The small, antique bookshop Blue Whale Books is currently celebrating its 25th anniversary. Located on the Downtown Mall, the shop is stocked floor-to-ceiling with scholarly books, lithographics, vintage paperbacks and more.
In business since 1994, Blue Whale Books has become a hallmark of the Downtown Mall. Blue Whale Books is open Sunday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m and Fridays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. While prices vary, there is a standard $1 bookshelf. According to longtime owner Scott Fennessey, pricing used books is usually around half of a new paperback price and around one-third to one-half of a new hardcover book price.
Among its collection of used books and antiquities, customers can also look forward to meeting the bookstore’s dog, Gizmo. She’s an 11-year-old corgi who spends her days wandering the endless stacks of rare collectibles in the store, greeting any customers she sees. She loves playing with all the kids around the store.
“[Gizmo] is the biggest selling point — there are three bookstores in the downtown area, but this is the only bookstore with a dog,” said frequent customer Seung-Jae Oh.
This antique bookstore offers a wide range of rare collectibles including scholarly novels, a selection of paperback fiction and historic maps. Both the maps and old prints sold in the store are handmade pieces of artwork which originate before the 1900s and in some cases, as early as the 1500s. Fennessey explained that he often buys books from the general public, as well as from European bookdealers. Fennessey will meet with an interested seller at the store or at the seller’s home and buys books based on customer preferences, as well as his own interests.
“Every used bookstore has a personality which comes from the particular owner’s interests,” Fennessey said. “Booksellers buy what they think they can sell, but there are so many books out there to buy that we filter quite a bit by what interests us. Mine tends to emphasize history and the visual arts.”
As a native New Yorker, Fennessey got his start in used books after moving to Charlottesville to receive his graduate degree in English at the University. He eventually became a teaching assistant and learned about rare books. He was active in the Rare Book School at the University, which provides educational opportunities to engage with written, print and digital materials. Through the study of book history, students learn how books were first made and their influence on society. A selective group of international scholars and professionals hold seminars to help students analyze and interpret these rare collections.
“This really makes Charlottesville different [from] the used book business,” Fennessey said. “When the University has courses, they bring in faculty from around the world who are the foremost people in their fields.”
This not only promotes diversity within the University but also has helped globalize the business. The first year Blue Whale opened, Fennessey found himself selling books to universities in Oxford, Cambridge and even Japan thanks to the University’s Rare Book School.
Additionally, Blue Whale has an online customer base that attracts consumers looking to find rare collectibles. An estimated 10 percent of sales comes from their online business. The combination of in-store and online sales channels has contributed to survival.
“It’s quite an achievement for someone to run a small business in a small city for 25 years during recessions and the ups and downs of business,” Fennessey’s aunt Linda Hewitt said.
To commemorate this achievement, Fennessey decided to hold a drawing throughout the entire month of September for a $1,000 gift certificate. The procedure was simple — for every $25 spent at the store, customers could submit one ticket. Participants could enter their names as many times as they wanted to in order to increase their chances.
Results were calculated Sunday and the winner was drawn. Out of 700 raffle tickets, second-year College student David Coffey was the lucky winner.
In addition to promotional activities like this, Blue Whale stands out for its store decorations and overall presentation. While this bookstore has been in business for 25 years, the store boasts modern decor, with couches placed around the store and contemporary art hung on the wall.
“We emphasize the condition of books, which means that our books are more recent than some of the older stores,” Fennessey said.
Blue Whale Books remains a popular shop for many local Charlottesville residents who want to browse through their collection of used books or even just greet Gizmo.
“This is a solid bookstore, and I have been able to find lots of books on my to-buy list,” Oh said.