A Society of Two (part two)

Their way or the highway

Terry and Allen neatly divided responsibilities.

She handled paperbacks, children's books, toys and stationery. He bought the hardbacks, sale books and gift items. Terry would hold training meetings with the booksellers. No one could sell like Terry. Tall, stylish, she could talk with equal self-assurance about trashy fiction, self-help or high-tone biography.

Wallace Stegner?

Terry would walk you over to Fiction. She'd hand you Stegner's latest. Let you hold it, take ownership.

"I think you'd like this," she'd say. "It's Stegner at his best. I've read all the other Wallace Stegner books, but this is wonderful and this one's about relationships... It was just my favorite."

Pretty soon the customers would return. That book was great! What else do you have that I might like?

Allen and Terry kept notes on their customers' preferences. When a new book came in, postcards went out. Those solicitations yielded a 90 percent response.

Allen could be as fierce as Terry was engaging. He'd tangle with the sales reps, demanding detailed information before he'd buy a title, insisting on the discounts the chains got.

If you were ill-prepared, he might throw you out, tell you not to come back until you had what he and Terry needed. Then he might call your boss.

Terry asserted herself, too. And she backed Allen totally.

Kelly faces the music

One evening when Kelly was about 13, her dad asked her to come into the living room for a talk. Something was up.

He laid it on the line, quietly, evenly.

"We're thinking about sending you to boarding school if you don't straighten out."

Kelly might have expected something like this. She was getting mediocre grades and fighting frequently with her sister. The final straw had come when she swiped the car. A 13-year-old joy-riding with her friends! Dad had blown a gasket over that.

"There was a silence there, I'll never forget," Kelly recalled.

Kelly couldn't see it, but Allen and Terry were riddled with guilt.

Had the store come between them and their daughter?

"Absolutely," Allen would later recall. "I think it was part of the cause."

But the pattern of their lives, once established was impossible to break. "Every six or eight months, I'd say we're spending too much time" at the store, Terry said. "We don't have enough family time. We're not doing what we need to be doing.

"We'd get home earlier. We'd try not work all day Saturday. We'd try to do something special on Sundays. But it would end up back to where it was because the business kept growing."

"It pulls you back," Allen said. "It pulls you back."

Responding to the ultimatum, Kelly shaped up and improved her grades. She graduated high school and Maryville University.

"She told me later that she really needed that," Terry said. "She wanted to be pulled out of the fray."

The chains pose a threat

By 1980, the Mittelmans had moved to larger quarters in a posher part of Clayton. Their store at 30 North Brentwood had 6,000 square feet.

It proved so successful that they gambled on spin-off bookstores downtown and in west St. Louis County. Neither turned a sizable profit. They also opened contemporary design stores - Metropolis - at Plaza Frontenac and the Galleria. Sales were terrific, but couldn't make up for staggering mall rents. All of them closed.

The setbacks disappointed Terry and Allen, but didn't ruffle them. They still yearned to start something new.

It was a book rep who pointed them in the right direction in 1990.

"I went to this Borders store in Minneapolis," he said. "I think you really need to go see them because they are awesome competition."

Allen's surveillance visit left him feeling queasy. The Minneapolis Borders was by far the biggest bookstore he had seen - 30,000 square feet of books, floor-to-ceiling. He figured it had 150,000 titles - three times as much as his own impressive inventory.

And Borders discounted - 30 percent off New York Times bestsellers, 10 percent off every hardback. Why would anyone want to shop at our store, if they had one of these? Allen asked himself. Because of our sweet personalities?

They could get out of the book business now and find something else to do. They could hang on for a few more years and watch their business wither.

Or they could gamble everything. Again.

Terry and Allen considered expanding their store at the Brentwood site. The store occupied only 30 percent of the building that now houses Ramon's Jalapeno, among other businesses.

Their lease had nine months to run, and they began to negotiate for most of the building. It seemed a simple enough proposition, but the landlords kept raising new issues.

Allen was getting impatient. But it was Terry who got fierce at one session.

"We're not doing this," she said abruptly. "We're leaving. We are out of here."

Allen admired Terry for her guts. But, he wondered, what were they going to do now? They had no place to move.

