Bohemian Rhapsody

The Life and Times of Tom Rudloff


“Good morning. Would you like some coffee?” 

When you walked through the wooden double doors of the Antiquarium bookstore, you could hear these words– at any time of the day or night. They would have been spoken by the Antiquarium’s owner and founder, Tom Rudloff. Rudloff died on May 29th. 

The Antiquarium is one of Nebraska’s best-loved bookstores. On the shelves that fill its cavernous spaces, you could find just about any book you were looking for, on the full range of topics. Or if you didn’t, you could find an unexpected treasure you didn’t even know you wanted. With usually modest prices, down to a three-for-a-dollar section at one time, many people who couldn’t afford a formal higher education were able to get their education from those shelves.

In fact, the Antiquarium had many features that appealed to just about all aspects of the mind and spirit. At various times, it housed two art galleries, a world-famous record store, antique shops, chess tables, a comic book store, and a magazine shop. There were two pianos, one on the main floor and one upstairs, and next to the former was a rack of guitars in various stages of having strings, any one of which instruments anyone could play who wanted to. Its constant flow of coffee of questionable quality and its cats, Oops and Splotch freely roaming the premises, became Omaha icons. (Syd Reinarz once asked, “Why do you call him Oops?” Tom replied, “He doesn’t seem to mind.)   

It was also notable for being open late hours, something which appealed to Omaha’s bohemian element. For many years it was open until midnight on Fridays and 1 a.m. on Saturdays. But Tom would continue to welcome people, to converse, and to sell books as long as he was in a mood to. So if you were in the Od Market, it was always worth going to past the Antiquarium to see if anything was going on.

The Antiquarium was loved for being a gathering place for salon-like conversation, where all kinds of people, scholars and hippies, punks and clergy, revolutionaries and homeless people, could gather and freely join in an on-going discussion. Among the assembled chairs and couches of its front room– in the “conversation pit”, as the regular customers called it– one could hear discussions of everything from theology to the Russian Revolution, existentialism to advanced mathematics, the pros and cons of vegetarianism to the ethicality of the Gulf War. 

Tom Rudloff was what made all this possible. His intelligence and openness certainly helped this atmosphere. But also his relaxed, gentle presence, his broad—although often wry—smile, and his seeming ability to talk to anybody made customers immediately feel welcome. 

Jeremy Mercer’s memoir of the famous Shakespeare and Company Bookstore in Paris is titled Time Was Soft There. Time was certainly soft at the Antiquarium. This was due in large part to Tom’s languid way of speaking and moving, the way his tall, loping body never seemed to be in a hurry to do anything. He wasn’t afraid to use more words than were strictly necessary for his meaning, as long as the resulting sentence sounded graceful and genteel. Even when he used profanity (which was not all that infrequent), it was never gratuitous, but always played a key role in what he was expressing; swear words were just part of the music of the sentence. He worked at the same pace, too. In fact, if a new customer who didn’t know him yet asked “Do you work here?” he would inevitably reply, “Nobody works here.” Rather, they puttered; he made bibliophilic puttering a way of life. (In fact, it always amazed me how someone who drank so much coffee could be so relaxed.)    

Another factor that allowed Tom to extend a universal welcome to his visitors was his gift for languages. He was fluent in Spanish, German, French, Russian, Latin, Italian (thought he disparaged his skills in this language), ancient Greek, and American Sign Language. If he found out that you spoke a certain language, he would make sure to speak to you in it the next time he saw you—often in a way that challenged the beginner. 

No matter what the language, Tom never hid his eloquence or erudition. He never talked down to people, including adolescents and children (which included me). Omaha musician Dereck Higgins says, “What I want to share is how I felt immediately respected by him. I was maybe 15 years old when I first wandered in there and he was so gracious and engaging. It made an impression on me that he was truly interested in my thoughts. He was a role model for me.”

In addition to being truly interested in what people had to say and in what they could contribute, Tom trusted that if they were gently challenged by new words and new ideas, they would rise to the occasion. And they most often did. It was noticeable how people’s vocabularies elevated when they talked to Tom. They wanted to impress him, or at least be taken seriously by him. He never believed in lowering the bar to where people were, but in helping to raise people up to meet the bar.

He was just as encouraging in the search for knowledge. Once, when I was a little kid in the mid-70’s, I wondered aloud, “Where is Swahili spoken?” Many other people might have been content to say, “I don’t know”; but Tom immediately led me up to the balcony that loomed over the front room, where the multi-volume sets were shelved, and proceeded to look through those volumes until he had an answer. (It turned out to be along the southeastern coast of Africa.)

