A bookseller who outdid expectations

WOODROW J. SHADID, SR. June 29, 1922-Oct. 4, 2018
A bookseller who outdid expectations

Shadid’s Book Mart, Springfield’s legendary downtown bookstore, outdid the expectations of most local observers by surviving for 14 years after the opening of the mall stores that should have put it out of business. I was not surprised therefore that Woody Shadid, who ran the store for most of the years from 1958 to 1991, outdid the expectations of the medical profession by surviving World War II and lots of cigarettes to live for 96 years before he died in Springfield in October.

Yes, it was hard to put a Shadid out of business. Shadid’s was not the only bookstore doing business downtown during those years. There was Coe’s/Haines & Essick and later, briefly, the Book Emporium, and specialty shops devoted variously to right-wing propaganda, Christian propaganda and porn. Shadid’s saw them all off.

I’ve written about the store for this paper in 1977 and 2010 (“Treasures from faraway seas“ and “Making Springfield a better place“). A great many people of my generation loved Shadid’s because of the books they found in it. I grew to love going there because the book-selling part of the family – Mitch, Woody and Gladys, principally – were to be found in it. Gladys tended to the customers in the front of the shop, he tended to the stock in the back. I was usually browsing in the back, where the interesting stuff was, including Woody. He had been an artilleryman in Europe during World War II and remained the epitome of the wisecracking G.I. “Can you answer the phone, Woody?” his sister would ask. “Sure. I’ve done it before.”

The Shadids’ roots were in what is today Lebanon. Like his siblings, Woody was born to an immigrant who had come to the U.S. at 14 and married a Lebanese girl in Texas. Sam and Samia Shadid were part of that Lebanese diaspora that included Springfield businessman Harvey Najim, likewise a son of a father who immigrated from Beirut around World War I.

Theirs was a classic immigrant success story. Father Sam worked a factory job and ran a lunch counter, and the boys helped out by selling newspapers from corner newsstands downtown. Woody began learning the trade when he was 10. When he got back from the war in 1946 he opened his own stand at Fifth and Washington in front of Broadwell’s Drug Store (now home to Uptown Looks salon), after which he took over the family’s stand at Fifth and Monroe, too.

They’d sold enough paperbacks on the street to be convinced that there was a market for a store where they could sell books out of the rain and cold. They went looking for cheap space and in the downtown of that day that meant south of Monroe Street. The version of the shop most recall was the second one, at 322 S. Sixth St. across the street from the Leland Hotel, in between an optometrist’s and a shoe shop and below the Urban League office.

These days, small independent bookstores are typically opened by bookish people, which might be why they so often go out of business. The Shadids, in contrast, were merchants. No man who makes a living selling books can afford to be romantic about them. In all those years I didn’t have a single conversation about reading books with Woody. (The reader in the family was Gladys.) At the back of the shop were what were then known as the quality paperbacks. They were displayed by publisher, not subject or author, a system adopted in part because, as Woody jokingly admitted, he didn’t know which category to put half of them in anyway.

I did have several conversations – really, one ongoing conversation – about the book trade. Woody’s preoccupations were those of the struggling small businessman everywhere. “It’s a good day,” he mentioned to me once as he flipped through the morning mail at his desk in the back room. “No bad checks.”

The store was narrow – toward the back the aisles were one-person wide – but it offered exactly the kind of cheap space that was needed to make the Shadids’ economic model work. They believed in giving a book time for its reader to find it. That means renting shelf space for a long time before that space makes a sale. They were pioneers in what is now known as long-tail retailing – selling one or two copies of a lot of interesting books rather than selling a hundred copies of a few popular books.

While Woody plainly knew what he was doing, people were forever giving Woody advice about how to run his store. He accepted these intrusions genially but never took them seriously. He knew that book retailing offered only very slim margins, and that the cramped space everyone urged him to move out of was the reason Shadid’s survived – that and the fact that it was run by family members willing to work for peanuts.

The general-interest bookstores that survive do so largely by not selling books. They offer customers a place to meet, to attend a performance and browse for something to read while they wait for their caramel macchiato. Shadid’s survived for more than three decades without such frivolities. It had no room for them. Indeed, the store barely had room for books.

The one thing a bookstore can’t survive without is customers. Woody was always saying things like downtown needs a bookstore but bookstores need downtowns too. Shadid’s did most of its trade during the noon hour, when downtown workers had a few minutes to drop by. When people stopped working downtown, Shadid’s was doomed.

While Woody Shadid had no particular feeling for books as books, his customers had taught him over the years what they mean to others. And he was well aware what a bookstore meant to a city. Asked how he would spend his time after selling the store in 1991, Woody told the State Journal-Register that he might just sit back and wait for offers, like maybe an invitation to pose for Modern Maturity magazine. In fact he spent much of the rest of his life helping other people start bookstores. He never quit believing that downtown Springfield could support one. “You just have to stay on it and have the right stock,” he told the SJ-R in 2000. Like either is easy to do.

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