Sunday, January 19, 2003

Bookstore owner keeps the city's history alive


Reprints and new works remember amusement parks, breweries and ballgames

By Jim Knippenberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Here's Jim Fallon's problem: Books. He buys them (loves that part) and sells them (hates that part).

[photo] Jim Fallon has been working at Ohio Book Store since 1956.
(Joseph Fuqua II photo)
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Mr. Fallon, a 60-year-old father of three and grandfather of five, owns Ohio Book Store, the quirky, fiercely independent downtown shop that has been turning pages since 1940, first at 544 Main St., now at 726 Main. All five floors of it - 300,000 volumes ranging from the usual best sellers to the gently used, hard-to-find and books so rare the prices run to the many thousands.

"That's what sometimes breaks my heart," Mr. Fallon says. "I had this wonderful biography of Al Capone awhile back. Inside the front cover was a handwritten line that said, `Everything in this book is a damn lie.' It was signed `Al Capone.'

"It killed me to sell it, but I did because that's what I do."

It's what he has always done. "I started working here in 1956 when I was 13, and bought the store in 1971. I know I could have made more money doing something else but this is what I love."

No kidding.

Just watch him as he carefully lifts an 1819 Cincinnati City Directory from a custom-made box and gently turns the brittle, yellowed pages of the $15,000 book: "I love old city directories like this, because they show who lived here, where they lived and what they did. It's a chunk of Cincinnati history in your hands."

On the store's first floor, two long tables topped with new local histories stretch almost to the racks full of old Life and Look magazines at the back of the store. Behind the tables is a wall of glass-fronted bookcases stuffed with rare and out-of -print local histories. On the balcony, there is a cozy seating area and still more local history.

Even the basement reeks of history. This is where sons Mike and Jim run the custom book bindery.

"We get old, worn books from all over the country ... lots of family Bibles and heirloom books," Mr. Fallon says, as he squeezes between book presses, lettering machines, a wall loaded with rolls of leather and past tables of tattered books.

Curious customers

Back to local history, back to the first floor and Mr. Fallon's new project: Amusement Parks by Cincinnati historian Robert J. Wimberg (Ohio Book Store; $27.95), a coffee-table-sized history of local amusement parks, including Paramount's Kings Island, Coney Island, LeSourdsville Lake, PeeWee Valley, Chester Park, Ludlow Lagoon, Tacoma Park, Railroad Garden and Hillsdale Park. .

Amusement Parks is No. 21 in Ohio Book Store's The Cincinnati Historical Series. Launched in 1985, it's a collection of reprints of old Cincinnati books (Wendell P. Dabney's 1926 Cincinnati's Colored Citizens, Harry Ellard's 1907 Base Ball in Cincinnati) as well as newly commissioned histories (Amusement Parks, Mr. Wimberg's Cincinnati Breweries, Don Tolzmann's Spring Grove and Its Creator).

"We started the series, because the store has always been associated with Cincinnati history. But also, it seemed like weekly someone would come in and ask for a specific book that was either unavailable or so rare the price was prohibitive. We decided to make some of them available."

It's a good thing, Mr. Wimberg says: "The beauty of the series is that it affords people an opportunity to see things they'd never get to see if Jim didn't do this. He's making available the prime sources of our history here."

Like 150 years of amusement parks, a project that grew out of consumer demand. Mr. Fallon says people were constantly asking what he had on Chester Park, a Spring Grove Avenue park that closed in 1934 and was razed in 1935."So many people heard about the park but didn't know much, that we asked Bob to write about it - and all the other parks, too."

Mr. Wimberg spent three years researching the topic. The final product, with a 4,000-book press run, was released in December It is been selling briskly enough that a second printing may be in the offing.

A second printing is already in the works for Mr. Wimberg's Cincinnati Breweries (due later this year) and for Mr. Dabney's Colored Citizens. He says the latter will be reissued in 2004 around the opening of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

Ten questions

Fine. But first, let's hit Mr. Fallon with 10 questions . . .

Something people always want to know about Cincinnati history . . .

How did it get the name Queen City of the West?

One facet I'd like to explore but haven't yet . . .

The history of booksellers in Cincinnati.

One thing I've learned doing this series . . .

Is that there's always a person who wants a book on a subject that hasn't been written about.

When I wake up at 3 a.m. and can't get back to sleep. . .

I get a book and start reading. But never one at a time. I always have four or five going at once.

If I weren't doing this, I'd be . . .

In some type of retail. I like selling.

Downtown needs . . .

More policemen walking the beat. And a lot more small, independent businesses.

When I'm stressed out I . . .

Start working out. The treadmill usually.

The best part about owning a bookstore . . .

The clientele and what you learn from them. Oh, and the different kinds of rare books.

The worst part of owning a bookstore . . .

The physical labor. I'm 60 and I still lug around thousands of books a day.

One thing you should have asked but didn't . . .

What's my favorite book. Actually I'm glad you didn't, because I don't know the answer.

E-mail jknippenberg@enquirer.com




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