He not only aided people in their intellectual and artistic quests, but in their more material needs. He often lent people money, or provided a place to sleep, or encouraged people in their fight to stay sober. I personally know of at two “sobriety gifts” that he gave to people, books he knew were beloved by the recipient, to support them in their struggle. 

In her article on Rudloff’s death for the Omaha World-Herald, Nancy Gaarder writes, “Trained in the priesthood, Rudloff’s parish was his store.” Though he no longer believed in God, he did retain the ideals of service and compassion he had learned in the seminary. In the novel The Plague (a book I bought at the Antiquarium), Albert Camus had a character ask, “Can one be a saint without God?” Tom Rudloff’s life was as close to an affirmative answer to this question as we’re likely to get. 

But like any human being, Tom could be moved to anger and irritation. This especially happened when he was confronted by cruelty and violence in the world, especially organized violence. Especially noticeable were the dark moods which haunted him after the September 11th attacks—not only sadness for the victims of the attacks, but also because he foresaw the war that would follow and all the innocent lives that modern warfare inevitably claims. This anger and sadness only deepened with what he saw as the injustice of the Iraq war. 

But even in a fit of pique, he was never less than eloquent. Once someone was defending a conservative position and said. “I’m sorry, Tom, I didn’t mean to shock you.” Tom immediately retorted, “Oh, no. The fact is that conservatism is so trite, so tired, so predictable, that I’m not even titillated, let alone shocked.” 

And as with any human being there were also limits to his hospitality and tolerance. Though he often enjoyed a glass of wine with the friends who happened to be in the store in the evening, he had no tolerance for people who would show up already drunk, especially if he knew it was someone who behaved badly when they drank. That was the main way one could get asked to leave the Antiquarium. The other way was to openly talk about drug use. Tom forbade this, not only because he personally didn’t participate in, or even understand, drug culture, but mainly for a pragmatic reason. As a counter-cultural gathering place, the authorities already thought the Antiquarium was a drug den, and Tom didn’t want to give anybody any reason to think that, and wanted to avoid the heat that that perception could bring.    

He was also modest about the quality of Antiquarium conversation. As one might expect of a business open every day, the discussions were often banal instead of Socratic. In the midst of one particularly inane session, Tom threw down his crossword puzzle, and exclaimed, “People always say they’re intimidated to sit down in the front room of the Antiquarium because of the intellectual discussions we have. I wish I knew what in the fuck they were talking about!” 

Tom’s Story: Before the Antiquarium

Tom Rudloff was born on August 11th, 1939. He grew up on 40th and Spencer in North Omaha, and attended Holy Name Catholic School. He had three brothers, James, who preceded him in death, Howard, and Jerry, and three sisters, Judy (who was his business partner in the store), Bonnie McNally, and Nancy Teply. His father was the director of Roberts Dairy, and became assistant to the president of that company. He subsequently lost that job, which caused economic stresses that led to a period of discord in the family.  

The result of “the old man’s drunken episodes”, as Rudloff put it in an interview with Atiim Jones in 2014, was that the young Tom was a “psychological mess,” flunking almost every class. But when, at the age of 14, he went away to the Redemptorist seminary in Kirkwood, Missouri, and was away from the chaos of his home life, he blossomed as a student, getting an A average and excelling in Latin and English. 

As he once told me, “I don’t believe in God anymore. And while I often criticize the Catholic Church, I will never completely criticize them…They gave me a place of quiet, where I could read, and think, and study. Otherwise, I don’t know what I would have been.”    

Tom went there for six years, the equivalent of high school and the first two years of college. After that, he entered the novitiate in De Soto, Missouri, in which one wore the habit of a monk and practiced being a monk. After six months, he took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and entered the second phase, which consisted of being sent to Wisconsin for five years of study in philosophy and theology. Tom specialized in the philosophy of St, Thomas Aquinas. Tom described the architecture of Aquinas’ system as a “beautiful poem”—that is to say, beautiful, but unreal.

In January of 1965, Rudloff was wrestling with doubts as to whether he should continue with his vocation and be ordained as a priest—as he had struggled many times before. He realized he didn’t really belong there, but he was having such a good time with his studies, he didn’t want to face that reality. But with his ordination six months away, he knew he had to make a final decision. 

“I quit because I contradicted myself on a grammatical point,” he told Jones. “Instead of saying, ‘What will happen if I quit?’ I said, ‘What will happen when I quit?’ and I heard myself saying it, and knew that I had already made up my mind.”   He then asked to be released from his obligations. He was refused at first, but succeeded in making enough of a nuisance of himself to be transferred to Omaha, where he could attend Creighton University.

