Bob Schlesinger observes 30th anniversary of bookstore with Party in Park for Tucsonans
If you made a list of all the people who give Tucson its unique personality, Bob Schlesinger would be on the short list. He’s best known as Bob at Bookmans. Or Bookmans Entertainment Exchange, as it is officially known.
He is the Indiana Jones-looking adventurer in those TV ads. The one who lives to make it affordable for everyone to take imagination-stretching mind trips through used books, magazines, CDs and DVDs.
“Really, I just wanted to have a place where I would enjoy hanging out,” Schlesinger said. “I didn’t know anything about used books. I studied mechanical engineering. I never expected to be in retail, either, much less run a bookstore.
“But I was always willing to learn from my customers. I think that made a big difference.”
With the kind of remarkably relaxed, unassuming trust in karma that only a 1960s hippie could muster, Schlesinger has always followed his instincts. Taking life one sunny day at a time, he has developed a do-it-yourself empire of six bookstores in four cities stretching from Flagstaff to his flagship Tucson location at the bustling intersection of Grant Road and Campbell Avenue.
“The decision more than 20 years ago to move into the old Food Giant at Grant and Campbell, that’s what did it for us,” Schlesinger said. “I think when people first walk in and see all that space, they think ‘What’s going on here?’
“This place just attracts people more than a bookstore that is divided up into several smaller rooms.”
There is also Bob’s hat.
“It’s a fedora,” he said, fully appreciating the magic that came bursting out of his TV ads the moment he put on that hat. The image turned him into an instant celebrity and Bookmans into a happening place.
“We were the first bookstore to try advertising on TV. Somebody had told me, ‘You’re just the kind of weirdo who would look good on TV.’
“But I wasn’t happy with the first couple of ads we shot. Then my girlfriend at the time said ‘Put on that hat you just bought.’ I did and that was it!”
The hat, he said, was something he just picked up on a whim a couple of days earlier at El Con. It wasn’t anything special. It cost about $10, he remembered.
Schlesinger thinks his ads came out before Harrison Ford’s first Indiana Jones movie. That would be “Raiders of the Lost Ark” in 1981. The second film, “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” was released in 1984, definitely after Bookmans became the book giant that replaced Food Giant.
In any event, Bob wearing his hat on the TV ads and his huge bookstore with all that elbow room became an overnight favorite of Tucson’s casual intellectuals, students and academics. This was their unofficial community center, a comfortable gathering spot where they were actually encouraged to browse around and visit with one another.
Their sense of ownership was immediate.
“It was our customers that helped us move into the old Food Giant,” Schlesinger remembered cheerfully. “We spent about a month. They helped us haul the books, voted on how wide to make the aisles – it was like a big party. We are still using some of the orange shelves that came from the original store, ones my dad and my stepbrother made. They are over in the fiction paperback section.
“People really think of this as their store, which is an idea I love,” Schlesinger added.
We can only assume that back when Schlesinger was a kid, he did something to attract lots of good karma. Bookmans has been growing, it seems, since he took over the business from his dad 30 years ago.
Now Schlesinger wants to say “Thanks” to those many thousands of friends who over the years have come to feel like co-owners, have regularly recycled their reading, watching and listening materials at Bookmans. He’s celebrating this anniversary with a giant-sized Party in the Park, counting down the seconds (literally) at his Web site, www.bookmans.com.
“I’m calling it Party 2.0,” he said laughing, launching into computer lingo and making it sound so 21st century. “I also bought 50 dozen T-shirts and a T-shirt gun so we can shoot Bookmans’ T-shirts into the crowd.”
Virtually everyone is invited to Bookmans’ all-day free party and rock concert on Saturday at the DeMeester Outdoor Performance Center in Reid Park. A lineup of five bands will keep the sounds coming from 11 in the morning until 8:30 p.m.
Headlining are Calexico and Mariachi Luz de Luna. Featured acts are the Chicago Blues Reunion, Chuck “Wagon” Maultsby and A Few Old Wheels, as well as the Insomniacs from Portland, Ore.
Schlesinger said you can bring your own blanket and picnic repast or support the food, drink and beer vendors at the party. Other vendors and organizations will have booths, too.
“Everything for sale will be Bookmans priced,” Schlesinger promised. “That is, low and reasonable. Instead of paying $4, beer will be $2.50.” There will be games, prizes and giveaways, as well as a special kids area pumped up with jumping castles and other activities.
Partners at the party include FM radio station KWMT 92.9 The Mountain, the Rialto Theatre and community radio station KXCI 91.4 FM.
IF YOU GO
What: Bookmans Party in the Park 30th Anniversary Bash featuring performances by Calexico, Mariachi Luz de Luna, Chicago Blues Reunion, the Insomniacs, Chuck “Wagon” Maultsby and a Few Old Wheels
When: 11 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Reid Park’s DeMeester Outdoor Performance Center, 22nd Street and Country Club Road
Info: 320-3641, www.bookmans.com
KEY MOMENTS IN BOOKMANS HISTORY
September 1976 – Bob Schlesinger buys Bookmans Used Books for $1 from his father. The store was at East Broadway and Tucson Boulevard, with its landmark sign out front of a huge open book. Bob’s father moves to Sierra Vista.
June 1983 – Bookmans is bulging out of its present location. Schlesinger decides to move into the former Food Giant grocery store next to Walgreens Drug Store at North Campbell Avenue and East Grant Road. The move takes a month. Many of Bookman’s regular customers pitch in to help.
July 1990 – Schlesinger opens a Bookmans in Flagstaff. “I just had so many books in storage, and there were people who wanted to keep working for me. And I am so anti-Phoenix.”
July 1991 – The call of the north beckons again, but not so strongly, as Schlesinger opens a Bookmans at West Ina Road and North Thornydale Road.
June 1993 – Finally the Phoenix metropolitan area gets a Bookmans when Schlesinger opens a fourth store, in Mesa. “We were hooked up with a company that is knowledgeable in demographics,” Schlesinger remembers.
December 2001 – Heeding the call to “Go East, young man,” Schlesinger decides Tucson needs a third Bookmans. He opens a larger, more elaborate store on East Speedway Boulevard at North Wilmot Road.
January 2005 – Inevitably, Bookmans arrives in Phoenix proper, at North 19th Avenue and West Northern Avenue. “It’s definitely Phoenix,” says Schlesinger, facing reality. On the Web site at www.bookmans.com the store looks reassuringly like its sibling bookstores in Tucson.