A Society of Two

Terry and Allen Mittelman built the Library Ltd. from a tiny bookstore to a $10-million enterprise with an uncompromising, all-out approach to retailing and life. Now that they've sold the store and gotten rich, their challenge is to re-create a life that will hold for them even half the fascination.

Allen and Terry Mittelman stood on the pool deck peering into a canyon. A moist breeze, sweet with the scent of bougainvillea embraced them.Their eyes swept past treetops and craggy cliffs to a stable that belongs to the J. Paul Getty estate. They looked west toward the horizon.

"I wish it was clear," said real estate agent Chris Morrow. "You can see Catalina, Santa Monica, the ocean."

"You give me that schtick all the time," Allen growls good-naturedly.

Then they turned back toward the house, which presents itself on four levels in a riot of geometrical shapes. Six bathrooms, four-car garage, home theater, a marble Jacuzzi that capitalizes on the canyon view. List price: $2.6 million.

The home is one of dozens the Mittelmans have looked at since last July. That's when they sold their bookstore in Clayton - The Library Ltd. - and got rich.

They looked at three other houses that Labor Day weekend. There was one in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's old neighborhood with a $40,000 lighting system, a grotto off the guest bathroom, an outdoor waterfall that spills into a heated pool, and a private hiking trail. There was another in a gated community done compulsively, elaborately, in the Art Deco style, down to the door knobs and toilet paper holder.

None of these houses suited the Mittelmans, who are looking not only for a residence, but an exquisite reflection of themselves. It must be stylish, well-designed, meticulous in its construction and materials.

This is the lifetime achievement award the Mittelmans are giving themselves. For gambling boldly on a vision. For building a world-class bookstore. For sacrificing a well-rounded life to do it.

In 1970, Terry and Allen poured their savings into opening a tiny, 1,700-square-foot nook that barely paid expenses. By July 1, 1997, when they sold their store to Borders Group, it was among the largest independents in the nation, grossing $10 million annually.

But their achievement isn't about the house or the money, Allen and Terry insist. That's just a way of keeping score.

No, this is about those eternal American values - dreams, hard work, attention to detail. "God is in the details," Allen says.

It's about taking on the bookstore chains, beating them at their own game, and walking away with a lot of their money. Never mind how much.

It's about feeling a surge of joy when you place a heavy bet on a title and watch it blow out the door by the hundreds. When you find your customers taking their out-of-town guests on a tour as if your store is a wonder of the world. When you pick up the daily sales report to find that, yes, you've topped yourself again.

And though you came by it in different ways, it's about sharing with your spouse a craving for success. For Allen, the yearning sprouted from a childhood both materially and emotionally impoverished; for Terry, from an upbringing that was just a little too pat.

As with most cravings, other things would take a back seat - friends, relaxation, health, sometimes the kids.At times Allen and Terry would feel themselves losing perspective. They'd take a step back. Try to bang their lives back into some kind of balance.

But then they'd find themselves plunging in again. Together. As they must.

Allen seeks a better life

Terry and Allen. Who would've pegged them as a pair? At 5-foot-8, she's two inches taller than he. At 61, he's nine years older than she. Though they are both Jewish, they came from different worlds.

He grew up in the '40s in a tenement a few stumbles away from New York's Bowery. An only child, his parents told him they found him in a trash can - their little joke, oft repeated.

Allen could walk down Second Avenue just a few blocks from his home and see the good life. High rises with doormen, elevators and balconies. That's where Allen wanted to live.

Not in the seedy, red-brick building that he shared with his parents, grandparents and a boarder. Not where he had to sidestep Bowery drunks in the landings, trudge up and down 55 steps every single day, listen to the Third Avenue El thunder past his bedroom window every five or 10 minutes, all day, all night.

They might have had it better. Allen's father suffered from circulatory ailments that short-circuited his ambitions. After age 50, he sat around the house, played cards with his buddies, lost most of the time.

Allen sometimes felt ashamed of his father, especially after listening to him mewling with Violet over money.

"Sol, I want you to go the cleaners.

"I need $25."

"Why do you need $25? It sounds like it's $15 to me."