Since 1969 when the small department store known as Scruggs Vandervoort & Barney closed, the two-story brick box at Hanley and Forsyth had been occupied sporadically. Too large for a shop, too small for a store.

The condition of the interior disgusted Terry and Allen. The first floor had been gutted and stunk of concrete dust. Black paper covered the picture windows, blocking the natural light. If there was some faded glory that could be revived in this old building, it was difficult to detect.

But they had looked everywhere. This was simply the best they could do.

They took out a million-dollar loan from Commerce Bank. They secured it with all their assets, including their beautifully remodeled home near Skinker and Wydown.

As the store tugged at Allen and Terry, it affected decisions great and small.

"You need a bypass operation," Allen's doctor told him.

No way, Allen said. "This is my buying season."

Allen suffered angina pains in 1990 while on a vacation. He had undergone two angioplasties since, neither successful.

"I'm not doing a third angioplasty, Allen," the doctor said. "It's dangerous."

"You do the angioplasty again," Allen replied, "or I'm going somewhere else."

The doctor complied. Allen survived his buying season, then got his bypass in 1991.

His recovery was arduous, but brief. On his first day home, it would take him an hour to summon the strength to use the bathroom or walk down the stairs. But he needed to be back at work. Within a week, he was back at his desk, pawing at the mail.

Terry's recovery proceeded more slowly.

Every night for months afterward, Terry would awaken, lean over, touch Allen, watch his chest rise and fall.

It would have been easy enough to open a book mart or a warehouse facility in the cavernous Scruggs building.

But the Mittelmans wanted to create something stylish, imaginative.

They divided their store into theme rooms - for mysteries, for travel, for gardening, for cooking, for business, for pets. That was a risk because at any time the market might shrink for a category and expand for another. Then you were stuck.

They went ahead anyway, fashioning their mystery room with its wing-back chairs and faux fireplace in such a way that it conjured images of Holmes and Watson. Their travel room evoked a train station with a huge clock and a wooden waiting room bench.

In the second phase of their construction in 1994, they built a 15-foot castle for children's books with a moat containing real fish.

No chain could copy this.

Allen and Terry opened the store without fanfare at 5 p.m. on a Saturday in July 1992. They wanted to break in the equipment and the dozens of new booksellers slowly before launching an advertising campaign the following week.

By 6 p.m., the store was packed not only with book buyers, but gawkers. Customers kept telling Allen and Terry that they had never seen any store so imaginative and yet so comfortable and inviting.

Within months many customers had established a routine. They'd stop by for a paperback, then linger. Maybe they'd run into someone they knew, make an evening of it. They'd leave with an armload of hardcovers, along with that paperback - maybe $50 or $150 worth - feeling it was time and money well spent.

Allen and Terry had hoped for a 33 percent increase in the store's first year. Sales jumped 120 percent.

Their store had become a magnet, drawing not only from Clayton and mid-St. Louis County, but from as far away as Ballwin and Belleville.

To keep people coming, Library Ltd. hosted two or three book signings every week. Political luminaries from Newt Gingrich, to Dan Quayle to Colin Powell to Hillary Clinton. Celebs from Martha Stewart to Gloria Steinem to Christopher Darden. Literati from Frank McCourt to Annie Proulx to Richard Ford.

The Mittelmans fought to get publishers to send every important author to their store. And they were sore losers. When Charlton Heston went elsewhere to promote his autobiography, they blamed the publisher's rep and told him they would no longer do business with him. Later they let him come back, having gotten their message across.

Allen on the prowl

Mary McCarthy, the operations manager at Library Ltd., could sense Allen's presence. It was the walk.

While workers breezed from one department to another with a sense of purpose, and customers browsed aimlessly, Allen would prowl. He'd pad slowly along an aisle check for any volumes askew, stop at a sales table to perfect a display, stoop with a scissors to snip pills out of the carpet, scan the ceiling for burned out bulbs, halt at the cafe to adjust the angle of the display menu, eye the pepper shakers to make sure they're filled.

God is in the details.

McCarthy, brown-haired and green-eyed, looks like a lass you'd imagine in a Maeve Binchy novel.

If she'd go to Allen with a question that Terry needed to be consulted on, he wouldn't give her an answer. "That's a Terry-and-Allen question," he'd say.

