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Scene in South Bend: Erasmus Books

| Sunday, February 22, 2015

WEB_erasmusbooksSara Shoemake | The Observer

College students spend a lot of time around books. Whether it’s reading a textbook for class, strolling through the stacks of the library in search of a good read and a study space or navigating the ever changing displays of the bookstore, it seems that books are never too far out of reach. This inundation of books often has an adverse effect on students’ desire to leisure read; with so much of the day taken up with lectures and homework readings, taking that time out to find books seems like a virtually impossible task. Erasmus Books will have something for everyone, however, from those who claim they are too busy finding renewed interest in leisure reading and the most avid of readers finding a cozy oasis of literature.

Erasmus Books, located at 1027 E Wayne St, South Bend, IN 46617, is named after Desiderius Erasmus, a 15th-century theologian. The creation of the store, at least in its current incarnation, happened completely by chance.

“The bookstore was a couple years old; it was started by a high-school English teacher at [St. Joseph High School] in South Bend,” describes Philip Schatz, the cofounder and owner of Erasmus Books. “He hoped that he could still operate a bookstore and be a teacher. It was in a different location than this and also in a house. We found this place and figured it would work for books. …I have to say, it was as much chance as anything. My partner was still teaching, I had the freedom to make some choices, and a mutual friend said, ‘The guy that I teach with at St. Joe’s needs to sell all these books and move them to another place, you guys seem like naturals.’”

Capitalizing on the opportunity, Schatz moved into the home in 1980 and has been selling books out of the first floor and basement for 35 years.

Upon entering the house, Schatz’s personability immediately shines through. Graciously taking me on a tour of the house, Schatz shows me 35 years of history piled into corners and hanging on walls. A display case with a letter from E.B. White hugs the wall as stacks of children’s books pile up underneath. Shakespearean plays and a bust of the bard himself share space with books devoted to the history of Notre Dame. Schatz is a born storyteller, and as he talks about the short project turned into a full-fledged business, Erasmus’ emphasis on the local community shines through.

“There’s always this effort saying, ‘What is there room for? What do I think people will want? What is not working?’” Schatz says. All of the books located in the store are previously owned, and Schatz explains that many of the first-time book sellers end up coming back again and again to sell books to the store. “I try to favor repeat donors who I know already or who might know what we want to buy. … As often as every day, someone comes with books. When you see piles around here, it means that someone has come and maybe they’ve asked me to call them back, and I have to figure out things and make them an offer.”

With so many books densely packed into a house, one might think finding books at Erasmus would be difficult. However, each section is carefully organized by Schatz and regularly attended to in order to keep up with the changing demands of his clientele.

“The most common are probably histories, all the way from medieval to modern, as well as theology. Maybe the classics at the top of the stairs, which are forever given as gifts,” Schatz describes. “The things that are least successful, we try to get rid of. Around the corner there used to be a bunch of books about pets, animals, dogs, cats, books about how to raise things. And I think that there’s enough of information like that at the library, and so these books weren’t finding a new home.”

As times have changed, so has the structure of Erasmus. Originally confined to one particular section of the house, books can now be found in the converted kitchen and in the basement as well. Additionally, chairs and tables are set up to allow for individuals to come and read books throughout the store.

Schatz describes the primary customers of the store as community members and Notre Dame graduate students. A former Notre Dame student himself, Schatz says he realizes the difficulty of immersing oneself into the South Bend community while balancing the many opportunities Notre Dame offers.

“[When I was a student], what I wouldn’t have predicted is a life in South Bend, and it’s been a very fulfilling life,” he says. “As a student, you never quite get the chance to know the community because the community of Notre Dame, St. Mary’s, Holy Cross is its own complicated world, and that’s often quite enough for people to absorb. But I’ve had this time to get to know the community through a business, and it’s been good.”

Despite the underrepresentation of Notre Dame undergraduates visiting Erasmus, Schatz remains hopeful that college readers will be paying a visit in an effort to build their personal libraries. For bibliophiles and casual readers alike, Erasmus remains the perfect stop for those looking for an alternative to large booksellers.

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