But there was a problem. The seminary at which he had done most of his studies was in the process of being accredited, but had not yet been accredited. Furthermore, Tom wanted to get into the Masters’ program in History, and a review of his transcripts showed that most of the history classes he had taken in the seminary were in fact in Church history. But after a private interview, the department chair concluded that Tom did, in fact, know something about history, and was thus admitted to the program.

He went to work on his Masters’, deciding for his project to do an English translation of a book in German about the German resistance movement against Hitler. (Tom said, with his usual self-deprecation, that he chose that particular book because it was the shortest one he could find.) Meanwhile, he supported himself by doing Spanish translations for the Mutual of Omaha insurance company

He was apparently well-liked at Mutual, as evidenced by the number of people who came into the store in later years who remembered him fondly from that time. He worked on his Masters’ thesis for three years, finally translating the book and turning it in. His advisor then told him he had to annotate it. Tom figured that that would take another three years of work, and he wasn’t interested. So he walked away from the project, never to return.

Instead, he decided to go to France to sell commodities. This is a puzzling choice, given his talents and history. Maybe the international aspect of the business and the chance to use his linguistic abilities appealed to him. In any event, he departed for Europe to pursue his new career.

As it happens, he was in Paris during the revolt of May, 1968, which nearly toppled the government, a rebellion made famous partly because of the number philosophers and literary figures involved in it.   He was staying with friends at an apartment in Paris when the revolt broke out. He could see the barricades going up, and the police and soldiers lining up with their semi-automatic weapons. His hosts said, “This is not your fight. We’ve got to get you out of here.” So they went out the back way, and put him in a cab, which wended its way through the back streets, avoiding the barricaded main thoroughfares, letting him out at a spot beyond Paris.

From there, he went to Germany to continue to ply his trade, as he also spoke fluent German. But he was no more successful there than he had been in France. He appealed to his mother for help. But as she was ready to embark on a long-awaited trip to Ireland, she could either afford to give him plane fare home, or to send support for living in Germany for two more months, and then nothing after that. Tom chose to come home.

Back in Omaha, he tried working at what was to be the first of a chain of chicken restaurants, owned by his brother, on 63rd and Ames. That went broke.

Thus Tom found himself, in August of 1969, at the age of 30, with no money and no job. He had either walked away from, or downright failed at, no just three different job, but, one might say, three different ways of life: the religious life, the academic life, the business life, and the life of an employee. Then, through pure chance, he stumbled upon the event that would not only change his life, but come to define his life. Through chance, he would find his vocation, and his greatest success. 

The History of the Antiquarium

Tom and his sister Judy, known as “Pooh”, were avid readers, and they were excited to come across the liquidation sale of the library of the recently closed Duchesne College on 36thand Webster. They had unfortunately arrived on the last day of the sale. They implored the nuns running it to let them come back another time, but that was impossible—the high school and grade school were still open, and classes were going to start the next day.

So the nuns, who had to get all of those books out of there in any case, struck a deal. They would sell the remaining 12,000 volumes at a deep discount if the Rudloffs took them ALL. So Tom and Judy conferred, and agreed to do that, sorting through the ones they wanted and then selling the rest. They took the books to their mother’s house, made their selections, then had three months’ worth of garage sales to move them, sales which became very popular. 

But there were still a great deal of books left. So they brought the remainder to Book and Magazine Locators Unlimited, at 1210 Farnam Street. It was owned by Harry Marble, who was in poor health at the time. So when the Rudloff siblings asked if he wanted to buy their collection, he said, no, he was actually getting out of the business. Did they want to buy his store?

They decided to accept the offer. Thus the Antiquarium—which means “place that has old things”, and is a common terms for used bookstores in Germany—was born. It opened for business in February of 1970. 

The Antiquarium had its first art show in December of 1970. At that time, they didn’t have a gallery, but rather showed the art on easels that were temporarily set up. That was also the occasion of the first Customer Appreciation Party, which became an annual, and highly anticipated, event. Every year in early December, on the first Saturday after the first Friday of that month, Tom put on a lavish spread of food, wine, and music to thank his customers for their patronage throughout the year. Over the years, it came to also serve as a kind of reunion for Antiquarium regulars. 

In 1974, the city exercised eminent domain to clear that block for the construction of the Central Park Mall, later known as the Gene Leahy Mall. Tom applied for a grant through Urban Renewal Refugees, an organization dedicated to helping businesses displaced by urban renewal programs. The grant was awarded in July, making it possible for him to buy the building at 1215 Harney, to which he moved the store. The move was completed by November of 1974.

The Harney Street store became the iconic location. Not only was it a center for counter-cultural elements of all kinds, but its urban setting allowed a vibrant mix of people of all walks of life and all interests. 

