Anne and Robert Levine, Founders, Publix Book Mart
1977 Special Citation for Distinguished Service to the Arts
Unlike most retail establishments, bookshops tend to reflect the character and personalities of their owners. Perhaps that's why modern mega-bookstores often seem as soulless and distant as their corporate overseers, no matter how many coffee bars or comfy chairs they boast. But a small, locally owned shop—a place whose shelves sag with a remarkable selection of high-quality and often hard-to-find volumes, presided over by people of encyclopedic knowledge and exquisite taste—now that is a bookstore people can love.
Such was the emotion thousands of Greater Clevelanders felt toward Publix Book Mart, a place imbued with all the warmth, wit, caring and intelligence of its owners, Anne and Robert Levine.
For more than 40 years the Levines presided over one of the most cherished cultural assets in all of Northern Ohio—an institution that disguised itself as a humble bookshop, but which its devotees knew was really Arcadia, Elysium and Valhalla, all rolled into one in downtown Cleveland. Opened in 1936 in a Prospect Avenue building that formerly housed Tarzan's Hungarian Restaurant, Publix soon outgrew its confines and moved into two-story digs up the block, at the corner of Prospect and East Ninth Street. There the Levines held court for more than three decades, offering a mind-boggling selection of reading matter, maps, prints and one of the country's most extensive collections of art and antique volumes. And if they didn't have a rare or out-of-print edition that you wanted, they'd launch a search to find one for you.
Robert was originally supposed to pursue a life in the law, just as Anne intended to become a concert pianist. Both encountered the same detour in their career paths: their shared devotion to books. Presented with an opportunity to buy the inventory of a would-be Cleveland bookseller named Saunders, who had opened Publix with 118 books and a few back-issue magazines, they leapt at the chance. Bob borrowed $200 from his father, and the rest is history.
At any given time more than 100,000 volumes graced the overburdened shelves at Publix. Although their inventory ran the gamut, the Levines specialized in rare books and volumes on the fine arts, many culled from estate sales and auctions from around the country. At a time when recordings weren't generally available outside of department stores, they even had a special section for music, presided over by Anne.
The Levines knew quality. They also knew what was important—what you should read and what you would enjoy reading. At Publix, the books were for sale, but the atmosphere came free. Ask a question about an esoteric volume and odds were that Bob or Anne would have the answer, which they happily supplied with all the warmth and intelligence and enthusiasm they possessed. Long before lounging in bookstores became a national pastime, the Levines invited you to come in, browse, have a chat, meet friends—stay as long as you liked. In any setting other than a retail establishment, you'd call a place like that a home. Generations of grateful Cleveland readers did just that.
In 1972, Publix was forced out of its longtime location to make way for construction of a parking garage. With no place to relocate and nowhere to store their inventory, the 62-year-old Bob decided that he and Anne should retire, selling all their books at drastically reduced prices. But Cleveland wouldn't have it. Loyal customers and the local media campaigned to bring them back, and before long they had opened again in a new space at 1310 Huron Road. Publix was the first new non-restaurant business in the Playhouse Square district in decades, and it served as an anchor and oasis in the neighborhood even after the Levines managed to retire for real, selling the business to university archivist Wesley Williams in 1978. Publisher's Weekly called Bob and Anne Levine's baby “the bookstore that could not go out of business.”
Bob and Anne passed away less than a decade later, just as the era of the small, quirky, intensely personal and deeply loved bookshop was coming to an end across the nation. True book lovers mourned both losses, for the likes of the Levines and their wondrous little emporium may well be gone forever.