With a big grin spread across his cherubic, bearded face, Paul Schoomer looked like a Jewish Santa Claus. Instead of carrying a sack of toys, he would fill a shopping bag with books you did not know you needed. Serious books. Sure, Paul’s Books offered best-sellers, coffee-table tomes, and children’s books, but you went to his Delmar Loop store for the fiction and nonfiction that build a reader’s library.
Take history. On Schoomer’s shelves, you’d find Howard Zinns’s A People’s History of the United States and Philip Aries’s The Hour of Our Death, both of which are now classics. I bought William McNeill’s Plagues and Peoples on the effect of the Spanish flu and the bubonic plague for a grad school paper forty-five years ago and reread it during the Covid quarantine.
If you did not see these books at Paul’s, you would not have known they existed. Unless you subscribed to The New York Times or The New York Review of Books. There was no Amazon, no Borders, no Lit Hub, no Millions, no internet. The Times did not even offer daily home delivery here then.
Schoomer read widely and deeply in history, anthropology, and science fiction, and filled his store accordingly. Decades before Tolkien became hot, he was rereading The Rings trilogy. Alone of local bookstores, he offered a sizable selection of Judaica. (He once handed me Clues About Jews For People Who Aren’t. I am Jewish, I protested. “But you don’t know anything besides the dreidel song,” he said.)
After returning to St. Louis from Israel in 1966, he walked into Santoro’s, then on the corner of Skinker and Forest Park Boulevards, spotted a pretty Washington University student who had just returned from six months of civil rights work in Mississippi and was smitten. On their first date, he told Suzanne they would marry. She laughed.
After they returned from a six-month honeymoon on kibbutzes in Israel, they opened Bookmasters at Skinker Boulevard and Pershing Avenue. When their partner bought them out, they opened Paul’s Books in 1973, on the corner of Delmar Boulevard and Kingland Avenue.
“Who knows why you open a bookstore?” says Suzanne. “You love books and want to feed your habit.”
They did not care whether you came to buy or browse. For nearly thirty years, from 1969 to 1996, Schoomer was the purveyor of fine books.
The Schoomers made Paul’s Books into Cheers for bookworms. While my newsroom colleagues hit the bars or gaming boats after work, I went to Paul’s and ran a tab. Tagging along was my dachshund-Golden Retriever. Buster roamed the stacks looking for hand-outs and head pats.
“It was wonderful watching Paul’s Books grow from a small shop to a medium store to a large one that held children’s reading groups on Saturday mornings,” says Joe Edwards who opened Blueberry Hill in 1972, the year before the Schoomer’s started Paul’s.
An activist intellectual
Schoomer and Edwards built the Delmar Loop into the commercial district it is today. “Paul and Suzanne were big supporters of the Loop,” says Edwards. “I was gently cajoling local merchants and city hall from 1972 to 1980 when several of us formed a Special Benefits Taxing District.”
Schoomer went on to serve on the University City Council for twenty years.
Over his desk in the back of the store, he hung a sign. “Want to know how to make a million dollars selling books? Start with two million.” By 1996, the big box bookstores began crushing Mom-and-Pop bookstores. The night Schoomers permanently locked the door, I went home with my last purchases and wept.
In retirement, Schoomer took his biblio-addiction to the classroom. He taught biblical anthropology as a senior lecturer at University of Missouri-St. Louis for thirteen years, emphasizing, especially to the fundamentalist students, the Bible is not literally true. Anthropology led to archeology, and he assisted on digs in Missouri and Illinois and in Greece.
“Paul enjoyed a good life,” said Rabbi Susan Talve at his funeral at Central Reform Congregation. “He had an easy passage,” said Suzanne. He died the way we all want, at home and in his bed. He went surrounded by his wife and three children with Wally, their Pointer-beagle, beneath the bed. The dog began shaking when Berger Memorial came for Paul and continued to shake until Paul left his home of forty-one years for the last time.
Paul Schoomer would have turned eighty-three on September 23. He never left his beloved University City. He lies in Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery near his parents and grandparents.