Old books and old buildings make for "interesting" remodeling projects

Many used bookstores end up in, let us say, “interesting” buildings that present a challenge when it comes to layout.  They have lots of character… and floors that are often a bit off level, walls that don’t quite meet at 90 degrees, and other interesting issues.  Brand new buildings can have these issues too, but the sort of converted spaces that bookstores end up in often have multiple issues.

We recently decided to relocate some bookcases in the store and that was an adventure.  It turned out we couldn’t put the bookcase where we wanted because the slight slope to the floor meant the bookcase was too tall at one end.  Oops. It was off by a 1/4 inch.  We also moved the front counter at the same time.  That involved moving it around multiple times and installing it slightly off square to make it fit in an octagonal bay.

It doesn’t seem to matter how well you measure, you always have to wiggle fixtures around a bit to get them to set just right.  Even if you do get them in the “right” spot, you may end up moving them again shortly thereafter as customers interact with them in a way you didn’t intend, or something else crops up.  We moved another bookcase when we moved the desk and it seems to now be casting a shadow in the mystery section.  Fortunately we were planning on replacing that light fixture anyway, so moving it over 6″ won’t be a big deal…

But nothing has beaten the very first remodeling job we did at the store for sheer craziness.  It looked like it would be such a simple project…

This was a terrible layout, but it came this way when I bought the business.   Not only was it narrow, it’s a dead end! Once upon a time, this was a hallway.  Here is my mother unloading the bookcases before we moved them. (Thanks Mom!)

The reason for moving the case was because there was a door behind it!  It should be a simple matter to move the bookcases on both sides and open the door.

On the other side of the door, there was another bookcase.  It should be simple to empty and remove the case.

Wait, wasn’t there supposed to be a DOOR there?  HAHAHAHA! Simple remodeling project… famous last words…

After a call to the landlord, we got a keyhole saw and cut a hole in the paneling only to find the door had no knob and was nailed into the doorframe.

Haven’t I read this horror novel?  If not, it’s a great setup.  The only way this set up could get better is if I was an occult bookstore.  “During a remodeling project, the main characters find a boarded over door in the wall. The doorknob had been removed and the door is nailed into the frame, but they open it anyway unleashing…”

Mostly unleashing a lot of dust.  We ended up taking the half rotten door out with a sledgehammer.

Did I mention the store is across from the Masonic temple?  And we’re in New England?

If it was a horror movie everyone would be screaming at the screen right now going “NO, DON’T OPEN THE DOOR!!!”

Lovecraft would have loved this plot.  So would Stephen King.

This is what it looks like today (after a second remodeling job to make it work a little better).  The door frame was painted a cheery blood fire engine red afterward to make the Elder Gods welcome make sure people didn’t bump into the door frame while turning the corner.

Remodeling when you’re in a building that’s more than a century old never goes exactly as planned.  The sad part? There’s ANOTHER boarded over door and a boarded over fireplace in the middle of the space!  I still have more opportunities to have remodeling go horribly wrong!

I really do love my location most of the time.  It has great character and fits well with the store.  It makes it look like the maze of books that people expect from a used bookstore.  It sure doesn’t feel like a commercial bookstore with a standardized floor plan.  They’re constantly surprised by what’s around the next corner and delighted by discovering “hidden” treasures in the stacks.  It’s a little adventure to find out what treasures lurk around the next corner.  But when it comes time to remodel, I sometimes long for a level concrete slab for a floor and an empty warehouselike interior.

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  • Great article! On of my favs on the Bookshop Blog so far.

    This experience is similar to my own; the joke in my family is that my store’s building is a hundred years old and not the good kind of 100 years old. It’s been divided and subdivided a lot and the result is that all the tenants have these oddly-shaped workspaces.

    My store came with an uninsulated (!) storage room containing the store’s icy-cold or boiling-hot bathroom. The rear door of storage room opens onto a disused courtyard about 7 feet below street level. One side the the yard is a brick wall, the top of which is level with a parking lot. Another door was originally padlocked and hidden behind a bookshelf. My father knocked the padlock off with a hammer one day and the room we found was 2 feet higher than my store room, and had a dirt floor covered with carpet and no lights and a generally intolerable aire of creepiness. I don’t use this room for anything but nightmare fuel.

    The floorplan is easier to manage than yours, but did result in the “Hall of Westerns,” a literal hallway just wide enough for one person to squeeze past another.

    You hit the nail on the head about it adding character, though. I love having the store in a weird, cramped and drafty little downtown spot. I don’t think it would have the same feeling in a more conventional space.

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  • It looks like a neat store set up that you have! Those bookcases are really nice! I think you are right about the Maze floorplan, and it also gives customers a little privacy to browse for a few hours if need be. This article is excellent because it is true, many used bookstores are in older buildings and it is a great use of those spaces as well.

    Question: Would you discourage the use of seating in a used bookstore?

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  • There’s nothing I like more than finding a new used bookstore. 🙂

    Anyways, the more people renovate older buildings here in Omaha, the better business gets for me. We’ve got a ton of buildings that look just like yours downtown. Just a tiny bit of work and they can look damn good. There isn’t as much craftsmanship in the buildings they put up nowadays.

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