The Bill Farmer Gallery was created in 1979, in an effort to preserve the work of painter and sculptor Bill Farmer. As Tom told Jones in 2014, Farmer at that time suffered from bipolar disorder, and Omaha artist Melvin Usher told Tom that Farmer was in the grip of an episode and was destroying his all his work. Tom intervened and offered to create a space where Farmer’s works could be saved—and viewed by the public. Farmer was reluctant at first, but when another sculptor said, “Oh, Bill, don’t be such an asshole. It’s not just for him [Rudloff], it’s for all of us.” Farmer was a passionate social activist of the Catholic Left, who was involved in a variety of causes, including opposing the U.S. intervention in Central America—so when it was posed to him as a matter of community interest, he couldn’t refuse.

The Antiquarium actually had two galleries in its right mezzanine. The lower one featured a different show every month. In the 80’s the lower gallery was curated by Al Strong, who introduced such events as a series pairing visual artists with poets. The upper one served both as Farmer’s studio and as a venue to display his collected work, which he occupied until his death in 2001. With its influences that combined Expressionism with primitivism and folk art and its uncompromising depiction of suffering humanity, Farmer’s work created a powerful, commanding presence.

Tom was always devoted to promoting the greatness of Farmer’s work. He often told the story of the woman who was in the gallery for so long he had forgotten about her at closing time. He went up to turn out the lights for the evening, and she stumbled out as if dazed and overwhelmed, leaning against the railing for support. “Who…in the fuck…is Bill Farmer?” she gasped.

To which Tom coolly responded, as he did whenever anybody brought up Farmer, “Why, I happen to think he’s one of the greatest artists of the 20th century.”

“No…shit,” she said. “I’m from Chicago, and as far as I’m concerned, the Art Institute should take out all the Picasso’s they have in the place and replace ‘em with Farmers.”

The 1980’s began ominously for America, and for the Antiquarium. But events of the time just went to prove what a center for the counter-culture the bookstore had become—and beyond that, what a center of community it had become. One of these events was when John Lennon was assassinated. Rudloff admittedly had no idea of just how much the Beatles meant to people. “I was in the monastery at the time,” Rudloff told me, referring to 1964, the height of the Beatlemania. Until that day in 1981 when the news of Lennon’s murder came out. “People started wandering into the store in a daze, shell-shocked,” holding each other and crying. Stunned by the event, people who admired Lennon’s music and ideals automatically sought out the Antiquarium as a place where they could commiserate with those who were like-minded.

Robert Lee was an Antiquarium regular since the first day of the original store. In fact, he had worked at Book and Magazine Locator Unlimited before Tom bought it. He says he didn’t know about what happened around Lennon’s murder at the time, “…but I am not surprised. The Antiquarium was where you went. I guess it’s like someone [once defined the word] home: the place that when you go there, they have to take you in. At the Store, somebody would understand. No matter what it was.”    

The eighties were a time of transitions for the Antiquarium. They almost didn’t survive the vicissitudes of the market. At one point business was slow and they thought they might have to close, until Bob Reynolds donated his extensive comic book collection for Tom to sell. That windfall allowed them to stay open. That was the kind of community spirit that animated life at the Antiquarium.

A new chapter was added to their history when the record shop opened. It was started by Steve Clem, but by 1986 was run by Dave Sink. Sink quickly made the record department successful by doing two things. First, he took the quality of the physical condition of the vinyl he bought seriously. Second, at a time when many considered cassettes to be becoming passé, he realized that a considerable number of people still listened to music primarily in their cars, in which tapes were then the only available medium. So he made sure to stock a wide selection of tapes, for which he paid decently. This business savvy allowed him to expand into selling new records, and even starting his own recoding label, One Hour Records. In 1990, the record shop expanded to fill almost the entire basement, initially sharing the space with Ron Higgerson’s comic book store. As one of the best record shops in the entire region, it especially became a mecca for fans of punk rock and indie rock, including the musicians, becoming an epicenter for Omaha’s growing—and increasingly nationally recognized—music scene. These artists included critically acclaimed singer-songwriter Simon Joyner (who was once a partner in the operation) and the members of the indie band Mousetrap. Sink encouraged and supported many of these bands the same way that Rudloff was able to encourage and support the various artists who congregated upstairs. Sink died of COPD in 2011.

Although kids belonging to the burgeoning punk rock scene had been attracted to the Antiquarium’s anti-establishment atmosphere throughout the 80’s, the success of the record store cemented the bookstore’s position as one of the focal points of punk culture in Omaha. While various sub-cultures waxed and waned in different decades, the Antiquarium’s reputation for questioning, even defiant, intellectual activity continued to draw those who sought to live outside the homogenized norm.      

