- Associated Press - Friday, April 7, 2017

MANHATTAN, Kan. (AP) - A few weeks after a fire destroyed The Dusty Bookshelf, owner Diane Meredith and her family went away on spring break.

“We sat on the beach and did nothing,” Meredith said. “Getting actual mileage between us and the bookstore was really important and helped us to get perspective.”

The Manhattan Mercury (https://bit.ly/2nwaCXb ) reports that the store at 700 N. Manhattan Ave. was destroyed by a fire on March 2 that started from a self-heating floor finish, fire investigators said.

Two other businesses, Varsity Donuts and T-shirt shop Thread, sustained smoke and water damage. Oliver the cat, who lived at the bookstore, was safe inside Thread while a remodeling project was going on at the bookstore.

“We’ve mourned the loss,” Meredith said. “Now we are hoping things go the right way and we can make that corner be what it has been for more than 100 years.”

What Meredith wants to do and what she can do aren’t the same, and she said that’s unsettling.

“We can’t do anything because we aren’t the owners of the building,” she said. “I thought it was a little fire, a fire that was going to be extinguished.”

“Basically when the fire reached the midway point at Dusty and seemed to be spreading, we wanted to be sure (the firefighters) knew to let Dusty go and focus on Varsity,” she said. “Which, of course, they had already done because they are professionals.”

Shifting the focus of fighting the fire from the bookstore to Varsity Donuts next door had very little to do with doughnuts.

“We are extremely proud of our doughnuts, but it is the space,” Meredith said of the building that features old tile and detailed woodwork. “We are lucky to have a business in a space like this. It is an amazing advantage.”

Damage to Varsity was minimal, and the doughnut store reopened two days after the fire.

Reopening was not without its challenges.

“We had to throw away every single food item,” Meredith said. “It was pretty acrid smelling for about a week.”

Gallon jugs of sprinkles and packs of unopened bacon were thrown into a large dumpster in the street the morning after the fire.

The effort to extinguish and control the fire at the bookstore left 8 inches of water in the basement of Thread, where most of the inventory was kept. The store reopened the Monday after the fire. Meredith credits the quick turnaround of both stores to an amazing team of employees who felt a bit helpless after the fire.

“I think they needed to work,” Meredith said. “They needed to have something to do - to stay busy and doing all they could to make things a little bit better.”

The Dusty Bookshelf will be a much more difficult task. Structural engineers have been brought in to determine whether the historic limestone facade can be saved.

The building is still without a roof. The basement is full of water, and everything else - old books, antique furniture and Halloween costumes - that had been left down there at the time of the fire.

“It is like a strange, eerie graveyard,” Meredith said. “I don’t think we will even be able to recognize what those things were.”

Sherilynn and Roger Bender own the building, and it has been in their family for generations. According to city officials, on March 7, the Benders were sent a notice that they had 60 days to repair or demolish the structure. That deadline is May 6.

If the Benders decide to demolish the structure, they will have 30 days to do so. If they want to repair it, the city will issue a 60-day build permit. City officials said that the repair permit is often continued for large projects.

The Benders didn’t respond to multiple Mercury requests seeking comment for this story.

On Jan. 2, The Dusty Bookshelf closed its doors to undergo a major remodel, which was nearly complete when the fire happened.

“We were buying furniture,” Meredith said. “The light fixtures were ready to go in.”

She said the new store was a modernization of the old bookstore.

“Maintaining all the best parts of the Bookshelf but enhancing it with special elements to really make it a destination for people to come and be,” she said.

Meredith uses the term “living room” when describing the new bookstore. She said it would have nooks and places to study and have conversations with friends.

The store planned to include an enhanced kids area with a seating area for parents right outside the door.

“So they can enjoy time with friends and each other and keep an eye on kiddos,” she said. “It’s something I always wanted when my daughter was younger.”

There also were plans to bring back live music.

“It was going to be our dream bookstore,” she said.

Meredith said other dreams are on hold now as well. The opening of “Super Cab,” a sister store to Thread, scheduled to open between Buffalo Wild Wings and Radina’s Coffeehouse and Roastery on North Manhattan Avenue has been delayed. She describes the new venture as a merchandise store where customers can have custom messages or logos printed on stickers, buttons, Frisbees and other items.

For now it is being used as a temporary office space for the employees who used to work on the second floor of the bookstore.

“If it was up to us we would have already started rebuilding it, but we are not the owner,” she said.

The bookstore has anchored the heart of Aggieville since Meredith moved it there in 1991.

After the fire community members, Kansas State alumni from across the country and book lovers of all ages expressed grief at the loss of the store.

“We still get hugs and letters,” Meredith said. “So much food and gifts, and stories and memories.”

She said that support isn’t confined to Manhattan.

“There has been a tremendous outpouring of concern and support from the Lawrence community,” Meredith said, referring to a second The Dusty Bookshelf location.

“There have been letters of encouragement from university folks and the mayor saying sweet things you don’t always have a chance to say to someone,” she said. “It was a chance for them to say things I didn’t realize people felt.”

While well known for its books, The Dusty Bookshelf in Manhattan also played host to local music. Musicians who had performed at the bookstore shared memories and recordings of performances via social media after the fire.

For now, Meredith, her family and employees are trying to stay occupied.

“We are focusing on any other project we can get our hands on to keep us busy,” she said.

___

Information from: The Manhattan (Kan.) Mercury, https://www.themercury.com

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