Essays

The Death of A Bookstore


To us it all seemed to happen so fast.

“Did you hear?”

Fellow writers and those in the Tulsa literary community whispered to one another over the summer. “Steve’s is closing.”

Most responded with a gasp, along with a ‘No!’ or ‘That’s terrible.’ Everyone in Tulsa knew about Steve’s. Most people loved it, expected it to always be around, like a dear old friend.

Steve’s Sundry, Books & Magazines is an independent book store that first opened in Tulsa in 1947. It was closing at the end of 2013, after 66 years in business.

Steve's Sundry, Books & Magazines, Tulsa, OK 2013, photo by kristin nador

Steve’s Sundry, Books & Magazines, Tulsa, Oklahoma

It didn’t start off as a book store. ‘Steve’ Stephenson wanted to have a variety store, but not any of the chain stores that were popular at the time like Woolworth’s or S.G. Kresge’s or the Ben Franklin Five and Dime. He wanted it to be distinct, local, and independent. And that’s why everyone loved it.

candy, Steve's Sundry, Books & Magazines, Tulsa, OK 2013 photo by kristin nador

Steve’s Sundry sold anything a drug store had, except for drug prescriptions. It sold some things a hardware store had, like boat motors, lawn mowers, and fishing reels. It had it’s own soda fountain, where they served breakfast, lunch, sodas, and malts. And it had Steve, the personality behind the great customer service.

After a while Steve’s added books and magazines to their inventory. Eventually the business focused on magazines and books. Magazines, Steve’s specialty, boggled the mind with an inventory of over 3,000 distinct titles, many that you couldn’t find anywhere else.

Steve's Sundry, Books & Magazines, Tulsa, OK 2013 photo by kristin nador

“From shakes to Shakespeare, Steve’s is the place”

When I heard about Steve’s shutting their doors, I knew I had to go by and visit. I arrived, little knowing I had come upon a wake filled with nostalgia and memories.

I walked the book aisles, thinking about a couple of titles to purchase.

I didn’t need any books. I just wanted to pay my respects.

Seems lots of other folks had the same idea. Customers crowded the few aisles, smiling and talking to one another. This was a few weeks after the closing announcement and at least two months before the actual closing, by the way.

Before I picked out my purchases, I had to have something at the soda fountain. People were waiting to sit at the counter, lingering a while after finishing their food and drinks. I finally got my turn and grabbed a seat, ordered the egg salad sandwich with chips and a pickle, got a chocolate malt for a chaser, and eavesdropped on history.

Soda fountain, Steve's Sundry, Books & Magazines, Tulsa, OK 2013 photo by kristin nador

A wiry man with greying hair sitting on a stool to my right said he’d driven in from Kansas when he heard the news. He had to make sure he could sit at the fountain one last time and have a pimiento cheese sandwich.

“You still put it on white bread, don’t you? I don’t think it would be the same on that multigrain stuff.” He ordered a chocolate shake as well. “Make sure you put the chocolate syrup in the bottom and smash it,” he instructed the much younger employee. “I was a soda jerk over at Scroggs Drugs, before Brookside was Brookside, and you always have to smash the syrup first.” He stared off wistfully. “Sodas were 36 cents then.”  After finishing his order, he sheepishly asked the server if she could pack a container of spread to go. ” I’m going to take it home and eat sandwiches the rest of the week.”

Egg Salad Sandwich, Steve's Sundry, Books & Magazines, Tulsa, OK 2013 photo by kristin nador

egg salad, everyone’s favorite

I turned my attention to a couple sitting to my left. The husband chattered away to the server while the wife quietly sipped her drink.

“We’ve been coming here for egg salad sandwiches for as long as we’ve been married, thirty-nine years.” When the server said the number was impressive, he responded, “It helps if you marry your best friend.” The wife smiled while she sipped.

Menu board, soda fountain at Steve's Sundry, Books & Magazines, Tulsa, OK 2013 photo by kristin nador

Another man asked if he could get a chocolate coke. The server hadn’t heard of that one.

“You used to have it. It’s just what it sounds like: a squirt of chocolate syrup in a coke.” When she obliged, he turned around on his stool, took a sip from his straw like he was taking a long toke from a rich cigar. He faced the books and announced, “Brings back memories. Yes, it does.”

I watched the owner Joanie, and Jerry, Steve’s longtime employee, hold court at the far end of the soda fountain, while people came up and said things like how sorry they were, asking if they were okay, did they need anything, and what were they going to do now. They thanked everyone for their concern, but said things were going to work out fine. Several asked why they had decided to close, but the most they would touch on that subject was that the economy and changes in the publishing industry helped them make the decision.

I had barely gotten to know Steve’s compared to all the folks around me. The first time I visited Steve’s was about six years ago. I loved all the magazines. Steve’s was where I discovered Writer’s Digest, Poets and Writers magazine, and The Writer. Steve’s even carried literary journals, and I bought a couple, which made me realize how much I needed the formerly mentioned magazines.

I got my now well-marked up copy of Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down The Bones at Steve’s. After buying probably a hundred magazines at Steve’s and studying them, I submitted my first article to a magazine and it got accepted. My first paying writing gig. Thanks, Steve.

I attended several book signings of my fellow Tulsa NightWriters at Steve’s, and with my writer’s oversized ego dreamed I might somehow have one someday, too. Steve’s always gave the author a big table right up front near the cash registers, even though space was at a premium in the small store. I discovered the works of Oklahoma’s adopted son Michael Wallis at Steve’s, my favorite being Oklahoma: A Sense of Place.

I always bought a pack of Blackjack gum whenever I went in, and sometimes a Moleskine notebook. Because who doesn’t need another Moleskine notebook, and you couldn’t find Blackjack gum anywhere else in town. Today was no exception. Gum, notebook, books, a magazine, and my handwritten order slip from the soda fountain (you pay for your meal up front). I walked out, looking through the windows at the little sliver of literary history crammed into an otherwise average strip mall.

Goodbye, friend. You will be missed.

If you’d like to read an interview with Steve Stephenson at age 91 talking about the success of Steve’s Sundry, click here.

Categories: Essays

8 replies »

  1. I bought my first pair of reading glasses at Steve’s, fifteen years ago. It was one of those half-glasses in a blue coated metal “lipstick” case small enough to tuck into a side pocket of my purse. Steve’s was also the only store that carried autographed copies of Craig Robert’s book, “The Medusa Files.” Most mainstream bookstores refused to carry the book at all. I always dreamed of holding my first book launch there. Sadly, that dream will never come to pass.

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  2. I moved to Tulsa in 1958 and heard about Steve’s Book Store the first week I was here. Have been a regular customer for unusual magazines and any time I needed to order a book. I still prefer to hold a paper book to read. Will miss Steve’s Book Store.

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  3. Hi Kristin. I’m glad you found something helpful on my pages. I been looking at your pages and I have as well. This post brings back a lot for me. I worked for four years for Harvest Company Christian Bookstore, an idependantly owned bookstore in Virginia. I might still be working there, if it hadn’t also closed. It had been part of the community for 30 years. They didn’t have food (except some candy). It closed three years ago this month. I still run into people who recognize me and tell me how much they miss it.

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