Bob Topp figured he’d save up for graduate school after buying All Books for a dirt-cheap cost in the early '70s. Renaming the store The Hermitage Bookshop, he thought he'd sell it at a profit after a few years. But instead, he's now been running the place for more than four decades — and he never went back to grad school. "It was a conscious choice to work in a bookstore for a few months or a few years," he recalls. "I don't think I ever thought I'd buy the store, but when the opportunity came up I did, and here I am.”
From its original location on 15th Street, Topp moved the store to a subterranean space at 290 Fillmore Street in 1980. And when the Tattered Cover Bookstore departed Cherry Creek almost ten years ago, the Hermitage became the longest-running book shop in the neighborhood. The word “antiquarian” is even painted on the storefront's window — but don't judge a book by that cover. “Yeah, you can ignore that word, it's misleading," Topp says. "We stock everything from very collectible to just $10 to $15 books. Readers and collectors, anybody who likes to read, is going to find something they like.”
But when you cross the threshold, the first thing you notice is not the books themselves, but that classic smell. "Ah, what a smell," Topp acknowledges. It's an odor that all bookish people around the world wish were bottled and sold, along with the books that produce it. The place is cozy enough for two lazy dogs to lounge about and alter your line of foot-shuffling through the store. The collection itself is both picky and persnickety; you won't find any tattered covers here. These books are far from frayed; many are in mint condition and all are meticulously aligned on shelves.
Books were always in Topp's blood. “I grew up in the house of a collector," he says. "My father was collecting Victorian Yellowbacks, and he collected Anthony Trollope. I grew up around collecting, my grandfather was a collector, also.”
He came to Denver as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. “I did my alternative service here in Denver,” Topp explains. “I grew up in Cleveland and I came west to find work that would satisfy my alternative service. I taught handicapped children for two years. So that's what brought me to Denver and shortly after that, I got into the bookstore and I just stayed ever since. I certainly consider it my home.”
When he bought his store, the Tattered Cover was just two years old; Joyce Meskis purchased the original Cherry Creek shop in 1974. Topp moved his own store to Cherry Creek in 1980, and then moved a block over to 290 Fillmore Street 10 years later. "Joyce and I started our businesses really close to the same time,” Topp remembers. “We both have been in business slightly over forty years....and for over 25 years we were neighborhood colleagues. I miss having them in Cherry Creek. We're very compatible businesses.”
Although the Hermitage doesn't have the national reputation of the Tattered Cover, it's seen its fair share of celebrities. “Yeah, Michael Jackson came here one time. I was sitting there at my desk… there were four huge, huge men all dressed to the nines in a perfect square, and just in the middle of the square below shoulder level, I could see a fedora. They walk down and kind of spread out, and Michael Jackson walks in. He asked where the children's section was, and where the art section was, and browsed for about 45 minutes. He brought up a stack of books, and I totaled it up. He turned to one of his bodyguards, or friends, or whoever they were, and said, ‘Will you pay the nice man?’” Topp laughs. “So he pulls out a role of hundred-dollar bills and pays me. That's probably the most humorous, famous personality who's ever come in. That's always a story that bears retelling.
“He was very nice,” Topp adds. "He seemed to know what he was buying. He wasn't just buying flippantly; he definitely had ideas in mind of what he wanted, and bought very specifically.”
While Michael Jackson stands out, the Hermitage has a strong, loyal following; Topp has maintained his customer base over many years, through hard times and good ones. The four members of staff, including himself, have 145 years of combined book experience; they cater to the needs and interests of the countless people who make their way into the store.
“Because I've been in business so long, I have a tremendously loyal group that I've known for a long time," Topp says. "One of the nice things is for all the people who complain that books are going away and nobody reads anymore, the fact is the fastest-growing clientele we have is people under thirty — young families that bring their kids in, young couples, and young individuals. Frequently on Saturdays we get a lot of young teens coming in, and they're not buying junk books — they're buying good serious literature or history. That's always gratifying, to see how many young people are still interested in coming to bookshops.”
Hermitage has had its rough patches just like every other shop, especially during the recent recession, but the number of independent bookstores opening in recent years has been on the rise — not only in Denver, but in surrounding communities and around the U.S. That makes Independent Bookstore Day on May 2 a time to celebrate, and it's good news for older stores, too.
“I can only surmise," Topp says, pondering that statistic. "You had eBooks coming out, you had Amazon and all the other online booksellers coming out, you had the growth of the chains — all of which made independent bookselling almost impossible. There were so many other different areas to compete with. It was like a snake eating its tail. You know a lot of the big chains have downsized now; one of the major chains has gone out, Borders has gone out of business, and so there are neighborhoods opening up again where there are no bookstores. It's just absolutely ripe for independents to come in. A larger chain has to make so much money per year, whereas an independent store is willing to do with less, so they can fill an area happily that a major chain might not be willing to go into.”
Although Topp is at his store at 8 a.m. every day to do the tasks that keep Hermitage in business, he finds time to pursue other interests. “One of my main passions is I read an awful lot of young adult short stories, because I read to children," he says. "My hobby has been reading in public schools for twenty years, so I've probably read — by my last estimate — about 10,000 young adult short stories, looking for the best stories to take to the schools to read. In fact, I maintain a whole website for children's literature which is kind of my hobby on top of my avocation."
Topp doesn't limit his reading to young adult fare, but he knows he'll never be able to make a dent in all the books out there.“It's endless, endless," he says. "The only thing I don't like about my business is how much I will have not read by the time I die. I always think of it as a labyrinth. You're kind of in a labyrinth, there are all these choices — you can go in that door, you can go in that door — but every choice you make takes you into a whole new labyrinth. And you never get out. Once you go in, you’re just stuck the rest of your life following different paths down different avenues, most of them enjoyable. You never want to get out. It's the most enjoyable place to be.”
The Hermitage Bookshop is open from Monday through Friday from 10:00 to 5:30 and Saturday from 10:00 to 5:00. Find out more on the shop's website, which features online ordering and The Hermitage Blog.