It is a bittersweet sight — the “dollar book” table is now the “free book” table and the textbooks are dwindling since Lyle Fitzgerald is no longer accepting more.
I spoke with him in between customers. Fitzgerald has been the owner of Books Unlimited for 33 years and has seen many faces come and go.
The store has been a staple of many university students’ lives — going in to drop off and pick up fresh textbooks and having a quick chat with Fitzgerald. He says he will miss talking to people about their day, their favourite science fiction book or what they’re learning in class. For years, he has gotten to see campus life from a different angle than most.
“You’ll have someone come in and then four months later, you’ll see someone [else] with the exact same problem,” Fitzgerald said fondly.
The gradual movement to online textbooks has necessitated the closing of the store. The requirement of many classes to purchase online access codes has been destroying the used book market, for both students and shops like Fitzgerald’s.
“From what I’ve heard from publishers, in the next year or two there isn’t going to be any textbooks; everything is going to be online,” he said. “Unfortunately, bookstores period are just dying. You just don’t have many left. And that’s just too sad.”
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Fitzgerald was worried about being bored in retirement, but now he is ready to have the free time, and maybe a warm vacation once life starts going back to normal. He takes a novel with him everywhere, even after all the years spent reading at the shop, and says that will not change anytime soon.
“I enjoy my time off, doing power walks and exercise. I’m really looking forward to it,” Fitzgerald said. “This was a good business to have. Lots of access to books, and when I was done, I’d just put them on the shelves… They’re like old friends.”
There is the question of what will happen to all the books. It saddens him to have to throw any out, but for many of the textbooks, that might end up being their fate.
“Charities won’t take textbooks anymore — they get them by the millions, especially your standard first-year ones, and they just sit on the shelves. And the main paper recyclers don’t want textbooks, something about the hardcovers being bad for the conveyor belts,” Fitzgerald said. “You can bring a small box in at once, but I’ll have thousands here.”
The other books left will be donated as much as possible to various groups. However, he is concerned that the quantity of books may be too much for charity groups and second-hand shops to take.
Throughout our talk, he spoke fondly of all the students and professors he has befriended over the years, and the people from all over he has gotten to know.
“The work itself I won’t miss, but there were the students and staff that were just so friendly,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s going to be sad next September.”
In the past few years, he has even been seeing more students whose parents were patrons there back when they were in school, which he says is quite special.
As I went to leave, Fitzgerald stopped me at the door for a final message. He wanted to make sure that everyone knows how much he and Books Unlimited have appreciated all your support over the many years.
If you have not yet stopped by, the store will be open until the end of October, for you to pick up your textbooks, your commission money, or your next favourite fiction read.
Photo: Victoria Becker