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.
A PLACE TO START by Vonn McKee
19 minutes ago