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The most knowledgeable used bookseller in Tacoma

Jerry Culpepper sells used, rare and out-of-print books

The draw of Culpepper's Books is its owner, veteran book dealer Jerry Culpepper. Photo credit: Richard Baker

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Used bookseller Jerry Culpepper has always had great expectations. Born in Tacoma he decided early to stay and find his deliverance in town. With wife Michele Martin, he owns Culpepper Books at 2521 N. Proctor, one of the few remaining independent bookstores in the area, and one of the most unique.

Fathers and sons often have strained relationships and things fall apart. Not so with Culpepper, who much admired his father and also his mother. They helped encourage his liberal attitude and instill a love of learning where ideas and opinions counted.

Culpepper has always been one of the possessed with a single-minded focus on words. He was never a person without qualities, and while attending Stadium High School he was not exactly an invisible man. His skill on the basketball court was almost legendary. He was also recognized as a brilliant chess and Ping-Pong player, skills he brought to his first bookstore.

At one time Fox's bookstore, located on St. Helens Street, was the castle of all Tacoma bookstores. Morely Fox, married to Barbara Fox, was one of the truly independent people Culpepper knew and, while still in high school, Culpepper started on his literary odyssey by asking Fox for a job. The store was one large (11) room with a view and Culpepper spent his time stacking books in the windows just down from where the sidewalk ends. He read constantly and learned everything he could about publishers, first editions, and how to deal with people. Writers like Phil Garland and Jack Cady often visited the store to discuss writing and the elements of style.

He knew he had the right stuff to become a top-notch bookseller and eventually he wanted a room of his own, looking for something noticeable beyond good and evil on a main street, he finally opened his own shop under the downtown Woolworth's store, not exactly a doll's house but close enough. At times he felt like a girl in a library, and at other times felt like the stranger in town. There was a hole in the floor and the bookshelves leaned in, but people who hunger for words could come through the door and start eating poetry, share their meditations or simply start waiting for Godot.

The bookstore gave him everything except a decent income and sometimes felt like hell in a very small place. He was not a man for working with tools, but knowing he needed a better income, he composed a sketch for a job application blank and started driving a delivery truck with Nichol's Trucking who had a contract with the Tacoma News Tribune. With a real paycheck he felt like he had hit the lottery. The instruction manual did not come with the job and on his first day he broke off a mirror. With a job in the tank, he concentrated on reading and buying books for a future bookstore.

Losing track of time, the years passed and he eventually became a dispatcher for the newspaper. He worked days during the week and nights on weekends, not returning home until called by the morning light. The great hunger of literature stayed with him, but the irregular hours of work took its toll. Culpepper suffered two heart attacks and a stroke. He returned to work with a vengeance and added to his work by opening a small bookstore on Sixth Avenue. Again, he started to feel almost human. His eyes often gave him trouble from the stroke and he suffered from double vision. He never complained. Financially, the bookstore felt like one more botched beginning. The store was too small and in a poor location. Still, he understood the importance of being earnest, and when he retired, he moved to the larger building in North Proctor.

Although the bookstore is not a raging success, it is also not the wasteland of his last one and has become the haunt of many artists over the years, not just writers. Online sales are keeping things whole.

Actor Yaphet Koto, when he lived in Puyallup, often dropped in for inspiration and conversation and recently Pamela Reed, born in Tacoma, spent the afternoon buying books for her husband and talking about her upcoming stage role. When in town, she usually visits Culpepper, apparently enjoying his quick wit and vast knowledge of books and of history. Culpepper is an authority on the Civil War and can talk as easily about Lee's lieutenants as he can about Chancellorsville. When Culpepper is engrossed in conversation with customers, the postman always rings twice just to get his attention and deliver packages.

Today, Culpepper again feels the power of words and the weary blues have gone. He says he is not ready for the grave. He remains the most knowledgeable used bookseller in Tacoma and other bookstore owners ask him for advice and to verify the authenticity of first editions.

Before lying around on any leaves of grass, Culpepper hopes to stay in business for another two years, then say good-bye to all that.

Culpepper Books, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday-Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, 2521 N. Proctor St., Tacoma, 253.761.9000

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