APRIL 30, 2014
Photo credits: Mary Vollero
I THOUGHT it would be a good idea to start a bookstore in my town. The print industry is dead, we’ve been told, from the publisher’s nose to the bookseller’s tail. But haven’t books always been at least a little dead? Coffined thoughts, in mummy cases, embalmed in spice of words. Perhaps a bookstore could marshal some of that spice toward happier ends, breeding lilacs out of the dead land. A community bookstore seemed like a small yet viable way to push back at the larger forces encroaching against so many elements of our towns and cities. Universities; museums; downtowns: sometimes everything feels under attack. A plague upon our houses! The attacks are fueled by all sorts of imperatives, a worldly sickness. Most of it, we cannot fathom how to fix. But I could imagine a bookstore, like a small bulwark against the tide. The goal was simple: to found a cooperative; to think small, to build gradually through a cohort of like-minded collaborators. That way, nobody would get hurt.
But something did get hurt. Nobody went bankrupt, mind you, and no money was lost. Yet my town and its cultural prospects are worse off than when we started. Instead of helping to build a new cultural institution, I’ve watched other institutions crumble down around me.
This is a story about that reversal of fortune.
I live in a small Victorian town of 6,000 that lies in the shadow of a large, rust-belt public university. Living here often feels like living on the frayed edges of corporate America, peripheral in both geography and prosperity. Even the term “Victorian,” used to describe the local architecture, which dates from the town’s heyday as an industrial railway hub, is borrowed: the term refers, of course, to an English queen who neither set foot in the region nor exercised any claim upon it. The town’s name, Bellefonte, refers to a spring that bubbles forth in the very center of its landscape, between a stately park and a cluster of municipal service buildings and gas stations. Even in this case, Bellefonte yokes its geography to a founder who likewise never set foot here: the spring, like the town, was allegedly named by Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand on a visit in 1795. The story is apocryphal: Talleyrand stayed in Philadelphia. Just as the region welcomes the hundreds of thousands of alumni and football fans who arrive on eight or nine weekends a year to stimulate the local economy, the town stakes its claims on powers external to it, or powers that merely pass through.
There are no bookstores here, and, following several decades of economic decline, there remain but a handful of businesses. Like so many of the small towns and minor cities across the Middle American rust belt, Bellefonte exists largely as the architectural remainder of its former prosperity. Heavy industry — timber, mining, manufacturing — once fueled its demands, but the collapse of those systems has not left communities as critical of them as you might think. Instead of investing in their natural or cultural resources, most towns scheme about how to ride the next wave of extractive wealth. This is one of the reasons that Pennsylvania has embraced that new kind of mining known as fracking: here, at last, is the golden ticket to renewed prosperity. To hell with tourism, slow growth, sustainability.
A bookstore could, I thought, offer a small step toward a downtown renaissance on this latter scale: slow, measured. And in spite of its fragile condition, the community here feels worth fighting for. Bellefonte remains a painfully beautiful town; the housing is inexpensive, and the schools are good. The park, named for Talleyrand in turn, is stunning, and there are two nice little coffee shops in town, a diner and a dairy freeze, a couple of pizza joints, a handful of antique stores, and even a small art museum, open on weekends. A brewpub occupies a restored 19th-century mill. Why not add a place to browse and think, and a place in which to hold readings; this might be just the thing to give us something more to do downtown. There is, after all, a large university only a few miles down the road. We could become its Brooklyn, I thought.
Could a bookstore, though an endangered species itself, bring new life to an exhausted landscape? It was hard to keep the big ideas from creeping in. So I kept it small and slow. In my spare time, I started researching bookstore management and cooperative business models. My friends and colleagues seemed curious. A local café owner with expansion plans of her own entertained the possibility of collaborating. We began holding meetings to discuss what such a bookstore might look like, whom it might serve, and how we might go about running it.
It’s right around this point, looking back, that things perhaps started to go wrong, though it’s hard to pinpoint what exactly the error was. Was it in the ideals themselves? Was it in the execution? Perhaps it was this: our dreams grew large.
