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The Book Corner: Passion drives family's commitment to literature and the Falls

NIAGARA FALLS -- Walk past the glass front windows of The Book Corner, which feature sombrero-wearing, life-size pigs and cows, a carousel horse and lion, a peace banner, a Che poster and artifacts of the businesses that occupied the building decades ago. Open the door, which is covered with stickers, posters and pictures.

It takes a minute to absorb the immensity of what you are seeing.

First you recognize the classic book scent, of ink on paper, glued spines and old leather bindings. Then you begin to take in the tall, wide, deep room.

It's filled with books, as far as the eye can see. Beyond sight, you can sense more books, many more books, neatly stacked in cases, lined up on shelves, accented by bright art objects and craft pieces, behind them a layer of photos, posters and collages forming a backdrop to all the words on the pages of the thousands upon thousands of books.

You have walked into a book-lovers' paradise, an oasis for those thirsty for the printed word, anyone yearning for a thought-provoking history book, an absorbing mystery or a half-remembered book from childhood.

And while some pass by this stretch of Main Street without giving the bright yellow facade of The Book Corner a second look, people also travel there from all over the world to scan the carefully curated shelves of new books or rummage through thousands upon thousands of used books on every conceivable topic.

The Book Corner draws visitors from all over the world who, after walking the floors, tell the Morrows that they don't have anything like it where they live. (John Hickey / Buffalo News)

Especially during the tourist season, store owner Jeffrey Scott Morrow has a frequent experience. "People come to see the falls, they google 'bookstore,' and on the Internet it says that we have three floors, but you don't know what it's like until you come here," he said, walking quickly through his store, straightening books as he went.

"They come and they walk all three floors, then they come to the counter, and it goes like this: 'We're from ... ' and it can be anyplace -- Detroit, Houston, Philly -- 'and we don't have a bookstore like this.'"

Jeffrey Morrow and granddaughter Amia pose with the sign painted on the rear wall of the Book Corner quoting a 2001 New York Times article about Main Street that praised the store with this phrase. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

This constantly recurring conversation makes Morrow happy. "It makes me feel so good about what I do with my life," he said.

Spend a few minutes with Morrow and his wife, Tereza, who are likely on a summer day to be accompanied by Amia Winn, age 11, granddaughter and The Book Corner's youngest associate, and you'll understand why the store is so much more than a place where books are bought and sold.

It's a repository of community memories. It's a performance space where painters, writers, musicians and poets share their work. It's a meeting room where local groups gather. And most of all, it's a testament to one family's constancy when everything around them, from the publishing industry to the city itself, was sliding.

"So many people's memories of their childhood are in our store," said Morrow, who bought The Book Corner from his father, Parke Theron "Pete" Morrow Jr., in 2001. "Their mother, their father, or their grandmother brought them here, so they remember that, they remember their first book. That kind of thing is something we all cherish, and we are so fortunate to have that."

In fact, the store is shaped by its customers. Its collection specializes in children's books, which fill a large section in the back, and local history, which is right up front, but ranges far and wide.

"I'm not a philosopher, but we still have a fantastic philosophy section, because this has stood the test of time," said Morrow. "I look closely at what people order that we don't have, and I use that as a tool, too. If there's something we don't have in stock that we order for someone, I always look at it and make a decision about whether we should stock that book. So the public themselves have helped us create this. It's like a democracy, actually."

"The overall selection of each section is crafted over these years, over time," said Morrow. "Our inventory is incredible because of how old we are."

Morrow, his brother and sister all grew up in the bookstore after his father purchased it from founder Marie Fleming in the 1960s. Fleming founded The Book Corner in 1927 in an actual corner of a small store on First Street near the falls. In its first years, said Morrow, "It was a lending library, she lent you a book for five cents a week."

Fleming moved the store to its own building on First Street, where it stayed until 1950.  It moved to Third Street. In 1970, Pete Morrow and his wife, Betsy Diachun, who worked there together, moved it to 1909 Main St. In 1982, the Morrow family and six friends took 36 hours -- between closing time Saturday and opening on Monday -- to move the entire store a block south to its current location at 1801 Main St., between Michigan and South avenues.

