Don’t mess with a town and its bookstore.
December 29, 2014
MR. BILL was an icon.
Everybody in town said so.
And everybody in town, at one time or another, had browsed their way through his bookstore.
Mr. Bill was not a man of letters.
He simply collected books.
He traded them.
Bring him two, and he would give you one.
He sold them.
And in time, his Cleburne, Texas, bookstore was crammed with eighty thousand books.
He thought it was a hundred thousand.
But what were twenty thousand books among friends?
Here was the problem as near as anyone could figure out.
Mr. Bill was old.
His books were old.
His bookstore was old.
It was crumbling with age.
Mr. Bill didn’t neglect it.
He just couldn’t afford to expensive repairs. After all, an $869-a-month social security check didn’t go as far as it once did.
Besides, the city of Cleburne said his bookstore was unsanitary.
And maybe it was.
He collected cats as easily and as often as he collected books.
He and the cats both needed someplace to go.
He and the cats needed a refuge from the streets.
The city said the entire bookstore had become a litter box.
So the decree came down.
The cats must go.
The books must go.
Mr. Bill must go.
And he must go now.
As one of his customers, Kathryn Ann Murphy, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram: “He had nowhere to go. The city should have given him more time. Instead, they threw him out like an old shoe. They were pushing him out of the only place he has. It’s like grave robbing.”
He could have fought City Hall.
At one time in his life, he would have probably fought City Hall to keep his bookstore from dying or, in his thoughts, murdered.
But Mr. Bill was broke.
Mr. Bill was eighty-one years old.
The fight was gone.
He sold his old pickup truck to pay for a hotel room. He had no idea what would happen when the money ran out.
But as he had read in a book one time, he would worry about that tomorrow. Tomorrow was another day.
As Mr. Bill said about city officials, “They figured after ten days it would be over. But it blew up like an Atomic Bomb.”
He didn’t need to fight.
Those who had spent goodly portions of their lives in Bill’s Books, rolled up their sleeves and went to war.
They didn’t care about his code violations.
They weren’t concerned with the cats.
They overlooked a dilapidated old building.
It was filled with memories.
Bart Clark remembered driving his 1967 Mustang to Bill’s Books as a sixteen-year-old boy to buy a copy of Empire of the East. It was a steamy science fiction fantasy, and Clark confesses, “It was the first book I ever read that talked about scantily clad beautiful women.”
He still has the Mustang.
And Empire of the East has never left his bookshelf.
The people of Cleburne sadly shook their heads and talked among themselves about the travesty of losing a good man and an iconic bookstore.
They grieved for a day or two.
Then they dried their tears.
And they got mad.
They loved books.
And they loved Mr. Bill.
He was old.
He had not been forgotten.
His customers began raising money for him. Kathryn Ann Murphy and antique store owner Lynn Buker led a summer long quest to rescue Mr. Bill. Thousands of dollars came in the form of donations. They held two book sales outside the little shop around the corner, and hundred of people came to buy books whether they needed them or not. And one four-year-old girl showed up with her piggy bank. She didn’t have a lot, she said. Every penny counted..
Murphy and Buker found a temporary home for the books, and Clark plans to open a full store to hold them in a building he is developing in nearby Grandview.
The people of Cleburne found Mr. Bill a nice apartment in a senior center, and they’re helping him sell his old building to pay for it all.
He knows he won’t need a home forever.
But his books will.
And now they have one.
The old bookman can sleep a restful sleep at night.
But still he worries about the cats.
The cats can take care of themselves. They always do.