Let the Buyer Beware: Bookstore Caveat Emptor Will Not Go Quietly Into That Good Night

Justin Dimos

Thirty-seven years and still going: Justin Dimos dissects Bloomington's historical secondhand bookstore.

The Heart

Located in the thriving hub of downtown Bloomington, Caveat Emptor faces the historic courthouse square, a lighthouse of literary hope in an otherwise raging digital sea. Tonight, you can be certain, as the last beams of sunset spill through the front window, owner and manager Janis Starcs will shelve the latest of his precious finds before switching off the lights and closing shop, his evening ritual of the last 37 years.

For now, Caveat Emptor sleeps, but tomorrow morning, this used bookstore will spring to life yet again, welcoming scholars, professors, graduate students, and even some budding undergrads from Indiana University, all destined to achieve the wrinkled foreheads of serious thinkers.

Browsing the stacks 10 feet large, breathing in the musty aroma of history and fermented factoids, Hoosiers of all walks recognize the impact this little secondhand haven has made on both the community and its development.

One thing's dead certain: This Midwestern city would have gone into literary arrest decades ago if not for Caveat Emptor's circulation, pumping classics throughout the Bloomington bloodstream.

Diagnosis Bloomington

Home of Indiana University, which contains the famous Kinsey Institute, the revered Kelly School of Business and the nationally-ranked Jacobs School of Music, Bloomington is a city that is constantly poised for the future.

Even its renowned bike race, the Little 500, made famous by the popular movie Breaking Away, primarily concerns itself with looking ahead and speeding into greatness.

But Bloomington is more than just a school and a race. Nowadays, modern punks gather in basements for crunk shows and throwback psychedelic rock; over-caffeinated intellectuals steal cigarettes outside coffeehouses, gabbing about philosophy and significant others; those more in tune with nature plan hikes around Griffy Lake, while the more metropolitan types bike fixed-gears to the watering hole of their choice.

And to be honest, not much has changed in that regard since Caveat Emptor opened its doors. Back in June of 1971, when Starcs and a few of his fellow history buffs realized there hadn't been a quality secondhand bookstore in Bloomington since the early 1950s, an idea lodged itself into their young minds. Could a few 20-something thinkers who had recently rebelled against academia open a used bookstore that would not only quench their thirst for knowledge, but offer their fellow Bloomingtonites quality literature at an inexpensive price as well?

Indeed, they could, and did. Now, all they needed was a name, one that described the rampant consumerism times in which they lived as well as their mission to safeguard quality books.

Remember this was 1971, and newsrooms all over the globe were explaining how Ralph Nader had just founded the Public Citizen, an organization that helped maintained fair democracy and consumer advocacy. Eventually, after an exhausting powwow, the team decided on the name Caveat Emptor, from the Latin, meaning "Let the Buyer Beware." Not only did their choice speak to the fearful atmosphere of America in the early '70s, but it also sent an important message that Bloomington had nothing to fear of them. Caveat Emptor had no secrets when it came to books, and the last thing Starcs and the other founders wanted was to cheat people out of learning.

Patient Janis Starcs

Kicking back behind the counter, eyes closed and enjoying his latest classical music purchase, Janis Starcs is the epitome of a used bookstore owner. He wears bifocals and a graying beard that gives him a Socratic appearance. As you enter, he may even greet you with a mild-mannered hello or gentle nod before he slips back into his chair and returns to Beethoven.

Born in 1943 Latvia, Starcs and his family immigrated to Indianapolis seven years later. In high school, regularly donning a beret, he and his gang of intellectuals devoted considerable time rummaging the shelves of Capital Bookstore, Starcs already headed down the road to becoming a bookstore owner himself.

Shortly thereafter, Starcs arrived at Indiana University, where he chased footnotes from one first edition to the next in the library stacks, before he soon realized he had amassed a great number of incompletes. At this point, academia had started leaving a sour taste in his mouth, and an eventual professorship in history seemed not only unlikely, but more a bleak future as well.

Almost four decades have passed, and Starcs has never second guessed his decision to open Caveat Emptor, nor his choice to remain in Bloomington. Either he can walk to his nearby apartment after work, or he can attend whatever free musical performance ensues at the IU Musical Arts Center. "Bloomington's my little corner of paradise," Starcs says. "I couldn't think of a better place to live."

These days, he underwrites for the WFUI program Harmonia, which broadcasts weekly on Thursday 9pm EST, and he acts as a board member for the Bloomington Early Music Festival. All things considered, life is good.

