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Editorial by Tom Demerly.

Mary Fera in Water

We all have stories from our childhood that shaped our lives.

These are the quaint little stories with happy endings and a charming, innocent quality to them. They paint a picture of who we are and where we came from. Looking back on these stories we can decode things about the choices we’ve made as an adult, in this case, a big choice about how I was going to earn a living. And since I am a retailer this story is also about retail. A story worth telling.

When I was a kid I was very overweight and had terrible acne. Add to that a bad family and later a single mom. Everyone has a bit of a hard luck story in their lives, and I guess that was mine. Because of those things I had good reasons to stay in the basement and look for ways to think of other places, other realities.

I am 43 so this was before cable TV, Nintendos, Playstations and other stuff. We had three boring channels on TV and books.

The best way to escape a pretty unenviable teenage existence was in those books. Books, books and more books.

Living in Dearborn, Michigan the best place to get books was The Little Professor Book Store.

Little Professor Book Store was, at one point, a national chain with almost 150 stores. The owner and founder is a man named Tony Fera. Tony, or more correctly as I know him, Mr. Fera- founded Little Professor Bookstores in 1961, the year I was born. Prior to that he sold newspapers from the corner of Michigan Avenue and Schafer in Downtown Dearborn on the corner of City Hall.

Mr. Fera’s daughter Mary often talked about how her Dad started the bookstore:

“They grew up with nothing...literally. His dad died of a heart attack at the age of 43. My Dad and his brothers sold newspapers in front of Montgomery Wards on Michigan Avenue to help out. Then my Grandma was crippled in a bus accident. All 7 kids were split up. When they somehow regrouped my Dad and his two brothers, Johnny and Frankie decided to do something with the newspaper business. They eventually opened up the store on Michigan Avenue and sold the franchise to 150 others. Sadly, both Johnny and Frankie died of heart attacks in the same year, 5 years . Both in their early forties. They never got a chance to see what the bookstore has become. They only worked there for 5 years or so. It sounds like a sob story but nobody seems to look at it that way. When my dad tells the stories, he tells them in such a way that one walks away smiling...not feeling bad.”

Mr. Fera is more diligent and hard working than he is polished and aggressive. He is not a Donald Trump type figure. You don’t see him in line at Starbucks in the morning dressed in a flashy suit working urgently on a Palm Pilot while having a power meeting over a cell phone. He isn’t like that. He is an unassuming and unpretentious man. His posture suggests years of dedication and hard work. He dresses humbly and drives an unremarkable Ford sedan. Sometimes during the day he takes a break from work and loads his dogs into the car to take them for a short drive. “It breaks up their routine.” He told his daughter Mary. Early in the morning, at sunrise, you see him unloading papers for his store and organizing the inventory that changes daily. When he has to see something up close or far away (I can’t tell which) he squints his eyes and crinkles up his nose to look under his glasses. He has white hair and speaks quietly. All the years I have seen Mr. Fera, I have seen him working.

Little Professor is distinguished from other book stores by its mix of news stand products with books. They have an enormous range of unusual periodicals and out of town newspapers. During the last few years there is a little café, actually named “The Little Café’”, right next door to the bookstore with a door between the two. In that café worked a beautiful girl with dark brown eyes, Tony’s daughter, Mary.

When I was a kid we were broke but I always managed to beg , borrow, earn or steal enough to buy a book or magazine at Little Professor. Little Professor was exactly 3.4 miles from my house then. As I type this now, I can lean back eight inches and see Little Professor Book Store from where I am sitting at my desk. That is no coincidence. I opened Bikesport here, right next to Little Professor Bookstore, on purpose.

I had to walk to Little Professor when I was a kid until I got a skateboard, then I would skate up there. When I got a bike I would ride there. During the winter my friend Raymond Schuckle and I would bundle our selves up, lie to our parents that we were going to each other’s house, and strike out on a trek across the barren ice cap of Dearborn in January and just walk there.

We leafed through the issues of bike and skateboard magazines, surfing and skiing magazines, military magazines and the Atlases. I looked for books that taught you how to identify birds and fish and airplanes. We tried to peek at the cover of Playboy, but Mr. Fera nailed a board over it. I looked for books about adventurers like Roald Amundsen, first man to the South Pole.

Raymond Schuckle and I would pretend we were Roald Amundsen and Ernest Shackleton on our trek home in the dark and cold of a Michigan winter, staying out well past our allotted curfew and walking through conditions that, “Were so horrible our very survival, and the survival of our men, was in constant question…” As Amundsen wrote.

In Junior High School a Special Education Phys. Ed teacher took an interest in me and he in turn, got me interested in running. I began to get in shape. Now I had two things: books and running.