Jeffrey Morrow, a musician who played in the band Kama Sutra at the Continental in Buffalo, keeps a baby grand piano, a drum kit and a marimba in the community room and performance space upstairs that used to be a bowling alley. Local artists also hang their works there. (John Hickey / Buffalo News)

In 1997, Pete Morrow bought the building, later opening up the top floor, which was once Focazio's bowling alley, for performance space, a meeting room and shelf after shelf of used books. The walls of one room of the basement, where the Boot and Saddle Club once served food and drinks, are still decorated with hand-painted equestrian images that now overlook an enormous selection of used books and record albums. And the main floor, which is stocked with new books, was once the Belevue Cigar Store. Together, the rooms make up 10,000 square feet.

The Morrows carefully catalogue their new books, and are willing to search the shelves of used books for a reader's request. Tereza Morrow said the best part of her job is "finding things that nobody else can find, rare, difficult things. Finding people's memories. They come in looking for a book that they remember from their childhood, and they want it to pass on to somebody else, and they are always the most appreciative people, because they are so happy."

But with such an abundance of books, the question must be asked: Does Jeffrey Morrow have any idea how many books he has?

"No," he said quickly and decisively.

The closest he can come to an estimate is a number from 10 years ago, when someone measured the shelves and found that the store had 21 miles of them. But, of course, that was a decade ago.

If it were just books, though, The Book Corner might as well be an Amazon warehouse. Instead, it is a cozy, quirky, richly textured repository of the artifacts of its community and customers.

Origami pieces made and donated to The Book Corner by a patron are among the fascinating, entertaining details in the store, which has been a reliable presence on Main Street for decades as other businesses closed and left. (John Hickey / Buffalo News)

The intricate origami pieces that sit atop bookcases were done by a patron, as were the glorious stained glass pieces. The posted notes adorned with ladybugs were written by a grateful customer who would pay her bills and include "a little something extra for the cats," Morrow said. They still fondly remember a local doctor who came into The Book Corner so much that his staff called the store when they needed to speak to him.

"There are so many different characters who have come through the store, become part of the store through the years -- actually they have become family members," said Tereza Morrow.

It's not unusual for the Morrows to drop off orders to customers on their drive home to Youngstown. "We could send things to them, but why?" said Morrow. "This is showing that customer service still actually exists. People appreciate it and that's what I enjoy."

They also serve the buyers they will never meet, both local and across the world. They meticulously describe and quickly ship books they offer for sale on Amazon, where they have a 100 percent positive rating.

Fittingly, avid readers who are devoted to The Book Corner often donate their books to the store to be re-sold. Some bequeath their libraries to Morrow.

When someone donates books, the Morrows go through them before placing them on the shelves. They post any pictures they find on the walls. Morrow imagines that a shopper may find a long-lost family image there.

Of course, that raises the issue of money tucked between pages and forgotten. Yes, Morrow does find it, he said, "mostly foreign money." But he once found a trove of thousands, all in $100 bills, zipped inside a leather-bound Masonic Bible from a man's donated library. When he called the widow, said Morrow, "She wasn't surprised at all." For a reward, she gave him $2 bills, which he collects. It's clear that he prizes the story more than any reward.

Many corners of the store hold artifacts, such as old tennis racquets and golf clubs in the used-books sports section. Tereza Morrow calls her husband "the magpie" -- picking up anything interesting he sees in his travels.

Jeffrey Morrow enjoys the company and help of granddaughter Amia Winn, 11, the youngest associate of The Book Corner during the summers. (John Hickey / Buffalo News)

As young Amia gives a tour of the downstairs rooms, she mentions that Morrow occasionally pencils in the word "Free" where a price should be.

"He doesn't know all the books that are down here; he knows where they are and he comes down and looks" if a customer requests one, said Amia. "He keeps inventory of the books upstairs."

"It does have order to it, it's mostly just our order," said Morrow, smiling.

In addition to greeting customers and other jobs, Amia cares for the store's cats. " We have always had cats at our store. It's a tradition that my dad started," said Morrow. "Some people come as much to see the cats as to see the store, especially the kids."

Sadly, one of The Book Corner's cats vanished from the store in late May. Murasaki, a gray, short-haired female tabby with a white face, belly and feet and a distinctive butterfly mark on her back, "was a really affectionate cat, she would let anybody pick her up, and that's how she got taken," said Morrow. The store's other cat, Mu-Shu, is more stand-offish, Morrow said. The third cat is a kitten named Atticus.

