The Old Book Store was a downtown Akron landmark with a lot of character — and a lot of characters.
Packed to the rafters with nearly 250,000 volumes, the long, narrow shop stood for decades on South Howard Street, a once-bustling block that fell to urban renewal in the 1960s.
The store specialized in used, rare and out-of-print books, but it also had a good selection of new titles, as well as coins, stamps, magazines, records and postcards. Its crowded shelves, counters and glass cases were a happy hunting ground for bibliophiles.
If customers needed a book, the store probably had it.
Gruff Lionel M. Swicker, better known as “Swick” to regular customers, was owner and proprietor. Born in 1895, the Illinois native was a World War I veteran and former farmhand who moved to Akron in 1923 in pursuit of employment.
He initially landed a job at B.F. Goodrich, but switched to Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., where he remained for 18 years.
In 1936, Swicker bought the Rev. George Hulme’s religious bookstore at 32 S. High St. and moved its 17,500-volume stock to 17 S. Howard St., the shop’s home for nine years. Initially, Swicker was a book dealer by day and rubber worker at night.
Highland Square resident Warren Skidmore, 86, who retired from Akron-Summit County Public Library as head of the language, literature and history division, remembers going to work at the Old Book Store about 1940, when he was a student at North High School.
“My mother got me the job,” he said. “She went in there and said, ‘Oh, I’ve got a son who reads a lot of books.’ ”
Skidmore became Swicker’s apprentice, working afternoons and Saturdays, learning every facet of the business. He operated the cash register, conducted banking and bought old books to sell for a profit.
“There was a desk near the front, and I sat there,” Skidmore said. “I did more than wait on the trade. I started ordering all the new books from the publishers. We put out catalogs about four times a year and I typed all the catalogs.”
In the 1940s, Swicker moved the business to 42 S. Howard St., which had a main floor — new books in front, used books in back — and two upper levels of storage. Customers could find titles on just about any subject, including poetry, mathematics, philosophy, history, science, sports, religion and the occult.
“Swick would go out and get carloads of stuff,” Skidmore said. “It all had to be priced, marked and shelved.”
When people called to say they had old books to sell, Swicker cranked up his 1936 Oldsmobile and drove to see the collections. Sometimes he bought entire private libraries.
“You have to be a gambler to be in this business,” Swicker once told the Beacon Journal. “You quote a price and buy a batch of books and then you sit back and hope somebody will take them off your hands so you’ll get your money back plus a little extra.”
American actress Helen Hayes and Sir Thomas Beecham, an English conductor, were among the notables who wandered into the shop.
“It was a sort of center for the intelligentsia,” Skidmore said. “There were an awful lot of university people that sort of hung out there.”
The store even maintained a vast supply of old National Geographic magazines and kept an index to help students search for topics when working on school reports.
“You may be surprised to learn what our bestseller was, year in and year out: The Masonic Blue Book,” Skidmore said. “Any prospective Mason had to memorize the first three degrees, which were in the Blue Book.”
Skidmore left Akron to attend St. John’s College in Annapolis, Md., but returned to his old bookstore job after graduating in 1947.
“I enjoyed it,” he said.
Goodyear retiree John Wiedey, 74, of Wadsworth, recalls going to the bookstore when he was a boy living on Kenilworth Drive in West Akron. He will never forget Swicker.
“He was a fierce-looking guy, but once you got to know him, he had a heart of gold,” recalled Wiedey, a 1956 graduate of Buchtel High. “A lot of kids were scared to death of him. And he knew it, too. He just let them be that way until they figured out he was different.”
Wiedey remembers that Swicker smoked foul-smelling pipes, drove a noisy jalopy and wore crumpled suits to work.
“He didn’t want to leave the impression that he was wealthy,” Wiedey said.
Swicker helped fuel Wiedey’s lifelong passion for Thomas Edison, tracking down rare books about the inventor. The two became good friends.
“If somebody brought in good books, they got good prices for them,” Wiedey said. “Because he knew he could sell them, he knew his market, he knew who his customers were.”
In the 1960s, Akron officials decided to close South Howard Street and demolish the aging buildings for urban renewal. The Old Book Store had to go.
Skidmore accepted a job at the library and remained until his retirement in 1986.
“I wasn’t there very long before I was promoted to the biggest division,” he said.
Wiedey recalls the final days of the downtown store in 1967 when Swicker allowed him to climb a rickety staircase to explore the unsafe third floor.
“When you would walk up that thing, it was like walking across a swinging bridge,” Wiedey said.
The roof had leaked. Boxes had fallen over. Wiedey didn’t see anything to salvage.
“It was very sad,” he said.
A week later, the building was demolished. Swicker moved his store to smaller quarters at 210 E. Cuyahoga Falls Ave. in North Akron.
“I could make more money digging a ditch, but I wouldn’t have as much fun out of life,” he told the Beacon Journal.
Frank Klein, 86, owner of the Bookseller in West Akron, remembers Swicker as a knowledgeable book dealer.
Klein’s father, Clarence, who owned Klein’s Books in Stow and Kent, used to play cards with Swicker and accompany him on book expeditions.
When Klein took over the Bookseller after his father’s death, Swicker helped show him the ropes.
“Swick really befriended me,” Klein said. “I still have notes that he gave me on the book trade. He was really very open.”
Swicker advised him to seek out histories by local authors such as William Henry Perrin, Samuel A. Lane, William B. Doyle, Oscar E. Olin, Scott Dix Kenfield and Karl H. Grismer. Their books always will find buyers, Swicker said.
After 44 years in business, Swicker sold the North Hill store in 1980 to Ron Antonucci, who ran it another five years. Swicker and his third wife moved to Texas, where he died of cardiac arrest in 1982. He was 87 years old.
From time to time, Klein finds books that belonged to Swicker. He can tell by large pencil marks inside the cover.
“All dealers have distinctive pricing code,” Klein said. “Every once in a while, I’ll see a book that he had.”
Skidmore remains thankful that Swicker introduced him to the book business.
“I enjoyed talking to people and I enjoyed the books,” he said.
Among Wiedey’s prized belongings is a Columbia phonograph that Swicker gave him. It used to sit in the front window of the Howard Street store.
“He was a true friend,” Wiedey said.
Beacon Journal copy editor Mark J. Price is the author of The Rest Is History: True Tales From Akron’s Vibrant Past, a book from the University of Akron Press. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or email@example.com.