Now and then I find myself thinking back to the days, hours, years I spent browsing Great Expectations Bookstore located near the L tracks on Foster Street in Evanston, Illinois. I went there often in the late 1960’s, through the 1970’s, until June 1983 when I moved to California. It was nearly impossible to visit the store without somehow coming into contact with Truman Metzel, bookseller/owner, curmudgeon, friend, store guide, and host to hundreds of Northwestern faculty and students. He offered free coffee, an open table and chairs ready for whomever wanted to just hang out, sit and discuss. For ambience, he always had a radio playing near the coffee and table, usually tuned to WFMT, Chicago’s classical music station.
I will certainly never forget my first visit to the store one fall afternoon in 1968. I was a freshman at Northwestern. After a half hour or so of browsing, I walked over to Truman and asked where I might find Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature. Sitting at a desk messy with invoices, packing slips, book orders, he looked up at me over his half-rims and responded, simply, with his deep voice, unblinking eye-contact, and slow delivery, “Which edition, what publisher?”
His questions left me speechless–it would be years before I knew or cared about such things as editions and publishers.
[Note: Sadly Truman Metzel passed away June 6, 2008. The remainder of this post and the post noting his passing are dedicated to his memory and the memories so many have of his Great Expectations bookstore.]
Here are three other pieces I found on the web relating to Great Expectations Bookstore and its inimitable, unique owner and bookseller, Truman Metzel, including a 2001 Daily Northwestern article documenting the final closing of its doors. The article contains an interesting interview with Jeff Rice, the store’s last owner/manager.
This by Robert Birnbaum at Identity Theory
And then there was Great Expectations Bookstore, under the EL tracks on Foster Street in Evanston, on the Northwestern University campus.
Great Expectations was the haven and enterprise of one Truman Metzel. Now it is a common pastime of writers and readers to regale themselves and anyone else that will take note, of the iconoclastic, idiosyncratic, curmudgeonly, eloquent and generally anti-social types that they have met in their commerce with bookstores. So yeah, Truman was a character all right. And now as I think of him, he looms larger in my memory. Firstly, he introduced me to French Market Coffee (with chicory) from New Orleansâ€”which I still drink forty years later, and secondly, he was the first person to extend me credit. In fact, he held the quaint notion that he needed to regularly discourage me from paying my entire outstanding balance because of his belief that as long as I owed him money I was his client. No outstanding balance left me, in his mind, untethered in the world of book commerce.
Truman’s shop specialized (this is not quite accurate but these are the things that brought me to his door) in contemporary philosophy (of which I was then a student) and contemporary literary fiction. It’s a peculiar thing that when I occasionally put my hands on a copy of the Tractatus or Philosophical Investigations, I am more likely to think of that book world encapsulated in Great Expectations, as I knew it, than kicking away any ladders when I am unable to speak of things. Truman, a large man with Van Dyke facial hair was also a pleasing storyteller and an engaging conversationalist, and his shop had that sanctified aura that I have come to identify as I have gone on to encounter innumerable other shops and booksellers. Amply lit, wooden shelving, tables not quite neatly displaying books, the scent of cigarette smoke, WFMT (home of Studs Terkel) broadcasting over the radio, a cup of strong-but-fresh coffee always available at the long rectangular wooden table off to the side of Truman’s desk. No cash register, no credit card modem. Lots of books and something elseâ€”
And this from “End of a Chapter,” a September 24, 2001 article by Rani Gupta in the Daily Northwestern:
Great Expectations, one of Evanston’s last independent bookstores, will close its doors at the end of the month after 52 years in business.
Through September, the store will sell titles at 75 percent off. Owner Jeff Rice is busy liquidating the store’s inventory, selling books back to publishers and other bookstores.
The Russian Press Service, a mail-order bookseller, already is occupying the space at 911 Foster St.
Rice said recent developments in the book industry drove Great Expectations out of business.
“The economics of the industry changed,” he said. “They couldn’t allow us to be the kind of bookstore we wanted to be.”
Rice said Internet booksellers such as Amazon.com took away from the bookstore’s mail-order business, for which they were known worldwide in the philosophy field. Chain stores such as Barnes & Noble and Borders Books and Music stole easy sales that Great Expectations depended on to keep its selection of backlisted academic titles that take longer to sell.
“We needed those money-in-the-bank sales to subsidize what we really wanted to carry,” he said.
Rice said publishers, especially university presses, also were once more lenient with extending credit to independent bookstores.
“We were dependent on publishers indulging (our) attempts to keep an extensive backlist,” he said. “But the indulgence of publishers has gradually eroded.”
John Eklund, a sales representative for Harvard University Press, Yale University Press and Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, said university presses have recently changed their policies toward independent bookstores.
“It used to be that small presses could extend credit indefinitely,” Eklund said. “But university presses have been under the same kind of financial demand as bigger publishers are. We have had to be more strict about people paying bills.”
To make up for lost business, Great Expectations increased textbook sales to about 100 courses. Last year textbooks, which once made up only 25 percent of business, totaled 75 percent.
But textbooks proved to be costly to stock.
“Books are very expensive and there’s the built-in assumption that bookstores make a lot of money,” Rice said. “Many times I’ve had to move heaven and earth to get books only to find that I didn’t sell them.”
