After 50 years, bookstore closes chapter of history
By Regis Behe
Friday, February 15, 2008
When Jay Dantry started selling books in September 1955, hardback novels were less than half their current price.
But he wants to clear up one misperception:
“I don’t go back so far as to have sold 35-cent copies of ‘Lost Horizon,'” says Dantry, the proprietor of Jay’s Book Stall in Oakland.
After more than 50 years, Jay’s Book Stall will close in a few months. Books will be packed, shelves taken down. There will be no fanfare, no signs heralding the shop’s closure. Like the last page of a long, riveting novel, Jay’s Book Stall will simply end.
“We came in quietly, we’ll go out quietly,” says Dantry, 79, who was unwilling to commit to an extended lease on his Fifth Avenue store.
Situated between the hospitals that rise on Oakland’s infamous Cardiac Hill and the dormitories, fast-food restaurants and bars frequented by University of Pittsburgh students, Jay’s Book Stall has been a haven for bookworms of all stripes. Drama students from Carnegie Mellon University, budding writers from the University of Pittsburgh, and doctors and nurses and interns all found their way to the cozy shop unlike any other in the area.
Dr. Thomas Starzl, the transplant pioneer at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, walked into the store shortly after he came to Pittsburgh.
“I realized right away it was an unusual bookstore, and better, in many respects, than anything I’d seen elsewhere,” Starzl says.
Starzl and the late Fred Rogers were among those who slipped in by way of the back door on Sundays, when the store was closed but Dantry was working on ledgers and accounts. Starzl specifically sought Dantry’s advice when he was writing “The Puzzle People: Memoirs of a Transplant Surgeon.”
“I talked to Jay about it and asked if he could look at it,” Starzl says. “He took it upon himself to help get it published. …. That was how I got to know him. I have a great debt to him.”
Others who came by the store were not quite as famous — at least when they first visited the store. Dantry recalls the drama students from Carnegie Mellon who browsed through the store’s selection of dramatic works. Patrick Wilson, nominated for Tony awards for his roles in “Oklahoma!” and “The Full Monty,” was one of them.
“Jay’s Book Stall saved a lot of us ‘dramats’ when we needed a play in a pinch,” Wilson says.
Another regular visitor was a Pitt student named Michael Chabon, who came in begging for a job. At first there were no openings, but Dantry eventually found work for Chabon, who went on to become a best-selling novelist.
“The thing Jay did for me as a writer was to appear to take my literary aspirations entirely seriously,” Chabon says. “He used to tease me about a lot of things — my clothes, my hair, my friends, the circles under my eyes, but he never teased me about my crappy short stories and poems. He really seemed to think I was going to be a writer when I grew up.”
Chabon, whose first novel, “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh,” is scheduled to be released as a movie later this year, won a Pulitzer Prize for literature in 2001 for “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.” He became part of a panoply of accomplished writers who are memorialized in snapshots displayed throughout the store:
Here, a beaming Dantry with Stephen King. Over there, Dantry with a snowy-haired John Updike. Erica Jong, Richard Ford, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Mary Higgins Clark, James Lee Burke, David Sedaris, E.L. Doctorow, Garrison Keillor and Doris Lessing are among the writers who have visited the store.
Writers would come by because “they’ve heard (Jay’s) is like a little club for Nobel laureates,” says Harry Schwalb, art critic and artist, who in 2005 put together “Book People,” an exhibit of the photographs for The Mattress Factory.
Dantry calls that exhibit his crowning achievement as a bookseller, but there were many other cherished memories. He fondly speaks of meeting Vonnegut, who admired the tie the bookseller was wearing.
“So I gave him the tie,” Dantry says, pointing to a picture of them together. “But he would not sign books because he said they’d turn up on the Internet.”
“Edward Albee used to come here a lot,” Dantry says. “He was always going through the science books. People from the (Pittsburgh) Playhouse would find out and they would come down, and he’d always entertain them.”
Dantry, courteous and discriminating, treated local writers with respect. Kathleen George, a writer who teaches theater at Pitt and is the author of a new novel, “Afterimage,” says rare is the bookstore where the staff knows literature from Jane Austen to Emile Zola.
“Jay and his store were there when I arrived as a student many years ago,” George says. “He is as much a part of Pitt and Pittsburgh as anybody I can think of. And his shop — which is a reflection of him — is a joy.”
Dantry is a bit unsure of his plans once he closes the store, saying only that he plans to do volunteer work. But for many, the closing of Jay’s Book Stall leaves a chasm in the heart of Oakland.
Starzl wonders where he will go to buy books when Dantry closes shop.
“It’s just a nice, comfortable place to browse,” Starzl says. “It’s Jay’s personality that made it a great place. And also the people he surrounded himself with were so exceptional. They would go out of their way to help you, searching for books, and it’s hard to find that kind of highly personal service.”
“It is Pittsburgh,” Wilson says. “Rich in history, richer in knowledge, eclectic artistic, and accessible, a true Oakland haunt. … Thanks for a business run with heart, and one that always helped.”
“I don’t know if there are three rivers of literary culture flowing through Pittsburgh — I wouldn’t be sure how to count them,” Chabon says. “But I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that Jay is one of those rivers.
“He has been a steady, strong, tireless force for good, championing books and authors he cared about, and because of his hospitality, his store has long served as a nexus for people in all the arts to come together and hang out and get to know each other. He has proved all kinds of points about the power and the value and the endurance of books and writing simply by virtue of staying open all these years in the face of brutal changes in the ways books are marketed and sold.”
Jay Dantry on writers who have visited Jay’s Book Stall.
Richard Ford: “He’s been here a number of times, just a wonderful guy.”
Stephen King: “Very nice, absolutely charming.”
Garrison Keillor: “Onstage he’s wonderful, but dour in person.”
Betty Friedan: “It was either too cold or too hot in here (for her). We gave her the wrong kind of water. When you picked her up at the airport, she would not ride in a green car. Or (if) somebody had been smoking in the car.”
Mary Higgins Clark: “She asked me to accompany her to a dinner (at a book convention in Chicago). I said, ‘Oh my God, how am I going to do this?’ But I forced myself to go. She was the only one who stopped me in my tracks.”
Doris Lessing: “She was fantastic. But when they took our picture, she put her hand on my knee and gave it a squeeze. Quite a surprise.”
Michael Chabon: “When he spoke to you, you would swear there wasn’t another person in the world. It was just you. He had this instant rapport that wasn’t a put-on.”
On the Pittsburgh writing community: “I think everybody takes it for granted, but there’s a wealth of talent here. They are bright people who stick together. Nobody goes New York on you.”
Regis Behe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7990.