Wilkie's Has the Wright Stuff

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Ohio’s Oldest Bookstore Becomes Hub for Flights and Food

Jim and Pat Latham, owners of the seven-year-old BookFriends and the 107-year-old Wilkie’s, have consolidated both downtown Dayton bookstores after permanently closing BookFriends on March 4 and moving all the stock to the historic Wilkie’s, the oldest bookstore in Ohio. Never ones to let grass grow through the tarmac beneath their feet, the Lathams have already incorporated a classic aeroplane-building workshop into the store and are about to start construction on an in-store café, with artifacts and recipes from the oldest department store in Dayton, now closed.

As Jim Latham told BTW, "What could have been a sad thing has become a great opportunity to really grow the Wilkie’s operation. We have really been involved with the Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company, and we’re hiring people to train them for the café."

He and Pat Latham have been determined to open the café/restaurant for a long time. They have the 1860 art glass partitions, the vintage fixtures, and even the original recipes rescued from Rike’s, Dayton’s oldest department store, before its recent demolition. They have 1,200 square feet of former office space allocated, and they have raised most of the money they need.

Back in July, the Lathams announced that they would be forced to close Wilkie’s if they couldn’t get $300,000 in grants and loans to make needed improvements to the 3,600-square-foot former newsstand, including a café. Despite concerns by city economic developers, who generally stay away from investments in restaurants, the Lathams have successfully secured the financing through bank loans, a private development corporation, and the city of Dayton’s economic development department.

In addition, they are working to gain final approval of a U.S. Small Business Administration loan. Latham is quite sure the transaction will close this week. His confidence is not surprising as it was only two years ago when the Lathams rescued Wilkie's by purchasing it three days before its scheduled closing. "I have a history of tilting at windmills," Jim Latham told BTW in July of 2001. [http://www.bookweb.org/news/btw/4823.html.]

Although Orville and Wilbur Wright are most often geographically linked to Kitty Hawk on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, they are native sons of Dayton, where they built their flying machines including their first, a rubber band-powered helicopter (Orville was eight, Wilbur, 12). The Wright family lived one-half mile from Wilkie’s News; the brothers ran their eclectic workshop nearby; and Wilkie’s, as the newsstand of record, distributed the 1905 account of their flight.

That may explain why the Lathams have incorporated the Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company (WBAC) into their store. WBAC, on its informative Web site, www.wright-brothers.org, identifies itself as a Dayton-based nonprofit organization of aviators, historians, educators, and other people who share an interest in the history of the invention of the airplane.

As Dayton is considered the birthplace of aviation, Wilkie’s bookstore seemed the ideal place to showcase the contributions of the Wright Brothers and to assemble replica aircraft. Current projects include the construction of the 1902 Wright Glider (to take to Kitty Hawk later in 2002) and the 1903 Centennial Flyer, which will ultimately hang at the Dayton International Airport over a kiosk featuring Wilkie’s. Within the store’s workshop, the WBAC is hand-building working replicas of all six of the experimental planes the Wright Brothers made between 1899 and 1905. The connection with WBAC has brought many people into the store. On-going workshops, speakers, special events, and a specialized collection of books relating to aviation have all drawn new customers.

In answer to the question of adequate floor space in a bookstore for an airplane assembling facility, Latham said, "The space we’ve given them is 34 feet by 16 feet; the planes are 33 feet long and 16 feet deep. The elevators [attached to the tail of the plane] have to be put on outside. We are getting a lot of publicity about all of this. Dayton is gearing up for the ‘Centennial of Flight’ in 2003. We can do all kinds of events related to it -- lectures, poetry readings, wine tasting. But we are still a bookstore. We moved all the staff from BookFriends here. We didn’t have to lay anybody off, and we’ve continued promoting only the 76 lists and Book Sense bestsellers. They make it much easier to sell books." -- Nomi Schwartz