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Webster's: A Big Loss For A Small Town

by on July 14, 2010 8:44 AM

It's quarter to seven on this weekday evening, and Webster's Bookstore Café is nearly still.

At the window sits a lone woman, tap-tap-tapping away at her laptop. She pauses, gazes out over Allen Street for a moment, then returns to the rhythmic labor of writing the great American novel or her sociology essay.

A young couple – in their early 20s, I'd guess – browses through rows and rows of records. He excitedly shows her a Cat Stevens album cover. "Already have it," she replies. Back into the rows it goes.

In the back half of the store, the bookstore section, an old man looks over the far rim of his handmade clay coffee mug. He's holding an old hardback, the kind that doesn't show the title, but it's a front; he's been people-watching for the last 20 minutes.

The only person moving more than his fingertips is the café employee. He's washing the dishes left behind by earlier patrons. You've never heard someone stack dishes so silently.

It's a quiet scene, full of performers in the final act of a tragedy. They've read ahead in the script; they know how this is supposed to end.

At month's end, they're supposed to be gone. Co-owner Elaine Meder-Wilgus is supposed to close shop and lock the doors behind her one final time after opening them for 11 years.

The novelist will have to take the tap-tap-tapping elsewhere.

But this cast, along with many more performers off stage, is improvising. There is no script, as far as they're concerned. The final scene has yet to be written.

More than 50 names have been written in blue and black ink or pencil, pleading with the landlord to give one more chance to the owner. More than 30 times that number have joined Facebook groups as a sign of support. Even the State College Borough Council is willing to consider a resolution backing the store (though Mayor Elizabeth Goreham, a frequent visitor to Webster's, has already said the council cannot get involved).

The loss of Webster's means the loss of part of the borough's identity, they write.

There's nothing else like it, they say.

"I just don't like Starbucks coffee," the Cat Stevens fan whispers with a giggle.

Perhaps their efforts will be rewarded. Perhaps their pleas will be heard, their wishes granted. The elderly man will continue to watch the play unfold through his coffee's steam.

But it's unlikely. The curtains will close; the cast will depart. It is at this moment that the true personality of State College will shine.

Webster's supporters can go home and mourn their loss over a final café con leche or fresh biscotti. Or they can become the spirit of the community, making sure financial straits don't plague another borough staple.

The other branch of Webster's, though not conveniently located on Allen Street, will continue to mimic the philosophy of its flagship.

Saint's Café and W.C. Clarke's will continue to offer some of the area's best coffee to downtown consumers. Newly opened Music Underground will stand as the only remaining downtown vendor of records (no word on their Cat Stevens collection). And the great American novel can be penned at Irving's, the Corner Room or the local library.

The loss of Webster's will be a blemish on the otherwise flawless face of State College, but it doesn't have to mean a change in philosophy about small-town living.

Terry Casey is a former managing editor of He can be reached at [email protected]
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