"Can't I have any money to live on? Can't I breathe?"

Sol Mittelman was hard to figure. He could be sweet and supportive to Allen at times, or he could be ill-tempered and mean.

Allen started playing cards when he was 13. Penny-ante stuff in the beginning, but it wasn't long before he was playing men for several hundred dollars a hand.

Unlike his dad, he won. He was so good his partners would quit playing with him. So he'd look for another game, and another. Allen loved pitting his guts and guile against the next guy. It was a need, like a drug. And it would take a while for him to quiet that craving.

If Allen's father was unpredictable, his grandfather was a constant. Sam Bonder ran a hand laundry. He worked from morning until well into the night, coming home smelling of starch.

Allen didn't know which provided the more powerful motivation: his grandfather finding satisfaction in busting his tail or his father sitting around without a purpose.

One thing for sure, nobody would work any harder than Allen.

Terry breaks out

Allen met Terry at Abraham & Strauss, the giant Brooklyn-based department store. He started in cosmetics and then ran the book department. Terry worked in handbags and hosiery.

What was Terry Gidlow doing so far from home?

She grew up in the '50s in neat, tranquil University City, then moved upscale to Ladue Estates Drive in Creve Coeur. As the only daughter, among three children, she was adored. Terry's dad, Elmer Gidlow, would take the first bite out of the apple to spare her delicate teeth.

Selma Gidlow was a stay-at-home mom who played cards and mah-jong and did a little volunteer work. Elmer made a good living buying, rehabbing and reselling homes. He would take his eldest son, Jerome, with him as he talked with contractors and made his deals.

It never occurred to the Gidlows that Terry might find her calling in business.

Teaching would be a nice profession for Terry. She could have a job that ended at 3 or 4 o'clock, get home in time to meet the kids when they returned from school. She could have her summers off. It was a nice, safe place to be.

Terry started in that direction, taking education courses at the University of Oklahoma. Bored, she enrolled in Washington University's business school. In the mid '60s, she was among its few women students.

Professors kidded her, saying she was husband-shopping. Terry didn't see the humor in that.

One day, after she walked into class late with another male student, the professor with the bow tie and booming voice stopped his lecture. He asked her in front of everyone if the two had been frolicking in the park. Ha, ha. Why, she wondered, hadn't he asked the male student that question?

Afterward she told the professor she would never attend his class again. She would do the work and take the tests. He had better give her the grade she earned.

He did. After graduation, to her family's bewilderment, Terry took off on her own for London for a few months, then moved to New York.

Retailing wins their hearts

Terry and Allen fell hard for retailing, then for each other.

Imagine a Famous-Barr store, only bigger, busier, teeming with humanity. That was Abraham & Strauss' Brooklyn store. During the Christmas season, it would take Allen and Terry 15 minutes just to make their way from one end of the store to the other to get their lunch.

This was New York, so they worked with many people who were competitive, short-tempered, sometimes plain rude. Take Mrs. Pollack, the head handbag buyer, abrupt and demanding.

Why hadn't Terry brought up the purses from the receiving department?

"Well, there aren't anymore there, Mrs. Pollack."

"You are the laziest girl I've ever seen."

But you could learn from people like Mrs. Pollack. She had an uncanny sense for knowing what people would buy. At times, she had customers storming the counters to get her handbags.

Both Allen and Terry picked up the knack. As a book buyer for A&S, Allen laid a heavy bet on so-called shape books - books in the shape of a shoe that helped toddlers learn how to tie a bow; books in the shape of a clock that taught them how to tell time.

Allen found 30,000 of these books sitting on pallets in a New York publisher's warehouse with nowhere to go. He got them at a huge discount - 25 cents a piece - and had them delivered to A&S.

The books were set out on display tables not just in the book department, but all over the store. Two for $1.

Some of the managers questioned why so much display space had been given over to these silly books. But after the doors opened they couldn't refill those tables fast enough.

Allen found it thrilling. Who needed cards?

By the time Allen and Terry met, Allen had been married twice to the same woman. It was tempestuous thing, and Allen was not ready to commit.

