In a nondescript building on W. 25th St. just south of Ohio City, Michael and Thomas Zubal of Zubal Books are carrying on a literary tradition that originated with their father’s collection in a Parma garage in 1961. It has since grown to encompass three million volumes in buildings in Clark-Fulton along with a handful of off-site vaults.
The store at 2969 W. 25th St., now something of a local temple to the written word and book preservation, features acres of stacks carrying mostly rare and nonfiction titles covering everything from physics and philosophy to the occult and military history.
Most of those books aren’t immediately accessible to the public; Michael Zubal said he will always show a truncated collection of $5 publications arranged on short shelving to anyone who rings the shop’s doorbell, but rarer finds are held upstairs in cavernous, on-site warehouses.
“We like scholarly books and academic books with a really tight focus,” Zubal added. “We don’t want ‘The History of the World’ or ‘American Art.’ We like the history of a railroad track in Old Brooklyn or that sort of thing.”
Having played host to big Cleveland names like Drew Carey and Harvey Pekar, the Zubal building is also iconic to Cleveland’s Tremont and Clark-Fulton neighborhoods, comprising three different structures that represent a slice of the area’s history.
Pekar came through Zubal with Anthony Bourdain for a 2007 taping of “No Reservations.” At the time, the late celebrity chef called Zubal “reason alone to come to Cleveland.”
“We’re in our 60th year,” Zubal said. “My father founded the business with my mother at his side and then my brother and I were kind of born into [it].”
The original building that Michael’s parents purchased in 1973 has stood since 1925. Since then, it has transitioned from a religious publishing house to a textbook distribution center for the Cleveland Public Schools, and back to another religious publisher. Now it’s a living library with 1.5 million books and counting.
An amassing stock led Zubal’s parents to build a 28,000-square-foot addition onto the initial structure of 36,000 square feet in 1978. Sixteen years later, the Zubals added a 300,000-square-foot edifice that previously served as a Hostess plant. Many of the PVC pipes making up the former factory’s skeleton are still flush with the Twinkie filling to prove it.
“My brother is working on a deal for 5,000 books in Denver as we speak,” Zubal said. “We picked up 60,000 books in Medina last April, May, and June.”
The Hostess building has around 800,000 copies that get processed and organized at a rate of about 5,000 per month, while the store also juggles the international shipping of 250-500 books each day. It’s a lot of work, but Zubal said the store’s location aids its business model.
“If we were on the coast, in the DC area, New York area, tri-state area, whatever, we would be under immense pressure to sell our real estate,” the co-owner said. “We wouldn’t be able to maintain the same massive stock and have the same large amounts of books coming and going as we can in Cleveland.”
Touring the structure offers a peek in the building’s past, present and future, requiring one to walk among towering shelves Michael’s father constructed from old pear crates and climb two stories via a service elevator decorated like a hotel room in a Tennessee Williams play.
But all of that appears to be set dressing for a third-story loft that serves as a time capsule of 1950s Art Deco design. Everything inside the apartment area is at least six decades old, from a counter-mounted General Electric stovetop to a wraparound fireplace jutting into the center of the room.
When Bourdain stopped by the shop, Zubal said he referred to the penthouse as a cordial love nest, but in different words. The owners occasionally use the loft for poker games.
Zubal is as interested in telling visitors about a coffee-and-vodka infusion he’s preparing at home as he is about the shop’s Norwich, Connecticut pressing of Thomas Paine 1776 pamphlet “Common Sense: Addressed to the Inhabitants of America,” which the co-owner valued at $250,000.
It’s just one of several books in Zubal Books’ off-site vault to exceed the average price of a Tremont home, alongside a handwritten notebook formerly belonging to Hermann Minkowski, the German mathematician who proved Albert Einstein’s theory of special relativity. That one’s worth upwards of $150,000, per Zubal.
Finding rare books like that — and the shop’s location — explains how the store has been able to stay in business for six decades, but it’s not an everyday occurrence.
“I want it to happen every day, not once every 20 years,” Zubal said. “Most of our daily survival is on books priced between $20 and $100.”
A double-edged sword
Zubal’s stock and trade is selling books on the internet: At any given time, some 175,000 to 200,000 of its books can be found online. But that ease of access is a double-edged sword, Zubal said. As the web has created a market for selling books over the past 20-plus years, it has also flooded the market with used stock.
“Before 1998,” Zubal explained, “we’d have rooms full of old books that we thought we’d make money moving forward with. Now, unless they’re collectible or iconic pieces of literature, they’re basically worthless.”
While rare books or books signed by the author were still valuable, many titles lost their value. “As far as information goes, we had a lot of titles taken away from us by the internet.”
Zubal said the convenience of online commerce also caused a sizable percentage of used books to meet their final shelving places in landfills as people parted with physical paper. “We work to inform the public that there is a better fate for the printed word and more times than not there is a person out there who can put the potentially discarded material to good use,” he said.
That also means that Zubal’s warehouse acts as a kind of de facto conservatory for old books.
“Although we pay the bills by selling hundreds of books each day, we also act as something of a repository or long-term holding pen,” he said. “Because of our scope of knowledge and the thousands of square feet at our disposal, we’re able to conserve material for an extended period of time.”
That makes for a bright but uncertain future. “Now don’t ask me who’s going to take over the business after us,” Zubal continued. “Because I don’t have that answer.”
Outside the margins
The wry wit that Zubal brings to managing the store and closing business deals extends outside of the shop. As the “Book Brothers,” Michael and Tom are 11 episodes deep into a podcast that explores their combined resume of over 70 years buying and selling bound parchment. The two also play music together in the SLAP Jazz Quartet and Trio.
As a sibling pair, the Zubals are set to memorialize renowned Cleveland guitarist Glenn Schwartz with an upcoming performance at Hoopples bar under Irishtown Bend.
And he’s more than happy to share his love and knowledge of books, what he and Tom call the “art of the book deal,” and their Willy Wonka-esque compound of words and paper, especially in the warmer months.
Readers who want to set up a tour with Zubal can call the store at 216-241-7640 or email the owners at [email protected], he said.
“A lot of people think of us as one of Cleveland’s best-kept secrets and we’ve been here for about 50 years so we’re in it for the long haul,” Zubal said. “And we want the neighborhood to flourish and to get better and get cleaner.”
Collin Cunningham is a freelance journalist who lives in Tremont.
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