When my wife asked me what I wanted for Christmas this past year, I had no clue. But after a little bit of thinking, I remembered something a friend of mine had told me a few years back when he got me a copy of The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds on vinyl. “You look like the kind of guy who would own a record player.”
She sort of grimaced a little when I said I wanted a turntable. But on Christmas morning, sure enough, I unwrapped a shiny new turntable and three excellent jazz records. I played those records on repeat for the entire day. Then I needed more. After an intense 20-minute Googling session, I came across Echo Vintage Books and Vinyl in Fort Myers.
Kosmas Ballis and Christine Jordan-Ballis didn’t set out to run a vintage book and record store. The artists moved to Fort Myers hoping to restore and flip some of the rundown housing stock on the outskirts of downtown.
The first place they bought happened to house a café and bookstore. “The books came with it,” Jordan-Ballis says. So while they were doing the work, they kept it open. “We didn’t think much about it, really,” she says. “We weren’t really that into books. But the longer we did it, the more it became part of our lifestyle.”
The first renovation project became a little too much to handle, but they wanted to try again. So they picked another old house a few doors down on Fowler Street and the books came with them. That was 2005; since then, they’ve given up the renovation bug and stuck to books and albums all together as Echo. A year later they bought a collection of more than 1 million books, records and the like from a widow in Arcadia. “The husband was a collector bordering on a hoarder,” Jordan-Ballis says. “He filled up buildings with the stuff. There were books and records in the stove, in the bathtub. It took us a year of going every weekend with a big U-Haul truck and bringing it all back here.”
But it became the collection that really put their business into gear. Now they spend five days a week selling books and records online and five hours each Saturday and Sunday in the 100-year-old house on Fowler Street that hosts the brick and mortar component of the operation.
The process of buying and organizing collections that come to them has helped them in an odd way narrow what it is they sell. “We’re much stronger now,” Ballis says of their collection. “We learned to get rid of all the fat.”
Ballis spends most of his week at his pottery studio a few streets down, where he makes pieces that respond to politics and man-made disasters. Sitting in front of the store are two large black sculptures that are part of his Corruption series in response to the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill. He has a piece, entered in the Gyeonggi International Ceramics Biennale in South Korea, that explores the Fukushima nuclear reactor meltdown. Locally he’s also known for little ceramic squares of famous folks caught up in scandals, from fallen local real estate mogul Samir Cabrera to disgraced South Carolina governor Mark Sanford.
Jordan-Ballis is also an artist, though she admits to spending more time on the books than the art. But walking up the steps into the shop you can’t help but notice the beautiful mosaic she created. She’s more the retail brains of the operation, as a graduate of a Brooks Brothers management training program and the daughter of New England business owners.
On a typical weekend day you’ll find them both on their laptops, her behind the register counter and him just off to the side. They’re researching their latest acquisitions, adding new merchandise to the websites or looking at orders. Their book and record collections are as eclectic as they are charming. On a recent weekend among the 20,000 LPs, 45s and 78s on hand, you could find a 45 single of Lou Monte’s Pepino the Italian Mouse, Curtis Mayfield’s Super Fly soundtrack, a $100 near-mint original pressing of Hard Day’s Night and an album simply titled Sixth Grade Chorus of Holiday Hill School. You’ll find The Best of Vanilla Fudge next to Blonde on Blonde.
Perusing the bookshelves you’ll find full sets of Winston Churchill’s Second World War series; no fewer than 12 copies of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich; partial and complete editions of encyclopedias from Brittanica, New Studio, and Funk and Wagnalls; and a 1955 tome called The Complete Book of Cheese. The works of Pearl S. Buck, Dan Brown and Tom Clancy share a shelf. The children’s section is relegated to a non-functioning restroom. (A functional restroom is just off the American history section.)
While I was at the store one Sunday, I posited to the couple that this is what the modern bookstore will look like. As we consume more and more of our media on electronic devices, the only real bookstores will be designed solely for those who are in love with the objects as much as the content. Why buy a complete collection of Shakespeare’s plays in a new version when you can have it in a four-volume 1885 set? “These old books last longer because they are hand-bound, not glued,” Jordan-Ballis says. “Anything much after the 1980s, it was like they were built with a planned obsolescence.”
But don’t take the couple for technophobes. They run credit cards through a strip plugged into a mobile phone and accept bit coin as payment. They were practically giddy when I explained the wonderfulness of upgrading to a Sonos wireless speaker system.
But perhaps the tactile nature of their artwork gives them a desire to hold on to some things in analog. “We started out to preserve history through houses,” Jordan-Ballis says. “We ended up preserving it through books and records.”
While you are on Fowler Street checking out books and records, make a little extra time to visit the Butterfly Estates next door. Part café and event space, part butterfly conservatory, this is a great place for a cup of coffee and a little bit of education. With 3,600 square feet of space dedicated to the native butterflies of Florida, the Butterfly Estates actively raises and releases hundreds of butterflies each week. Because it contains no exotic species, the conservatory is one of a handful of places in the U.S. that can breed.
Admission is normally $12 for adults, $7 for kids ages 4 to 16, and free for children 3 and younger. But Florida residents get $1 off by showing their ID, and the first Sunday of the month is free.
The Butterfly Estates,
1815 Fowler St., Fort Myers,