The Book Loft (from Behind the Bricks by John M. Clark)
In the mid-1970s, Carl Jacobsma and Roger Tompkins began selling books at their tiny Village Owl gift shop on City Park Avenue. The little store—actually a small, one-and-a-half-story brick cottage—did well. So, in 1977, their friend Marian Southard—or Marnie, as she liked to be called—asked them to join her in a nearby retail venture. The partners took Marnie up on her invitation, setting off a chain of events that eventually led to today’s Book Loft, a huge and eclectic independent bookstore that tops just about every German Village visitor’s “To Do” list.
But to properly tell the Book Loft story, we must start one hundred years earlier. In 1877, 631 South Third Street opened as Maurer’s Saloon, owned and operated by Amelia Maurer. It was a two-story brick commercial building, with an alley along its southern edge, built on what once had been farmland. Living quarters occupied the second floor of what was then called the Substantial Building. When Prohibition arrived, the address turned to other uses. It was an early nickelodeon, called the Lily Cinema. Later, it became Mrs. Keller’s Doll Hospital and Variety Store, a huge hit with children from the two schools across the street. Over time, the building would also see use as a church, a decorating company, an art studio and school, an indoor golf course and, if memories serve some correctly, an early Kroger grocery store.
Against this backdrop, Marnie Southard, in 1968, rented one room of the building and opened a flower shop. But before long, her plans turned much more ambitious. She and her husband, Ollie, bought the building and replaced the flower shop with Marnie’s Arts & Antiques, selling everything from Hummels to antique beer steins. Next, she divided the rest of the large building into six small shops, all facing a new garden path where the alley had once been. She called the little mall Marianplatz, a Fussganger Gallery of Shops (fussganger meaning a “pedestrian walkway”). Marianplatz was soon home to a jewelry store, a candy store, a florist, a card shop and more.
With the success of Marianplatz, Marnie turned her attention to another two-story commercial building, this one directly behind hers, facing City Park Avenue. The building at 632 City Park had had its own colorful history, opening as Wolf Tavern in the nineteenth century and then becoming the Berkley Saloon, followed by, for more than one hundred years, a variety of small groceries. Marnie bought this building, as well, and opened a second gift shop at the City Park end of her property. Logically, the next step was to build a small “connector” store to join the two buildings into one block-long retail mall. And that’s just what she did.
Now, back to the Book Loft and Marnie’s invitation to the Village Owl shop owners to join her. They decided to take the risk and opened their first full-fledged bookstore in the new Marianplatz connector, where today you’ll find the store’s main entrance. Business continued to be strong. But the little shops around the bookstore tended to come and go. So, as a neighboring store moved or went out of business, Tompkins and Jacobsma would tear down a wall and expand. They did this at least eight times over the next fifteen years until the entire building—all thirty-two rooms—was theirs.
Today, the Book Loft is one of the premier destinations for German Village visitors. Newest partner Russell Iler, the shop’s book buyer, makes sure there’s always something new and exciting around every turn. And with thirty-two rooms, there are plenty of turns. And that, perhaps, is the Book Loft’s biggest attraction—a multistory, block-long shop where it’s fun to lose yourself for a couple of hours. (But don’t worry; maps are available at the front door.)