Originally published in March/April 2015 Encounter magazine.
The rustic charm of Jackson Street Booksellers is practically an undisputed fact amongst Omahans. Narrow and crooked aisles, packed with books, wind back into the store in a seemingly endless labyrinth, scattered along the way with haphazard stacks of more unshelved books. Piles of unpacked boxes brimming with new book arrivals, crowd the store’s front entrance. A peek behind the curtain into the staff section reveals more mountainous piles of unsorted books, subjects ranging anywhere from Christian artifacts to World War II history. The entire place smells like the dust that drifts off old pages, and ink—lots of it.
It’s somewhat hard to believe that this sprawling jungle of a library—a bibliophile’s nirvana—was nothing more than a decrepit vacancy on 13th and Jackson in 1993.
“The block was completely abandoned,” storeowner Amanda Lynch said. “No condos, no Upstream’s across the street. The windows were all blown out. Just one bookstore to pioneer the block.”
Lynch, along with fellow storeowner Carl Ashford, traveled the country first for a few months, then over the course of several years starting in the summer of 1992, they examined and handpicked books from various stores, sales, and collections from “one side of the country to the other,” in Ashford’s words. Although they picked up the book trade in their hometown of San Francisco, Ashford and Lynch eventually settled in Omaha to open a store stocked with the nearly 100,000 works they had collected. They were later joined in the business by Sara Adkisson-Joyner, a fixture of the store’s staff for 10 years now.
Lynch said they expected the store to last maybe two years or more. Almost 22 years later, Jackson Street Booksellers remains a hub of quiet activity for a variety of readers—which, according to its storeowners, is the fun of the job. Although Ashford admits that rare book-collecting can be tedious and time-consuming, new faces are a good way to keep his job refreshing.
“Everyday I learn something new, like Vietnam in 1961 or some thing,” Ashford said. “I like the idea that as long as I’ve been doing this, I know probably half of the one-percent I could possibly know, as far as books are concerned.”
“I like the interaction with the people who come in,” she said. “This may sound corny, but in this business, you can’t judge a book by its cover. It’s always a revelation to see what people are reading.”
As for types of books that Jackson Street amasses, Lynch claims they collect works from all subject fields, from a generic price range to “very eclectic, collectible books.” Many customers nowadays bring in books to sell, which are then hand-selected by the store’s three employees. Some purchases are house calls. Lynch recounts one time in which a customer offered them a collection of over 10,000 western Americana books that had been preserved in his family since the 1848 California Gold Rush.
Ashford notes that a handful of celebrities have also meandered through the shelves of their bookstore, most recently David O. Russell, the director of Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle. Ashford added that in a speech Russell gave at the Holland Center, he mentioned their store “quite a bit.” Among the other icons that have passed through Jackson Street are director Alexander Payne, comedian David Sedaris, classical pianist Emanuel Ax, actress Laura Dern, and “a lot of rock guys that come into town.”
Although both Ashford and Lynch refuse to divulge their favorite books over the years (“It’s like picking a favorite child,” Lynch said), the “world of book-collecting,” as Ashford puts it, remains fresh through the customers that frequent the store. Those who wander in request a range of reading material anywhere from classic American literature to Haitian history—or even books about the process of making books.
“It’s always fun to meet relatively interesting people,” Ashford said. “Especially younger people, twenty-somethings. When I first moved here, Omaha was kind of sleepy. There’s more young energy in the city now.”
As for more intriguing customers, Lynch cited one example she recalls in which a handful of farmers in overalls ambled into the store one day—and bought entirely heavy-duty philosophy books.
“It’s amazing how revealing it is about people and the kind of books they buy,” Lynch said. “Someone you wouldn’t know on the street is buying the most esoteric or racy or brilliant math book, and he looks like the most ordinary person. I’m constantly amazed by people.”