Long-Time Owner of Curious Book Shop Is Hoping the Community Will Help

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Gary Caldwell for ELi

First-time patrons are often surprised when they enter what looks like a little shop.

“I think I’m probably the only book dealer in the world that owns two used book shops in a college town, six blocks apart,” Ray Walsh recently told ELi. “We like being able to provide the community interesting and unusual items – quality material to read and collect.”

Walsh, the 70-year-old owner of East Lansing’s Curious Book Shop and Archives Book Shop, is well known around town. In a recent interview with ELi, he noted that, just as his own preferred genres have varied over the years, so do the ‘hot items’ that sell at his main store, Curious Book Shop, on a daily basis.

Walsh attributes part of his stores’ success to luck, knowledge, and having a variety of items.

“If we don’t sell paperbacks one day, we might sell magazines the next day or comic books,” he says. “We never know what might sell, which is part of the fun. And part of the problem.”

Today, Walsh and the people he employs face a much larger problem: the closure due to the COVID-19 public health emergency.

On Friday, Governor Gretchen Whitmer announced shops like Walsh’s could start providing curbside pick-up to customers. But for a business that usually operates by letting customers browse indoors, this won’t make things much easier.

Following recommendations from employees and his store manager, Walsh has now created a GoFundMe campaign. At the time of publication, patrons have already donated over $14,000 towards the $100,000 goal.

Curious Book Shop is offering anyone who donates $10 or more to email them with their requests, screenshot of donation, and billing address to receive a mysterious gift, picked by the staff.

The shop, which Walsh estimates is 90 percent reliant on foot traffic, does have inventory listed online on Etsy, Amazon and Ebay, and this unexpected time-off has given employees the ability to go through inventory in storage, list items and pull books for donations to GoFundMe patrons.

Photo by Gary Caldwell for ELi

People miss the books, and Walsh misses the people.

For a brick and mortar that largely relies on foot traffic it’s the personal connections Walsh really misses – the undergraduates, the grad students, the parents, the alum.

“It’s a strange situation, and a pretty strained situation for us to be in,” Walsh said. “We’re used to people coming in, we’re used to personal contact.”

Regular customers know that at Curious Book Shop, employees are happy to give recommendations on suggested titles or future reading.

In fact, it was similarly, after a tip from his junior high school librarian, that Walsh read his first science fiction book, “The Time Traders” by Andre Norton. This led him to read 150 books a year throughout high school and early college. 

Today, his interests have changed from science fiction to crime novels, mysteries, self-published books, local books and even some poetry.

“I’ve got a stack next to my bed, trying to figure out what to read next,” Walsh said.  He’s written book reviews weekly for the Lansing State Journal since 1987.

Walsh attributes the longstanding reputation of the stores to having good staff and employees. Unfortunately, the owner has had to cut staff from 10 employees to less than half that.

“I have a number of employees who have worked with me for quite a while, and I certainly value their input, and assistance, great ideas and advice. It’s really tough to have to lay people off because there’s no customers coming in.”

Photo by Gary Caldwell for ELi

GoFundMe donations are going directly to employee salaries, insurance, rent, and necessary business expenses. 

“We appreciate the support of the community and hope everybody stays healthy, and safe. We hope to survive another 50 years. We wouldn’t be where we are without the community, and we hope we’ve given back a lot to the community – to deserve it.”

The business that grew from reading.

Mid-Michigan’s largest used book shop, Curious Book Shop has been open downtown since 1970 and since 1973 at its current location, at 307 East Grand River Avenue.  

Walsh spoke about the early days of the shop and how he turned a love of books into a longstanding business tradition. He got part-time employment as a student at MSU, editing a magazine in downtown Lansing. Finishing work early, he was given the go-ahead to simply read in the office. That summer, he read 50 books. 

“All of a sudden, I had a bunch of books that I’d finished reading and didn’t know what to do with them,” Walsh said. “There wasn’t any used book shop in East Lansing. The one book shop in town, Ellison Book Shop in Lansing, didn’t really specialize in what I was reading – which was science fiction.”

