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Don't judge a bookstore owner by his cover

By: The Durango Herald
March 12, 2016 Updated: March 12, 2016 at 11:50 am
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Caption +
George Hassan conducts a search at the request of a book reading club in the stacks inside his Southwest Book Trader on east Fifth Street. Photo by Shaun Stanley/Durango Herald

DURANGO - In the 1990s, Hunter S. Thompson came to Durango to give a talk at Fort Lewis College. 

During his visit, he and his attorney, John Clancy, dipped into a ratty bookstore at the corner of East Second Avenue and Fifth Street so Clancy could bid hello to his friend and book trader, George Hassan.

Inside, Thompson spotted a first-edition, hardback copy of Thompson's own novel, Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, which he brandished in Hassan's face, demanding to know where he got the book.

"He said something to imply it was his," Hassan said. While he was preoccupied, Thompson disappeared - with the book.

The author was easy to track down, as he could be heard bellowing from a clothing store down the street, threatening the business with litigation, having "sprayed himself in the face with cologne or something," Hassan said.

He was able to steal his book back.

"It was a typical story of Hunter Thompson," Hassan said, "but I have great respect for the man."

The owner of Southwest Book Trader, Durango's oldest bookstore, has a collection of anecdotes, such as the Thompson tale, as eclectic as the hundreds of books - on any subject including photography, poetry, environmental philosophy, native culture - he has amassed in 33 years in business. Hassan is a fisherman, a Vietnam vet, as avid a book-hoarder as he is a book-reader and antique collector with no attachment to his wares.

"I buy what I can resell," he said from his desk, invisible behind a precarious wall of books to customers entering the store.

It's not unusual to find World War II bayonets, fishing gear, glass frogs and all manner of unidentifiable knick-knacks in his shop, in addition to towers of books that leave only narrow pathways through the 1,200-square-foot former family home.

Called brilliant by many patrons and friends, Hassan readily shares his political endorsements ("I like Bernie Sanders as much as I've liked any politician in my lifetime") and renouncements, though little about his Vietnam experiences, other than he enlisted as a helicopter mechanic to "straighten" himself out.

"He's not just this eccentric, ex-Vietnam vet. He's an encyclopedia of knowledge," said 35-year friend Buddy Bond. "Any particular weird-ass book, he can give you a nuanced account of the plot, and probably more than you want to know."

Branded Durango's "most colorful and interesting person" by Bond, Hassan is described by others as a quintessential "Durango curmudgeon."

From Pittsburgh, he arrived in Durango in the mid-70s with "a backpack and two dogs with little backpacks." He was passing through to go backpacking with a friend en route to Flagstaff, Arizona, after a long stint in Boulder and a soured relationship drove him out of what he considered the intolerable state of Missouri.

The simultaneous lack of construction work and a good used bookstore spurred the beginnings of Hassan's collection, accumulated from yard sales, estate sales and while traveling. About six months later, he opened Southwest Book Trader in a small space across from what is now Carver Brewing Co. in the 1000 block of Main Avenue.

Three years later, he relocated to the former stucco house that he's leased ever since. One could spend lifetimes going through the dusty hoard, but most often, a book request is usually met with a precise description of where it is. Hassan said he doesn't have a photographic memory, only a "lot of information" in his head.

"I have random information in my head for no reason other than I was curious about things." These days, he said, he reads a lot of adventure and travel narratives.

Hassan relies on loyal customers and tourist traffic to keep things going. Business is "fine" at the moment, he said, but as Durango has grown around him, he's losing a once-thriving consumer demographic.

"Kids aren't the customers they used to be," he said.

A local teacher, now retired, used to send his students every year to the shop to each pick out a book. At one time, most students would take the offer, but they dwindled over the years, Hassan said.

"In school now, they look for a book they're made to read. Wikipedia satisfies their curiosity. They think social media is the same as socializing. It's not. It's just burning time."

And it's a shame to lose readers, he said, because Durango has always been a hub for writers. Southwest Book Trader is awash with books by local or once-local writers such as David Petersen and Rodney Barker.

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