Also in 1986, the Antiquarium became the meeting place for the anti-war and anti-nuclear weapons group Youth for Peace. Y.F.P. was a diverse group of punks and hippies that engaged in the direct-action politics of demonstrations, civil disobedience, and guerilla theater. During the Persian Gulf War of 1991, they raised money with well-attended poetry readings at the bookstore. Youth for Peace disbanded in 1992. [Full disclosure: the author was a member, and also the director for six months in 1990. His administration was unremarkable.] 

In 1994, Tom appeared in Dan Mirvish’s independent film Omaha: the Movie. In the midst of the movie’s entertainingly implausible plot, Rudloff played himself in a mock documentary style that humorously, but lovingly, portrayed the experience of going to the Antiquarium.   

The Antiquarium and the Arts

The Antiquarium had always been a hub of artistic activity of all kinds. This was especially evident in the visual arts, when the gallery came under Strong’s guidance in the 1980’s. In addition to the quality of the work that was shown, art openings at the Antiquarium were notable for being rollicking parties, lasting into the night, in contrast to the more muted affairs put on at some other establishments. 

The store had hosted an annual Customer Appreciation party since 1970, but with the inauguration of the Bill Farmer Gallery, these parties also became an annual show of what Farmer had been working on that year. 

The 80’s and 90’s also saw the beginnings of two other regular art shows: the Free Male show and the Erotica show. These were both well-attended events to which some of the best Omaha artists contributed work. 

One of the most striking moments of the galleries’ history occurred in the late 80’s with the display of Jim Gardner’s “Operation Ranch Hand.” Operation Ranch Hand was the code name of the U.S.’s program of poisoning Vietnam with the defoliant Agent Orange during the Vietnam War; Gardner was himself a Vietnam veteran. The huge, imposing work consisted of a recreation of a helicopter cockpit with a pilot in it, from which American flags cascaded down to the floor, ending in a pile of naked, bloodied baby dolls. It was an unforgettable visual experience for anybody coming up the stairs.

Often, these shows resulted in some good-natured—and entertaining—rivalries. Sculptor Sidney “Buzz” Buchanan, known for his monumental metal sculptures at UNO and the Gene Leahy Mall, among other places, once heard that Gardner was entering a large metal sculpture in a show in which both artists were participating. Not to be outdone, Buzz made sure to create a bigger one—which ended up not being able to be fit through the front door. So it stayed on the sidewalk in front of the Antiquarium until the Harney Street location closed.

The Antiquarium was a natural host to poetry readings, of which it featured many over the years. These included massive fundraising events for Youth for Peace and for Nebraskans for Peace (no connection) and the author’s own going away party in 2005. 

Especially with the record store being one of the centers of the Omaha music scene, the Antiquarium also featured some great musical performances. Maybe the highlight of these was when indie folk star Vic Chesnutt played in the upper gallery to a capacity crowd in 1993. Chesnutt, who was confined to a wheelchair, was carried up the stairs by helpful members of the Antiquarium community.    

One aspect of the Antiquarium that contributed to the promotion of the arts was its sheer size. In its three floors (and two storage floors, if one snuck up there) were myriad nooks and crannies where, if one had a sudden burst of inspiration, or needed a moment of quiet to think things over, one could escape the noise of the conversations and write a poem or a song or draw a sketch—and then, often enough, return to share it with the rest of the group.

Aspiring artists of all art-forms were constantly asking Tom to read, look at, or listen to their work. He didn’t claim to be an expert in the techniques of any of these fields, but he did have an appreciation for these arts. So the most common form of praise he would give was this: “Anybody can learn the techniques of any art. But the thing you can’t be taught is vision. To be an artist, you have to be able to see the world in your own unique way. And you have that.” 

Tom’s Social Conscience

As must be apparent by now, for Tom the store was never just a retail business, but an integral part of the community. And he took what he saw as his responsibilities to the community seriously, in terms of both social uplift and political activism.

The direct action of demonstrations or civil disobedience were never Tom’s style. He says he only ever went to one protest demonstration, when he accompanied Bill and Marge Farmer to an action protesting against the U.S. invasion of “that poor little country” as he put it—referring to Grenada—in 1983. 

But he did allow his store to be used to help various causes. As mentioned, he let Youth for Peace meet there for most of their existence. He once hosted a fund raiser there for the campaign of controversial state senator Ernie Chambers. And, as an exercise in consciousness-raising, he distributed free copies of a book of poetry by Davis Rice, also known as Mondo we Langa. Rice was a member of the Black Panther Party who was accused, along with Ed Poindexter, of murdering a police officer and sentenced to life in prison; the case is controversial, and many people in Nebraska and around the world believe he was wrongly convicted. Rice died in prison in March.

