Jay Dantry uses phrases like, "Well, that's showbiz," and "Oh, how delightful." He prefers bringing a book to bed because "a computer or a TV just don't fit as well." And he knows nearly every customer who enters his iconic Oakland shop, Jay's Book Stall, by name.
Dantry's store is a dying breed -- the independently run, personally managed and neighborhood-centric book store where you're more likely to discuss classical literature than Frappuccino flavors. And this June, after half a century, the Book Stall will close its doors.
But it's not Barnes and Noble or Borders that are pushing Dantry out of business. The store's lease is up, and, as he says, "It's just time for me to get offstage."
Just as Dantry, 79, views retirement with nonchalance, so did he fall into the business by chance. After serving in the Air Force for four years, he attended Carnegie Mellon University and found himself, awkwardly, a bit older than the other students. He graduated in 1956; in graduate school at Pitt, Dantry's schedule of "a few lit classes and some other dumb ones" left his afternoons free. He was soon at work in The Professional Bookstore, Oakland's only competition to Pitt's own bookstore.
A few years later, in a new location, Dantry owned the current Jay's. And today, with the shop's final chapter about to conclude, Pittsburgh is losing a store that's equal parts books and customers.
"Books belong to you -- you can hold them and touch them, open them anywhere you want," Dantry says. "And reading can be challenging because it's solitary -- you have to give yourself to what you're reading."
Though Dantry constantly keeps a book at his side -- currently, Sloane Crosley's essay collection I Was Told There'd Be Cake -- he recognizes the competition that books, and his shop, face today.
"The big bookstores never bothered me. Those stores took the easy readers -- the ones who just wanted the bestsellers," he says. "But if you have a bookstore, you're in competition with everything that makes people just sit and stare -- not only TV, but thousands of things."
Dantry's shop is as full of whimsy as he is. Slightly bigger than a hole-in-the-wall, the store is filled to capacity, with books quite literally from floor to ceiling. There are pictures posted everywhere featuring Dantry, with his perfectly trimmed white mustache and circular, black-rimmed glasses, and some of his more famous clientele (Kurt Vonnegut; Pulitzer-winning former employee Michael Chabon). Buttons and posters fill the few remaining spaces, leaving the shop feeling like an attic over-packed with treasures and surprises.
"I'll miss the people. I meet a lot of people in the course of a day; multiply that by 52 years ..." says Dantry. "I've been doing this six days a week, and then on Sundays I file invoices and bills. But it's been great -- there's no better job. As for my retirement plans ... my lips are sealed."
And, unfortunately, so too will soon be the doors of Jay's Book Stall.
- Another chapter closes for Jay Dantry