"But I need an answer right away."

"Well, you can't have it."

McCarthy occasionally would snap back at Allen. Sometimes long silences would follow.

They had a major row one Christmas, over what Mary can't even remember. She does remember being sick to her stomach over it, scared to come out on the selling floor if Allen was there.

Finally, she went to him in tears, wanting to know how to get back in his good graces. "You can scream and yell at me," she told him. "But this store's too hard to run without you supporting me."

Mary was one of several women managers, all of whom found Allen compelling. He seemed perpetually disatisfied, but then he'd bestow a comp liment and it was inspiring.

Both Allen and Terry treated their employees like a family. They personally picked out Christmas gifts for their managers. Mary and a few of the other managers called them mom and dad.

Mary's identification with the Mittelmans reached absurd proportions one day when she was dealing with an angry customer. He was berating her over what he believed were unsavory books in the children's department. At the top of his list was R.L. Stine's "Goosebumps" series, very hot with pre-adolescents.

"You're nothing but a bunch of Hitlers here," he screeched.

To which Mary McCarthy replied: "Sir, as a Jew, I can't tell you how offensive I find that."

Stepping off the treadmill

The Mittelmans' success did not keep the chains at bay. By 1996, Borders had opened a store in Creve Coeur, was about to open another in Sunset Hills and reportedly had its eye on a development across from the Galleria, just a mile or so from The Library Ltd.

Barnes & Noble had opened three stores, in Ladue, in Des Peres and south St. Louis County.

The Mittelmans could have hung on - probably for years. But business hadn't been very much fun lately. Their store was fully developed. The last piece, Stacks, the coffee bar and restaurant, had opened in 1995.

The daily sales reports were no longer exhilarating. On some days, business was actually down.

The joy had come from building the business, creating new spaces, changing their approaches. Now, running the store left them drained.

Why keep up the 60-hour weeks? They had long ago relinquished the notion that their store would be a legacy their children should perpetuate. Kelly and Samantha needed to find their own way.

They were proud that the trade journals, and even The New York Times, had recognized the Library Ltd. to be one of the best independent stores in the nation, a bulwark against the chains. They could see that customers regarded it as more than a retail establishment - a civic asset.

But they were business people, not martyrs.

For all their married life, Terry felt like she and Allen had been betting on the come, sacrificing time with their children, time for themselves. With nothing exciting to occupy their minds, weariness filled the void.

But could they sell the store? All over the nation, independent stores simply shriveled and died when Borders or Barnes & Noble came into their markets. Here, Paul's Books closed in 1995. City Books in Creve Coeur shuttered a year later.

The Library Ltd. had made itself attractive to would-be buyers because it had expanded early and seized substantial market share. Still, a little luck played a role.

Richmond Heights voters rejected a redevelopment proposal for the site across from the Galleria, shutting out Borders and other businesses for the foreseeable future.

Not long after, Borders took an interest Library Ltd.

On the day their attorney was closing the deal with Borders, Allen walked around the store distracted, his hands moist. He and Terry had begun to distance themselves from the store. Would they offer enough to guarantee an early and comfortable retirement?

The phone rang. Allen grabbed it, then wrote the number down on a piece of paper for Terry.

Yes, it was going to happen.

What's more, Borders said they wanted to keep their name on the store. It would remain The Library Ltd. Among Borders' more than 150 superstores nationwide, it would be one of a kind.

A loss for Sam; a win for Kelly

Samantha and Kelly reacted differently when they got the news.

Sam was disappointed her parents were giving up the store. She'd held court in the cafe three nights a week, schmoozing, studying, treating her friends to drinks.

But having mom and dad at home now isn't bad either. Mom's helping her worry about college applications. Dad seems more relaxed. They worked hard, they deserved a break.

And Kelly's first thought? "I've won."

All that misery, all that time spent listening to her parents' anxiety over the store's ups and downs. She'd never have to listen to Mary McCarthy call her parents mom and dad again. That had bugged her.

Still, they were moving to California. They'll be even farther away. Maybe she'll move out there to be with them.

Then again, probably not.

