Delving into Von’s Bookshop

It was the icy winter of 2016 when I visited Purdue’s campus for the first time. As a junior in high school, I knew that it was time to look actively into colleges. Wanting to stay in Indiana (it would come as a shock finding out that my family would be relocating to the Pacific Northwest, leaving me behind in the crossroads of America), I began to take more interest in Purdue. However, I knew that I was not a STEM kid—mathematics gave me a headache and complex physics made me want to switch places with the person in the word problem whose equation that I was supposed to calculate—the one driving her car off a cliff. Why would I, a student who wanted to study English, want to attend what is primarily an Engineering school?

Entrance to Von’s Books [source: https://www.facebook.com/vonsbooks/photos/a.368678106509814/628394817204807/?type=3&theater]
As I began to explore the campus for the first time, surrounded by other prospective Purdue students on the undergraduate-led tour, I wanted to know more about the aspects that made this university unique from others. After the tour, my guide recommended visiting Chauncey Hill, the home of the famous Discount Den (which has since relocated to the other side of campus) to stock up on Purdue merchandise and also an incredibly inexpensive combination of sodas. Walking towards the Den, shivering in my fluffy parka and attentively listening to Google Maps so as to avoid wandering astray, I noticed a strip of stores labeled “Von’s.” After a slight distraction stemming from my love of sugar and the line wrapping outside another local landmark, Harry’s Chocolate Shop (I was devastated to learn that it was a bar, and did not in fact sell chocolate), I refocused on the brick buildings advertising a vast variety of goods: books, records, beads, jewelry, cards, t-shirts, comics, posters, movies, and more. I had not expected to find such an eclectic shop anywhere in West Lafayette.

Although each of the storefronts held appeal, as the little bookworm I am, I convinced my parents to wait for me “for I promise, just five minutes,” as I went to explore the used bookshop. After descending the semi-perilous staircase into its basement (make sure to watch your step), I found myself face-to-face with oversized anthologies, vintage Indiana authors, obscure science fiction, and my personal favorite and first purchase, “Los poderes ocultos de la mente” (The Hidden Powers of the Mind). The array of shelves piled high with novels and the overflowing stacks of precariously piled books set aside to the back edge of the store immediately made me feel at home, confirming I would be content studying liberal arts at this STEM school. An hour after I started browsing, my parents finally dragged me out of the store. Even now, in my junior year at Purdue, Von’s remains a calming place for me in the midst of stressful assignments, group projects, and finals.

Killing time (and gnomes) in Von’s Books [source: https://www.facebook.com/vonsbooks/photos/a.286981788012780/1539654102745536/?type=3&theater]
An independent shop established in 1968 and now the area’s oldest bookstore, Von’s is a cornerstone of the Purdue student experience, with numerous professors providing course materials through it in addition to other stores such as Follett’s and the University Bookstore. The store is divided into multiple segments based on the merchandise within that particular area—though all of them remain connected. In the brutal winter one need not venture into the icy unknown to travel between the fascinating assortment of beads and the seemingly endless rows of books. The different sections include the bookstore, which holds an amalgamation of new and used books, a bead and jewelry store, a clothing store, and a section for records, comic books, and posters. Be sure to take note of the staircase in between the clothing section and the record shop, as this leads to quite possibly the highlight of this store—an enormous, city-block-sized basement absolutely stocked to the brim with used books. If you intend to venture into this wonderous trove of treasures, you may want to clear your schedule, as you may find yourself lost in a maze of novels, searching through shelves to find something truly special. However, if you do not have endless hours to explore Von’s basement, you can still sure to look out for its various sales. Usually, there are used books and beads for incredibly low prices sitting just outside of the shop in bargain bins. These sales, along with the annual West Lafayette Public Library book sales, are what sustain my bibliophilia even as a stereotypically broke college student.