So I would run to Little Professor Book Store. From my house, if I did the perfect loop I mapped out, it was about 10 kilometers round trip. I could do it in 35 minutes at my best. I didn’t stop at the bookstore when I was out running. I would fly by as I ran down Michigan Avenue, and glance inside. There was always something going on in there. Lots of customers, most of the time Mr. Fera would be in there too.

Little Professor Book Store grew and changed with the times and with the city of Dearborn. There were a lot of changes that swirled around the store. The Calvin Theater was next door and we went to see movies there for a dollar. In one of the biggest disasters in Dearborn history, the Calvin Theater burned down. Somehow, the Little Professor Bookstore right next door survived. Thankfully.

I didn’t just read the books I got from The Little Professor, I memorized them. Something about how my brain works, or doesn’t work, makes it feel good to memorize vast amounts of odd facts and never let them go. The deepest part of the Ocean is the Marinas Trench at 36,204 feet. The wingspan of a Boeing 747 (400 version) is 211 feet, 5 inches, not counting the winglets added for better low speed flight characteristics. The scientific name for the mako shark is Isurus Glaucus. For the spotted Hyena it is Crocutta crocutta. You get the idea.

I have an enormous collection of books from The Little Professor and a strange memory for the facts in them. Often times during a particularly stressful day I simply leave the bike store and walk over there. After 30 seconds leafing through a book or magazine I would quietly be transported away. Just like when I was a little kid. Did you know that a hummingbird’s resting heart rate is over 200 beats per minute, and that a giraffe has the highest blood pressure of any animal….?

The Little Professor Book Store wasn’t just a store where you bought books, newspapers and magazines. It was the window in the wall around my world that I used to see the rest of the planet. Inside the bookstore I could see over the horizon. Around the world. I could even see through time forwards and backwards. The books I bought at The Little Professor Book store showed me there was a huge world out there. A fascinating, wonderful, beautiful, dangerous, exciting world filled with incredible things, animals and places. They had newspapers from London and Italy. They had things from all over the world. It has remained the most exciting place (to me) in all of Dearborn, and a gateway- a portal- to the entire globe.

The books I got there changed my life. They actually built my life.

At The Little Professor I bought the book The Green Berets by Robin Moore, which lead to my decision to join the Army. It was there that I bought The Seven Summits By Dick Bass. Since reading that book I have climbed three of the seven with one of the men in the book, Phil Ershler. I bought a book there about desert survival, and have since raced on foot across part of the Sahara Desert in North Africa and in the Jordanian desert between Wadi Rum and the ancient city of Petra. Sir Lawrence of Arabia lived in Wadi Rum. I bought a book about him at Little Professor too. I bought books about the Vietnam War at Little Professor. One of them, an odd little book called The Five Fingers By Gayle Rivers was about a team of elite commandos who raced across Northern Vietnam on a top secret mission. In 2002 I raced across Northern Vietnam in the infamous Raid Gauloises, the longest non-stop adventure race in history. We encountered tribes of Montangard Indians in the Vietnamese jungles who had never seen a white man. A cobra slithered between my feet. A herd of army ants tried to colonize the crack of my ass. And of course, I read of the great adventurers and explorers like Thor Heyerdahl, Juan Ponce de Leon, Roald Amundsen, Admiral Perry, Reinhold Messner, Tenzing Norgay, Sir Edmund Hillary and Ernest Shackleton. After reading too many books about polar explorers and then Tom Clancy’s Hunt for Red October and Alistair MacLeans’ Ice Station Zebra I booked myself onto a former Russian Navy minesweeper and crossed the roughest ocean on earth, the Drake Passage, and sailed to Antarctica to run a marathon on a frozen glacier near a Chinese and Russian research base.

In 43 years I’ve lived the life of five normal men twice my age. Like the back of a paperback on the shelves of Little Professor my life has been, “A pulse pounding thrill ride to every corner of the earth.” and, “A story so compelling and unlikely you can’t put it down.”

At least for me.

The Little Professor Book Store was such a “valve” through which my life passed that when I actually had to settle on something to do for a living I decided I wanted a store like The Little Professor on the very same street in the very same town.

So here we are.

And then there was Mr. Fera’s daughter. Mary.

Mary is one of those girls you never ask out. She is too pretty to begin with and, because she is descended from royalty here in Dearborn as an heiress to the Little Professor thrown, she is a very real Princess. Dark hair, freckles, root beer eyes and a figure that, well, let’s put it this way: The board over the cover of the Playboy magazines in Mr. Fera’s store didn’t make any difference as long Mary was around.

Mary is to Little Professor Bookstore what Paris Hilton is to the Hilton Hotel chain. People went in the Little Café and Little Professor just to see her, pretending to be there on other business. I know I did. In restaurants and bars around Dearborn everyone knows Mary. They come over to her table to say “Hi”. They want other people to know they know her. They want to be seen with her.

