Fine Arts and Fest

​Last Exit Books

Kent

(www.yelp.com)
Dylan Sonderman
​If you’ve ever lived in Kent, OH, or know anyone who has, there’s a fair chance you know about Last Exit Books.  But for those unfortunate enough not to be aware of this delightful place, I’ll give up the whole scoop on one of the coolest bookstores in Northeast Ohio.

Last Exit Books sits nestled into a cozy nook on Main Street in downtown Kent. Passersby entering the store find an extensive and diverse selection of new and used books, CDs, DVDs, and LP records to purchase. The prices are more than reasonable, as I discovered while living in the college town. I was a student of fairly modest means. After stumbling in one day, I found myself coming back again and again to leave with as many books as I could carry and still enough money to grab some Jimmy John’s or Euro Gyro on the way home.

To me, the shop represents an idyllic concept given form: the small business, the friendly neighborhood store, thriving while promoting literacy and the arts. Largely through a word-of-mouth reputation and community support, the bookstore continues to draw new customers, while still retaining loyal regulars. The people are friendly, the prices are right, and the selection is awesome. It’s the wonderful little store everyone in town knows and loves. Kent State students and local “townies” alike sing the praises of Last Exit Books whenever the place comes up in conversation.

Owner and operator Jason Merlene opened the shop in July of 2004. Inspired by his wife's fond memories of the now-closed Heartland Books, he decided to take action and give Kent what the city needed. Though he was working out of a smaller space than the bookstore currently occupies, Merlene saw success early on, filling an important niche in a college town with a large population of readers and music lovers.

“I had sales that first week,” said Merlene. “I started out with a good stock.”

The stock has only improved with time. I've found everything from classic literature and vintage acclaimed albums to hot new bestseller titles and intriguing rare CDs in the store. The constantly evolving inventory is sorted by section, with shelves devoted to fiction, science fiction, fantasy, philosophy, $1 paperbacks, humor, and much more. Aisles of records fill the middle of the shop, for those inclined toward music. One could spend all day browsing the store, listening to the quirky jazz, folk, and blues LPs Merlene plays over the stereo, and still find something new on the next visit.

To me, one of the most impressive parts of the catalog is the poetry section. I recently visited a leading chain bookstore and asked a sales associate to show me to the poetry area. I was promptly led to the most obscure corner at the back of the huge retailer, where I was faced with a measly little rack of chapbooks and how-to manuals on verse. The shelf could have fit into my linen closet, were I so inclined to place it there. By contrast, Last Exit features several shelves of high-quality poetry, ranging from the great names of the past to contemporary movers and shakers. And the section stands right near the checkout area. Now, I realize some folks couldn't give a rat's ass about poetry, but my point is that Last Exit Books is about 1/8 the physical size inside compared to the major retail outlet I visited. Its poetry section is over five times the size of said retailer's.
I think the ample selection of verse is because Merlene and Co. actually value the medium. And you could point out that there's more of a market for poetry to sell in a college town, sure. But Last Exit's commitment to the arts isn't only skin-deep. On several Friday nights of the year, the bookstore hosts poetry readings. Not only does this generate interest in literature, but it supports local authors and poets, which is also something Merlene cares about.  In addition to featuring the readings of hometown poets, Last Exit sells the published works of resident authors. They even get their own shelf, displayed prominently in the front window of the store.

Though Last Exit is certainly a fixture in downtown Kent, the shop is by no means static. During the majority of the time I've been visiting Last Exit, various renovations and upgrades have taken place to create more space and optimize the shop. And as I gathered from speaking with Jason Merlene, this growth has been a steady process since the beginning. 

The current phase of expansion involves creating a small coffee shop and cafe area in the front of the store. Merlene is planning to do more author and writer readings, once the new section opens. The shelf for local authors is slated to stand in the cafe, as well. I can just picture how people will enjoy reading good books and listening to good music while enjoying warm drinks and baked goods. Merlene hopes to have the cafe open by late spring or early summer of 2015.

It seems almost counterintuitive that a small business treasured by the Kent locals could grow too much before being seen as a sellout. But fans of the store need not fret. The emphasis will remain on the community. 

"I want to keep it small," said Merlene, when asked about his vision for Last Exit. Personally, I know I wouldn't want to see it any other way.

Having run the store for over 10 years now, Merlene knows that he won't continue to do so forever. But once he feels it's time for him to do something different with his life, he's not going to let Kent's favorite bookstore close down. He plans to pass the torch and seek out a successor to keep it going, a la Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. I can only hope he finds the person with the right passion and savvy to keep the place exactly what it needs to be.

For now, Last Exit remains in good hands. With the help of a few devoted employees, Merlene continues to keep the engine of local culture and literacy running for the next generation. 
​Last Exit Books
124 E Main St #1,Kent, OH 44240
(330) 677-4499
Monday-Wednesday: 10am – 7pm
Thursday-Friday: 10am – 8pm
Saturday: 10am – 9pm
Sunday: 12pm -6pm