Austin’s best kept secret

Published 3:59 pm Saturday, July 24, 2010

Hidden behind a small green awning on Main Street is a unique Austin business that attracts people from the far corners of the United States. Inside, Bud Higgins is waging his own personal campaign to not only preserve unique pieces of Austin history, but to also make them available for everyone to own for themselves.

Higgins, the owner of Higgins’ Books, is a retired Austin High School English teacher and swimming team coach. He retired in 1993 to open the bookstore with his former partner, Roger Plunkett, at their original location at 209 Third Ave. NW. Higgins and Plunkett, who were neighbors, came up with the idea of running a bookstore as a way to stay busy during their retirement. Together, they ran the store on Third Avenue for 15 years.

In 2005, the building the store was located in was sold to St. Olaf Lutheran Church and bulldozed to make room for a parking lot. The books were stored in Higgins’ garage while they looked for a new location. However, the number of books they had accumulated was more than could fit in the garage, so many of the extra books were donated to the Salvation Army and nursing homes.

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“We still couldn’t move everything from the building,” Higgins said. “They bulldozed what was left in the building, so there are hundreds of Squeals (an out-of-print magazine produced by Hormel) buried there.”

In 2006, Higgins Books moved to the building at 110 Main St. N. A couple years after the move, Plunkett passed away.

Despite the tough time in the store’s history, Higgins continued to run the shop with the help of his son, Stephen.

The store specializes in selling old and rare books, but it also sells other rare items. When the store first opened, it only sold books and what he refers to as ephemera.

“Ephemera comes from a story Ben Franklin wrote about a bug that dies after 24 hours. Ephemera means paper stuff that was not meant to last, like newspapers or comics,” said Higgins.

Since then, Higgins Books has branched out to also sell calendars, new books, posters, records, prints and framed pictures. As a result, there are several special items that Higgins has been able to acquire and put up for sale. Behind Higgins’ desk is a wall plastered with posters and playbills, including the movie poster for “Tarzan The Ape Man” that was used at the Paramount Theatre when it was shown there.

On one books shelf, there are Gillete razors dating back to 1904. In a back room of the store, out-of-print mystery magazines and copies of Life magazine dating back to the early 1880s are laying out for sale.

“A number of people consider this place one of the gems of Austin because of all the history we have here. You can’t buy this stuff at the historical society, but you can here,” he said.

Among the unique items Higgins sells, there are several that hold special significance only to Austin. For example, Higgins owns a copy of “The Jungle Book” that was owed by Layafette French, the former mayor of Austin from 1885 to 1887. Higgins also has a copy of “The Book of Maggie” that was once given as a Christmas gift to an Austin resident by Lillian Hormel, wife of Hormel founder George A. Hormel.

Higgins said the books with Austin heritage also illustrate a few misconceptions that people have about old or rare books. For example, the copy of “The Jungle Book,” owned by Layafette French, would be considered rare, but not necessarily valuable.

“People also mistake old for rare or valuable,” said Higgins. “I throw away hundreds of books from the 1800s. People go ‘What?’ I tell them that the books are two bit pieces of nothing about nothing. Old is not always rare; rare is not always valuable.”

That isn’t to say that book collectors haven’t found valuable items in the store.

Higgins Books receives business from places as far away as New England, California and Florida. The store’s reputation brings rare book buyers long distances to see what valuable books they can find. Approximately 70 percent of the store’s business is from out of town, said Higgins.

Among the more valuable books Higgins has sold are several 1884 state atlas, which he sold for $500 each.

“It’s like a treasure hunt. Apparently, we must have some things, nice pieces for people to come from all over,” Bud says.

Higgins Books is located at 110 Main St. N. Store hours have changed to Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. The store’s number is (507) 396-0364.