It sounds like a symbol of a larger eradication: Bellefonte’s Victorian architecture has demonstrated an alarming propensity for burning down. During the past 10 years, Bellefonte has lost a significant number of its major landmarks to fire. The neoclassical 1805 Bellefonte Academy burned down in 2004. Two years later, the town lost its central railroad hotel, the Bush house. Among the most recent victims was the Garman Opera House, which flanks the County courthouse. This last fire, which took place in late 2012, was ruled to be one of a string of arsons around the region; the arsonist is still at large.
The Garman Opera House, like so many other cultural institutions I care about, was heavily damaged but salvageable. It lay vacant in the town square. Early on in the bookstore-planning process, one of the participants in an organizational meeting told me that she knew the people who were mobilizing to save the theater. Why didn’t we join forces? The bookstore could find a place to live, and the task of preserving a tarnished architectural gem could find new allies. Suddenly, our small project found itself swept up in a far larger effort. The broader stakes of what we hoped for our town became manifest: not just to open up a bookstore, but to open up the very conditions in which a bookstore might thrive. We could help revitalize the whole town.
This is how it happened. A few months after the fire, I attended a meeting of the Bellefonte Historical and Cultural Association, a nonprofit organization that had formed back in the mid-1970s, when the town faced similar threats to its historical and cultural fabric. They had, in fact, fought to build the local Talleyrand Park, when the local government had wanted to use the land around the town’s namesake spring to build a K-Mart. The BHCA won that battle. And after 40 years spent mostly organizing park events, they were reasserting their preservationist credentials. The group was mobilizing to save the fire-damaged buildings. In less than three months, a group with a modest annual budget of less than $20,000 raised over a quarter of a million dollars in cash and pledges, with additional promises to follow if its campaign gained traction. The group’s transformation was no less radical than the architectural overhaul it was proposing to oversee.
What were they up against? Upon joining the group, I learned that the local government already had plans for the site. Exercising new state legislations put in place, it seems, for precisely this purpose, the town’s Industrial Development Authority had seized control of the Garman Theatre as an “Abandoned and Blighted Property” suitable for “conservation.” Under their stewardship, their plan was to release it to a regional development corporation who proposed to tear down the adjacent structures to create a block of apartments. This struck me as a curious form of “conservation.”
Why was the town so hell-bent on purging itself of its own historic architecture? There is no shortage of empty lots in Bellefonte. Surely, we thought, a nonprofit cultural organization could offer something more beneficial for the historic downtown and its residents than a corporate bid for low-cost housing? By the time I joined the BHCA in May, the group had been given two weeks to prepare a counter-bid against the developer, who had already, it seemed, sealed up his deal.
Why only two weeks? Had there been a public bidding announcement prior to this? These questions remain a mystery to us, even now. But we prepared for our meeting. We made our pitch for what we thought we could save.
We so often accede to the novelty and disposability of the objects with which we surround ourselves. When our iPhone contract wears out, we update to the latest version. When our television goes on the fritz, we buy a new one — mindfully recycling, of course, the old. It would be impractical to hang on to a box full of cathode ray tubes these days; the world has changed around it. Nobody darns socks anymore, or even knows how.
When it comes to real estate, this logic is redoubled. Across Middle America, new housing construction constitutes a major industry measured, like manufacturing or mining, in terms of units produced per year. Around here, in the rural rust belt, virtually every tract of open land is up for sale, whether farmland or forest. Old buildings, by contrast, are unwieldy, impractical, inefficient — bad investments, an economic dead end. Gazing up at a large brick house from the 1880s, bystanders purse their lips: “How much must that cost to heat?” The question always bears the heft of its own incredulity, as if the questioner were gearing up to accommodate the impossible.
But to live, to work, within existing structures affords us pleasures as well as demands. Endless novelty is intellectually rather than economically sustainable. At some point we face the task of shoring up what we already have at hand, rather than expanding endlessly outward; we can no longer afford to fancy ourselves as pioneers.