The Circulatory System

As soon as you pass the threshold into Caveat Emptor and you're confronted by the towers of obscure books, you may not fully understand how Starcs runs his topnotch bookstore, but there's definitely a method to his madness.

It's a straightforward process, as it's always been with used booksellers. Former students, collectors, thrifters, retiring professors, whomever, can lug in their used books, and Starcs himself will shuffle through them one by one, searching for anything he's fairly certain will sell. Of course, he passes on the even the most current Danielle Steel, meanwhile devouring your editions of Faulkner and Elliot. Once in a blue moon, however, he pulls from someone's box a rare literary gem, such as his first edition of Kerouac's On the Road, now housed in Caveat Emptor's display case, tagged with an initial bidding of $3,900.00.

Since Starcs does all the buying, he keeps what you might call a mental inventory, so he has a good sense of what his customers are looking for, but even he is learning about the bookselling biz. "You have to keep an ear open," Starcs says. "It isn't always obvious what books people want."

Nowadays, for instance, you see parents flocking inside, inquiring about an early edition of a children's book from their youth, having want to read the same tale to their kids.

To keep himself supplied with product, Starcs rummages the local sales as well. In the spring, he attends the Annual IU Library Sale, and in the autumn, he makes his way to the Red Cross Sale, constantly imbuing Bloomington with replenished literary lifeblood.

Triple Bypass

Truth be told, Caveat Emptor didn't always make its home on the prosperous courthouse square. Their first location found them on Bloomington's 4th Street, an avenue now overrun with cozy ethnic restaurants. Starting out, Starcs and his compatriots also pedaled more than just used books in order to make ends meet. Stacked anywhere the owners might scrounge some space were all manner of artistic endeavors -- records, posters, cards, even this year's recent edition immediately parked beside lasts.

By the late '70s, however, Starcs had stockpiled a serious inventory of vintage books and first editions, enough to sell the more contemporary business end to White Rabbit, a novelty store at the time and popular destination for freshmen seeking decorations for their dorm rooms.

With more books than ever before, relocation became both necessary and inevitable. By the time the '80s hit, Starcs and the crew had packed up shop and migrated to a house on Dunn Street, a stone's throw from the Monroe County Library. Again, for years, fortune smiled on Caveat Emptor, that is until 1991, when the landlord raised the rent. And they thought, might as well move downtown for these rates.

The Transplant

It's a tale as old as time -- menacing landlord raises the rates, and local independent establishments drown in the undertow. But Starcs and his current business partner, Don Wilds, longstanding owner of Bloomington's comic book store Vintage Phoenix, refused to surrender. Hell if they were going to pay downtown prices and remain where they were. Together, Starcs and Wild pooled together their claim to Caveat Emptor and made a decision, one that landed them in the heart of downtown, solidifying their rightful place within Bloomington for more than 17 years to date.

As the years have snowballed into decades and the infrastructure of downtown Bloomington has been revitalized, Starcs has witnessed the various generations come and go, all from his perch behind the counter. Faces he hasn't seen for years, though still familiar, will return with boyish enthusiasm, reminiscing over their youth, the hours they spent thumbing through classics.

But times have changed. Their bread and butter clientele may remain graduate students and the keen undergrad, but as Caveat Emptor has become somewhat of a brand and a permanent fixture of Bloomington, now you can find parents, alumni, visiting faculty, and collectors from around the world scanning the shelves for that serendipitous treasure. "We've become a destination now," Starcs says. "Parents and alumni make a point of coming here. They remember the store, and they remember the name."

A New Lease on Life

But as the Internet makes information and entertainment available with little more than the click of a mouse, what does the future hold for Caveat Emptor?

Secondhand bookstore owners may tremble slightly as they gaze into the crystal ball of literature, but having recently negotiated a 10-year renewal on his current lease, Starcs is confident about his place in Bloomington.

Of course, the mystique of classic books and the rustic charm of Caveat Emptor cannot be snuffed out so easily. For as long as there is history, curious individuals will return to the used bookstore. Where else can one be transported through space and time to the treasure trove of profound ideas and timeless characters, all folded within a carefully hand-engraved cover. As Starcs himself says, "It's always an adventure when you walk into a used bookstore."

Titles are constantly cycling throughout communities, and Caveat Emptor is undoubtedly Bloomington's heart of hearts, pumping books into the bloodstream of the ever-evolving Bloomington organism.

Despite my own immersion in the digital era, this Midwesterner for one hopes that he can return in another 37 years, browse the aisles just as he did when he attended university, all the while listening for the soft echo of his curious footsteps as he first discovered his appreciation for the classic book.

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