Melvin Gordon, founder of Gordon Booksellers, dies

Melvin Gordon, the founder of Gordon’s Booksellers who presided over stores from Towson to Chevy Chase, died Sept. 7 from complications from dementia at Atrium Village in Owings Mills. He was 92.

“Mel was a Baltimore icon in the independent Baltimore book business,” said Steven S. Baum, president of Greetings & Readings at Hunt Valley Towne Centre. “He was a dedicated bookseller…. His death is a real loss to the book selling industry.”

“I bought all of my books from Mel when I was a young, and now I’m 64. Gordon’s Booksellers was all around the city when I was a child,” said Mr. Baum, a Pikesville resident.

Born in Milwaukee, Melvin Gordon was the son of Harold Gordon, a salesman, and Helen Gordon, a homemaker.

He was a toddler when his family settled in East Baltimore. His parents opened a notions shop on North Gay Street, where Mr. Gordon and his late brother, Stanley Gordon, helped out scavenging discarded magazines.

After graduating from Baltimore City College in 1944, Mr. Gordon served in the Navy as a shipboard electrician.

He met Charlotte Rolnick at her Sweet 16 birthday party, family members said. They fell in love and married in 1950.

After taking a few night courses at the Johns Hopkins University, selling automobiles and owning and operating a Baltimore Street magic shop, Mr. Gordon was inspired to open a bookstore after he visited a friend in New York City and saw how well his bookshop was doing.

Mr. Gordon and his brother opened their own store at East Baltimore Street in 1950. Business boomed, so they expanded to the second floor, doubling the space for inventory. But they suddenly faced a challenge: Their Baltimore customers had an aversion to stairs.

“In New York, they’d climb a flight of stairs,” Mr. Gordon explained in a 2001 article in The Baltimore Sun. “Here, they wouldn’t.”

Mr. Gordon moved the business into the old Emerson Hotel at Baltimore and Calvert streets.

“Movement has always been key to Gordon’s plan. He has expanded when times are flush — as recently as 10 years ago, he had six locations — and retracted with almost dizzying speed when a location fails to work,” reported The Sun in 2001. “He vacated Harborplace, and even the location on Baltimore Street. There is not a lot of sentiment in the way Gordon does business.”

At one time, Mr. Gordon operated two stores in Roland Park’s Rotunda and two in Towson, one on York Road and the other at The Shops at Kenilworth. Additional shops over the years included Westview, Laurel, Chevy Chase, Timonium and Pikesville.

In the mid-1980s, Mr. Gordon started selling “remainders,” books that publishers had given up hope of selling, at a 70 percent discount. He also sold deaccessioned library books.

“I believe Mel has figured out the formula and taken in all the factors — including greedy landlords,” Ted Wedel, who was co-owner of Chesapeake & Hudson Inc., a regional book supplier, told The Sun in 2001.

In a 1993 interview in The Sun, Mr. Gordon pointed out that while Baltimoreans enjoy reading, they don’t necessarily spend a lot of money purchasing books.

“If you’re asking me if people buy books or if they read, there is a difference,” Mr. Gordon told The Sun in a 1993 interview. “The Baltimore buying public is up to the average. It’s not a Boston or a Washington, D.C., or a Seattle.”

After closing his store at 8 E. Baltimore St. in 1995, he explained in an interview a year later in The Sun that “changing demographics” brought about that decision.

“As companies have downsized, a lot of them have moved out of the downtown area,” he said. “We were no longer getting the same individuals.”

Not only was he a savvy bookseller, Mr. Gordon delighted in presiding over visiting authors’ autograph parties at his stores. He came to know celebrities such as Art Buchwald, Christine Jorgensen, Joan Baez and many more, whose autographed books ended up on the shelves of his personal library, family members said.

“Mel was always friendly. It was a joy knowing and being around him,” Mr. Baum said. “He’d take special orders and did everything independent booksellers do. I learned from him…. [He] helped make Greetings & Readings what it is today.”

Mr. Gordon was a popular member of the American Booksellers Association, Mr. Baum said. “Everyone admired and liked Mel,” he said.

When Mr. Gordon closed his brick and mortar stores in 2010, he established Gordon Booksellers online in a Pikesville warehouse.

“He hired a staff of octogenarians who enjoyed working in the warehouse,” said a daughter, Karen G. Wilner of Pikesville. He closed the business in 2014, she said.

In addition to collecting books on presidents, Mr. Gordon enjoyed photography and painting landscapes in oils. He also liked “tinkering” and working on various home improvement projects and restoring homes, which he then rented out.

He was an inveterate poker and pinochle player and played tennis until he was in his mid-80s.

Mr. Gordon was a member of Beth El Congregation. Graveside services were held Sept. 9 at Baltimore Hebrew Cemetery.

In addition to his wife and daughter, Mr. Gordon is survived by another daughter, Gail Gordon of New York City; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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