And to make room for textbooks, Rice had to decrease the store’s regular inventory.
“We were forced by circumstances to become less and less a scholarly oriented store and more and more a textbook store,” he said. “Rather than watch the store dwindle further, I decided to just call an end to it.”
Many Northwestern students and faculty members regard the closing of Great Expectations as a blow to the NU community.
The bookstore was founded in 1949 by Bob Geary, who often bailed customers out of jail when they were arrested for unpaid parking tickets. Later Truman Metzel Jr. brought the store to prominence as owner from 1961 to 1995.
“Great Expectations is one of those places that’s becoming so rare with all the over-competition from Borders and Barnes & Noble,” said Mark Thatcher, a Weinberg sophomore. “I could just walk in there and browse and find any book that I wanted. It has an atmosphere that no other place has.”
“I’m deeply saddened both professionally and personally,” said Carl Smith, a professor of English, history and American studies. “Great Expectations has, through my career at Northwestern, been one of the major intellectual resources in the area and a wonderful place to visit and hang out.”
English Assoc. Prof. Paul Breslin said faculty members in disciplines such as English and philosophy would use the store as a meeting place.
“I understand that things like that might appeal more to faculty and graduate students than undergraduates,” Breslin said. “But if there’s a place for faculty in different disciplines to interact, it benefits people at all levels of the university, even though the benefits may be more obvious to some people.”
The bookstore tried to stock books that made people question their own knowledge, Rice said.
“It was a center of argument and intellectual conflict,” he said. “Nobody in this bookstore ever shied away from a good argument.”
For Rice the loss is deeply personal. As an undergraduate at NU, he visited the store often, and he worked at Great Expectations before taking over as owner in 1995.
“It’s very sad,” Rice said. “I’ve never been associated with Northwestern when I was not associated with Great Expectations. Except when I was out of town, I’ve never gone a week without going in the store.”
But the closing of Great Expectations is not entirely unexpected.
Throughout the North Shore and the country, independent bookstores are struggling against the forces of the Internet and chain stores.
Rice said that when he tells friends in the book business about the store’s closing, their reaction is “amazement that we lasted as long as we did.”
“What’s happening at the store is microcosmic of what’s happening in the industry at large,” Rice said.
Rice will teach a history course at NU this quarter and is writing a book about the transformation of the book industry.
Jack Cella, who owns the Seminary Co-op Bookstore, 5757 S. University Ave., said he had to adapt to the industry turn by taking orders online.
“It’s a very difficult environment for independent bookstores in general, especially ones that focus on the academic market,” Cella said. “Scholars are the most computer-literate group of people you can find. Amazon.com and online purchasing in general have made tremendous inroads to that group.”
Some publishers and bookstore owners worry that the decline of independent bookstores could make it hard for riskier books to find sellers.
Eklund said stores like Great Expectations would stock books the owner deemed important, even though those books might be harder to sell. But chain stores will not take similar risks.
While overall sales are not declining, the types of books published could change.
“It’s not so much actual sales, but a cultural change in what’s going to get published down the line,” Eklund said.
“I worry about homogenizing. It’s going to be harder to publish more challenging books that don’t have a huge guaranteed sales and aren’t on sexy, popular topics.”
And, finally, this from a Robert Birnbaum Identity Theory interview with Joseph Epstein, August 31, 2003.
RB: This is totally digressive, but did you go to the bookstore over on Foster Street near the L?
JE: Great Expectations? I used to order books from there. Did you go there?
RB: Yes and I had Truman Metzel’s [the owner] wife, Nancy, as a college instructor.
JE: She later left him. Didn’t Truman daunt you? His specialty was daunting people. He’d say things like [in a deep affected voice], ” We don’t carry books like that.”
RB: I think I got in under the Nancy waiver. He endeared himself to me because he was the first merchant to extend me credit and he would discourage me from completely paying off my balance.
RB: He said if I paid it off he would worry if I were going to continue to be a customer. As long as I owed him money he felt good about it.
JE: That’s interesting. The store is closed. It was a very sloppily run shop and it was a mess, kind of. I used to order my books from Truman for my students, thinking they should see what real bookstore looks like. One year, two of the books I had ordered just didn’t come in and I called Truman, week after week. He said [in his deep affected voice], “No Joe, I haven’t heard anything.” Finally, I said, “Truman, the books were both from Harcourt Brace, what’s going on? The quarter is coming to a close.” He said, “Well, there’s been a little (coughs) contretemps.” I said, “What is the contretemps?” “It’s over a bill.” “Truman, fuck, why didn’t you tell me this? You could get the books for me elsewhere or something.” “Oh.” He never apologized. And I stopped sending people. It probably cost him a lot.
RB: You’re right it was a prototypical bookstore.
JE: Truman was, like a lot of serious booksellers, he was a failed Ph.D. He was a failed Ph.D. in philosophy from Chicago. A student of guy named Richard McKeon who left corpses all over the city. Pascal would not have gotten his Ph.D. from McKeon. Aristotle wouldn’t have. Nobody. He was a miserable character and he made it so hard for everybody. It’s like you and I trying to get a Ph.D. from Martin Bormann.