Since the Fourth of July weekend massacre, I cannot go into Webster’s Cafe and Bookstore. On Thursday, I saw Cary, bracing herself in the doorway at Irving’s, weeping, her blonde hair contrasting a face so red it reminded me of a tomato. Her pain seemed to seep out every pore. “I have been selling books for nearly 14 years. I do not know what else to do.”
I have been buying books from Cary, Anne, Robbie, Elaine, and the new guys at Webster’s where I ate my breakfast--7 AM weekdays; 8 weekends--(and other nutritious meals besides). For the past two years, ever since I was discharged from the hospital for nearly dying from diabetes, I have been a regular. As long as my social security check held out, each month I ate reading the poetry books and buying them as well as books on diabetes, art, history, and who did what to whom and why.
To help prepare for elections (certainly a patriotic act), proprietor Elaine Meder-Wilgus provided audiences in the 90 resident Addison Court (where I live with the elderly and disabled) with coffee and tasty snacks—helping in voter registration and absentee ballot drives and boosting attendance (food is a great audience draw for) candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives, legislative assembly, mayor, members of the State College Borough Council, and appreciation for the Alpha Fire Company.
For me Elaine has been an iconic figure, an earth mother guiding and bestowing energy and support for my column on disabilities and the elderly in Voices of Central Pennsylvania, for creating a space where I can take my children, for serving as a mail drop so my editors at Voices could give me proofs, and for creating an environment for a wide-range of progressive causes. When I asked Elaine whether she would provide food for Republicans, she said, “Of course.” Last Labor Day weekend I saw our Representative Glen Thompson (R PA) arrive early for an early morning breakfast with the Addison Court residents, drinking Webster’s regular coffee appreciatively, coffee which arrived just as early as he did.
The fact that Elaine is a rotten businesswoman is no big surprise. The number of things I am rotten at is considerable. So, Elaine’s magic does not extend to money. So what. Her magic extends to such a large part of my life, that she is entitled to a little forgiveness, including forgiveness for failing to fight in a focused way.
In the first of many meetings (transcripts of which are available on the web) she asked for help. She asked us to write 500 word essays on what Webster’s means to me. Her helpers have circulated petitions in hard copy and online. Special sections of Facebook are now dedicated to the impending demise. Elaine has recorded a lengthy You Tube video. A music concert is in the works. Between emails of people requesting their names be spelled correctly on online transcripts, I expect to see now, any day, the Webster’s going out of business movie followed by the Webster’s going out of business video game.
I do not mean to suggest that the talented and energetic supporters of Webster’s are unfocused in their efforts, unable to focus on reality and actually save Webster’s in its current location. I am saying outright, brothers and sisters, you are unfocused. The following is what needs to be done:<?xml:namespace prefix = o />
1. Understand that the reason Webster’s is in danger of closing is because Elaine has failed to pay the landlord. Her current due bill is for $40,000.
2. Reportedly, Webster’s landlord is Scott Kresge, who has power of attorney for his elderly mother who is the actual owner.
3. According to Elaine, when she offered to pay the landlord the $40,000 owed, he refused and said he had another tenant.
4. Elaine does not have a lease and she has a history of late payments and the landlord gave her notice to leave the premises within 30 days and did so during the July 4th weekend when she did not have time to consult her attorney.
5. To my knowledge (based on today’s You Tube video) Elaine still has not consulted with an attorney on whether the 30 day vacation request is valid or whether she has additional time. Answers would be useful. To all you lawyers out there, is there not one of you, en route to the concert, who can clarify what rights Elaine has? (Maybe I missed the answer and should be confined to the cyberspace transcripts.)
6. Joan of Arc did not say, when she was fighting to save France, “If this does not succeed, maybe we can relocate to the old Verizon building, across the street from the State College municipal building.” Elaine’s initial instinct to get rid of the books in her store and talk about an alternate location is a mistake. You do not give up a battle before you have lost it. Now, the bookstore reminds me of Oliver Wendell Holmes’ poem Old Ironsides, “The harpies of the shore shall pick / The eagle of the sea.”
7. Clearly, the solution to the problem is to make an arrangement with the landlord. Carol Gold suggested creating a Foundation based on the concept that Webster’s serves as a church for those of us who attend regularly. Carol said that Elaine would be free to spend the funds any way she pleases. That would be a mistake. In the current situation Elaine herself has stated that she cannot be trusted to spend money wisely. The Foundation, or some other financial contrivance, could serve as a guarantor that from now on Webster’s will be paying its rent on time because the Foundation has enough money to do so, and is required to make timely payments to the landlord.
8. If the landlord refuses to accept such an arrangement, then pressure should be brought to bear.
9. The first thing the State College Borough Council should do on Monday, after hearing impassioned rhetoric, is to pass a sense of the State College Borough Resolution stating that Webster’s Bookstore and Café at 128 S. Allen Street is a Borough resource, the last real bookstore in State College, and that it should not be allowed to fail.
10. Get the Council, which we helped elect, to do some work to keep Webster’s at its current location. If Webster’s goes, oh town fathers and mothers, so goes the town. The danger of State College becoming a one street town, viz. a long bar going up and down College Street, is considerable. Revenue to keep and maintain State College is hard to come by. Penn State is draining revenue when it constructs or takes over property in the jurisdiction and pays compensation that is lower than property taxes. The Commonwealth budget, on which State College has depended in the past, cannot be relied upon. Webster’s will be replaced by what? Another store that sells State College athletic clothing. Another franchise. Another indication that incipience will be followed by decay. The Council cannot allow Webster’s to disappear at its current location on Allen Street. Words like “eminent domain” come to mind. Do they apply? If you send a delegation to the landlord and you can assure the landlord of not only the back rent but also future rent on a timely basis, oh mayor and council leaders, and the delegation fails, are there not enough smart attorneys among you who can figure out how to take jurisdiction of the premises and declare it a landmark? Sometimes political men and women of good will have to do what needs to be done. It would be a sin to deprive the disabled and elderly downtown residents of the right to buy a book.
11. Let us not forget the 12 employees of Webster’s. These are difficult economic times. I know most of Elaine’s employees, and right now they are hurting financially as well. Giving the employees some of the money being raised and giving it to them now will go a long way to making sure that they will be around when the store returns to normal. I still want a copy of Revolt of the Angels in French, and they are my only hope.
12. Customers, bring back the books you obtained at half price. The bookstore looks deserted without them.
13. Figure out, you money moguls out there, how to create a financial apparatus which will make it possible for Elaine to do what she does best, viz. work magic and not worry about filthy lucre.
[Joel Solkoff is a monthly columnist for Voices of Central Pennsylvania on disability and elderly issues http://www.disabilitiesjoelsolkoffblogs.blogspot.com/ Joel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Joel remembers when, in 1948, Harry Truman nationalized the coal mines during a coal strike, and Army troops dug coal. Maybe he was wrong but Truman was a gutsy guy. Maybe there is, among our town leaders, the willingness to follow Truman’s example of gutsiness on a local basis.]