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Rediscovering Happy Valley: Webster's Bookstore & Café

by and on November 20, 2013 10:40 AM

During my undergraduate days at Penn State, I enrolled in a creative writing class, at the end of which the professor met with the students individually to discuss the grade we received on our last projects and to allow us to ask questions.

I met with him outside Webster's Bookstore & Café, when it was located on South Allen Street. It was an informal and friendly environment. He smoked cigarettes and talked about the newborn baby he and his wife just welcomed into the world. I'm not one for overwriting, but sitting at that table on a busy sidewalk made me feel like I was literally in another world instead of Happy Valley.

If you read this column, it's obvious I possess a strong affinity for Penn State, but that passion doesn't stem from enjoying the obvious activities the area offers. There's a lot more out there, probably more than people think, and Webster's is a great example.

The location has changed — the store is now located on East Beaver Avenue — but the feeling is the same.

Webster's is this awesomely unique universe in which you can buy a Bruce Springsteen vinyl record and a book on screenwriting, and then get a drink and sit down a few feet away, at the in-store café. If you're a regular, you can even have your own mug set aside on a shelf for when you stop in and want a drink.

During my two visits there last week, I bought six books, all on film and theatre. As soon as I found the section on film, I immediately sat down, Indian-style, and began flipping through the pages of a book like a kid playing with his first toy.

Webster's isn't your typical mainstream bookstore, and that's a good thing. To get to the section on theatre, you have to make your way around a non-working piano; I've learned a musician is going to recycle the piano; tear it apart and use the raw materials to make new instruments. Off to the side, books waiting to be shelved are temporarily housed in an empty Otto's Brewery cardboard box that previously was the home to some India Pale Ale.

Books are reasonably priced — I bought those six for around $25 — and there's an inherent positive quality that comes from supporting a local business that's about 100 yards from the University Park campus.

I stopped by last Monday to speak with owner Elaine Meder-Wilgus, a State College High School and Penn State graduate. Her name continually came up as I spoke with playwrights, professors and other creative people in the area. It was the first time we met but she made me feel immediately welcomed. I was invited to a poetry reading two days later and I took her up on the offer.

Jason Crane, who just moved to the area and who hosts a podcast during which he interviews jazz musicians, brainstormed the event and doubled as the event's emcee. It was fun and casual. A handful of poets read their works for about an hour, a book was given away in a raffle and people told stories.

Jason shared a poem that he wrote about his two sons and another writer opined on what he considered people's misguided obsession with bombs. Then the featured poet, Dave Bonta, who lives just outside of Tyrone, read a few Banjo-inspired poems that were set against video and music. People were inspired and the signs suggest that the event has staying power.

Barring some unexpected conflict, I plan on going back every month. I've never given much serious thought to writing poetry on a regular basis, but I enjoy hearing the works of other writers. It helps me think and work through the process of trying to string together sentences in an interesting and compelling manner, whether I'm writing a story on deadline for the Centre County Gazette or a screenplay that I'll submit to national contests.

That's one of the main reasons why I moved back to Penn State, for the chance to work with inspired, motivated and gifted people, and Webster's affords me this great opportunity.

When I was talking with Elaine, her voice rose and she became slightly animated when talking about all the different creative people who stop into her store and with whom I could connect. Ideas continually came to her about how residents and storytellers could get together and express themselves through writing. She was genuinely excited.

I know the feeling.

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This story was produced by the staff at the Centre County Gazette. It was re-published with permission. The Centre County Gazette is a weekly publication, available at many locations around Centre County every Thursday morning.

John covers sports for the Gazette.
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