The one thing every writer has in common, regardless of genre or level of talent, is that they all started out as readers. For more than two decades, many Louisville readers – as well as writers, artists and eccentrics of every type – found a home at Twice Told Books. Located at 1578 Bardstown Road until it closed in 2005, Twice Told specialized in used books and records. But the real attraction was the owner, Harold Maier, who treated the bookstore like his personal salon. Prior to becoming a bookseller, Maier was a teacher, a civil rights activist and a philosopher. He’s also a great conversationalist.
Maier brought all of those talents to Twice Told. Since he retired, his daughter Sophie Maier has held regular gatherings of his former customers and employees to talk about the old days. I missed the last get together because of a move and other things going on in my own life, so I thought it was a good excuse to get together with Maier to discuss Twice Told’s legacy and its influence on a generation of Louisville writers, artists and musicians.
“Harold Maier changed my life,” says Nickole Brown, a poet and assistant professor at the University of Arkansas. “Yes, he’s known for being cranky and unapologetic, but he always means what he says, and his honesty and intelligence is unparalleled. That book shop of his was the central nerve of Bardstown Road for years and home to so many of us. It was where we first read our poems out loud between the rows of perfectly dusty, perfectly loved books.”
Brown is not the only locally bred artist to credit Maier and Twice Told with having an impact on their artistic output. After the bookstore closed, Sophie Maier compiled a book of tributes from regular customers and former employees. It reads like a who’s who of Louisville’s creative community. Among the acclaimed musicians are Will Oldham, David Grubbs (Squirrel Bait), Dave Pajo (Slint) and Catherine Irwin (Freakwater). There are artists like Dane Waters of the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft and Richard “Mooch” Peyton, who did a portrait of Harold for the book cover. And there are writers: Nickole Brown, Ron Whitehead and Paul Kopaz (who is also a musician), among others.
“I tried to make Twice Told a refuge,” Maier explains in the living room of his Beechmont neighborhood home. “That’s what I hoped it would be. A place where outcasts and creative types could come and be at home. Not like many places then, where you were immediately not treated well.”
Maier’s home is like a miniature version of Twice Told. Dominated by bookcases, records and art, there are stacks of books on every available surface. His house on Southcrest Drive is not far from where he grew up off Taylor Boulevard. After living in the Highlands since the 1960s, Maier says he never thought he’d move back to the South End. But he finds it fitting in a way.
“The other connection I have to this neighborhood (besides growing up nearby) is that when I was marching with Dr. (Martin Luther) King, many of our marches started at what was then called Southern Junior High School,” he says. “We marched up Ashland to Southern Parkway, and then down Southern Parkway and back. That’s the same route I take most days on my walks many years later. I find that interesting.”
Maier, 69, says his love of books and social justice started early and both are intertwined. His first exposure to literature as a child was in his aunt’s home library where he found Hemingway and Balzac. And, like any kid, he read a lot of sports books. “When I was in 6th grade I read things like ‘Go, Team, Go!’ by a guy named John Tunis,” Maier recalls, adding that Tunis was a social activist in some ways. “Those books, for the mid-’50s, were dealing with social issues you wouldn’t think they were dealing with – racial, political, all sorts. He wouldn’t openly hit you over the head with it, but that was in the story.”
While in 9th grade at DuPont Manual High School, Maier read a biography of American socialist Norman Thomas that inspired him to get involved with the burgeoning civil rights movement. After graduating from high school, Maier enrolled at University of Louisville but dropped out and moved to New York City where the Beat scene was happening. He eventually returned to school to get degrees in philosophy, education and psychology, and became a teacher in mostly all-black schools as part of his political commitment. But in 1973, burned out with teaching and also going through a divorce, he found his true calling.
“Drifting down Bardstown Road, I saw this bookstore – a small place called Twice Told Books” Maier says. “It was a few crates and some books. I was impressed, but the store was never open. Turns out (the owner) was a graduate student. She was getting ready to move and she was ready to sell, so I bought the store from her. Everybody told me I was crazy, particularly my family.”
Maier quit teaching and devoted himself full time to the store. He kept longer hours, stopped selling books on consignment, and began stocking collectible books and records. Twice Told was originally at 1572 Bardstown Road, the former site of Weeds of Eden. After a few years there, Maier was able to buy a building down the street from it.
“A bunch of guys I didn’t know that well helped me move,” he says. “It turns out it was (seminal Louisville punk band) Squirrel Bait. Can you believe those guys helped me? They did a lot of work. Then they held a concert on my second day open. They were Squirrel Bait ‘unplugged.’ They played acoustic versions of Squirrel Bait songs on my steps. And the kids thought it would be cool, on my behalf – instead of applauding they all snapped their fingers like a bad movie on the Beats.”
In 1992, Maier decided to expand his brand by opening Twice Told Coffeehouse with partner Jim Henry a few doors down from the bookstore. He says the concept worked too well because they were attracting crowds that were too big for the space and many of the patrons were young teens. Maier and Henry sold the coffeehouse after only two years. Henry went on to start City Cafe while Maier went back to just selling books.
Maier says he finally sold Twice Told Books because someone made him an offer for the building that he couldn’t turn down. But he still keeps his hand in the business in a small way. Maier helped former employee Jonathan Ashley set up Second Story Books on Highland Avenue. But otherwise, Maier is happy just being another reader and having the occasional reunion with his former customers.
“I miss that community of people that grew up around the bookstore,” he says. “That’s the thing I most miss. Even though at times I got tired of the eccentric people that came in and out, I also loved them dearly. I miss all of those crazy people. The creative, mad men – they all came to my bookstore for some reason.”