.

    “There’s one here in town,” he explains, “and they are getting ready to open two more. They’re based in Texas. They’ve got 250 stores and it’s in Ohio and Indiana and throughout the South. They actually own the Texas Book Depository building (the fourth floor of which supposedly served as Lee Harvey Oswald’s sniper’s perch). Can you believe that? They sell remainders, but good remainders. Can you believe that? A corporate used bookstore?”

    Sure, these days, why not? If the thought of a used bookstore chain organized from a central location strikes you as oxymoronic, well, then, you’d better think again, that’s all.

    Maier had not expected this when he started the shop 23 years ago.
    “I had a very romantic notion about it,” he says. “Mine was going to be the local hangout for bohemians and hippies and intellectuals and eccentrics.”

    Maybe it got a bit too eccentric. In 1992, he started up the Twice Told Coffee Shop — “A dream of mine,” he says, referring back to his love of live music — which sat down the street and stuck around for a good long time after he sold it in 1994. Even though the coffee shop is long gone, the bookstore still has that certain attraction. “Some of the crazies that come in off the street can be a bit trying,” he admits.
    I’ve seen it myself: Street folks come in asking Maier for a few bucks to buy lunch, and he generally obliges. I actually saw one guy try to sell half of his lunch sandwich back to Maier so he could buy some cigarettes. Similarly, voracious readers frequent the joint begging for trade-ins on old books, eager to continue fueling their verbal addictions. Twice Told has always been a safe haven for such people. Its absence will indeed be a severe blow to the neighborhood.

    Benton, writing in the Chronicle, sees things in a more dim light. The disappearance of these stores, he believes, is a crippling punch to auto-didacticism as well as academia.

    “Quite often,” he writes, “my scholarly interests have developed in response to a neglected but fascinating book that I acquired in a secondhand shop. Secondhand bookstores are as essential to higher education — in the humanities at least ... Moreover, the world of secondhand books, beginning in the context of my university, made me feel like part of the continuum of material, scholarly culture stretching back at least to the early 19th century.”

    Sounds like the same sort of thing that was happening at Twice Told all these years.

    Harold Maier’s take on it is at once more emotional and more streetwise.

    “I wanted it one way in 1982, and I knew it was an old-fashioned sort of store back then, but it was perfect and I never wanted it to change. People would tell me, ‘Put in a coffeemaker, or change this or that,’ but I wanted it kept the way it was.” As such, it became something of a rock of stability in a neighborhood that tends to mutate pretty quickly. “The place was an integral part of my adult development,” avers Garrison.

    But what of the original goal? The goal of creating a safe haven for neighborhood freaks and weirdo intellectuals and punk rock kids and pathologically passionate autodidacts? It is clear that Harold Maier succeeded in doing exactly that. Let us all hope that the building’s next owner does half as much for the community.

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