In addition to the overtly political, Tom also made tremendous contributions to social uplift. He was a big supporter of 12-step programs, allowing AA and NA meetings to be held at the store for years. In 1988, he hosted the “Save the Canyon” concert, at which local rock bands played to raise money to oppose the destruction of Jobber’s Canyon. As mentioned above, he very often helped individuals through difficult times whom he knew or who just showed up, with money, food, a place to sleep, or encouragement in whatever crisis they were suffering through.   

Even after his passing, Tom has left a legacy of community spirit. His niece, Susan Teply, says, “He has requested I use the artwork of Bill Farmer to form a charitable foundation. The purpose of the foundation is the promotion of giving to those most in need in the memory of Bill Farmer. It is Tom’s hope that friends will donate both artistic works and funds to this Foundation.”

An LGBTQ Haven

The Antiquarium was also important to the history of Omaha for being one of the first public spaces in Omaha that was gay-friendly, but not a bar. Although some supporters jokingly referred to the store as “Omaha’s biggest gay bar”, due to the likelihood of meeting someone there, and some detractors wrote derisively of the “Antiqueerium” in Old Market graffiti, the bookstore’s unapologetic inclusiveness was a major force in Omaha’s culture.  

One of the people who thus found a welcoming home there was Syd Reinarz, who tells of how, when he was 14 years old, Tom was the first person to whom he came out. The simple gesture of Tom telling him that he was going to be all right made a powerful impact on Reinarz’s life. As he said in a post on Rudloff’s CaringBridge page: “To Tom, the very first person to whom I confessed who I knew in my heart I was. I can never thank you enough.”

Tom’s Jokes

In case one should get the idea, from all the intellect and the politics that the atmosphere around the Antiquarium was heavy and glum, nothing could be further from the truth. Tom loved to laugh more than just about anybody I know. As he loved language, he also loved puns and word games, especially cross-linguistic ones. 

And he also loved a good, old-fashioned dirty joke. One of my very favorite memories of Tom and the Antiquarium is when he read Mark Twain’s *1601* aloud to us. In this tour de farce, Twain depicts Queen Elizabeth at court, asking who farted. The assembled notables, including Ben Jonson, Francis Bacon, and William Shakespeare, all deny it, in a hilarious parody of Elizabethan writing styles.  (It turns out it was Walter Raleigh, although it was not up to his usual standards.) The conversation then progresses to a discussion of manners and mores, ribald and scatological. Tom read this in an exaggerated English accent. Everybody in the front room rolled, convulsing with laughter. Tom had acquired a whole box of this thin volume– pamphlet, really– and handed them out for free.

Celebrity Sightings

Several well-known figures from the arts and entertainment have come into the Antiquarium over the years. Some of these personalities meshed better with the store’s counter-cultural aesthetic than others did.

Robert Lee tells the story of when TV and voice actor Hans Conried (best known for providing the voice of Captain Hook in Disney’s Peter Pan) came into the first location on Farnam Street. “I don’t remember the year, but it was at the old store, on Farnam Street. Bob Davies (a very good friend of ours, who passed away years ago), was in the rare book room, playing a Black Sabbath record. Hans Conried, the actor came on the store looking for rate books. Tom mentioned that he had Little Dorrit, first edition, by Charles Dickens. Conried sniffed that he already had a copy: signed. Tom told me later that the actor, disturbed by the rock and roll, had said with a pained expression ‘That music is execrable.’”

On the other hand, Julie Yancy tells the following story: “When I was working double shifts in the Market, Tom always let me take a nap in the comfortable chair near the Mickey Mouse phone. One afternoon, I was awakened by a voice whispering ‘Wake up, Julie. Wake up.’ I opened my eyes and realized it was Bob Dylan! As I tried not to wet myself, Dylan was smiling and Tom was directly behind him, delighted with his joke and laughing his ass off. It was one of the best days of my life.”

In the early 90’s, a star-struck cashier neglected to actually run a credit card for the members of Metallica. They walked away with several hundred dollars’ worth of books on magic and the occult.

The Later Years

As the 2000’s wore on, Tom began seriously considering a major change to his life and business. One set of reasons was financial. Tom realized he wasn’t getting any younger, and needed to start planning for some kind of retirement. It was also getting increasingly expensive to heat and cool five storeys of retail and storage space. Developers had been after him to buy his building on Harney Street to make condos out of them, and were offering a million dollars. By selling, he could relieve himself of the overhead, provide himself with some retirement funds, and most importantly, provide for Judy, who as his partner in the store hadn’t seen much yield from it over the years.     

