Looking Beyond the Cover at Bobzbay, Nostalgia Kicks In
I had passed Bobzbay at least a dozen times, usually on my way to meet a friend for coffee or interview a source for a story. Peeking through the front door, propped open on mild afternoons, I knew this was a place where I couldn’t spend just a few minutes browsing.
When I did finally stop in with a friend a few months ago, we must have lingered at least an hour. Between the wall of DVDs and even larger collection of books, my friend the movie buff and I the bookworm were easily caught up reminiscing over childhood favorites, offering critiques of “the classics,” longing after the ones that got away.
Owner Elizabeth Aspbury says that’s Bobzbay in a nutshell -- nostalgia. To call it a bookstore is technically correct, but doesn’t cover the array of items found at Bobzbay, or explain why the shop is thriving.
“I think we might survive as just a bookstore, but it would be really hard,” Aspbury says. “Reading sort of ebbs and flows. More people read in the summer because they have time, but then college students are gone in the summer, so we sell different books at different times.”
There’s also video games, posters, records, CDs and the catch-all “collectibles,” from coins to comics and beyond.
I asked to meet Aspbury a few weeks ago when I learned it wasn’t “Bob” behind Bobzbay, as I’d assumed, but a young woman with a reportedly interesting story about her path to small business ownership.
It turns there was a Bob. Robert Clark started Bobzbay selling used books online (Ebay, Bobzbay -- now I get it). The brick-and-mortar store at 419 N. Main St. in Downtown Bloomington came later. Aspbury tells me that’s where she got her first job nine years ago, at age 15.
I do the math and interrupt -- “Wait, how old are you now?”
“I’m 23,” she says. I’m shocked -- Aspbury and I are the same age, but while I was finishing my undergraduate studies, she was running a business.
When Clark decided he wanted to give up the store to travel, Aspbury didn’t want to see the place close. She was still in school, working toward her associate’s, but it was the only job she’d ever known, and after six years there she knew just about everything there was to know about the store.
So three years ago, with a loan from her parents, Aspbury bought Bobzbay from Clark.
“I like to joke that I owned a business before I was legally allowed to drink, and owning a business makes you want to drink because it’s so stressful,” she says.
That said, for Aspbury, it’s still a step above what most young people expect out of a first job.
“I guess I’m lucky in the fact that I didn’t have to have a minimum-wage job,” she says. “If you can get a job, you take it, and this was the job I was offered, and it just sort of snowballed into this. This was not the path I was planning on taking at all.”
The path she was planning to take?
Aspbury wanted to earn degrees in anthropology and library sciences, with the hopes of someday working in a special collections library.
Oddly enough, that work wouldn’t have been all that different from what Aspbury does now.
“I like working with stuff,” she says, trying to put her finger on what intrigues her about the odds and ends that fill her store’s shelves. “We’ve had things come in and I have no idea what it is, and the customer has no idea what it is, but I have to figure out what it is. I love it.”
For example, the larger-than-life wood cutout of a woman hanging behind the counter.
“We’ve had her forever and I thought someone would’ve recognized her by now,” Aspbury says. She imagines along with customers who the woman was and what her image was used for -- we figure the kerchief tied around her neck could point to an airline advertisement.
Once, someone brought in curious-looking eyewear Aspbury later identified as hoodwinks, a kind of blindfold used in Masonic initiation rituals.
And of course, while she’s not a librarian, she’s still surrounded by books.
Bobzbay has so much stuff -- and such different stuff -- Aspbury says everyone from age 20 to 80 finds something that sparks a memory.
“Everyday I get people coming in and saying, ‘Oh, I used to have that when I was a kid.’ There’s stuff in here I used to have.”
I ask Aspbury her thoughts on being surrounded by cultural artifacts of generations past, being only twenty-something herself. She thinks it might be something bigger than just Bobzbay.
“I think our generation really likes to hold onto nostalgia,” she says “It seems like college students and -- I hate to use the term ‘millennial’ because it often gets misused -- but I get kids my age coming in, and they really like music that their parents listened to. Maybe that’s just because that’s what they know.”
She says people our age browsing the store look for what’s familiar more than what’s new. She thinks maybe, like her, they take comfort in what they know; “The rest of the world is so overwhelming. It is, I understand.”
We’re certainly not the first generation to delight in days gone by (I recall the “Remember When” booklets that sit in wire racks at most truck stops). But we are the first generation to grow up on the Internet.
We “90s Kids” struck childhood gold, with the right blend of advancing technologies and economic growth making our lives growing up pretty sweet. Then in grade school, we witnessed 9/11 and watched our parents grow fearful. Not long after, The Great Recession had families short on work, on money, on security. After high school, we braved adulthood to find a shrunken workforce and inflated college price tags.
I don’t think it’s any surprise we wanted to remember the good times -- or that we took to the Internet to reminisce together.
Like any mass medium, as culture talks to the web, the web talks back.
“You’ve got all that viral stuff online, then you see it in person and you’re like, ‘Oh, I saw this on the Internet; I’m gonna buy it,” Aspbury explains. ‘So part of what sells is what’s popular on the Internet, not so much new releases and new products.”
A quick look at the e-commerce arm of Bobzbay seems to support the idea. There’s a set of lilac hardcover Nancy Drew mystery novels, Nintendo 64 game cartridges and several Japanese anime DVD sets for sale -- items that, if you didn’t own yourself as a kid, you probably recognize from an online clickbait list with a title like, “50 Things Only 90s Kids Will Understand.”
The trope sometimes gets us a bad rap with older generations. But millennials aren’t just parked in front of computer screens, lingering in the past.
Aspbury has been a proponent of all things local and a vocal advocate for Downtown Bloomington.
“Ever since I bought [Bobzbay] I've been making an active effort to have events every weekend and sort of reach out and try to get things changed in Downtown.”
She’s hosted toy drives, book signings, and live music, as well as dedicated wall space to the works of local artists and donated some proceeds from in-store sales to area nonprofits. She hopes the increased activity helps drive more visitors to her neck of the woods.
“A lot of people that don’t come Downtown have this idea that there’s nothing Downtown. Sure, there are businesses that have left, but there are also businesses that have come.” She points to Nightshop, the recent Main Street addition quickly expanding Downtown Bloomington’s food and music offerings. Wilson Cycle, That Dapper Pet and Illinois Tattoo Company have also brought new business to the area in recent years.
“They’ve obviously see something impressive about Downtown Bloomington,” Aspbury says.
There’s still plenty of room for improvement; “I think the main challenge is the lack of city involvement,” Aspbury says. “I don’t think we need to go as far as Uptown Normal did and rebrand ourselves, but it would be nice to have a larger team of people to help make small changes for Downtown; feasible changes.”
That was the idea behind the creation of the Downtown Task Force, but Aspbury sees the group as getting ahead of themselves.
“I think it turned into, ‘Let’s do this huge project.’ They came up with some cool ideas, but no one wants to spend any money on that stuff.”
She thinks the City needs to get back to basics in Downtown -- “Maybe not painting lipstick on the pig, but go to the core work. We don’t need a green space. Maybe we should fix the roads first.”
She admits it can be a struggle just convince others Downtown is worth improving. “Downtown Bloomington business owners are trying to fight the rest of the Bloomington residents that are like, ‘Why should we put any money into Downtown? Just let it die.’ I’ve seen those comments online so many times. I don’t understand that. Even if I didn’t have a business down here, I wouldn’t understand that. People live down here. People work down here. There are small businesses down here.”