It was Friday morning and writer Jason Karabatsos stood waiting outside of Schuler Books & Music at the Eastwood Towne Center.
This was his routine and he was often Schuler’s first customer of the day. Karabatsos spends hours in Schuler doing his daily writing and rewriting of his unfinished novel.
He’ll have to finish the novel elsewhere.
He was informed upon his arrival that come February, there won’t be anybody coming to unlock the doors for him every morning.
“I was the first one to know, and for a few seconds I was stunned. It sucks,” Karabatsos said.
Schuler bustled with shoppers during the holiday season. The store had survived the assault of Amazon and e-books and had by all appearances come out on top.
Friday, just after opening, Schuler had already sold out of the new Michael Wolff tellall “Fire and Fury.” Then came the announcement.
Scattered across the store were small groups of employees talking quietly among themselves about the revelation. Their tearful, reddened eyes told the whole story about what was going on in their heads.
For nearly 18 months, owners Bill and Cecile Fehsenfeld grappled with an almost biblical leasing problem and the cost of doing business at the Eastwood Towne Center.
Retail Properties of America, or RPAI, the Oakbrook, Illinois owner and leasing agent for the Edgewood Towne Center, had been pressing the Fehsenfelds to agree to a reconfiguration and reduction in size of their leased space. RPAI declined to comment on whether it has two new stores in line for the new space configuration.
A smaller, adjacent space had been mostly vacant since Eastwood Towne Center’s opening in 2002. According to Bill Fehsenfeld, RPAI wanted to create two moderate size spaces. Doing so would require cutting Schuler’s 24,000 square feet to 15,000 in order to recombine the two spaces. A spokesman for RPAI declined to comment on the falling out or lease negotiations.
These changes would have meant nixing the Chapbook Café, which to Fehsenfeld was unacceptable. In addition, he said the leasing costs for the remaining space would increase.
Fehsenfeld said to have offered RPAI a number of alternatives, none of which seemed to gain any traction. With the leasing dispute at a deadlock, the Fehsenfelds decided they could not operate the Eastwood Towne Center at an acceptable level of risk.
In a media release, Fehsenfeld cited taxes as a reason for closing the location in addition to the leasing imbroglio.
He said taxes at the Towne Center store are “quadruple” those at other Schuler locations. Taxes on properties such as malls are charged to the mall owner and then prorated to individual stores.
Fehsenfeld said in the first few years taxes at the Eastwood Towne Center, which is located in Lansing Township, were much lower than taxes on the store in Meridian Township. But in 2004, the Eastwood Towne Center was sold to RPAI and a new assessment raised taxes dramatically to where they are today.
Public records from Lansing Township show RPAI paid nearly $1.86 million in property taxes for Eastwood Towne Center in 2017. By comparison, Meridian Township Treasurer Julie Brixie said Meridian Mall Limited Partnership, which owns the Meridian Mall, paid just over $2.31 million in 2017 property taxes.
In malls, like these, tax experts said, the property taxes are generally distributed among the tenants. How much is paid is part of each lease agreement, which is not publicly available.
Fehsenfeld said the company will attempt to place the Eastwood Towne Center’s 30 full-time and part-time workers at their other stores. Some employees, including Eastwood Towne Center Manager Rhoda Wolff, have more than two decades of experience with the independent bookstore chain.
Nationally and locally, Schuler became noted for attracting top-tier authors for instore appearances. These author signings and the several book clubs that met at the store helped create a vibrant literary scene in the Lansing area.
A number of local and regional authors grew into successful literary careers after their first reading at the Eastwood Schuler location.
New York Times best selling author Karen Dionne, who most recently published “Marsh King’s Daughter,” said, “I was shocked. This wonderful, magical oasis will soon be no more.”
“I will be forever grateful to the staff at Schuler for the support and enthusiasm provided to me and my novels,” author of international best-seller “Sweet Forgiveness” and Lansing native Lori Nelson Spielman said.
Linda Peckham, a local author and founder of A Rally of Writers, said she was devastated.
“I thought it had to be a mistake. The warmth of the entire store cannot be replaced,” Peckham said.
Intangibles like “community” were also a hot topic of discussion for the regulars at the Chapbook Café.
They uniformly agreed they wouldn’t go to Meridian Mall, but others said otherwise. One regular who called himself Andy said, “The whole place has become a family. It’s a lifestyle and it’s like cutting part of it out.”
Local author and radio personality Michael Patrick Shiels said, “It was an essential gathering place for people and ideas.”
The Facebook page of Eastwood Towne Center had this to say:
“We would like to thank Schuler Books for serving the Lansing community for the last 15 years. While its residency at Eastwood Towne Center is ending, our goal is to continue to add viable, interesting and relevant shops, services, restaurants and events while maintaining our longstanding commitment to serve the greater Lansing community.”
It’s likely the soon-to-be-former employees and customers of Schuler would agree with this assessment.
“Cecile and I will be looking around for another location, but right now we are focused on closing the store and taking care of the employees.” Bill Fehsenfeld said.