Joel C. Turner, May 26, 1951-Dec. 8, 2009

On this anniversary of what would have been my late brother Joel’s 61st birthday, my sister Pamela and I remember him with all the force of memory and familial affection, as well as our departed parents, Earl and Sylvia. On May 4, 1978, the five us founded Undercover Books, the bookstore that would give all three of us siblings our adult careers. For those who didn’t know Joel–or who did and want to be reminded of his personality and accomplishments, which included a run for Congress in 2000 and earlier being among the very first online booksellers, several years before–you may read an obituary in the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the remembrance I wrote that was excerpted in Shelf Awareness and Bookweb. The entire piece is pasted in below, set in the Comic Sans font to which Joel was partial (for readers able to view it that way) along with photos of him.

December 9, 2009

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

It was with great regret and sadness that we write to inform you of the recent, sudden passing of our dear brother, Joel C. Turner, 58 years old. 

Many of you will recall that we three siblings together opened Undercover Books, in Shaker Heights, Ohio in 1978, on May 4 of that year, with the hard-working assistance of our parents, Earl (deceased, 1992) and Sylvia (deceased, 2006). From the original location at Van Aken Shopping Center, our family-run independent chain grew to occupy a location in the historic Old Arcade of downtown Cleveland, and a shop that also featured the sale of record albums and the then-new format of CD-ROMs, in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. Joel’s role in the bookstores’ success and the good reputation we enjoyed in the book world was vital and indispensable. He was always generating exciting new ideas that drove our growth. Joel was a constant reader, a passionate believer in books and the power of the printed word. He derived tremendous satisfaction from selling books to the devoted readers whose trade we cultivated in our bookstores. 

We were fortunate to open our business at a moment when throughout the country and particularly the midwest, much book retailing was migrating from older downtowns to suburban locales, as the book departments of long-established department stores and old-line independents gave way to new indies like us. Soon, we were being regularly called upon by publishers’ sales reps from all parts of the industry, as Undercover Books became a go-to store for houses eager to break out books on the national scene. Notable authors who launched books at our stores included Mark Helprin (“Winter’s Tale”), Richard North Patterson (“The Lasko Tangent”), and Walter Tevis (“Queen’s Gambit”).  

The stores, indeed the Turner family home, helmed by Sylvia’s extraordinary cooking and hospitality and Earl’s gregarious nature, and Joel’s energetic raconteurship, also became a favorite stop for sales reps and authors.

By the early 1990s, competitive and economic pressures had mounted, and Joel had the vision to reduce the brick & mortar concentration of our enterprise and transform it into an operation that served businesses, corporate libraries, schools, and public institutions. As this shift occurred, the name of the business became Undercover Book Service, which soon also had an online presence, surely one of the first online booksellers. He also developed a sideline in the antiquarian and second-hand side of the trade. Joel was a true bookseller, and also served the book industry through active participation as an officer and board member of the American Booksellers Association.  

In this decade, he and Sylvia moved to a lovely part of North Carolina, where he helped her live very comfortably for the remaining years of her life. After Sylvia’s death, he built for himself a beautiful home on a scenic mountaintop in the town of Bostic,  Rutherford County, North Carolina, where he died in his sleep this past weekend.  In addition to the two of us–his younger brother and older sister–Joel is survived by nephew and niece Benjamin and Emma Taylor; nephew Ewan Gallup Turner; brother-in law Ev Taylor; sister-in-law Kyle Gallup; cousins Stephanie Shiff Cooper and Brian Shiff; and Uncle Myer Shiff and Aunt Linda Shiff. 

Plans for memorializing Joel are being considered as we write this to you. For those wishing to mark Joel’s life with a charitable donation we urge you to make contributions to the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE, or for medical research in search of a cure for diabetes.  

We write in sadness, but with fondness and appreciation for all the years that we three Turner siblings and our parents were recipients of your generous affection, respect, and consideration.  The bookstores gave all of us, and especially Joel, great enjoyment and satisfaction, along with so many wonderful friends. Feel free to send this message on to any of your contacts in the book world. 


Philip Turner ( and Pamela Turner (


Pictures shot circa 1980 in the 'middle room' at Undercover Books, where we had a comfortable rattan couch. The black Labrador is Noah, whose ear Joel is massaging. I am wearing the same style of eyeglass frames I wear today. Noah passed in 1982, Joel in 2009.

Joel (c.) at his 40th HS reunion in Cleveland, a few weeks before he died.

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Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] Bob and others in tow. I know this story is true—I heard about it not only from Herman, but from my late brother Joel, a bookseller—who happened to also be at the venue that […]

  2. […] in December 2009. A few years later, on what would’ve been his 61st birthday, I posted this remembrance of him here on The Great Gray Bridge. Below also are obits that were published about him, one from the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the […]

  3. […] Books, the bookstore operated by my two siblings, Joel and Pamela, and our parents, Earl and Sylvia, opened for business on May 4, 1978. Five years later, […]

  4. […] star Anderson Varejao, who plays for the Cleveland Cavaliers. The second picture here was taken by my late brother Joel, in the living room of the home we grew up in, in the suburb of Shaker Heights, a few years after […]

  5. […] what was evidently always just the right spot for him. I got on Noah on a cross-country road trip with my brother Joel. We rescued him from a dog pound in Deadwood, South Dakota, in the summer of 1970, a day or two […]

  6. […] have quite the same experience of the Vietnam era as Peter, since I am a bit younger than him, but my brother Joel, almost four years older than me, certainly did sweat the draft lottery along with millions of […]

  7. […] 30s I lost my father, mother, two best friends from college–Rob Adams and Karl Petrovich–and my brother, Joel. Still, it seems salutary to take note of the leaves falling just as we prepare the turn of another […]

  8. […] and reordered all these titles. Most of the books in the gallery below were in the library of my late brother, Joel Turner, which I brought in to my own library after his death in 2009. #gallery-1 { margin: auto; } […]

  9. […] Books, which I ran with my sibling and our parents, was an active member store in the ABA. My late brother Joel served as an ABA board member. We were activist booksellers, and Joel especially relished working […]

  10. […] Books, which I ran with my sibling and our parents, was an active member store in the ABA. My late brother Joel served as an ABA board member. He was an activist bookseller and relished working on issues like […]

  11. […] lost my father, mother, two best friends from college–Rob Adams and Karl Petrovich–and my brother, Joel. Still, it seems salutary to take note of the leaves falling just as we prepare the turn of another […]

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