About Town: Movin' on Down
Downtown State College’s only bookstore has gone underground. In the creeping age of Kindles, perhaps Webster’s is ahead of its time.
Such a secluded place may require a search, but you don’t have to whisper, “Joe sent me,” at the door. Just go to the right of the Uncle Eli’s mural and — below the gold, orange, and black hanging sign — walk down 16 steps (using the strong banister), and there you are.
Forced from the visible 128 South Allen Street (1999 to 2010), Webster’s Bookstore & Café reopened in April in the former Creative Oasis basement, 133 East Beaver Avenue. In this location, the used-book emporium is somewhat catty-corner from Schlow Centre Region Library.
Size has replaced location, location, location. The former 3,700-square-foot, street-side hangout has become a 6,300-square-foot below-stairs hangout — making it possible to more than double the number of books stocked.
Once again, smiles greeted the arrival of the used bookstore/community gathering place. (When the previous Webster’s opened, patrons showed up instantly — as though they were just waiting for such a comfy spot to materialize.)
“People were chomping at the bit for the opening!” says owner Elaine Meder-Wilgus.
Around 30 book browsers and drink sippers stop by daily; some 100 attend Webster’s concerts. Its books have increased from 80,000 to 165,000. Webster’s memberships have been introduced. Visual art is, of course, on the walls. Activist fliers are still posted.
“We really like the layout,” says Meder-Wilgus gazing around at the bigger space. “In the old store, I always thought that if two people stopped, they created a bottleneck.”
Downstairs, she says, “We kept the shelving low,” so as to bring the outdoors in, through a bank of high windows on the Humes Alley side. That also is the side with a handicapped-accessible entrance and a small patio (for those who don’t mind a view of the alley’s dumpster).
Interior brightness comes largely from the redone lighted ceiling. Underfoot, Webster’s has a sealed and polished “industrial”-look floor. Owner-painted swirls are here and there.
Long-playing-record fans can again riffle through albums — Josh Ferko’s Stax of Trax — but without worrying about errant elbows. And again, there is a reading corner with kids’ volumes. “A lot of parents bring little ones in,” says Meder-Wilgus.
With greater square footage, both Internet and warehouse books have been brought in-house, and there are now separate areas for live entertainment and community meetings.
The estimated 14-foot-by-30-foot Community Room, lined in books, holds regular and special meetings, including such diverse get-togethers as political confabs and an art reception. Community yoga takes place there once a month.
In the open Performance Space — situated beside the local-specialties café — folk musicians, for instance, strum in what might be a hand-me-down living room (furnished with an upright piano, a carpet, and an occasional chair in nonmatching prints). Audience members can sit at partitioned eating/listening tables, which have nearby outlets for computers. Other café tables have been removed for dancing.
The owner’s husband, Bill Wilgus, did the sound system. Sunday brunch music is a regular feature, as are, each month: The Second Winds big band music, the first Saturday; Open Mic Night, the first Thursday; “Muriel’s Repair,” storytelling brainchild of Pam Monk, the last Wednesday. Sizzle Sticks swing band and dancers perform every other month.
When Webster’s was founded, partner Fred Ramsey foresaw it as a descendant of venerable Nittany News, a book and periodical magnet for hippies and New York Times readers from the late 1950s until well into the 1970s. Ramsey had to step from the scene, and Meder-Wilgus bought him out in 2007.
Meder-Wilgus — also known for area acting since her Boal Barn Playhouse beginnings around 1980 — is a 1983 graduate of State College Area High School and a 1993 alumna of Penn State in a self-designed biological anthropology major. (Her daughter, “Mel,” is majoring in chemistry, with an emphasis on gender studies, at Barnard College.) In her nonbookish employee days, Meder-Wilgus managed another hangout, the former Hi-Way Pizza, was a floor manager for The Deli, and worked in the fashion industry in New York City.
Her new Webster’s has old faces. “Everybody came back,” she says of full-timers, as opposed to part-timers graduating from Penn State. Robbie Mayes is the manager; Molly Haight, the Internet manager. Explaining the latter category, Meder-Wilgus says, “We’ve been selling on the Internet since 1995. … We ship all over the world.”
A “destination-types of business,” Webster’s sees book hounds from Penn State conferences and from Altoona, Lewisburg, Lewistown, and Harrisburg, the owner says.
People seem happy to be down there. A 70-something fellow who was looking around, confirmed that. “You’ve got a great place here,” he said to a smiling Meder-Wilgus.