The Bellefonte Historical and Cultural Association set to work. We wrote a business plan. Folding the bookstore idea into a cultural institution of a larger scale, we proposed to restore the theater — and, if possible, the fire-gutted hotel next door — as the Bellefonte Regional Arts Center. By offering a full repertoire of performances, exhibitions, art classes, studio space, a café — and, who knows, perhaps even a few books — the Garman Theatre could become a dynamic center for cultural activity. We hired a lawyer; we drafted a feasibility study. Nonprofit arts and culture organizations are a 2.5 billion dollar industry in Pennsylvania alone, we learned, supporting over 81,000 jobs in the state and generating hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue to state and local governments, as well as to residents. We started phoning up other cultural centers in the state, whose arts-centered downtowns — some in towns far smaller than our own — have become tourist destinations.
Things got interesting when a judge granted the BHCA a two-month extension to prepare a financial plan for stabilizing the Garman site. “Understandably,” the judge wrote, “and heartwarmingly, the entire community of Bellefonte has demonstrated how seriously it takes the potential demolition of one of its historic buildings.” The town’s elected officials prepared a list of demands to be met, which included raising $250,000 in ready cash. We raised the money. Our first large donor was a retired veteran who, during his time in the service, had watched Europe rebuild after WWII. Later, 22 local business owners voiced their support for preserving the structure. For a moment, it seemed as if we might succeed. We did not.
At every turn we met with resistance, skepticism, even anger. The town government was against the project. Saving the theater simply wasn’t realistic. How could it ever turn a profit? Even though the Garman was structurally stable, it would be too expensive to restore. And it was not just the government who voiced their objections to the “realism” of our campaign. We had to explain that we were not wasting (or even using) taxpayer money. No, we weren’t trying to stand in the way of progress. No, we weren’t trying to prevent low- or middle-income families from living downtown. We were trying to build a cultural center that would be accessible to everyone. Some expressed their sympathy but not their support: the theater had failed before, and surely it would fail again. Knocking the building down and erecting something new was a “surer bet,” as the local newspaper put it. It turns out that we were not, as we had thought, defending the town against the elements: fire, rust, decay — or even the corporate interests swaying its government. At times we found ourselves fighting against the town’s own dreams of total renewal: the golden ticket. All or nothing. We were not ourselves immune.
Early on the morning after Christmas, wrecking balls began knocking down the Garman Opera House. It’s now spring, and although the crew hasn’t entirely finished the job, there remains only a large pile of crushed brick where the buildings once stood.
At every phase the town’s various governing bodies voted, narrowly, in favor of demolishing the building, voicing their support for the “surer bet”: the Historic Architectural Review Board and the Borough Council, in spite of vociferous public support for preservation, each voted 5–4 in favor of the more “pragmatic” solution. Appeals were overturned; the Commonwealth Court voted to uphold the earlier decisions; and the wrecking balls began swinging even as an injunction for a stay on demolition was still under consideration. There’s some dirty pool here, no doubt, but it hardly matters now.
One thing, at least, is clear: the possibilities of forming an arts center or cooperative bookstore no longer hinge on the task of preserving a historic theater. The campaign to save the Garman had, perhaps unnecessarily, conflated the two tasks. On account of the legal language of this combination, though, the group was obliged to return the money it had collected: the BHCA had billed its fundraising campaign as “Save the Garman,” rather than “Build a Regional Arts Center.” The learning curve was a steep one. A vacant lot now disrupts the gallant row of brick façades that line Bellefonte’s town center. A missing tooth, perhaps, or a face without a nose.
The loss is more than a cosmetic one, however; Bellefonte is even emptier now than it was before. The local supermarket relocated out near the highway last year; now the liquor store downtown has moved, as well. There was a robbery at the pharmacy last month. It has been a cold winter; one doesn’t see so many people out walking.
During the process of watching those plans founder, I have learned much about the pitfalls of local government and the frustrations of nonprofit management. But I now know who my neighbors are, and which appointed officials at whom to direct my anger; I also know who rose to the occasion, and who did not. I remain convinced that a group of committed amateurs can work together to restore life to a community through the arts, making new wine for old bottles. I remain convinced that rural towns and cities can be centers for artistic and intellectual growth, and that such growth is a resource of incalculable economic and moral value. But it’s hard to remember this when I think of Bellefonte; it’s really hard.
I keep a broken brick from the Garman Opera House on the radiator next to my front door. It makes me angry each time I step outside. I don’t want a brick. What I want is an arts center, a bookstore, a community. It’s time to think small again.