Cleburne residents rally to the rescue of elderly bookshop owner

Posted Friday, Aug. 30, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Saving Bill’s Books Friends of bookshop owner Bill Miller have established an account at Pinnacle Bank, 1403 W. Henderson St., Cleburne to help raise funds to reopen Bill’s Books. For more information contact Lynn Buker at Heritage Home-Vintage Inspired Living, 817-933-4836.

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A first book, like a first love, is hard to forget, and Bart Clark has instant recall of the fall day in 1980 when as a 16-year-old he drove his 1967 Mustang to Bill’s Books in Cleburne and bought Empire of the East, a steamy science fiction-fantasy.

“I went to a private Christian school in Keene and it was the first book I ever read that talked about scantily clad beautiful women,” laughs Clark, who after devouring the paperback, passed it around to eight friends.

Clark, an occupational therapist in Grandview, still has the vintage Mustang and the well-thumbed book.

He also has an enduring connection to Bill Miller, the 81-year-old bookman whose crammed-to-the-ceiling shop was the teenager’s “bridge between the fun book world and the real world.”

This summer, Clark and a determined squad of Cleburne residents have rallied to the rescue of “Mr. Bill,” who was forced out of his ramshackle building in May by a lengthy list of city building, fire and health code violations.

No one denies that Miller’s dilapidated 1880s brick building, where he also illegally lived, was in abysmal shape, says Kathryn Ann Murphy,

But what has many townsfolk hopping mad is how the city handled things, said Murphy, a long-time educator.

“They are pushing an 81-year-old out of the only place he has — it’s like grave robbing,” she said. “They knew he had lived there for years and years.”

Julia Borden, a customer at Bill’s Books, said Cleburne should have cut Miller some slack.

“I think it’s truly sad. Of all the years he’s been there, what on earth is so important to run him out,” she said. “It’s totally wrong what they are doing. Bill’s place is an institution.”

Many fault Mayor Scott Cain for aggressively enforcing long-overlooked code violations, Murphy said.

But Cain, an attorney who was elected in May 2012, stands by the city’s actions.

“It’s not a matter of us against Mr. Miller, it’s a matter of we have a citizen who is living in deplorable conditions and we are doing him no favors by allowing that to continue,” Cain said.

“We didn’t toss him out on the street. A lot of our employees actually looked for a place for him and tried to give him time to do these things. Anyone that thinks our fire marshal came down and picked him up by the britches and threw him out on the street is wrong, that simply didn’t happen,” he said.

Cain said the city was in a “darned if you do, darned if you don’t,” situation.

“If something happened to Mr. Miller because of the living conditions, I suspect people would have been upset if we didn’t do something,” Cain said. “Some have said, ‘Why are you just now doing it?’ And my response is that it’s never too late to do the right thing.”

The mayor is convinced that next spring’s opening of the Chisholm Trail Parkway, a toll road that will provide a quicker connection to Fort Worth, is going to morph Cleburne from a town of 29,000 into a booming Metroplex suburb.

“I know past administrations have not enforced our ordinances and tried to raise the standards, but with the coming of State Highway 121, we are trying to make Cleburne into something very special. And that includes making sure that all of our residents have a safe place to live and work,” he said.

“We have 80 years of tradition unhampered by progress. We’re just wanting to improve the quality of life for our citizens and improve the appearance throughout the community,” Cain said.

But that shouldn’t come at the expense of a town “icon,” say Murphy and antique store owner Lynn Buker, who have led a summer-long quest to resurrect Bill’s Books and resettle Mr. Bill.

Miller said he’s been amazed by the outpouring of support that has landed him a new place to live, close to $6,000 in donations and a new home for Bill’s Books.

“I was surprised by the help from all these people. It made me feel pretty good. Actually, it thrilled me,” he said.

The reaction has “shocked City Hall,” Miller said.

“They figured after 10 days it would be over. But it blew up like an atomic bomb. It made me feel tremendous but I hated it that the community had to do all this. But it has been gratifying, very gratifying.”

A mountain of books

Bill’s Books began as a kiosk in a Cleburne hotel when Miller moved back to his hometown from Miami, Okla., where he managed a movie theater.

In 1980, Miller bought the historic brick building, which over the decades had also served as a butcher/grocery store and a sporting goods shop.

He amassed a mountain of books, trading one for every two customers his brought in to the shop on South Main Street near Cleburne’s town square.

At the very least, Miller deserved extra credit for his civic work, say Murphy and Buker.

Over the years, he organized a community service program for juvenile offenders, ramrodded a cleanup program for Buffalo Creek and initiated the start of Antique Alley, a twice-a-year road-side sale that runs for 37 miles through Cleburne, Itasca, Maypearl and Grandview.

He also served on various boards and on the side worked as a Star-Telegram correspondent in the 1980s.

Clark remembers that Miller always kept cats in his shop and that affinity for felines appears to have been the store’s undoing.

On April 12, Fire Chief Clint Ishmael notified Miller by letter that his building wasn’t zoned for occupancy and that an inspection had noted a strong odor of cat excrement and urine inside the building.

Miller was ordered to move out and clean up before reopening the store.

“The cat feces and urine throughout the building had become a health problem,” Ishmael said.

In a follow-up inspection in early May, a long list of structural and electrical problems in the building were identified, Ishmael said.

“When we came back there was still ample amount of cat feces in the building. It was unsanitary. I don’t think it was safe for anybody to live in there or shop there,” he said, noting that the city has been struggling to control feral cats.

“We’ve been trapping them, but Mr. Miller allowed those cats unchecked into his structure. The entire store became a litter box,” Ishmael said, adding that the city had received multiple complaints about it.

Beyond the sanitary problems, Miller said he didn’t have the money to make the extensive roof, electrical and plumbing repairs, Ishmael said.

“He could reopen his building if he made the repairs. Bill has been an icon of the city for a number of years and served on various boards. There’s not a political movement to cause any harm to Bill Miller or his business,” he said.

The city is also working with other property owners to “clean up some issues we’ve had for a number of years,” Ishmael said.

“Like an old shoe”

When Miller, whose primary income is a $689 a month Social Security check, was told he had to move out, he panicked and sold his old pick-up truck so he could afford a hotel room, Murphy said.

“He had nowhere to go. The city should have given him more time. Instead, they threw him out like an old shoe,” she said.

Miller’s supporters helped relocate him to an apartment in a senior center in Grandview and found him an affordable car. They also held two book sales outside the shop that attracted hundreds, Buker said.

“It’s amazing the outpouring of help in town. We had a 4-year-old girl bring her piggy-bank … People love Mr. Bill,” she said.

Murphy and Buker have found a 350-square-foot space for a temporary home for Bill’s Books that’s just across the street from Buker’s Heritage Home store. They hope to open the shop on Sept. 7.

Miller estimates he had more than 100,000 books in his store but Murphy guesses it’s now down to around 70,000 to 80,000. Another benefactor has offered a place to store the overflow that won’t fit in the tidy new space in a restored building, she said.

Murphy and Buker still hope Miller’s old building can be restored or if that fails, he can sell it.

“If I sell the building, I’ll have enough money to get by and have my bookstore. That’s all I want to do,” Miller said.

If the new shop succeeds and Mr. Bill still wants to open a full store, Clark hopes he can provide a space in a building he’s developing in Grandview.

“We want to enable him to do his thing for as long as he can do it,” he said.

Steve Campbell, 817-390-7981 Twitter: @stevecamp

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