Sure, Omaha has had its titans who built the town, brick and mortar.
Then there were the Tom Rudloffs. People who gave Omaha a soul. People who fostered its talent.
Rudloff, who died Sunday at age 76, was more than the founder and co-owner of the former Antiquarium Bookstore in the Old Market.
He was a threadbare patron of the arts, a muse to the creative, a friend to the down and out.
His cavernous, overstuffed bookstore became Omaha’s re-creation of the 17th century salon, where the poet and politician, musician and business owner would gather in a swirl of cigarette smoke and coffee.
From this alchemy and all that grew out of it, including Antiquarium Records — came a sense of identity for artists.
Kids like Conor Oberst and Simon Joyner put down some of their musical roots at 1215 Harney St.
Omaha artist Bill Farmer had his studio in the building, and Rudloff held Farmer’s art in such high esteem he opened an art gallery in his honor.
“Just about everyone who was anyone artistically in Omaha passed through there,” said longtime customer and Douglas County Board member Jim Cavanaugh. “There are a lot of people who owe a debt of gratitude to Tom Rudloff.”
The Antiquarium was one of the first businesses to locate at the Old Market, and it gave people a reason to come downtown. It was open from late morning until late night, sometimes into the wee hours of the morning for close friends. Ever present were the barefoot Rudloff and his cats.
“Tom was instrumental in transforming the Old Market area as a cultural, artistic and intellectual center for Omaha,” said George Neubert, who founded the Flatwater Folk Art Museum in Brownville, Nebraska. “He was both a visionary and a leader.”
Rudloff expected nothing of his customers, offering his books for sale at a modest price, even letting bibliophiles like Cavanaugh run a tab.
Trained for the priesthood, Rudloff’s parish was his store. He gave people money, clothing and food. Some found a path to sobriety there, others a place to sleep.
“Tom Rudloff had a profound effect on the underground culture of the Old Market,” recalls Michael Hooper, a Topeka freelance writer who hung out at the Antiquarium in the 1980s. “He represented a truly welcoming, sincere appreciation of people who came to his place, whether to buy anything or not.
“We’d drink so much coffee our stomachs hurt; we called it the Antiquarium coffee pains.”
Rudloff’s life as a bookseller developed from happenstance.
After studying to be a priest at a Redemptorist seminary in Missouri, attending college to be a teacher and then touring Europe, he found himself back in Omaha at loose ends and turning 30. While perusing a book sale at the soon-to-close Duchesne College, Rudloff caught the attention of the nuns. They saw in him a logical recipient of the 12,000 volumes left unsold.
It was 1969, and his life’s work was born.
From that collection, he and his sister-business partner, Judy, inadvertently expanded their book-selling into a downtown business, which eventually led to more than 30 years at 1215 Harney St. A decade ago, Rudloff moved the business to Brownville, Nebraska.
Judy Rudloff said she doesn’t know what will happen to the Brownville business. At 74, she said she’s in no position to take over.
The Brownville community is hopeful someone will step in.
“We’re all in shock because we’ve lost him,” said Jane Smith, a Brownville business owner.
In addition to sister Judy, Rudloff is survived by brothers Howard and Jerry of Omaha, and sisters Bonnie McNally of Massachusetts and Nancy Teply of Omaha. A brother, James, preceded him in death.
Services will be 5 p.m. Friday at John A. Gentleman Mortuary, 1010 N. 72nd St. Family will receive visitors from 2 to 5 p.m.