“Wynken, Blynken, and Nod?” calls a woman, standing in the doorway of Kaleidoscope Books & Collectibles on Fourth Ave. “Check next week!” owner Jeff Pickell shouts back.
Pickell (pronounced pick-ELL) fields the question, about a picture book based on the soothing childhood poem, while scooping up armloads of books to stock the half-off table outside. When the table is ready, Pickell, sixty-five, leaves his cubbyhole in the center of the store to sit outside, a casual but striking figure in his dark sunglasses, black shirt, and curiously patterned gray tie.
A Groundcover Newsvendor stops to leaf through a lavishly illustrated copy of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen (the basis for the hit movie Frozen). “My granddaughter would love that!” she says, adding that she will call her daughter to come in and buy it. “It will be gone by the end of the day,” Pickell warns. A guy in his twenties grins as he hands out $10 for a history of comic books.
Another young man shyly approaches Pickell with a bag of books. He inherited them from his grandfather and wants to sell them. To his disappointment, Pickell isn’t interested in most of them. A used book’s value, he tells the would-be seller, is determined by some simple rules: “How many people want a particular book. The book’s condition. How many copies are available.” A 1950s printing of Joseph Conrad’s Victory is just not in demand, he explains, and neither is that long-ago best seller Cimarron, by Edna Ferber. Pickell does show mild interest in an early copy of the classic children’s book Where the Wild Things Are but says he needs to check online to see what edition it is.
Pickell gains many of the books he sells through such walk-ins. More come from a couple of people who troll for him on commission, buying at library and estate sales. Though he doesn’t specialize in high-end vintage books, there have been some big-ticket items. A second-printing copy of Gone With the Wind that went for $4,500. A first edition of The Wizard of Oz fetched $3,000 and would have brought much more, he says, in better condition. Soon after he opened Kaleidoscope in 1990, he sold a first edition of Catcher in the Rye for $600. “Today, it would go for $25,000.”
Pickell’s most passionate customers are, like him, baby boomers—the 77 million postwar kids raised on TV and beneficiaries of postwar affluence.
“The boomers are the most nostalgic of all generations,” says Pickell, who’s placed a three-foot cutout of Dick and Jane in the store’s window. In print from the 1930s to the 1970s, the early-reader books “were very dull,” Pickell says, but “I get a lot of requests for them.” He thinks that’s because Dick and Jane reside in a “sanitized world. It was a world where America was very safe. People looked out for you.” In an era when people can’t even get on an airplane without being scanned for weapons, he says, “that safe world of Dick and Jane provides a refuge.”
Besides Dick and Jane, boomers also collect the Little Golden Books their parents read to them as preschoolers; the Archie comics and Mad magazines they devoured as teens; and memorabilia from Star Trek, which has been seeking out new worlds since 1966. But, like Pickell, those customers are aging. In time, he suspects, demand for their favorite books and collectibles will also diminish. But he’s not worried that books themselves will disappear. “A lot of young people who come in still love the feel of a book rather than a tablet,” he says. “Because of that, I have faith that the reading public will remain steady.”
The demand for the Harry Potter books, he recalls, was like nothing he’d witnessed. Potters still sell well, even though J.K. Rowling completed the series eight years ago. And movie tie-ins reliably bring in customers. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novels were gathering dust until the Leonardo DiCaprio version of The Great Gatsby hit the screen. “People even wanted to read things like This Side of Paradise—a book nobody’s read for generations!” Pickell exclaims. The bookseller, who describes himself as “opinionated,” is not a Fitzgerald fan. His own tastes run to mysteries and science fiction. He owns—but won’t sell—early editions of greats like Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury.
Many book lovers dream of owning a store, but pulling it off is another matter. Pickell had been working at the former Huron Services for Youth when his wife, Deborah Greene, lost her job at the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre; she suggested he finally follow his dream, with her working as clerk. Pickell’s personal collections of books, postcards, and other memorabilia were so extensive he didn’t need to buy stock. Before long he quit his job to run the store, while Greene found work at U-M (she’s now a public affairs rep).
Born in Brooklyn and raised in Long Island, Pickell caught the collecting bug from his mother, an interior decorator and antique collector (his father was an accountant). Pickell read voraciously as a youngster, while also developing talents in drama, singing, and sports. At Harpur College (now Binghamton University), he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education and starred in racquetball. A onetime anti-war activist, he channeled his idealism into teaching and counseling, using stories and drama to reach troubled kids in a day care program; he later moved into administration.
After his first marriage ended in divorce, he took his brother’s suggestion to try sales, first visiting Ann Arbor in 1981 as a rep for Lee jeans. His brother, who stayed in retail, wound up as a top exec at Macy’s, but, while Pickell showed a flair for marketing, after a year he knew corporate life was not for him.
By then, though, Pickell had fallen in love with Ann Arbor, and decided to stay. He and Greene married in 1986; their son Isaac writes and publishes zines while applying to creative writing grad programs; he also helped run the business after Pickell suffered heart trouble last year. Greene, too, has recently experienced health issues, but the couple have been heartened by the support of customers and friends. The morning I visited, Pickell’s landlords, Olga and Peter Bilakos, stopped by to inquire solicitously how Greene was doing—in February, she took a terrible fall on the ice. “She’s in rehab and doing well,” Pickell reports. “She’s one of the great troupers of all time.”
Kaleidoscope was originally on State St., but when its lease was up in 2008 Pickell’s landlord wanted to double his rent. Instead, he moved to Fourth Ave.—he calls the Bilakoses “the best landlords in the world.”
This September, Kaleidoscope will celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary. Pickell was both touched and amused recently when an adult customer told him, “I used to come here when I was three years old.” His store that specializes in nostalgia, he says, has itself become “a mini-mart of personal experiences.”