After holding a few garage sales, he developed regular customers – people looking for books.

“I was living in a house in downtown East Lansing and started having a few book sales in the basement. People were coming in and buying – suddenly I was in the used book business,” Walsh recalled.

He went hitch-hiking to Boston and Toronto, then returned to East Lansing. He ran a classified ad in the paper, searching for science fiction paperbacks. A phone call from a professor led to Walsh buying a thousand paperbacks for a hundred dollars.

He put items on consignment at a student-run bookshop in the Student Services Building for about a year. Then he opened up a small shop on the second floor of what used to be Cunningham’s Drugs, at the corner of Abbot Road and Grand River Avenue. He had to move out of there after the landlord found out that the space, which was zoned for an office, was being used for retail. 

The next location was underneath Paramount News in East Lansing, at 541 East Grand River Avenue (now the Campus Town Mall), where Walsh rented the space from Bob Metzger. “It doubled the size of the shop,” from about ten feet by ten to ten by twenty.

Walsh credits Metzger with giving him his first break in the business by renting to the twenty-year old hippie.

Ray Walsh in earlier days.

“He was a member of the Kiwanis, and he said ‘give something back to the community,’ which I hadn’t really thought about very much.” 

Today, his businesses regularly donate gift cards to local libraries for patrons that finish summer reading programs. Walsh is also a long-time member of East Lansing’s Downtown Management Board, helping promote the area.

Ray Walsh in a selfie today.

Randy Scott became Walsh’s first employee. “He worked for me a while and now he’s the head of one of the world’s largest comic book collections, at the Special Collections Library at MSU,” said Walsh. “He has written a number of books on comic books and is one of the most knowledgeable people in the field.”

Graduating from MSU in 1971, Walsh expanded his location to include vintage specialty dealers and became one of the first ‘antique malls’ in the country. Walsh also met a couple from Ann Arbor, who later opened up Elderly Instruments across the hall from him.

 In 1973, Walsh moved the store to 307 East Grand River Avenue – where it remains today.

A year later, Walsh opened up a shop in Ann Arbor, called Curious Book Shop Too, above Tice’s Party Store. Walsh also expanded to Grand Rapids, with Argos Book Shop in 1976. He opened Archives in East Lansing in 1987, after he saw signs offering shelving units for sale at the former Yarn Studio, at 517 West Grand River Avenue.  

That building had a full basement, perfect for storing many items. He doubled the size of the shop the next year, frequently holding poetry readings and author signings there.

A tiny storefront is the face of a big store.

Curious Book Shop specializes in science fiction/fantasy, pulp magazines, illustrated books, Michigan history, magazines and popular culture items. Though the space is deceiving from the outside. It looks tiny – and is only about 18-feet-wide – but it is a hundred feet deep and stretches to three floors.

Photo by Gary Caldwell for ELi

With over 5,000 science fiction paperbacks and magazines, rare books behind the counter, and vintage comic books, Curious caters to all kinds of curious learners. The store’s second floor consists of sports material, football programs, movie items, lobby cards, stills, and movie posters. 

“It’s kind of an unusual, eclectic collection of materials,” Walsh said. “We have thousands of paperbacks in the shop, including mysteries, literature, and a lot of children’s books – everything from Hardy Boys, Wizard of Oz, Dick & Jane.”

“Archives is a little bit different,” Walsh said. “We have a number of first editions including books by Hemingway and Steinbeck. We have 25,000 postcards and lots of ephemera, as well as other paperbacks, hardbacks, and specialty items.”

The frustration of closing both book shops has Walsh and employees feeling a bit lost. It’s not like Walsh has not witnessed, firsthand, plenty of changes to East Lansing’s political and actual landscapes over the decades. Despite those changes over time, this is one situation Walsh has never encountered. 

Photo by Gary Caldwell for ELi

“I’ve never felt this way before and hopefully never will again,” Walsh said of the temporary business closure.

“This situation right now is something that I don’t think anybody – George Orwell, or Aldous Huxley really considered this happening to the United States in this way and the response.”

The GoFundMe page for the East Lansing book shops is here.

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