"The community has been really helpful in the search, and now you realize how many strays are out there," said Morrow. "People call us about gray cats, we go and look and it's not her." They have not given up hope, though, that she will be returned, and are offering a reward with no questions asked for her safe return. "She and Mu-Shu were best friends, and he is missing her terribly," Morrow said sadly.

The days when Main Street bustled are a fond memory for Tereza Morrow, who was a year behind her husband at Lew-Port but never spoke to him until Pete Morrow hired her to work in the store. As a child, she danced at Miss Bev's Dance Studio and saw movies at the theater next door with her brothers. As a young adult, she shopped the street, getting her first charge card from Jenss. "I tell everyone the same thing, when Slipko's went it was a domino effect," she said.

After years of devastating business losses on the street, all of which The Book Corner endured, Morrow is happy with recent developments, including the new police station one block up and the Amtrak station a few blocks farther. "I love that new train station, I can't say enough about it," he said. "It's what we need. Our old one was terrible, and we've had people walk here from it, it's just three blocks down."

He also likes the free Discover Niagara Shuttle, which stops at the train station, and he lauds the owners of the The Rapids Theatre for being good neighbors.

Jeffrey Morrow points out fiction to Barbara Leiterman of Toronto, who walked to The Book Corner during a brief stopover at the Amtrak station up the street. (John Hickey / Buffalo News)

Barbara Leiterman of Toronto walked to The Book Corner from the Amtrak station during a half-hour stopover on a train trip to Poughkeepsie. Upstairs, Morrow gave her the quick orientation: "This is all fiction, it's separated by genre, so this is all literary fiction, then there's a room of mystery, a room of science fiction. It's alphabetical by author but not alphabetical within the letter. Now remember there are three sizes of books, and you have to look at all of them."

Leaving with four paperbacks, Leiterman was delighted that she had used her time so productively. "I was thrilled to be able to stop in there, and thought it was a great bookstore," she said later.

"Jeff and his father have been there for years and years and years, always at the same location," said Niagara Falls writer Lee Farallo. "If you think about what has been and is on Main Street, The Book Corner may be the only place that has been there and continues to be there. Slipko's is gone, Jenss is gone, the small restaurants are gone, The Book Corner remains."

With fellow Niagara Falls natives Bob Borgatti and Dan Sicoli, Farallo publishes Slipstream Magazine, an annual poetry anthology. They have held the magazine's annual release party upstairs at The Book Corner for about 20 years. This year's event will run from 6 to 9 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 21. Attendance varies, but the reading usually draws 80 to 100 people, he said. Admission is free, and the current and some past copies of Slipstream are sold at the event.

The Morrows are "super-helpful," said Farallo. "The books he's got upstairs and in the basement, you could spend hours there and not go through half of them."

As a performance space, the slightly elevated platform of the former bowling alley, surrounded by chairs, is perfect, said Farallo, welcoming and comfortable. "It smells like books, that's the best thing," he said.

Posters, newspaper pages and clippings, notes from longtime customers, T-shirts and other artifacts decorate the walls and even the ceilings of The Book Corner, while chairs here and there offer cozy places to sit. (John Hickey / Buffalo News)

Morrow was a musician "back in the day," he said, playing in the band Kama Sutra at the old Continental in Buffalo. So he enjoys hosting open-mic nights upstairs, which is furnished with a baby grand piano, a full drum kit and a marimba. "I let everybody play these instruments," he said. "When people come up to shop, I say, the instruments are here to be played. And the kids just love it."

The top floor is a true community room. Local artists hang their pieces on the wall "so they have a place to show their things," he said. "And with the books everywhere, it's just got this feel to it. Some people just come up here and sit and write, because of the feel of the place."

"Our community knows we are doing something that needs to be supported to continue," said Morrow. "They could go and buy on the Internet, or they could go and shop somewhere else."

The price is right, too: used books start at 50 cents each. "We're in a poverty-stricken city, so we are very fortunate to be able to offer these used books," many of which are donated, he said.

After showing off his store, packed with the written word and artifacts of his community and life, Morrow grew pensive.

"I'm the luckiest person, because I'm the caretaker of this right now and I love what I do," he said. "So many people don't get that opportunity in life. Then to see people who appreciate what we put into it, and recognize it, that just makes me feel good about it again."

email: aneville@buffnews.com

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