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Inventor turns page in bumpy odyssey

Twenty years ago, Chris Kikis found he had a problem. He liked to eat and read at the same time, but he often spilled his food in a losing battle to keep a paperback from folding shut.

So Kikis, the owner of Nick's Seafood and Pizza on Gulf Road, designed a device that clips around the back of a book and wraps around the sides to hold the pages in place.

When not in use, it folds and serves as a bookmark. Pretty handy for the read-while-you-eat crowd.

Little did he know that his simple invention of long ago might pay off in a big way now.

The device, now called the Pagemate, has been picked up by a manufacturer and distributor of novelty items nationwide.

"I happen to love it," said Jeff Geier, co-owner of Brothers' Manufacturing. "I'm an avid reader and so is my wife. I think it's tremendous."

Brothers' Manufacturing is a Tarpon Springs business that specializes in manufacturing novelty items such as Kikis' book holder. Geier learned of the Pagemate by chance one day while eating at Nick's Seafood and Pizza.

Kikis, who moved here two years ago, thought of his thingamajig in the late 1970s while living in New York. Thinking others might benefit from his invention, Kikis patented it and put it on the market.

"I see things and think I can improve them," Kikis said. "I guess I'm a workaholic."

Costs associated with the initial design of the product, mold included, were about $30,000. During a required records search when he applied for a patent, he discovered more than 100 other patents for book holders, but most used springs and were quite complicated. His design, two plastic arms attached by a rivet, was granted a patent in 1983.

His first attempts at marketing his product in the 1980s met with moderate success. After the item was featured on the pages of Good Housekeeping, Entrepreneur and Publisher's Weekly, he sold 40,000 units and made $15,000 in profit, he estimates.

Then came a big deal for 500,000 pieces from a major paperback book publisher. Kikis tried in vain for a year to find a manufacturer to produce the Pagemate so it worked properly. When he couldn't, and the deal fell through, Kikis' enthusiasm for dealing with the world of manufacturing and distribution died. His invention, the news articles about it and hundreds of letters from happy customers went into a storage box.

"That was too bad," Kikis said. "Handicapped people ended up using the product a lot."

Kikis still has a letter from a 16-year-old Montana girl with arthritis. She wrote to tell Kikis that other children would make fun of her when she tried to hold a book and read. Since getting Kikis' book holder, the taunting had stopped, and she wrote to thank him.

"Inventing is for more than just money," Kikis said.

While Kikis appreciates the non-monetary benefits of his invention, big money might be right around the corner. Geier plans an initial batch of 5,000 samples to distribute to purchasing agents at large chain bookstores and other retailers like Kmart, Wal-Mart and Target.

"I wouldn't be surprised if (each of) the big chains orders 100,000 of them," Geier said. "But then, a lot of times in this business, my opinion means absolutely, positively nothing."

No figure for the eventual retail price of the product has been set, but 10 years ago it sold for about $2.

While excited about the partnership with Geier, Kikis isn't counting on it to make him a millionaire. He already is working on his next invention: attached plastic ovals that can be bent into hundreds of shapes, like letters of the alphabet or animals.

"I hope somehow one of these catches on," Kikis said, getting up from a table in his restaurant to serve a customer. "But for now, I'm doing this."