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PASSION, ATMOSPHERE: Enliven Adams Books in Columbia

A small used book store, legendary for longevity
by Patrick S. Market

"Why are we here?" my son asks.  He is six.

"Books," I tell him, and kneel in front of the small rack of volumes wheeled outside the door of Adams Books.   My son looks tentative.  Finding nothing of interest to either of us on the wheel cart, we head inside.

We walk through the doorway and into a narrow passage, the distinct smell of books in the air, their spines facing us as they line the walls all the way to the ceiling. 

The jumble of books reminds me of Ollivander’s Wand Shop from the Harry Potter series. 

A woman behind the counter asks if she can help me find anything.   She points toward the childrens' section, and we chat as my son looks eagerly over the selections.

The woman is the owner, Nancy Adams Duncan.  But Adams Books is definitely a family business.  

The bookstore belonged to Nancy's father, Ike Adams, who began selling books in 1945 and opened the location at 214 North 8th Street in the early 1950s. 

A wildlife conservation biologist well known in Columbia for his bird-watching prowess and service during WWII, Ike Adams passed away in 2002 at age 88.    His bookstore shares a book collectors' lineage with shops like Paul Wallace's Possum Haw Antiquarian book store in Fayette, and Ken Green's Acorn Books, also in Columbia. 

It also boasts a longevity few bookstores will ever match.  Being open for over 60 years is quite a claim for any business, much less a small independent bookseller that continues to be viable even in the face of big box competitors, electronic books, and online booksellers like Amazon. 

I asked Duncan how a bookstore like hers remained successful.   "Good selection…  Good atmosphere… Decent prices… Ambiance for a good conversation,” she replied.  

The latter is especially true, as Duncan, a former kindergarten teacher, is helpful and engaging.   When asked why she has stayed in the book business for so long, her response is like a reflex.

“I like it…  I’m passionate about it.”

To be sure, some aspects of the Adams' book business have changed over the years.   For example, acquisitions at auctions and estate sales, the store’s source for new inventory, are more competitive than ever.  There is also increasing pressure from eBooks.   Yet, the business continues to be viable, and buyers are largely unchanged. 

Duncan observed that male customers frequent the store by a ratio (to female customers) of almost 9-1.  

Perhaps more interesting are the age demographics of Adams Books.  One might expect older individuals, who fear or eschew technology or just like the feel of a book, to frequent the shop.   And that is one core group of the clientele.  But the other core group is much younger, peaking in roughly the 18-22 year old college-aged bracket. 

One might be tempted to think of Adams Books as a niche store.   Duncan is uncertain of that category, but does acknowledge that with limited hours (Saturdays only, from 1 to 4 pm), her shop is “definitely a destination book store.”

As I perused the stacks, I wondered how much longer Adams Books might remain open.   Over the last decade, smaller book sellers carrying new releases have struggled and closed, Tiger Tales Books on Nifong a prime example.  

I ask Duncan what the future holds for Adams Books.

“I plan to continue as long as I can,” she replies.

I thank her, and look at my son.   With a copy of E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web and an illustrated book rendering of Robert Frost’s Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening tucked under his arm, he is beaming.

The future for books looks bright, indeed.

Patrick Market , Ph.D., is an associate professor of meteorology at Mizzou.  He has written for the Heart Beat before.


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