This November will be a big month for Tulsa's Steve's Sundry, Books & Magazines and for Steve himself. The bookstore will turn 60 and its co-owner and founder, Steve Stephenson, will celebrate his 90th birthday. "We'll have an all-day affair," said Stephenson's daughter-in-law and store co-owner, Joanie Stephenson. "A live remote radio show will broadcast from the store and local authors will read. We'll serve cookies and a big cake, and, in conjunction, we're having a birthday party for Steve. He actually turns 90 in January, but we're going to celebrate early." Authors slated to appear include Jim Stovall (The Ultimate Gift, RiverOak) and Michael Wallis (Route 66: The Mother Road, St. Martin's Griffin).
Steve Stephenson, who opened the store in November 1947, drops in often, said Joanie Stephenson. "Customers love seeing him," she said. "He's like the Energizer Bunny. He plays tennis three days a week. He's raring to go."
Joanie Stephenson, who began working at the store 14 years ago, explained that during the store's first two decades it was a general store called Steve's Sundries. "We sold everything from lawn mowers to the first manufactured Zebco Rod & Reel," she said. Steve's also sold magazines and when the magazine rep suggested paperbacks, they tried that too. "It just evolved over the years," she added.
Now the 3,000-square-foot-location is about 90 percent books and magazines, including between 3,000 and 4,000 magazines and 50,000 titles. "We're known for our local and regional sections," Stephenson said. "We carry anything about Tulsa and Oklahoma. And if someone wants something that we haven't heard about, we'll track it down and keep it on hand. We also have a large selection of maps." Steve's distributes Book Sense fliers and creates a monthly Book Sense display.
The type of inventory may have shifted significantly over the years, but Steve's, remaining true to its general store roots, stocks some items not typically found in a bookstore, including Butter Mist, Udder Balm, and Pedifix, a podiatry product. All sell well. "If there's anything a customer wants and has difficulty finding, we're happy to stock it," Stephenson said.
The look of the store has remained a constant. It still maintains a 1950s retro style, complete with the original soda fountain. "It's a 12-stool, red and black fountain. We serve all comfort food -- egg salad, chicken salad, BLTs, and clubs all made by hand," said Stephenson. "And, of course, we make shakes, sundaes, and sodas. It's hopping. From 11:00 until 4:00, it's standing room only."
The store is about a mile and a half from the University of Tulsa, but sees more of its business come from area elementary schools and residents of the abutting high-end neighborhood. The nearby Broken Arrow Expressway, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, provides easy access to the store, although its initial construction affected business. "Its construction just about did us in," said Stephenson. "But Steve managed to help the store survive with his great merchandising. He's just the epitome of the old-time merchant. He managed to keep expenses down. Any kind of construction to improve your area will ultimately be beneficial, but you just have to make it through the tough stuff."
Throughout its 60 years the store has adapted to face all sorts of challenges from the building of the Broken Arrow Expressway to the openings of a Barnes & Noble and a Borders nearby. "We're very cognizant that the chains are there, but we can't worry about what they do," Stephenson said. "We just do what we do. We know our customers, and we know our merchandise. People say Steve's is like Cheers, but without the alcohol.... We do things the old fashioned way, and it seems to work." --Karen Schechner