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Wednesday, October 21,2009

Can't put it down

Curious Books’ Ray Walsh celebrates 40 years of bookselling

by Bill Castanier

 


Like H.G. Wells’s time machine, Curious Book Shop in East Lansing glides through the decades, serenely standing its ground while fashions change outside the window and buildings go up and down on either side.


That kind of business longevity is rare. Today through next Tuesday, Oct. 27, owner Ray Walsh is marking 40 years of bookselling with a big sale. No doubt Walsh, who has seen a lot from that front counter and likes to kibitz with customers, will be glad to throw in a story or two.


For example, sticklers will point out that Curious didn’t open its present location until 1973. What happened in those first four years? As they say in the comics, here’s the origin story.


As Walsh explained it, the business literally started in his garage. He was an avid reader of science fiction when he decided to sell off his surplus books in 1969 to help pay for college. His Isaac Asimovs, Philip Jose Farmers and other sci-fi sagas teleported out the door.


“I was swamped,” Walsh said. He discovered a market he hasn’t neglected ever since. Sci-fi is still a mainstay at Curious.


Walsh finished a communications degree at MSU in 1971. He worked as a record reviewer for the Michigan State News in the ’60s and a representative for two record companies before diving into the book business for good.


After a short diversion hitchhiking to Toronto and Boston in 1969, Walsh returned to East Lansing and ran a classified ad soliciting sci-fi paperbacks.


He wasn’t overwhelmed with the response, but a professor and his wife who were leaving town sold him 1,000 paperbacks for $100. He was in business.


He snagged some space at the hippydippy Man and Nature Book Shop in the Student Services Building on campus. He stayed there through most of 1970 until he opened at a new location above the old Cunningham’s Pharmacy on Grand River.


He sold any books he could find, not just sci-fi. “I still remember the first book I sold,” he said. “It was an 1840s Greek-English transliteration of the Bible for $10.”


A month later, he took advantage of a larger space a block down the street, under the old Paramount News. There he expanded his inventory to comics and magazines.


During Walsh’s three years there, the spot became a tiny nexus of local business history. Bill Triola, then an East Lansing High School teacher, opened More Antiques in the same location. Then Walsh convinced a young couple he met at an antique sale in Ann Arbor to open a shop called Elderly Instruments.


“I think we had the first antique mall in the state,” Walsh said.


Triola, a longtime friend, now runs a fullservice estate sale business, and Elderly, of course, now operates its world-renowned string instrument emporium on North Washington in Lansing.


In 1973, Walsh moved to his current spot at 307 E. Grand River, joined by Triola’s More Antiques and a stamp and coin business. Over time, Walsh’s business engulfed everything from used books to ephemera from sports, movies, music and the arts. On weekends, he prowled estate and garage sales to feed the beast.


As the store became well established, people started coming to Walsh with their old books. It’s a mixed blessing. Every regular Curious customer has seen Walsh on the phone, patiently explaining to an insistent caller that “there just isn’t much demand for National Geographics.”


In the ‘70s, Walsh expanded to Ann Arbor (Curious Books Too) and Grand Rapids (Argus) but has since sold both stores to concentrate on East Lansing.


In Spartan country, Walsh has not only hung on in a tough business environment, but has even expanded. In 1990, he opened another store, The Archives, also on Grand River, east of Harrison Road.


Walsh said he has seen a lot of changes in the industry in 40 years, but the most dramatic change has been driven by the Internet. He now lists more than 8,000 books and ephemera on line at eBay and several other sites.


His first sale on eBay was not a book, but a 1908 ticket stub from the Notre Dame- Northwestern Football game that went for $1,400. He now does a substantial part of his business on line, but he’s still proud of the bargains and prizes awaiting browsers in his two stores.


“I have a first edition ‘Huckleberry Finn’ for $3,500 in Curious and a $10,000 first edition of ‘Dracula’ at Archives,” he said.


Walsh had trouble naming another retail operation in East Lansing that can equal his 40 years in business. He ticked off each block of downtown East Lansing. “Of course, SBS [Student Book Store], Beggar’s [Banquet] was around then. That’s about it.”


“I’m pretty sure Curious is the second oldest bookstore in the state, after John King’s in Detroit,” he said.


During the 40th anniversary sale at Curious, items $40 or less will be discounted at 40 percent. Everything else will be 20 percent off.


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