ON THE AVENUES: Alas, New Albany is less of a place without a bookstore.

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Hi, I’m Nawbany’s village iconoclast. In my spare time I write sentences and drink lots of beer. 

The onetime PBS anchorman Jim Lehrer died on January 23, and when I heard the sad news, my thoughts raced back to those many occasions during the decade of the 1980s, working evenings at the long departed Scoreboard Liquors, and doing something that almost never happens with me nowadays: watching the evening news via television.

Whenever I spot a package store clerk with eyes glued to an iPhone or laptop, I think back to my entertainment options on slow business nights: a minuscule black and white television set with shabby rabbit ears, from which many a McNeil-Lehrer News Hour was observed. I probably should have been sweeping or stocking, anyway.

The city of New Albany had cable television back then, having handed the keys to the city to the first enterprising operator who stepped forward with hands extended, much as the nation’s railroads once fleeced the federal government for right-of-way privileges extending to the earth’s core in on direction and the moon in the other.

However there was no way Scoreboard’s owners would ever have paid for something quite that frivolous, although store manager Lloyd “Duck” Cunningham gladly would have watched Cubs day games if WGN were available.

In other news, there were sporadic attempts to have the morning’s Courier-Journal delivered to Scoreboard, although these usually came to nothing because the newspapers would so often get stolen. Seems journalism was subject to thievery even when the Binghams practiced it (until 1986, at least).

Given that I usually worked two jobs, time for me was scarce. To make it down from the Knobs a little early for work at Scoreboard meant having the chance to walk a block to the library and catch up on magazines, then in 1988 came a job at Data Courier in Louisville, where I abstracted magazine articles, exponentially expanding my available options to self-educate.

This experience genuinely changed my life, and while the public library remained a go-to-when-could, now there were some publications of sufficient obscurity to require a visit to the IU Southeast library for perusal.

By this time Scoreboard had moved to the corner of Spring and Beharrell Avenue on the other end of town, and I was living in Floyds Knobs with two good friends. We plumped for cable, which in practice meant sports, MTV and CNN. My library visits waned; there wasn’t much time to read, anyway. My social life was active, which is to say I drank far too much.

The overarching point to this opening digression today is that I’ve always placed supreme importance in being informed, by whatever means it takes. Almost certainly to a degree these channels of journalistic expression 30 or more years ago were biased and tainted. It would be foolish to argue otherwise.

Still, it is increasingly hard to imagine they were any worse than the befuddling cacophony greeting me each morning as I try to learn exactly what’s going on in the world. It’s as if we cannot possibly know — which benefits the oligarchs nicely, don’t you think?

Fast-forwarding 15 eventful (read: exceedingly rough) years, and seemingly as many personal lifetimes, and suddenly it was 2004. There’d be another dozen years to unfold before my NABC tenure concluded, and Diana and I had purchased a house on Spring Street, where we still live.

As for the time of which I’m about to speak, I’m guessing it was October, as I’d just returned from what proved to be the finale of my side gig as European motorcoach beer tour operator.

Diana and I decided to attend an open house at the Moser Tannery, then fully intact and only a short period removed from daily operation. It had been purchased by Al Goodman, who envisioned a museum of tanning among other uses for the buildings, as well as an ecological preserve for the Loop Island wetlands behind them.

Frankly, I didn’t know the natural area even existed. In 2020, it’s the only part of Al’s dream to come to fruition, because sadly, only a few months after the open house, a heavy snow caused the roof to collapse onto the amazing century-old hide tanning bays, completely destroying them.

Subsequently Al couldn’t leverage his plans into existence, and eventually what was left was scooped up by the opportunistic city, which acquiesced in the neglect of the remaining structures until they were torched by arsonists in what might be Jeff Gahan’s most cynical and purposefully scripted moral failure ever.

Ah, but I’m digressing into a previous existence. Apologies, Andrew.

If for no other reason, the open house at Moser Tannery in October of 2004 was memorable because I met Randy Smith for the very first time. I already knew his wife Ann Baumgartle from our time as students at IU Southeast. They informed us of something we hadn’t heard: Destinations Booksellers was soon to open at 604 East Spring Street, a mere five blocks from our house.

Know that in 2004, the downtown food and dining revolution had yet to be launched. The embryo came in 2006 with the advent of Bistro New Albany, which by all rights should be memorialized by a plaque at Brooklyn and The Butcher, which now occupies the space.

Maybe today’s Develop New Albany can work on that if they the governing committee runs out of groveling, self-congratulatory photo-ops.

However, we got by. In late 2004 there was plenty of great beer and pizza at NABC on Grant Line Road, a short bicycle ride from our home. The library remained a reasonable ten minute walk, and providentially, just down the street was a bookstore.

Finally New Albany threatened to become livable.

At its inception in 2004, Destinations Booksellers was New Albany’s first full-service bookstore since 1947. Two years before this, our original brewery at Sportstime and Rich O’s was the first in New Albany since 1935. Whether any of this helped Randy and I to become friends is questionable, but it strikes me as significant in the sense of shared visions.

NABC expanded downtown to Bank Street Brewhouse in 2009, and contracted back to the mother ship in 2019. I left the business for good in 2018. As most blog readers already know, Destinations Booksellers has spent the past two weeks winding down and now has ceased operations after almost 16 years in business, making way for a soon-to-come food service tenant, leaving Randy and Ann to be landlords.

They’re not going anywhere. Neither are we, and yet already I feel the absence of their bookstore. In spite of all the many electronic and technological advances governing the way we interpret the world, receive news and fundamentally communicate, books remain sacred objects to me.

A bookstore, the public library, our private library where there’s no space to put any more books because there are so damn many books … well, these are the churches and chapels for an unrepentant atheist, humanist and rationalist.

I’m grateful for Randy and Ann for Destinations Booksellers. 15-plus years is a great run for any business, and New Albany isn’t exactly the sort of milieu that celebrates “book learning.”

Of course this city wasn’t much for snooty imported (and later craft) beers, either, but I started evangelizing about better beer all the way back in 1983, and had 20 years to prepare the market before we began brewing our own. Aspiration takes time and patience to nurture, and probably most often in life, the seedling fails to reach its full growth potential.

When it does, those are the special times.

Randy and Ann are our friends, and I’ve richly enjoyed the hours I’ve spent browsing at Destinations, attending the civic events held there (like pubs, bookstores need to be community centers), and chewing the fat with the proprietor.

To be honest, it made me proud as a New Albanian that New Albany had its own bookstore. It may be gone, but I won’t forget it. Maybe someday the city as a whole can be the sort of information-friendly learning zone like that room at 604 East Spring was from 2004 through 2020.

Unlikely, but a boy can still dream.

Recent columns:

January 30: ON THE AVENUES: Dear Holocaust deniers: If you don’t like this post, unfriend me now.

January 23: ON THE AVENUES: Running over the same old ground.

January 16: ON THE AVENUES: I won’t belong to any Dry January that would have me as a member.

January 9: ON THE AVENUES: Elusive sounds of silence.

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