Why people love to love Dark Star Books
By Emma Jarman
Nothing about Dark Star Books is ordinary. Not its expansive collection of new and used books and comic books that turn the quaint store into a cavernous library of titles and treasures; not the old store cat, Bart, who was trained specially to be a store cat, knows two games to play with a wad of paper and was named after Bart Simpson after the owner saw the first season of The Simpsons and figured it wouldn’t last more than a few episodes or the new store cat, Mr. Eko, named for the Lost character; not the store’s owner, Mary Alice Wilson.
“An intelligent person, that person’s head needs to be filled with stuff that’s interesting,” said Wilson during our conversation.
If that is true, Mary Alice Wilson is on of the most intelligent people I know, and perusing the shelves of her Dark Star Book store could make anyone a genius. The walls, floor to ceiling, are crammed with titles in genres ranging from mystery and horror (men’s favorites) to paranormal romance (think: ultra-racy vampire sex, popular among female customers). Twenty-foot bookshelves create narrow aisles through which to explore and piles of spillover books splay across the carpeted floors. Mr. Eko sleeps towards the front of the store, on top of the crates of preserved comic books.
Prices are moderate, though this is undoubtedly a collectors store more than a half-price bookstore. Children ages 1 through 14 are allowed one free title under $5 on weekends and it does take some digging to find a good one under that price point. But Wilson and her crew seem to know what they are doing.
“An intelligent gerbil could have made a lot of money selling comic books,” said Wilson, “all it takes is to buy them cheap and sell them for more.” But since its days as a venue to rid her home of her son’s old comic books after he went to college, Dark Star has come a long way.
The Wilsons have always been involved in the comic book trade, it seems. When her son was just a boy, Mary Alice would take him to comic book conventions to set up as a vendor and sell his copies.
“Other people take their kids camping. Well, I took my kid to Detroit,” said Wilson. “[Starting a comic book business] was something we did together.”
Aside from traveling up north with her son, Wilson spent 30 years as a teacher, passing on her reading and coping skills to teenagers struggling to graduate high school.
“You know, they hated to read. Not only were they poor at it, they hated it,” said Wilson. She taught 18-year-olds reading at a fourth grade level to get to college sufficiency. But eventually, she overcame the teaching bug and looked elsewhere for fulfillment. Enter Dark Star Books.
“After a while I kind of forgot which anecdotes I was telling and the last thing I wanted was the ‘They all look alike’ syndrome. But the classes kind of did,” said Wilson. “In 1980 I lucked into somebody and I started [a bookstore]. My goal was to have a store where the people who walked in the door did not hate to read.” She also wanted a small business that would be easy to walk away from, which didn’t work out as well as the first requirement considering the time that she is still putting in to make Dark Star successful.
Dark Star Books is a used book business, for the most part. Anyone is welcome to bring in “no more than two, manageable, medium-sized, Mary Alice-could-pick-them-up-if-she-had-to piles” to try and sell to her shelves. But there is also an online, special ordering aspect to the business. If you are looking for a very specific or rare title, the staff at Dark Star use their “mad computer skills” to dig deep into Amazon and Ebay to find and provide.
“The staff are essential,” said Wilson, “they are absolutely essential. I try to get each staff member to be able to do absolutely everything.”
I saw Frank during my visit, and he was readily available to answer any questions I had, introduce me to Mr. Eko and sell my 2-year-old a sheet of stickers once she got sick of her free weekend book. But he and everyone working there has been there for a long time — also very intelligent people by Wilson’s standards, I imagine. Wilson doesn’t spend as much time in the store as she used to, doing much of her pricing and rare title digging from her home in Springfield. “I’ve got an iMac at home with the screen the size of a refrigerator and it’s much more fun to look at stuff on there than a piece of crap laptop [at the store],” said Wilson. The faith and reliance she has in and on her staff is, absolutely, essential.
Yellow Springs is a special place, from the vegan menu at the café up the street to the magnetic toy store across the way that pulls in all ages from 1 to 100 with their unique and collectible toys and activities. Dark Star Books not only adds to the charm of the creative small town but had a hand in creating it. It’s not the only book store on Xenia Avenue but there’s something about it that makes everyone that walks in a little more interesting.
Stop by to meet Mr. Eko and encourage him with his weight loss, pick up a free book for your kids Saturday, talk to Frank about the best way to navigate the crates of comics and maybe you’ll catch Ms. Mary Alice Wilson nose deep in a piece of crap laptop behind the counter searching for the next title that will make her store that much more extraordinary.
Dark Star Books is located at 237 Xenia Ave. in Yellow Springs. For more information call the store at (937) 767-9400 or visit www.darkstarbookstore.com.
Reach DCP freelance writer Emma Jarman at EmmaJarman@DaytonCityPaper.com.