Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Favorite Bookstores #2: Thompson's Bookstore

I don't remember the first time I went to Thompson's Bookstore in downtown Fort Worth, but it must have been in the mid-Sixties, when I was eleven or twelve years old. At that time my mother did a lot of her shopping in the department stores downtown, so I'm sure I found the bookstore when I got dragged along on a shopping trip with her. It was in the 200 block of Throckmorton Street, in a block-long single-story building that housed several different stores and a restaurant or two. The side walls and the back were covered with bookshelves, with more shelves arranged back-to-back in the middle of the room to form aisles. All the way down the left wall was the mystery section, and that was where I always headed first when I went in there.


Now, if you were looking for mint-condition, collectible books, Thompson's wasn't the place to find them. The owner wrote the prices directly on the front cover with magic marker. So for a long time I had a lot of Dell mapback editions of Mike Shayne novels with a big "10" inked on the cover because they cost ten cents, as well as Gold Medal editions of early Shell Scott novels marked "25". I didn't care. I just wanted to read the books.


And read them I did: Edward S. Aarons, Carter Brown, Nick Carter, Raymond Chandler, Leslie Charteris, Brett Halliday, Donald Hamilton, Ross Macdonald, John D. McDonald, Ellery Queen, Richard S. Prather, Mickey Spillane, Rex Stout . . . I'd go down that left-hand wall gathering them in. I sometimes think that Thompson's contributed as much to my overall education as either of the two colleges I attended.


Westerns and science fiction were in the center aisles, general fiction along the right-hand wall. Also in the center aisles were used comic books, inevitably battered and torn but still perfectly readable, and issues of PLAYBOY. No other men's magazines, just PLAYBOY. That contributed to my education, too, but I had to be a little sneakier about it.


One day when I went in, a short set of shelves underneath the front windows was full of pulp magazines. I knew what pulps were by then because I'd become a big fan of the Doc Savage reprints from Bantam. These pulps were fifty cents each, pretty high-priced for Thompson's, and once I'd picked out the paperbacks I wanted, I only had enough money left for one of them. The one I picked out was an issue of DETECTIVE FICTION WEEKLY from 1931. I remember the cover and remember reading it, but that's all I can tell you about it. I ought to try to replace it one of these days, just to have it again.


I only made it downtown every couple of months, and by the time I visited Thompson's again, all the pulps were gone. I'm sure at those prices a collector or two (there were pulp collectors even then) came in and cleaned them out.


After several years the Thompson family opened a second store at the other end of downtown, near where the public library was located then, and a block away from Barber's Bookstore. (I'll be writing about Barber's another time.) My hunch is that they opened the second store to handle the overflow of stock from the original. It was set up with almost an identical layout. By the time I was in high school and driving, I would go downtown, park in the Leonard's Department Store parking lot by the Trinity River, and ride the Leonard's subway downtown. (That's right, Fort Worth had a subway at one time. It was free, and I wish I had a nickel for every time I rode it.) Leonard's was only a block away from the original Thompson's so I would stop there first and then walk the seven or eight blocks to the other end of downtown to visit the second Thompson's, Barber's, and the library, returning to the subway loaded down with books. It was good exercise.


The original Thompson's came to a bad end. Now, don't quote me on this part, because I may be remembering some of the details wrong, but what I think happened is that the guy who owned the restaurant next to the store was trying to burn the place down for the insurance money. Instead, he set off an explosion that killed him and destroyed pretty much the whole block of businesses. What I know for sure is that the original Thompson's was gone. The second store stayed open for quite a few years after that, although at some point the Thompson family sold it to someone else who continued to operate it under that name. I still went there and bought some books from time to time, but not as often. When the store finally went out of business and had a big closing sale, I was there on the last day and bought a few more books.


To say that it was the end of an era is an overused cliché, but that's the way it felt to me. Barber's was closed and the library had moved to the other end of downtown, where it still is. Leonard's eventually became Dillard's, and the area around and including it became the Tandy Center Mall. I still rode the subway downtown to go to the library. But then Radio Shack bought the property to build a huge new corporate headquarters, all the stores closed, and the subway was demolished. Half of what was the Leonard's parking lot down by the river is now just a grassy hillside. The other half is still a parking lot, and if you know where the subway stations used to be (I do), you can still see where they were. In its heyday, the subway was only about half a mile long. I don't know how many hundreds of miles I rode in those cars over the years, but I know I carried a lot of treasures with me as we rocked along, many of them with prices on the cover in magic marker and equally indelible memories inside.

10 comments:

Rick said...

Never been there but I got sad just reading about it. So much is disappearing everywhere. Nostalgia reigns supreme too often in this old heart. Thanks for the memories I never had though.

Prashant C. Trikannad said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Again, a very nice post, Mr Reasoner. "The Case of the Vanishing Bookstores" would be a suitable title for an anthology here.

Graham Powell said...

Have you been downtown lately, James? They're knocking down the Tandy mall. Very carefully, as they don't want to disturb the attached office buildings at each end.

I sure wish some of those bookstores were still around.

Scott said...

There were all sort of used books store everywhere way back when. I remember going to the one by my grand parents in Minnesota. Now it is gone.

James Reasoner said...

Graham,
No, I didn't know that about the Tandy Center Mall. These days when I go downtown I park right beside the library, go in, come out, and leave. Other than going to Bass Hall back in May to see Craig Ferguson, that's it. Sometimes when somebody else in the family had to be downtown for whatever reason and I went along, I'd sit beside the skating rink in the mall and read a book while I waited. It wasn't like the old days, but it wasn't bad.

Donna Merrill said...

My papaw, Roy E Thompson open the first Thompson's Bookstore in 1936 in Downtown Fort Worth. I would have to ask my mom all the places it was moved around downtown but I remember the one on Throckmorton Street very well (1 block down from Leonard's Dept. Store). My papaw would takes all us grand kids ever so often to the store on Sundays. He would give us a penny sack and we could fill it with as much candy as could fit and we also got a soda pop. He was a very good and honest business man. My mom worked for him when she was a teenager in the 40's. My papaw had a stroke in the mid sixties and was bed-ridden until his death in 1971. His son Don Thompson took over the business and did open another store at the corner of Houston and 8th or 9th St. He sold the one on Throckmorton St. to our cousin Barbara due to his daughter's declining health. The original was destroyed when a restaurant which was around the corner (Can't remember the name of it) blew up. It was done on purpose to collect insurance money but I don't remember anyone dying in it. In the end the Bass brother's bought that whole block.

My mom in later years worked at the one on Throckmorton St then at the one on Houston St. She worked there until she retired in 1999. My uncle sold the store to a friend as his daughter needed full time care and when Barne's and Noble opened down the street business dropped drastically. It closed a few years later.

James Reasoner said...

Donna,
Thanks so much for this comment. I'm sure I bought books from your mom and your uncle, and quite possibly from your grandfather as well. Thompson's was one of my favorite places in the world back in those days. I hated it when the building blew up. The other store was at Houston and 8th, around the corner from where the Forth Worth Public Library was located then. Also a block away from Barber's Bookstore.

Nicole said...

You will be pleased to know...
https://www.facebook.com/thompsonsoffthebooks

James Reasoner said...

Very cool! Thanks for the heads-up about that. My bar-hopping days are long since over, but I may have to stop in there sometime for nostalgia's sake.