Mt. Airy to lose independent community bookstore that meant much more

After nearly two decades in operation, a store that has become more than just a shop to its Mt. Airy neighborhood will shut its doors for good at the end of August.

Greg Williams, proprietor of Walk A Crooked Mile Books, has announced that he’s closing down the store located at the Mt. Airy regional-rail station since 1995.

Also coming to an end will be the weekly summer-concert series that Williams has sponsored for more than a dozen years, the monthly Mt. Airy yard sales and the coffee that he and his partner Cynthia Potter have sold to commuters from the window of the Frank Furness-designed building that was built in 1882.

An inevitability?

After exploring and rejecting the possibility of turning the shop into a co-operative community-owned bookstore a few years ago, Williams knew this day would come. Now is the right time, he said.

“Part of it is just aging,” said Williams, who turns 65 this month.

Thanks to rotator-cuff surgery and knee problems, he was “incapacitated in a job that you can’t be incapacitated in” for much of the past year, he said.

“One of the interesting things about the job is that it’s a combination of the very cerebral and then there’s this ‘tote that barge, lift that bale’ part,” Williams told NewsWorks. “There have been days when we’re accepting books when I could get 60 boxes of books in a day. That’s a lot of work. You’ve got to move them, sort them, shelve them, and so on. When you can’t do it, you’re screwed.”

Fixing to shutter

The phased closing brings the possibility of real bargains for Northwest Philadelphia’s book-buying public. Some 50,000 books line the shelves in eight rooms.

“We started offering a 20-percent discount on all stock at the beginning of January when we officially announced [the closing],” he said. “That will go through February. Then, 30 percent in March, 40 percent in April and so on until we get to 80 percent in August.

“God knows what we’ll do with the rest of the books. We’re looking for ideas on where to put them or to give them away. I don’t want to throw them away, but we’ll see. There will be some left.”

While the store will close, Williams will remain in the bookselling business online.

“We’re going to keep 10 to 15,000 books, and we’re moving them home. I’d say a good two thirds of them are already home,” he said. “Those we will continue to sell on the Internet after leaving the shop.”

How he got into the biz

Book-selling is a second career for Williams. His first was in education – he has a joint degree in elementary and secondary education – with a special interest in environmental education.

“That’s the stuff I really enjoyed the most,” he said.

That interest led accidentally to his interest in book buying and selling. He was attending an education conference in Santa Fe, NM with a colleague from the Toledo, Ohio independent school where they both taught.

When free time surfaced, his colleague suggested they go “booking,” but Williams didn’t know what he was talking about.

“We went to some of the book shops in Santa Fe, which isn’t the best place to buy books, actually, because Santa Fe is pretty pricey. I got kind of a beginning course and then just taught myself for four or five years,” he recalled. “The bug had bit me.”

In 1990, he became principal of the Miquon School, an independent school in Conshohocken, but teaching and administration turned out to be two very different things.

“At the end of the second year, it was like, ‘This job just doesn’t fit me,'” he said. “Just because you can do a job doesn’t mean you should do a job.”

His career change to bookseller didn’t go smoothly at first.

After leaving Miquon he began selling books online only.

“That lasted only six or seven months. It was clear that it wasn’t going to make it,” Williams said. “Then, I opened the shop. After about seven or eight months, it was clear that that wasn’t going to make it either.

“There’s not a quick turnaround on books. It’s a waiting game, unless you have the capital to buy really expensive books for a little less than they’re worth and sell them for a little more than they’re worth.”

When the chance came to teach science at Springside School in Chestnut Hill came along, he took it.

“For the next seven or eight years, I basically taught anything from full time to half time at Springside to pay the bills, through the mid-2000s,” he said. “Really, only in the last five or six years have I been making it just trying to sell books.”

Community connection

Williams described himself as “not a particularly good businessman, but I’ve learned that I’m a good community organizer and have been more successful at that than making a buck. And that’s OK with me.”

That’s how the free outdoor concert series came to be in 2001. It began with hosting a benefit concert for the Henry H. Houston Elementary School in Mt. Airy.

“We got a good crowd and we raised some money,” he said. “They told other performers and the word got around and eventually, well, I think we’ve done 250 concerts. “

They have featured musicians ranging from youths just getting started to nationally established banjo player Wanamaker Lewis and guitarist/composer Hiroya Tsukamoto.

“We’ve had attendance of over 150 at a couple of things; we’ve had an attendance of two or three,” he said of the series. “The acoustics are really good, the atmosphere is really relaxed, dogs are running around, people are talking, kids are dancing spontaneously – it’s all quite entertaining. The players love it and the concertgoers love it. It’s been fun.”

What now?

In 2010, a dozen or so musicians from previous concerts donated their services for “Walkapalooza,” a benefit concert for the series and the bookstore. Williams promised a similar event – “some kind of palooza” – before the store closes.

Williams recently looked back on the experience of running Walk A Crooked Mile.

“It’s been an adventure, and adventures are mixed. There’s downsides to it and there’s upsides,” he said. “I worked really hard. I got discouraged often. I didn’t make a lot of money but I did have a lot of fun.

“I met a lot of people who are really interesting. I created and became part of a community that I really treasure, and that I’m going to miss a lot.”

So how does he think he’ll feel in September?

“I will enjoy being able to read. I’ll enjoy being able to hang out with my granddaughter,” he said. “I love working in the woods and I haven’t had time to do that. I’d love to meditate more. There’s lots of things I’m looking forward to.”

For updates on the status of Walk A Crooked Mile Books and notices of future events there visit www.walkacrookedmilebooks.com.

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