Discover Vintage America - JANUARY 2019
North Kansas City shop a 'destination for book lovers'
For the past 18 years, Steel's Used Books has provided enthusiasts of used books with a large and eclectic selection. Located on a side street just south of North Kansas City's business district, Steel's modest entrance belies its generous interior, where 3,600 square feet of books, densely stacked on shelves from floor to ceiling, range in age from nearly new to very old.
David Steel, proprietor, amid the books and vintage décor in his store. (photos by Ken Weyand)
Today's shoppers may remember the store as a Christian bookseller, which it was in the beginning, earning accolades from the Christian Family Journal as "every Christian bookworm's heaven on earth." Today, the inventory is more eclectic, and includes history, philosophy, global religion, new thought and classical literature. Other changes have improved the store, including better access to the shelves and a small stage for live poetry and other readings.
Owner David Steel has overcome some problems in the process. For example, he had to rearrange some of his stock and open up the access areas to satisfy the demands of the city's fire marshal.
"Everything seems to be OK for now," he said. "But we're continuing to look for ways to make the store safer and more accessible for our customers."
Another problem was more light-hearted. When I first visited the store, a young cat, named "Blue" for her fur color, had been making herself at home among the books. Not long before my visit, Blue had spotted the fish tank, located on a high shelf among several stacks of books and other items.
Deciding to engage in some fishing, Blue bounded up to the tank, leaving a shower of books in her wake. I visited the store that day, and a helper told me I had missed some excitement. A few days later, when I returned, Blue was gone. "I like cats," David said, "but this didn't seem to be a very good place for a shop cat."
Modest storefront gives few hints about the eclectic collection inside.
David Steel is the second generation in his family to sell used books. His dad operated a Christian bookstore in David's hometown of Davenport, IA, and Dave literally grew up in the bookseller profession. In 1973, David was helping in the family business, and the store was prospering. "At one time we had 14 employees," he said.
After graduating from high school, David served in the U.S. Army for three years. "After I left the Army, I lived in Iowa City for a short time, but never enrolled in college," he said. Instead, he moved to Kansas City in 1990 and opened his own bookstore on Independence Avenue in KC's Northeast area. All went well until 1999 when an arson fire destroyed the shop and the entire collection of books. "I had the feeling someone didn't want us around," David said. "They even took away the dumpsters before I had a chance to salvage anything."
Later that summer, David moved to the present location in North Kansas City. He's proud that his store has grown and expanded its inventory in spite of economic trends that have defeated other booksellers. "I can name at least a dozen book stores that have failed since 2008," he said.
A typical section of the store and the books on display
Tricks to the trade
Is there a secret to his success? "I'm not in this for the money," David told me. "I like the daily education and interaction with the people." And the bookstore seems to be a "gathering place" for many people who are as eclectic as the books. "As a writer, you should visit the store more often," he told me. "Many of our customers have interesting stories to tell."
Another factor in the success of any bookstore is finding a location with modest overhead. "This building sat empty for several years," David said. "And although it isn't equipped to handle the demands of many businesses, it fits our needs pretty well. Also, I was able to get a fair rental rate, which made it possible for us to succeed."
Although the side-street location might seem less than ideal for attracting walk-in business, David isn't concerned. "This store has become a destination location for people who appreciate books," he said.
David's store isn't the place to find a paperback romance novel or just-published exposé, however. Steel's eclectic collection includes more than 60,000 books that are meant to inspire thought and broaden one's view of the world – past, present, and future. The store also sells vintage décor items.
A shop next-door, FM Music, sells a variety of "vintage sounds," including vinyl records and collectible CDs. The owner is Faron Meek, whose initials gave the shop its name. "We're happy to have such a compatible neighbor," David said. "People who enjoy vintage music often have an appreciation for old books."
Newer covers illustrate the variety of books offered.
'Open mic' events
About three years ago, a stage was built to accommodate poetry readings, music and other offerings. "We have enough seating available for about 20 guests, and everyone has a great time," David said. "It's one of the things that makes the store a destination location."
Poetry readings are offered three nights a month, on the first and third Sundays, and on the fourth Thursday. Other types of readings, musical and variety performances are offered on third Thursdays and fourth Fridays.
Steel's Used Books is located at 214 E. 18th Avenue, North Kansas City, MO. Hours are 10-6, with later hours for poetry and "open mic" events. For details call 816-300-2665.
Ken Weyand can be contacted at email@example.com Ken is self-publishing a series of non-fiction E-books. Go to www.smashwords.com and enter Ken Weyand in the search box.