"I'm not getting married," he told Terry before their first date. Didn't faze her.

He once made a wisecrack about her weight. She threw a shoe at him.

Spunky, he thought

Terry, then 22, found Allen funny, ironic, magnetic.

And absurdly tidy. When Terry opened his dresser drawers one day, she found his shirts arranged by color - pinks, blues and whites. He folded and rotated his shorts, so one wouldn't wear out any faster than the other.

They worked zealously at A&S, but on Sundays, they'd head out to the 8th Street Deli, pick up some bagels, fresh lox and cream cheese, the New York Times and head back to the apartment. They'd read, watch television, enjoy one another's conversation.

They didn't have many close friends then. They would have fewer still once their business enveloped their lives. Already they were becoming, as an employee would later say, a society of two.

Opening to yawns

They might have opened a hosiery store in 1970.

Terry and Allen were keen for books, but they were not what people in the industry call book people. Not like Barry Leibman at Left Bank Books in the Central West End or Paul and Suzanne Schoomer of Paul's Books in University City.

Paul said he wanted to share his favorite books with his friends and neighbors. Barry, a former Peace Corps volunteer and inner city school teacher, said he and his partners wanted their store to be part of the city's cultural landscape.

Terry and Allen wanted to build a business. And St. Louis, more manageable than New York, beckoned as the place to start.

Pantyhose were trendy - they were starting to sell in those plastic eggshells. But Terry and Allen settled on books.

They opened their first store at 7538 Forsyth Boulevard on Aug. 1, 1970. The space wasn't very large, nor was it all that well-situated, across a busy street from the Famous-Barr parking garage. But it was in Clayton, among the educated gentry. And Washington University was nearby.

The Mittelmans hired an architect to design their store, Howard Koblenz. Working with just a small space, Koblenz managed to give the place an airy feeling. He carved a children's book section out of a storeroom. Framed prints - Chagall, Mondrian, Matisse - lined the walls above the books.

Allen and Terry treated the books like art objects as well. They turned every book face-out on the shelves so the customers could drink in the cover.

But in those first few weeks, hardly anyone came in. Terry's mom, Selma, would stand outside the store using eye contact to implore passersby to stop and at least browse. Allen sometimes dozed at the cash register.

They had invested their savings in this place - $40,000 - and a day's receipts would total $35.

Finally, something clicked.

Maybe it was the day when the wife of an important attorney for Anheuser-Busch walked into the store looking for the curly-headed foreigner. That was Allen, with his pronounced New York accent. She wanted his recommendation for a book, because a friend had loved the book he had recommended to her. Word-of-mouth was kicking in.

By Christmas, sales reached $1,000 a day. In a year's time, Allen and Terry were making their expenses and talking about expanding.

The store as sibling

In the 1970s, a cohort of women engaged in a great social experiment - holding jobs and raising children. Terry joined in on Sept. 27, 1972, when she gave birth to Kelly.

On the following day, Terry had Allen bring her work from the office. It was the end of the month and the bills had to go out to their credit customers.

That was a little obsessive, Terry realized. But someone had to do it. When Samantha was born seven years later, on a Wednesday, Terry went back to work on Friday.

Incredulous, her mother asked, "Why didn't you just have the baby in a field!"

Women of the '70s could pull this off. Terry found a solid babysitter-housekeeper to handle the homefront. At the store, employee Joan DeMayo embraced the children, entertained them and took them shopping.

Terry made sure to get home at 5 o'clock to for dinner with the kids. Both she and Allen attended numerous school functions. Staffers knew that they could always interrupt her phone calls or meetings if it was about the kids.

To the youngest, Samantha, who grew up sunny and independent, her parents' obsession with their business was only occasionally bothersome and entirely understandable. She liked all the books, loved the staff.

To Kelly, mercurial and dramatic, the bookstore was the favored fair-haired sibling who could do no wrong.

So Kelly would lay a guilt-trip on her parents. She'd tell her friends who had stay-at-home moms that she was adopted. She'd interrupt Terry and Allen's conversation at the dinner table. "Can't you people talk about anything but the store," she'd yelp.

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