For another thing, he was disappointed with the direction the Old Market seemed to be taking. It seemed to be turning from a district of shops and galleries that catered to artists and the intelligentsia, and seemed instead to be drifting toward being an area of bars and restaurants catering to frat boys and other young drunks. Formerly, he had made it a practice, on warm nights, to set up chairs in which to sit out on the sidewalk in front of the door. But those of us who would do this began to be fearful of the roving bands of belligerent drunks who were roaming the streets between bars. When we would stay inside, we could see them urinating in the planters or on the sculptures that stood by the doors.   

The other change that worried him had to do with the architectural environment. The sumptuously ornate architecture of earlier eras was gradually being torn down. The demolition—rather than the renovation—of Jobber’s Canyon in 1989, to create the headquarters campus of Con Agra, something Tom campaigned against, came as a tremendous blow to Tom and thousands of others throughout Omaha. The destruction of its historical buildings is a trend that continued in Omaha. As he told Atiim Jones in 2014, “The people who have money don’t seem to have any imagination…I have thought about that, that there are people who would love to tear down the Old Market, either with their criticism or with the wrecking ball, because they don’t understand using old buildings…I don’t think they realize that the way it works, especially if there’s a bunch of ‘em [old buildings] in one place, it does have an effect on the type of creativity that comes about. So if what they like are brand-new, sterile buildings”, then they will get sterile arts and thought produced amongst them.

Once he would cash in on the old building, Tom dreamed of obtaining a location in a “bucolic” rural setting, next to a lake, where he could gradually move from selling used books to publishing hand-made small press literary and art books. Maybe he could even end up presiding over a full-blown artists’ colony. 

Most of this vision remained in the realm of dreams—but part of it came true. 

Brownville, Nebraska, like many rural towns with depressed economies, decided to try to revive their fortunes by deciding on a theme, making all the businesses in that town fit in with that theme, which would then be a draw for people interested in that thing, whatever it was. For example, Walnut, Iowa became an antique town; almost all of the shops in town became antique stores, and this became a draw for antique fans in the region. Similarly, Brownville decided to become a book town. They hosted a variety of readings, signings, lectures, panel discussions, and other book-related events. They brought in as a consultant Richard Booth, who founded the world’s first and most successful book town in Hay-on-Wye, Wales. They negotiated with Lincoln’s A Novel Idea bookstore to open a branch there, and the Lyceum bookstore opened. The crown of these efforts was selling their old schoolhouse to Tom Rudloff, to serve as the site of the new Brownville Antiquarium.

After a summer long moving sale to liquidate as much inventory as possible, the Harney street Antiquarium closed in September, 2006, and moved its remaining books to the Brownville location. They opened for business there in the spring of 2008, even though parts of that store were still under construction. 

Unfortunately, when the Omaha building went up for sale on January 1st, 2008, it was at the depth of the recession, when the housing market had collapsed. Instead of the million dollars he had expected, Tom was forced to accept $495,000. When word got out that the building was empty, looters came and stole al the wood and metal fixtures, the sinks, copper tubing—every material of value. This further lowered the price to $395,000.

Al Strong, who had run the Antiquarium Gallery as an avocation in the 80’s, was a carpenter by vocation. He was the architect behind the transformation of what had been the combination gym/auditorium of Brownville’s school into a “great room” that would house the majority of the Antiquarium’s books. He installed shelving and built a balcony with further shelves that ran all the way around the space, matching the original wood perfectly so that his additions seemed to emerge organically from the schools original walls and floor. Strong died of complications during heart surgery in 2009. In his memory, the Antiquarium permanently displays a portrait of him painted by artist Jeff Uryasz. 

While the Brownville store had relatively few visitors, compared with the Harney Street location, and thus lacked the mix of people and constant flow of conversation that distinguished the latter, Brownville did have the opposite virtue: the ability to have Tom Rudloff all to oneself, and to talk for hours without interruption. 

In 2009, Tom was diagnosed with lung cancer. He beat it, at the cost of the surgical removal of half of one of his lungs. Even then, he was still plagued by lung problems in the form of hereditary blood clots. Cancer later returned in the form of lymphoma in 2015, which he easily overcame. 

But in March of this year, during a routine check-up, he was diagnosed with a re-emergence of lymphoma. He responded well to chemotherapy, but soon was overcome by a sudden and pervasive weakness throughout his entire body. The most disturbing aspect of this weakness was that it affected his diaphragm, making him too weak to breathe on his own. He was put on a ventilator. He stayed there for weeks, but was finally moved out of critical care, and then to the Madonna rehabilitation center in Bellevue, which is known for its pulmonary rehab facilities. To all appearances, he was improving, bit by slow, painful bit. Until his heart stopped on May 29th.

