Wait ‘til the Last Chapter
Jay’s Book Stall will become one more distinctive Pittsburgh thing that won’t be there anymore.
Bespectacled, forthright and frequently clad in one of his four pink oxford-cloth shirts, Jay Dantry has been selling books in Oakland for more than 50 years. He started on Sept. 1, 1955, at 1p.m. He was a student at the University of Pittsburgh but purposefully took no classes that started after noon so that he could get to work at the Professional Bookstore on Forbes Avenue by 1.
Dantry also remembers the powerful Pitt Bookstore, which was in the basement of the Cathedral of Learning. “It was a counter. You handed over your list, the woman disappeared for 30 or 40 minutes, then suddenly returned with a stack of your books.” Unlike Jay’s Book Stall, there was no browsing. No unexpected discoveries. No forgotten paperbacks of books you’ve always intended to read. No photos of the staff with famous authors. None of the special quirks, bibliomaniacal joys and classy clutter that have distinguished the aisles of Jay’s for as long as anyone can remember.
His is a tiny store, aptly named a bookstall, like one of those small booksellers along the banks of the Seine in Paris. Dantry moved into the Fifth Avenue shop in 1962, and the brown canvas sign that juts out over the sidewalk hasn’t changed much since then. “There was some sort of mechanical shop in this space before me, but I’m not sure what was going on downstairs. I still have a Japanese massage table that we took out of there. I don’t want to know what they were doing with that,” says Dantry.
Dantry has decided to shut down the shop on June 1. “It was the week before Christmas,” he says, “and for the sixth time in 10 years, someone broke our front window. I needed to stay open, so in the early-morning hours, I was working with a man to put up temporary plywood panels, and he was out on the sidewalk, and I was here in the shop and, in order to connect the outside and inside panels, he asked me to push on my side of the wood with a broom.” Dantry picks up the broom that’s still there beside the cash register and re-creates the scene. “I was holding this broom, and I thought, I can’t do this anymore. I’m going to be 80 this year. That’s when I decided to close.”
“Wow,” I say. “You don’t seem as if you’re 80.”
“This is what 80 seems like,” he says with a smile.
I had asked Dantry to put together a list of some vanished Oakland places that he remembers fondly from his 50 years in this part of town. He mentions Scotty’s Diner first—it used to be where the Hillman Library is now. He talks about the department store called Prices of Oakland, the convenience of Leonard’s Men’s Shop, the uniqueness of the Briar Bowl, the Clock Restaurant, the Black Angus and an old-favorite eatery known as Henry Henry. He hands me an index card with a few more: Binstock Jewelers, Hahn’s Card Shop and the National Record Mart on Forbes. “The biggest change, “ he notes, “was when they moved the post office from Atwood Street to that ‘Suicide Alley’ where it is now.”
Over the years, people have marveled at Jay’s perfect location as a good escape for people in the hospitals across the street, employees as well as visitors. “Well, they shortened the amount of time that nurses get for lunch,” says Dantry. “It’s difficult to get down here and back in 28 minutes. We don’t get as much foot traffic as we once did.”
So what’s Dantry going to do without a shop at age 80? When all the books are gone, when the bowl of Tootsie Rolls on the front counter is sitting on a coffee table at his apartment? “Well,” he says dryly, “I’m waiting for a call back from ‘Dancing With the Stars.’” We laugh. “Truth is, I’m going to go home and read.”
Rick Sebak has been making TV programs for WQED since the summer of 1987. His newest documentary, “Invented, Engineered & Pioneered In Pittsburgh,” is available by becoming a $75 member of WQED at 1-888/622-1370 or at wqed.org. Rick’s next program for PBS will be “A Ride Along The Lincoln Highway,” premiering in the fall of 2008.