Babbitt's Books closing at ISU

Longtime Bloomington-Normal staple nurtured ‘Infinite Jest’ author David Foster Wallace

Babbitt’s Books, on the edge of the Illinois State University campus in Normal, closes Dec. 30. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Babbitt’s Books, on the edge of the Illinois State University campus in Normal, closes Dec. 30. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

By Ted Cox

The closing of any bookstore diminishes us all, but this one hurts more than most.

Babbitt’s Books, 119 E. Beaufort St., Normal, which narrowly averted a shutdown three years ago, is set to close up shop for good at the end of the year.

Founded in 1990 by former Illinois State University art major Brian Simpson, who had opened a vintage clothing store five years earlier only to find the books he stocked took over, Babbitt’s has been a staple on the fringe of the ISU campus ever since. It nurtured David Foster Wallace, author of “Infinite Jest,” who taught writing at ISU for a decade, finishing his 1,079-page postmodern masterpiece (including footnotes) there, and who later called it his favorite bookstore. He bought books from Babbitt’s, naturally, and gave a reading there with Richard Powers and Curtis White in 1996, the year “Infinite Jest” was published.

So of course it has a prominent place in the DFW “Bloomington-Normal Tour” map put together by the local visitors bureau.

In its initial incarnation, Babbitt’s was a haven for book lovers like Wallace. Dusty, cluttered, and rambling, it offered up its treasures almost by chance. It had an excellent selection of used novels and art books, but also historic prints and maps, off to a room of their own.

Simpson moved to close it, though, early in 2015. My old University of Illinois journalism classmate Ginny Allan, now living the expat’s life in Spain, commented on Facebook: “Very sad news from my hometown. Visits back home were synonymous with visits to Babbitt's.”

In a plot twist out of a sentimental old novel, however, it was saved at the 11th hour when Simpson sold it to fellow ISU alum Seth Wheeler, who tidied it up and tightened up the collection and kept things going.

Until now.

Unfortunately, it couldn’t last even in its new guise augmented by comic books and graphic novels for the younger and more avant-garde litterateurs, as well as games and hobby supplies.

There is no place for sentimentality, it would seem, in the Amazon age.

A 75 percent reduction “Let’s Pay the Rent” sale in October turned into an “everything must go” closing-at-the-end-of-the-year sale with Wheeler’s announcement Nov. 1. Since then, he’s been bringing up books out of storage to sell them all off.

Last Friday — Black Friday, as it’s known in the retail business — Wheeler declined comment on the closing and said he was doing “no press” for it. He seemed a little bitter. As he stated in a September Facebook post: “I do everything I can to make the least amount of money possible!”

On Sunday, prices were slashed 90 percent, and Wheeler added a volume discount on “ephemera,” including “maps, prints, plates, illustrations, pamphlets, magazines, etc.” offered up at 15 cents an ounce. That sale is scheduled to last through Dec. 18 as Babbitt’s heads toward its closing date on the 30th, the day before New Year’s Eve.

Hours between now and then are best checked on the Babbitt’s Facebook page.

Last Friday, shortly after Wheeler opened the doors for business, the place began to fill.

“You’re getting busy,” said one customer.

“Yeah,” Wheeler said. “All I had to do to get busy was close it.”