A typical sidewalk sale at Von’s Books [source: https://www.facebook.com/vonsbooks/photos/a.286981788012780/2053797531331188/?type=3&theater]
Von’s serves not only as a unique part of the campus ecosystem, but also acts as connective tissue, facilitating conversation between bookish Purdue students. Recently, I mentioned the store offhandedly to a fellow English Literature major, Isaac Pickett. It sparked conversation about our mutual love for Von’s. He shared his affinity for the books in the semi-hidden basement, stating, “It’s nearly always empty when I go down there which gives it this very mystical quality, like it’s a secret book tomb or something. Sometimes you’ll find first editions of books that look like they haven’t been touched in years. I found a 1954 edition of Brave New World last week that has a silly, dramatic, science-fiction cover.” Isaac expanded further on why he likes the used book section so much, saying, “I love reading old notes written in the margins or seeing what someone saw fit to underline. Sometimes, you’ll find odd things in them. I remember once I found a coupon from 1988 in a copy of Vonnegut’s Deadeye Dick.” While I have yet to discover any coupons myself, I did recently come across a vegan cookbook that has proven to make wonderful, edible meals for both my roommate and I to enjoy. Appealing to the masses with its various odds and ends, Von’s similarly proves to be an essential part of Purdue for its English majors.

Ally Geoffray is a junior in English Literature and Professional Writing at Purdue University.

Alumna Profile: Stacey Mikelbart

Hi, I’m Stacey Mickelbart, and I’ve taken a circuitous path from graduating with my English degree in 1995 to my current position as editor of Envision, the Purdue College of Agriculture magazine—but I’ve never been unemployed!

I’ve worked in tech publishing, editing books in the “for Dummies” series, edited scientific journal papers and grants in a number of fields, worked in managing and communication in the performing arts, created and edited university magazines, and have written arts criticism for outlets including NUVO in Indianapolis and newyorker.com.

While I know a lot of people don’t automatically associate Purdue with the liberal arts, my training here was solid. When I attended NYU for my master’s in journalism, two people in my program were chosen as assistants to the director, and it always made me smile that one was a New Yorker who attended Michigan and the other was me. I think the Big 10’s reputation for graduating smart students who know how to get things done is often true—and includes our liberal arts graduates.

While in New York, I interned at The New Yorker and wrote for the book blog. Every day was an exercise in, “Can I write well enough to meet the standards here?” I highly recommend working places where you feel that challenge. Being in a room full of people smarter than you is a great way to grow and expand your skills.

The range of work you can take on with a degree in English is wide, and while that’s a selling point, it can also be a bit intimidating as you seek your first couple of jobs, when you really want to pin down the “what” instead of being told you can do anything! If you’re unsure, I recommend that instead of looking for specific categories of jobs, you think about your skills—the ones you think are your best and that you enjoy the most—and apply for jobs that require those skills. That makes selling yourself for the job easier, as you’ve already thought about why you’re a good match for what the employer needs.

Who is/was your favorite English professor at Purdue?

I was fortunate to take class with so many great faculty members, but David Miller, who died a few years ago, was one of my favorites. I finagled my way into three of his classes (at least two of them on Shakespeare), and he was supremely skilled at leading a smart and interesting class discussion, regardless of the material. Barbara Dixon has also influenced my career as a student and professional. She was my academic advisor for a short period, taught a great survey course I took, suggested I attend the graduate seminar that launched my editing career, and later became my supervisor when I edited the College of Liberal Arts magazine, THiNK, for a few years. She’s been a fantastic mentor and friend.

What is an interesting Heavilon Hall memory (or just one from campus generally)?

One semester I had FOUR classes in Heavilon 120, so I felt like I never left that room! I sat in a different corner of the class for each of the four to help me distinguish them from one another.

How has your English major helped you in your professional career?

It seems so obvious, and it’s true: reading and dissecting great works, as well as writing about them for challenging assignments, really does help you become a better writer, editor, and communicator in general. Learning how to interpret a difficult poem is great practice for learning how to read a molecular biology paper. Each requires patience, the curiosity to look up information you don’t understand, and the recognition of a new type of language and its conventions. (Some background on the scientific method, logic, and statistics help, too—so don’t neglect those!) My English degree also gave me the skills to organize and structure information about any topic when I’m writing, as well as the confidence to be stylistically creative when that’s appropriate.

Who is your favorite author and/or what are you currently reading?

I’m never sorry to pick up a book by Hilary Mantel or Ian McEwan or an essay by Zadie Smith or George Orwell. Right now I’m reading Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey, since Wilson visited campus, thanks to the English department’s Big Read. I’m also reading some modern takes on these classic tales. I just finished Madeleine Miller’s Circe, and I’ve got Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad lined up next. After that, it feels urgent to read Chanel Miller’s Know My Name.