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Celebrating 30 years in 50 Penn Place, the independent Full Circle Bookstore keeps writing its own chapters



Through challenges posed by chain stores, and now the one-two punch of e-publishing and the recession, Full Circle Bookstore has weathered many a storm over a few decades.

Outside of Best of Books in Edmond, Full Circle is the last remaining independent bookstore in the metro, said owner Jim Tolbert. On Nov. 26, it even celebrated its 30th year in 50 Penn Place. Its secret for long-term success?

"People like to talk about books, and they like to talk to people who are knowledgeable about books," said Tolbert, who insists that all staff members are voracious readers. "We'll go to almost any length to put a book in someone's hands."

The man hasn't always dealt with stories. In the 1970s, he was a CEO of what he calls "a large, diversified public corporation," which is fine for making a paycheck, but he said, "what I was doing was very abstract."

Hungering for change, he made a "therapeutic" move by doing something he had fantasized about all his life: owning a bookstore. In 1977, he bought Full Circle. At the time, it was located on Western Avenue, next door to VZD's Restaurant & Club.

A fire forced a move to 50 Penn Place, where in 1980, the store opened on the third level. Eleven years ago, it moved downstairs to the ground floor, where it has anchored some 7,500 square feet ever since. To this day, Tolbert does 90 percent of the buying for the store's approximate 63,000 in-stock titles.

"Inevitably, I'm interested in more than I have time to read. It forces me to have broader reading interests," he said, adding that his "widespread tastes" include history, politics, science and "every kind of fiction except science fiction."

Full Circle lives on, he said, because it operates partly as "a humanities center," playing host to weekly events that include live music and author signings. The store serves as a home to more book clubs than he can count, and its Garden Café feeds shoppers with a full menu of sandwiches, soups, salads and sweets.

All help to "ingratiate us in the community," he said. "People have a deep affection for books. They have for 3,000 years."

Still, he admitted the rise of e-books " an intangible product he cannot sell " concerns him a great deal.

"You don't get the same experience. You miss the ambience," Tolbert said. "On the positive side, maybe people will read more or get back into the habit, which could stabilize the marketplace."

He noted his store has plenty of weapons to wage in the war of the physical versus the digital: works that just don't translate all that well onto a Kindle, an iPhone or other electronic reader device. That includes children's books, coffee table books, art books, architecture books and oversized books, not to mention the 10 or so store-exclusive, Oklahoma-centric titles Tolbert has published through his Full Circle Press.

Regardless, the lifelong bookworm said he's "in it for the long haul." Besides, brighter times are ahead, what with the gift-giving season in full swing " typically a busy month for Full Circle.

"At Christmas, people come back to books," Tolbert said. "A book is a gift. Anyone who receives it knows it's a thoughtful gift "¦ versus some gizmo."

photo When authors schedule signings at Full Circle, Jim Tolbert said he reads their books before the events. Photo/Caitlin Lindsey

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