Somehow or other Mary and I actually did date for a while last summer. It was quite predictably, euphoric. Although talk about being under pressure… I was dating Mr. Fera’s daughter. Incredible.

Like her father I learned Mary was tremendously down to earth and unpretentious. One night we were out playing darts at a little neighborhood bar on the corner down the street from my store. There were two bars on either side of the one we were in that had spent over a million dollars renovating their interior and exterior, updating their drink list, installing banks of flat panel monitors and enormous sound systems and fancy lighting. But Mary wanted to go to the little neighborhood bar that hasn’t changed a thing since, well, I don’t think they’ve ever changed anything. Mary said, “I like this little place. It is so much fun. I love to come here. I don’t like those other places…” She is an expert at darts. They have one little dart board there, pretty worn out, and Mary and I would go there to play darts and chat. She usually beat me.

While I was off doing the things I read about in the books from Little Professor Book Store and running my own business next door the powers that be were changing the city of Dearborn around us.

A Starbucks Coffee moved in. Restaurant after restaurant moved in and spent millions to renovate their décor and create a new excitement in downtown Dearborn. Bars and “night spots” opened up. They built new condominiums right across the street.

Some new businesses came in and a lot of old businesses left. About three miles from here a Border’s Books opened. They have a lot of books but no Mr. Fera and no Mary. I didn’t grow up reading books from there. The place is like an airplane hanger and I never recognize anyone when I go in there. The staff looks like the crew from the Starship Enterprise - it is as though they had to hire a precise ratio of diversity to meet some kind of quota.

Recently the city bought up parking lots and remodeled the ones they already own and then announced there is no more free parking starting January 1.

So things did change but The Little Professor Book Store just kept right on going with no problems.

Over the past few years Mr. And Mrs. Fera got older and their kids, Mary and the boys, grew up. Mr. Fera actually had a couple of heart attacks. In his business there is a lot of time for work but little time for exercise.

And the years had gone by. Over 40 years. As many years as I have been alive.

Yesterday I went to Little Professor Book store and it was gone. Closed. Forever.

There is a little sign on the door saying all the things you would expect: That they had 40+ great years. Thank you to all their customers. Because of Tony’s health…

There is a story on the front page of the local paper with Mr. Fera’s picture. The headline reads, “End of an Era.” I bought this paper at the gas station. Normally I would have got it at Little Professor.

It’s gone.

I looked through the window to see if any books were left. There aren’t. The books are gone. I don’t know where they went, and that worries me. I depend on those books.

I walked back to my store and sat down in my office, looked up on my book shelf and saw books I bought there. I realized what I had lost. I had a brief pang of panic. It felt like my window on the rest of the world has just slammed shut.

I have lost an enormous part of what made me the person I am. A living, breathing part of where I came from. When this happens you wonder if this is the first fold of a curtain closing on the final act your entire life. It feels like the concrete foundation that you built your life on has crumbled.

I hate that The Little Professor Book Store is gone. I almost can’t really believe it. Surely it will be back. It can’t go away.

It can’t just be… gone.

This is more than just the story of the little retail store closing after the big store came to town. That isn’t what happened here. At least not all of what happened.

The debate about paid parking in Dearborn was a protracted and heated one. The city had decided the outcome before the debate began. Dearborn needs paid parking to be economically viable, so they claim. Mr. Fera felt people wouldn’t be willing to pay to park for a few moments to come in and buy a newspaper. While The Little Café may have been an effective means of making the Little Professor Bookstore a destination where people would likely spend more time, Mr. Fera, his wife and the entire family have been very successful due to their long, hard work and contribution to the community. Mr. Fera had two heart attacks. He worked from before sun up to after sun down almost every day. He has earned a rest for him and his family, and he deserves it. He started with nothing and built so much. He gave so much to every one of his customers.

This city owes the Fera family an enormous debt of gratitude. Their contribution is so far-reaching and pervasive within the culture of our city it is impossible to measure. If you consider the profound effect that business had on my life, how many other people probably have a similar story? I wager quite a few.

For more than four decades The Little Professor Bookstore was such a landmark and hub in Dearborn, people simply took it for granted. In the last week, four customers in our store have said, “I’m going over to Little Professor and I’ll be right back.”

When people learn of the store being closed they react with disbelief. It can’t be closed. It was one of the cornerstone businesses in Dearborn. An icon, a gathering place.

So now, where this hub of activity, knowledge and community used to be, there is a nice little sign and an empty building.

Although the store is gone the books that were in it, and the people who ran it, have made a deep and permanent effect on the lives of their customers: enlightening them, inspiring them and enriching them.

The store may be closed, but those things will never be gone.

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© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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