Don't judge a book(store) by its cover

A&E explores Charlottesville's best-kept bookish secrets

Charlottesville is known for having one of the highest number of restaurants per capita — the Huffington Post ranked us number 14 in the nation — but what’s hidden among these eateries is even more spectacular. No, I don’t mean bars. I’m talking about bookstores.

Take, for example, Heartwood Books, located only a stone’s throw away from Take-It-Away deli and the Pigeon Hole on Elliewood Avenue. Owned by Paul Collinge, this bookstore was established in 1975 and specializes in what Collinge described as “serious” material.

“We’re not a big seller of John Grisham; we are a big seller of William Faulkner,” Collinge said.

To someone like me, who feels haunted by “Twilight” and “Fifty Shades of Grey” mere moments after exiting a Barnes & Noble, this revelation came as a breath of fresh air. Collinge’s experience as a used book salesman dates back to 1969 when he got a part time job in a bookstore as a student at Georgetown.

“I was very good at it,” he said from behind the wooden counter, an island among the surrounding sea of books. “I could remember authors and titles and where we put everything.”

At that time, the bookstore business was “memory-based;” that is, there were no computers to catalogue stores’ inventories. There still is no computer system at Heartwood, and that aspect facilitates a meaningful browsing experience.

“People – especially students – shouldn’t be intimidated by bookstores, “ Collinge said. “They should feel comfortable to take their time and browse.” Only by browsing may we stumble upon unlikely treasures.

Like Collinge, Blue Whale Books owner Scott Fennessey is associated with the rare book school at the university. Both of these establishments hold rare and antiquarian books not found anywhere else in the city. Blue Whale Books is especially unique in that it deals with antique prints and maps in addition to the usual assortment of books.

Dave Taylor, owner of Read it Again, Sam on the Downtown Mall shares Collinge’s belief that local bookstores derive their success from creating relationships with their customers. The employees of these shops are passionate about their jobs and they love sharing their knowledge of books.

“Each bookstore has its own niche,” Taylor said. His store specializes in art books and mysteries.

“It’s an odd combination,” he said, “but I love both.” Taylor’s love of books is evident in the way he eagerly offers assistance and recommendations to every customer who walks through the door.

Read it Again, Sam has been in business for 26 years, the last 15 of which have been in the Downtown Mall location. Taylor observed that his clientele consists primarily of female students from the University, noting that “most guys are too busy playing video games.” Slightly discouraged, Taylor recognizes that used and rare bookstores are becoming archaic.

“This shop is the Blockbuster of its time,” he said. “More people prefer eBooks [and other electronic reading devices].”

Though this method of reading is convenient, much of the reading experience is lost in translation through the screens of laptops, Kindles, or Nooks. Oakley’s Gently Used Books, for example, has a homey feel that is impossible to experience in an online store. This shop holds 15,000 books and is tucked away in the York Place building off of the Downtown Mall, where it has operated for 18 years. Chris Oakley is a delightful woman who was eager to speak about her shop.

“We have specialties in history, science fiction, and children’s books,” she said, “but we also have a good science section, travel, classics, and foreign language [resources].” This extensive collection necessitated an additional 35 cases two years ago.

An avid reader since age thirteen when she started reading the New York Times Book Review, Oakley loves to see her customers “get just as excited over the books as [she is].” One of her favorite programs is the Virginia Festival of the Book – especially the kids’ book swap. Whether she’s ensuring the store is wheelchair-accessible or making titles visible for the seeing-impaired, Oakley strives to ensure that every customer has the opportunity to fall in love with books in the same way she has. That extra effort leaves a lasting impression.

Not even Siri can feign the enthusiasm of an actual sales clerk, Amazon.com cannot exude the scent of well-worn pages, and I highly doubt that many Barnes & Nobles have a Corgi named Gizmo that wanders around the store. Local bookstores have so much more than dusty pages to offer, and spending an hour in one of these shops is more enlightening than an entire semester of college reading. So treat yourself and spend an afternoon exploring some of Charlottesville’s best-kept secrets.

related stories