Hawley-Cooke Booksellers’ Ship Has Sailed

Posted: August 27th, 2003 | Filed under: Culture, Features | 2 Comments »

Graham Cooke is not one to dally when in business mode. He was his usual scurrying self when encountered in his office last Monday afternoon. Then, turning his chair away from the computer screen, he offered, “I can give you a couple of minutes.”

It was not a normal business day. Just a day earlier, he, along with the three other Hawley-Cooke Booksellers’ owners — his wife, Martha Neal Cooke, Bill Schuetze and his ex, Audrey Beach Schuetze — had closed on the sale to Borders Books.

Cooke was in his office, but he was no longer the boss.

On that first day without portfolio, he reflected on the front page news that shocked many thousands of the Louisville institution’s loyal customers. “It was absolutely the right thing to do under the circumstances.”

Mid-chat he took a call from a company employee. At the end of that brief conversation, he asked for another employee, adding ruefully, “Not that she has to listen to me anymore.”

This was not the scenario envisioned by Cooke and cohort, Bill Schuetze. By the mid-’70s, they had been attorneys for several years, practicing at the Legal Aid Society. Like many toiling barristers, they realized early on that they would be happier doing something else. Schuetze is the proud son of a merchant. His father was the haberdasher in a small Wisconsin town. “One of the finest men’s stores in the Midwest,” he boasts. Cooke’s father, also a businessman, owned a car dealership.

They contemplated a way to leave the law, considering various opportunities. One was to open an Earth Shoe store. Another possibility was a pizza franchise called My Pie. Cooke described another: “Bill dragged me down to Birmingham to look at some flea market concept. In less than five minutes, I knew that wasn’t it.”

In the autumn of ’76, Schuetze, in Ann Arbor for a football game, walked into — here’s some symmetrical irony — the original Borders Book Shop. He knew immediately that was their ticket.

Cooke: “When Bill got back he told me. I called Borders that day. We went up there not knowing anything. We didn’t realize it was started by Louisvillians. We didn’t know they had a distributorship. We did know it was what we wanted.”

Hawley-Cooke opened in June 1978. From the start, it was done right — honest prices, a welcoming atmosphere — and soon the store evolved into a local landmark. Despite pitfalls along the way, dedication, hard work and fair dealing paid off. Hawley-Cooke became as beloved a local business as any.

The town had a warm place to meet and great favorite writers — Ollie North and Charlton Heston, Dickie V. and Ricky P., and plenty of real authors, too. The then-First Lady briefly stopped by once on a book tour though contractually obligated to Barnes & Noble.

Hawley-Cooke was a grand example of the American Dream.

Notwithstanding the economic realities — the big get bigger, thanks to “volume discounts,” “economies of scale,” predatory pricing and lax enforcement of anti-trust laws — Hawley-Cooke survived and prospered, embedding itself in the helix of Louisville’s DNA.

As the century jetted to a close, the rules changed. People started buying from catalogs. Then they began shopping on the Internet. Stores like Borders swallowed the pill that makes you larger. And larger. And larger.

So much for an even playing field in our great democracy. So much for the American Dream.

During the most recent “Harry Potter” publication craze, despite buying cases of the novel in advance, Hawley-Cooke ran out. Bill Schuetze went to Sam’s Club. He bought copies at retail to resell. His cost was less than he paid wholesale from his distributor.

In this land where behemoths like Wal-Mart now own the American Dream, Hawley-Cooke’s premature end became inevitable. “Sure, we might have done some business things differently,” says Graham Cooke. “But it was never about business. It was lifestyle. Family. Kids.”

“Gosh, we’ve made so many friends,” sighs Martha Neal Cooke.

Some may say, So what, that’s life, it’s business, happens every day.

I say we’ve lost a grand and glorious friend. I say the fabric of our community has been shredded. I say the American Dream is in shambles.

Last Monday night Bill Schuetze could hardly talk. Standing on the shore, spent from battling the tide, he watched the ship he helped build, then captain, sail away.

Bill Schuetze, proud son of a merchant, reflected: “It’s just a different landscape today than when we started. My dad’s store, Schuetze’s of Monroe, it’s a piercing parlor now.”

2 Comments on “Hawley-Cooke Booksellers’ Ship Has Sailed”

  1. 1 Marsha White said at 10:41 am on March 26th, 2009:

    This is an old story, but I thought I’d post some news. The scuttlebutt online is that Border’s is in serious trouble.

    If you saw some yellow discount tags of 30% off DVDs and CDs in your local Borders store this past weekend, it’s a sign that they’re closing out those sections except for stores that are top sellers of DVDs and CDs. This according to tips from alleged Border’s employees to Consumerist.com.

    Border’s CFO left in January–also never a good sign.

    This morning (3-26-09), the Detroit Free Press reported that Borders is facing being delisted from the New York Stock Exchange.

    CEO Ron Marshall is hosting a conference call with analysts and investors next week. Should be interesting to say the least, but unless something miraculous occurs this week, Border’s may be ready to file Chapter 11, be purchased by Barnes and Noble, or go out of business.

  2. 2 Eugene V. said at 9:36 pm on July 18th, 2011:

    This is the top result for “Hawley Cooke booksellers.” Couldn’t resisting searching Google, now that Borders is down for the count.

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