West Lafayette, Indiana: the college town that grew up around Purdue University. Come up the hill from the Wabash River into “the village,” as what passes for West Lafayette’s downtown is known, and along the left-hand side of the road you’ll see “Von’s” everywhere you look. Von’s Books, Von’s Copies, Von’s Video, Von’s Records, Von’s Cards, Von’s Posters. Across the street is Von’s Computers. This is certainly the most conspicuous, if not the most extensive, commercial empire in town. Visitors driving through can’t help but wonder: who is this Von?
He’s the guy standing out back with a clipboard in his hands, policing the parking lot. It’s a Saturday morning in April, the day of Purdue’s annual Grand Prix, a glorified go-cart competition that attracts some 9,000 paying spectators and serves as an excuse for campus revelry and all-day drinking. “One Hour Parking While Inside Von’s Shops” says the sign in the parking lot, and Von himself is politely pointing out the rules to those drivers who look like they may plan a visit to a neighborhood bar instead. Occasionally he even trails suspicious-looking parties to be sure they go where they’re supposed to.
If John von Erdmannsdorff doesn’t quite have the hang of acting like a successful businessman, it may be because he never intended to be one. It all started with the bookstore, and he didn’t even intend that. He just wanted to be able to get a few books for himself and his wife without special-ordering them every time. In a town where the “bookstores” are really Purdue mug and sweatshirt shops that also stock course books at the beginning of each semester, this wasn’t easy.
Back in 1968, Von’s wife, Sylvia, was a graduate student in the English department and having trouble finding books beyond the assigned texts. “People were always recommending secondary material, other things that she should refer to, but none of it was ever in town,” von Erdmannsdorff remembers. So they took the bibliographies and recommended-reading lists that the English professors were providing and decided to “just go ahead and do it ourselves.” At first their procedure was to type a list of books, circulate it, and leave the ordered books in departmental mailboxes. But people kept asking when they could browse through the books. That’s when John and Sylvia made a momentous decision: they’d sell books in one room of their apartment one day a week. Then a couple evenings were added. Then another. Soon professors in other departments were giving them lists of books, and the volumes began to creep into other rooms. Within two years the books had taken over the entire apartment, forcing the von Erdmannsdorffs to move upstairs. The die was cast. No longer a graduate student–he’d come to Purdue to study physical chemistry–Von had become a bookseller.
Now he boasts of offering the largest paperback book selection in the United States, the largest card, poster, and calendar selections in Indiana, and the midwest’s largest selection of computer books–in addition to the videos, the records, the copying service, and all the rest. He did it without ever taking out a business loan, and he runs it all from a cramped space in back of the record store into which he’s crammed a desk, a couple of chairs with cracked seats, file cabinets, and piles of papers. The floor is covered with a scruffy brown rug that was cast off by tenants who moved out of the building. One of the chairs was left behind by an employee. “We kind of watch the pennies,” Von says, “and figure if we watch them maybe the rest will sort of gradually get there.”
Von Erdmannsdorff is tall, thin, and somewhat stooped, with a sparse head of longish sandy hair and eyes that peer shrewdly but benevolently from behind spectacles. He looks rather like a 19th-century figure, and the impression is heightened when he talks about the way he runs his business, or about why Von’s is still in West Lafayette.
His very first employee, Jim Martin, still works for him as manager of the bookstore. It would be closer to the truth to say that Martin, with his knowledge of the books and the customers, is the heart of the bookstore. If it weren’t for Martin, the von Erdmannsdorffs might have moved themselves and their bookstore somewhere else by now. “I like the ocean. My wife likes the mountains,” says Von. “What are we doing in the middle of Indiana? Here’s where our bookstore is. Although I think that we could transfer our bookstore to any city that has enough population, and could probably compete well with any of them, we couldn’t do that without moving people. This is here probably because our first employee is here, and this is where he lives.” So the owner stays where his worker lives.
The bookstore itself carries 120,000 titles–a number any bookseller will tell you is impressive. Browse among the high shelves and you’ll find a wide range of fiction and literary criticism, philosophy and psychology, sociology and political science. The collection of music books is extensive, including several shelves on classical, others on blues, jazz, and dance, and a couple hundred titles on rock. There are, by my count, over 1,300 cookbook and diet titles (ranging from The Surgeon General’s Report on Nutrition and Health to specialized tomes on scones and flans). Erdmannsdorff boasts that he carries “literally everything in print in science fiction.” There’s a children’s section, and one for used books.
It’s not that Von’s is driven to such an extensive inventory by the spur of competition. Other stores still mainly stock Purdue paraphernalia and the obligatory textbooks. There’s still no university-owned bookstore (although there is a university newsstand, right across the hall from the university library in the student union). There’s only one other used bookstore in town, across the river in Lafayette, and that specializes in vintage collectible paperbacks.
Von’s other businesses get a little more competition. But here again, it’s not the competition that drives him to run them the way he does–it’s some idiosyncratic tendency of his to grow in all directions. Von’s Records, for instance, the first store in town to carry CDs, still stocks actual records–along with tie-dyed shirts and shorts, sunglasses, posters, and music T-shirts (“the largest selection in Indiana”). There are plenty of places in town to buy cards, but Von’s shop also features a long narrow side room filled to overflowing with stuffed animals and animal puppets (“the largest selection in the state!”).The video store also sells jewelry, calculators, stereo equipment, keychains, and those little troll dolls.
Goaded by a personal urge to collect, accumulate, and expand, von Erdsmannsdorff rejoices in the “firsts” and “mosts” of all his businesses. (Even his video and copy shops exult in their innovations.) But of all the stores in his block-long retail empire, it’s the bookstore that’s first in Von’s heart. People can buy the other stuff elsewhere, he says, “but there’s more pride in knowing how many people have been educated, or have learned things, from the books that they’ve bought from us–that they probably wouldn’t have found many of anywhere else. I have to think that there are thousands and thousands of people who have come into contact with information in books that they wouldn’t have if we hadn’t been here. That’s probably the single biggest satisfaction.
“It’s nice to pat yourself on the back,” he goes on, “and say we invented video rental here or that we were the first to do all kinds of things like color copying years before anybody thought that would ever work. We’ve made a lot of right guesses and things that I guess you could be proud of. But those are business things that per se aren’t as personally rewarding as feeling that you’ve provided books for somebody.”
Von Erdmannsdorff stops, a little embarrassed. He glances up shyly. “Quote me on that and I’ll sound real pompous.”
For information on Lafayette and West Lafayette, see the Visitor’s Guide in this issue.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mike Tappin.