She's got a good job with an ad agency in town. In her spare time, she 's been managing an alternative band, "Freeze The Hopper." They've cut a CD, played Mississippi Nights. Someday, who knows, Kiel Center. She wants to go right to the top with this group - build something wonderful like her mom and dad.

Their winter of discontent

When Borders' executives met with the Library Ltd. staff, they said they wanted to keep not only the name but the magic.

But from the time Borders managers arrived on the scene they seemed to tiptoe around Terry and Allen to ask advice of subordinates.

Who do they think created the magic? Allen wondered.

When they handed over the store to Borders a month later, the Mittelmans vowed to stay away. Let them do what they want with the place. Why should they care?

But they did go back, several times.

In December, they went for some gift wrap.

Once inside, they parted, Allen headed for the cookbooks. Terry wandered over to the art books.

Nobody noticed them. By then, most of the managers and many of booksellers who worked for Terry and Allen had left. The Mittelmans were just another couple of customers.

Except one of these customers was crying.

When Terry walked into the art room, she saw dust. She saw stacks of books piled on the floor. She saw shelf space wasted, too few volumes face out. She saw that someone had run off new category signs on a copier and then taped them over the shiny lettering atop the bookshelves.

Terry saw no sense in what had been done to this room. Nor for that matter in the entire store.

She spun around, found Allen and they left. They have returned once more since then. But they've since vowed to stay away. "It's too painful," Allen says.

On another December day, Terry awakened at 9 a.m. Allen was still asleep. It was raining, the temperature was in the 30s, gloomy. That made it a treadmill day. After that? Well, there was lunch with mom. Then? Not much else.

Sometimes she likes that emptiness. She'll spend all day reading a Dick Francis book, sitting first in one room, then another.

She'll do the little errands she's never had much time for - going to the bank, the grocery store. Before she retired, she'd go for months without ever setting foot in Schnucks.

Life used to be really crazy at Christmas. She'd get up at 5 a.m., fire up the computer and place restocking orders before heading to the store.

Now she can sleep late, do just about anything she pleases. She's helping Make A Wish Foundation find corporate donors. She and Allen travel - to London, to Chicago, to Santa Monica to look at more houses. They're taking cooking classes, tennis lessons. A personal trainer comes once a week to coax them through workouts on their home gym.

This is what they worked toward for 27 years. And yet sometimes it's uncomfortable. She thinks she should be doing something.

Yes, she admits sometimes that she misses the store. It was her baby.

Allen rises after Terry. He's always liked to sleep late. He wanders around the house a while, turns on the financial news. He watches lots of movies and he takes long walks in Forest Park.

He's killing time, really. Once they find a home in California they'll start life anew, though he's not sure what that means. He could sell stocks, he supposes, but then he'd have to make cold calls, go to dinner with people. Charity? He could see making some donations, but volunteer work doesn't interest him.

And, no, he doesn't want to throw himself back into another enterprise. He doesn't have the energy. Yet he's restless.

And sometimes on his walks around Forest Park, he will ask himself, "Allen, is this it? Is this how it's going to be?"

An early spring

For the first time in what seems like weeks the sun shines. A flock of chickadees creates a racket outside the Mittelmans' front door.

Allen and Terry sit at their breakfast table in their spotless kitchen in their immaculate home fairly bubbling over with plans.

They've put a bid in on a house in Santa Monica. It doesn't have the view they wanted but it speaks to them. Warm and contemporary. They could tell the builder had been considerate of the details. Even the door handles feel right, Allen says.

They've put away their gloom, given up thinking so much about what Borders has done to their store.

"We may go live in Paris for six months," Terry says. "Take great courses at UCLA. Go to wine tasting classes, cooking classes."

All of this, they realize, came at a cost. No close friends. A lingering unease over how the store affected their family. The sense that their great achievment is a sand castle that the tides are washing away.

And yet, they accomplished exactly what they set out to do.

"I still have highs when I think about it," Allen says.

He can hardly believe how far he's come from the streets of New York, how the adages of sacrifice, hard work and enterprise really seemed to work in his case.

"It happened," he says. "It really did."

One thing Allen knows for sure it wouldn't have happened without Terry. Nor, Terry says, could it have happened for her without him.

So what endures after the giving up and the getting is this: their own society of two.