Saying goodbye to S & S

Terry and S and S (Argus Leader picture)Today’s Life (Style) section in the Argus Leader has an article about the changing landscape of used bookstores in Sioux Falls. It features, quite heavily, S & S Bookstore. And it breaks the news that, yes, S & S Bookstore is closing, after years of frantically hanging on to the last threads of retail dignity.

Thousands of used books stand silently on shelves at S&S Books, waiting for a declining number of readers to come rediscover their pages.

Adventures and biographies, chronicles and comedies, epic dramas, fantasies, features, fiction and more still offer a world of information and entertainment. But because of a consistent decline in customers, after 26 years, owner Terry Swalve is closing his book shop at 515 W. 18th St.

During coming weeks he’ll be selling and not replacing the volumes in his 4,500-square-foot store. A closing date has not been set, but once he registers a going-out-of-business sale with the city, everything must go.

This story is actually a little bittersweet for me. After all, S & S Bookstore is where I grew up.

My mother, for longer than I can remember, worked at S & S as its sole full-time clerk. She essentially ran the place, if you get down to the bits and pieces, and kept the investment alive for far over a decade.

I would visit S & S after school. I’d hang out among the aging books and watch a scratchy black and white TV, or I’d flip through old comic collections or sports statistical almanacs. I’d often eat at Hardee’s and, when the store moved to 18th and Minnesota, I switched my allegiance to Taco Bell.

Used books surrounded me for at least an hour every night – from when I got out of school until the store closed at 5:30. Sometimes I helped out – it was the first job I was paid for by someone other than my mother. I never ran the till. I never helped customers. I was too afraid. Instead, I sat behind the counter for hours.

Eventually, I grew up a little and stopped hanging out at the bookstore. But I always made it a point to stop in. My mother was there most of the time. I’d pop in when I got back from college, or I’d run by to see if I could find a classic book. It wasn’t a nice bookstore, but it was a bookstore all the same. The selection was horrid, but the staff – my mother – was always nice.

A few years ago, my mom finally said goodbye to S & S Books. She was never paid very much there, and she began to really dislike the day in, day out grind of working with someone who had little business savvy and major problems. She’d had enough.

It’s closing now. I haven’t stepped foot back in the store since my mother quit. According to Terry Swalve, owner of S & S Books and someone I’ve known since I was seven or eight, “People aren’t reading as much as they used to.”

“Their time is taken up by other things, maybe more involvement with computers. I don’t think the kids are reading as much as they were. They’re into diversions like electronic stuff.”

That may be the case. There are other factors that added into the demise of S & S Books – a failure to take in hardback books, a policy of taking in any book with an S & S stamp (leading to an overflow of poor quality and non-sellable titles), and a general atmosphere of unkemptness – a dirty store filled with dirty books.

S & S Books, however, was a bookstore for those who didn’t search for classics. They weren’t looking for rarities or first editions from the 1800s. They were looking for entertainment. They were looking for Harlequin Romances, and Clive Cussler, and Stephen King. When the good books came in, anyway, my mother and I latched onto them.

When my mother left, a good number of customers left as well. And yes, a great number of things could have been done to save S & S Books, to reinvest in the idea of a small bookstore that was selective in its stock and driven to succeed. But regardless of all that, I can’t help but feel bad.

S & S Books is Terry’s livelihood. It’s the thing that drives him every day. It’s a piece of personal history for me, as well. I can still smell the musty back room, the aroma of a TV dinner from the overstock room, where the microwave was kept, and the rush of fresh air as the front door was opened on a cold, windy day.

I remember how hard it was to vacuum the front rug after they tarred 18th Street. I remember stockpiling classics that I still have to this day – awaiting my gaze and taking up space on my new bookshelves. I remember the wire racks. The excitement of getting a new and interesting book. The stacks of saved serial fiction under the counter. The credit slips. The sound of the register. The color of the carpet. The stains on the ceiling.

I remember it all, and I can’t believe that someday it will be gone.

But, to tell you the truth, I let go of it a long time ago. All that remains now is the memory.

And the promise of what S & S Books could have been.

This was lovingly handwritten on February 2nd, 2007