The Antiquarium and Me

This has been a very personal story for me. I have known Tom Rudloff and have been going to the Antiquarium for literally my entire life. I was born in 1970, the first year the Farnam Street store was open, and my parents discovered the Antiquarium soon after that. And they brought me with them, first as a baby in their arms, and then, as a toddler, they sat me down in the comic book section where I could freely read comics until it was time to leave. There was never any pressure from Tom to buy any. It was like a little kid’s version of heaven. As I got older, of course, I came to like many other kinds of books, and Tom and his store joined my parents in helping me find my way to a life-long love of books, learning, and literature. After going to the Antiquarium with my parents throughout my childhood, I returned by myself as a pre-teen, now buying as many radical political books as comics, and being awestruck by overhearing very casual conversations about topics that had been absolutely taboo in my limited experience. 

In high school in the late 80’s, I made expeditions there with my friends, branching into Beat poetry and Existentialist literature. Starting in my late teens, I began to become friends with the other people who hung out there regularly. And more and more with Tom. By my 20’s, the Antiquarium was at the center of my social, as well as my intellectual and artistic, life. And it remained so until I left town for graduate school in New York City in 2005. I had my going away party in the upper gallery, where I performed my poetry with musical backing by my friend, the late, legendary Luigi Waites. 

After that, I made sure to come back to Omaha twice a year, and made sure to visit Tom and the Antiquarium every time, including after they moved to Brownville. At the Brownville store, I missed many of the friends who had frequented Harney Street, but in return, I got hours of uninterrupted time to talk to Rudloff. 

People often talk about how much they learned from Tom, and all of them are right—but another joy of knowing him was the pride in teaching him something, in being able to give back intellectually. He avidly followed my philosophical studies and seemed to relish my summaries of what I was reading. I particularly remember his birthday in 2013, when we talked on the phone for two hours about the notoriously difficult philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. He was genuinely happy at the chance to learn even more. 

This past May, I came back to Omaha when Tom was hospitalized with the weakness that would eventually end his life. I’m glad I got to say goodbye after a fashion; I would have said more, but he showed every sign of improving, a little more each day. Until he didn’t. The lesson is to tell people what they mean to you every chance you get.  

As If People Mattered

Once Brad Bassler, one of my philosophy professors at the University of Georgia, offhandedly told a class about “the used bookstore as a realization of the utopian ideals of the 1960’s.” I suspect several of the students were puzzled by what he meant by that. But I wasn’t puzzled. Because I had grown up in the Antiquarium. 

I’ve spoken at length about how welcoming and inclusive the Antiquarium was. But it should be said that a large part of this was due to Tom’s radical egalitarianism. Though he was too free-thinking to be an ideologue of any kind, he was essentially a socialist, not only in belief, but even more so in temperament. He had no desire to compete, but to bring people together and cooperate. He accepted people for who they were, because he hated the idea that there could be someone who was excluded, oppressed, or mistreated. 

This egalitarianism made Tom hate the elitism of Plato’s Republic, and thus he decided that he disliked Socrates, too. (He and I often argued over the years about how accurate Plato’s depiction of Socrates’ thought was in the middle and later dialogues.) But the irony of this is that Tom Rudloff was the most Socratic person I’ve ever known. Socrates did his philosophical work by hanging around the agora, the open-air marketplace of ancient Athens, and asking questions of anybody who would talk to him. These questions challenged their assumptions, and made then question some of their most basic beliefs. In this sense, Tom went Socrates one better; instead of just showing up at the agora, Rudloff created an agora in which these dialogues could take place.

Tom’s egalitarian ideals are best reflected in a saying he often used to describe his outlook about the bookstore: “business as if people mattered.” He had adapted this slogan from the subtitle of E.F. Schumacher’s classic of “green” economics, Small is Beautiful, which Tom considered one of his favorite books, even though he had only read the first section of it. Its subtitle was “A Study of Economics As If People Mattered.” This was the way he always ran his store and conducted his life. This was reflected in small things, like the fact that paying for pop and candy was on the honor system: there was a change cup where you put your money and took what you wanted. Even though there were times when he was short-changed or the money in the cup was stolen, his vision was undeterred. He insisted on the credo, “If you treat people like human beings, they will behave like human beings.”

Through his Antiquarium, Tom Rudloff put books into the hands of Nebraskans for 46 years, and his store in Brownville continues to do so. In doing that, he taught us to read well. But in his example, Tom also taught us to live well.        


Category: Art

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