Gone with the Web

Fear of Reading and Chronicle of a Going-Out-of-Business Sale Foretold top local best-seller lists

The dismal denouement pretty much starts when Bob arrives. Bob Charest, that is, a bearded, wholesome-looking man from New Hampshire. Dressed in sandals, shorts, and a light-green polo shirt, he hustles into a store hidden away in a shadowy plaza a half-block from CocoWalk. Who could have suspected such a guy would do it? But he did. Indeed, so voluminous is his plunder that he needs a truck to haul it away. That's why he's now leaning on the wooden counter, unabashedly talking on the phone with someone from a truck-rental company. He must remove 2700 used and rare books, mostly hardcover.

Charest's take was nearly half of Grove Antiquarian's inventory. Just a few days after the New Hampshire man's July 24 purchase, bookstore owner Ward Arrington closed after ten years of breaking even. His establishment at 3318 Virginia Street was Miami-Dade County's last real bookstore specializing in used, rare, and antique volumes.

Despite an 80 percent discount, Charest leaves the shop showing signs of remorse. "I feel a personal sadness when a bookstore has to go down," he says while standing in the courtyard just outside the door. Then a young man pushes a grocery cart full of wine and liquor bottles past him toward Paulo Luigi's, an Italian restaurant that will soon annex Grove Antiquarian. Voracious eaters will supplant voracious readers. "I'm not sure what it means," Charest confesses.

Dearth of a salesman: Ward Arrington closes the book on his profitless shop
Michael Steinbacher
Dearth of a salesman: Ward Arrington closes the book on his profitless shop

Charest, a 53-year-old computer programmer, is himself the best clue as to the significance of Grove Antiquarian's untimely demise. He plans to head back North, unload the volumes into his house in Merrimack, New Hampshire, and sell them on the Internet. He operates a Website from his home, which now contains about 8000 books.

Back inside, Arrington runs a computer search to help a client. In a minute he has found several copies of Kings of Cocaine -- a true-crime treatise by two former Miami Herald reporters that is no longer in print -- out there in cyberspace. The next step is to fill out an electronic order slip. The book will arrive a couple of days later. "See how easy that is?" Arrington asks. "I can't compete with that."

Still he's not sure the Internet is the only culprit. On a recent trip to Boston, Arrington spied several high-quality independent bookstores on one street. It appears his counterparts in Beantown are thriving alongside their virtual competitors. Are we of Miami-Dade County as illiterate and airheaded as the demise of another fine bookstore would suggest? What of the success of Barnes & Noble, Borders, and B. Dalton Bookseller franchises?

Ann Maier has a startling fact to support the dumbing-down-of-Dade theory. "There are 350,000 adults in this county who can't read or who read below a fourth-grade level," she laments, piling up a short stack of Charest's leftovers. When she was eight years old in Waukesha, Wisconsin, Maier's mother purchased the library of an elementary school that was closing. Now, at age 44, Maier is program coordinator for Learn to Read Volunteers, a group that works with illiterate adults.

Assigning blame for the passing of Grove Antiquarian may require an exegesis, but explaining the immediate cause of death is a no-brainer. "Lack of sales," says Arrington. He simply didn't sell enough books to cover his $2000 monthly rent.

Grove Antiquarian had some golden moments, though. Arrington recalls a day in 1993 when a woman walked in with a first edition of the Book of Mormon. In good condition it could have sold for $15,000. But this copy was tattered. Arrington telephoned a bookseller in Salt Lake City who quickly bought it for $5000. Arrington's customer reaped most of the profit; he took a ten percent fee. "That was pretty good for one phone call," he muses.

Another time Arrington bought a car-trunk full of old hardcovers from a man. They were mostly book-club volumes, which he bought for a dollar apiece. Then, after the man drove off, he discovered a gem among the junk: a first edition of On the Road -- with the dust jacket. He sold it a week later for $900. Earlier this year he sold a first edition of Gone with the Wind, published in 1936, for $3500. Last month he collected $800 for a signed first edition of River of Grass.

Then there were the priceless encounters with real-life characters. One day John le Carré came in from the heat and browsed. He was kind enough to autograph several of his novels, thereby multiplying the cash value of Arrington's stock. Thomas Harris, the phantom menace of Miami's literary scene, has prowled around Arrington's shelves on several occasions. "He was a nice guy," Arrington remembers. And Sylvester Stallone strolled in once. "But he didn't buy anything," Arrington notes.

Arrington plans to seek work as a computer programmer, a trade he plied before his odyssey into bookselling. He intends to retain his post as secretary of the Florida Antiquarian Booksellers Association. He's also going to hold on to a few favorite tomes. His wife Vivi, who is more sculptress than reader, tucked away a four-volume leather 1902 edition of Don Quixote (published by John Grant in Edinburgh, Scotland, and worth about $400) while nobody was looking.

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