Keeping balanced books

Success: While others have come and gone, Melvin Gordon continues selling books -- just as he has for the past half-century.

April 22, 2001|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

These are dark days for Baltimore bibliophiles.

Bibelot has filed for bankruptcy and will close its four stores by the end of June. The Enoch Pratt Free Library plans to shut several branches and slash its book budget.

Those whose Charm City memories go back a little further may remember other storied booksellers. Adrian's. Louie's. Crown. Encore. Remington's. Those who wish to date themselves may recall that the city's department stores -- Hutzler's and Hochschild Kohn -- once had thriving book sections. (In fact, those who wish to date themselves may simply reveal they own something, anything, with a Hutzler's or Hochschild's label.)

But guess who's still standing? Melvin "Mel" Gordon.

He is literally standing on this bright spring morning, trim and erect in front of the cash register in his store at The Shops at Kenilworth, using a retractable razor to peel tape from the counter. He is seldom idle when he is in one of his stores. He will be 75 next month and has been in the book business for two-thirds of his life, since he and his older brother, Stanley, opened the first Gordon's Booksellers on Baltimore Street.

His days are now spent visiting his last four stores -- this "outlet" in Towson, two similar discount venues in Timonium and Savage Mill, and his last full-service book store in the Rotunda in North Baltimore. With a cellular phone in his pocket, he doesn't need an office, although he still pays the phone bill for a place on North Charles Street. Wherever he is, he's at work.

He grabs a cup of coffee at Herman's Bakery, another Baltimore survivor, and agrees to talk about the book business.

So he has outlasted Remington's --

"Who?" He pretends to be hard of hearing.

And he was here before B. Dalton or Waldenbooks came into the malls --

"Who?"

Not to mention the so-called superstores that entered the marketplace in the 1990s, Barnes & Noble and Borders --

"Who?" But he is smiling.

"Our only competition," he says, "was ourselves."

Certainly, that would appear to be more true now than ever. Gordon's is not the area's only independent bookseller, but it is one of the few general-interest stores left within the city limits. The Bibelot at Cross Keys was its nearest competition. That distinction now belongs to Barnes & Noble, which has a store on the Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus with a large inventory of adult trade books, but it is used primarily by those at the university.

Salesman Ted Wedel, who has known Gordon for about 20 years, explains the chain's longevity this way: "I believe Mel has figured out the formula and taken in all the factors -- including greedy landlords. He has gone through all the phases. He doesn't over-order. He has great instincts, and he's a smart businessman."

If Wedel, co-owner of the regional book supplier Chesapeake & Hudson Inc., had been asked to survey Baltimore's booksellers just five years ago and predict the survivor, would he had have chosen Gordon?

"Five years ago?" he blurts out. "No. To be absolutely blunt -- no. "

Gordon grew up in East Baltimore, the youngest of three children. His parents ran a notions shop on North Gay Street, and the Gordon boys helped out by scavenging discarded magazines. After graduating from City College and taking a few night classes at Johns Hopkins, Gordon visited a friend in New York and saw how well his bookstore was doing. The Gordon brothers decided to open their own place in Baltimore.

Now, this would usually be an appropriate moment for the obligatory litany about what life was like in 1951 -- the headlines of the day, how much a hardcover book cost, what was playing at the then-grand movie houses of Baltimore. But Mel Gordon doesn't remember any of those things. He's a little fuzzy on dates in general. It might have been 1951 when he opened. Might have been 1950.

What Gordon remembers is that he soon had the chance to expand to the second floor, more than doubling the space he had for inventory. Then he learned something crucial about Baltimore shoppers: They don't like stairs.

"In New York, they'd climb a flight of stairs," he says. "Here, they wouldn't."

Eventually he moved across the street, into what was then the Emerson Hotel.

Movement has always been key to the Gordon plan. He has expanded when times are flush -- as recently as 10 years ago, he had six locations -- and retracted with almost dizzying speed when a location fails to work. He vacated Harborplace, and even the location on Baltimore Street. There is not a lot of sentiment in the way Gordon does business.

About 15 years ago -- "I knew I should have taken my memory pills this morning," he says jokingly, when pressed for more precise details -- he started running the so-called outlet stores. Here, he sells "remainders" -- books that publishers have stopped trying to sell -- at 70 percent off. Library books and other castoffs can be found in these three stores.

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