Posted by: Kristi Tuck Austin | August 23, 2010

Bookstore profile: Book People

Due to the surge of e-book downloads and mega-stores with coffee shops, it’s easy to skip the local independent bookstore, but Richmond contains indies that make me glad I drove a few minutes longer and did without the latte.  They have what chain stores can never offer, no matter how hard the marketing strategy tries: community and character.  When I walked into Book People for the first time, I knew it had those traits in abundance.

Community

Book People’s location, where Patterson Avenue shops meet residential Granite Avenue, reflects its identity as a place where retail and community combine.   The connection books create between people led owner Ruth Erb to choose the name, “I wanted the two most important elements: Books and People.”

Spend a weekend afternoon in the sunny front room of the converted house and you’ll understand her choice.  Regulars, who have visited the store for years, stop by to chat about recent reads and life.  New customers get a warm greeting from Ruth, who takes the time to learn their taste in books.

“We take pride in being small and hand-selling to our customers,” Ruth said.  The booksellers know the books they take in, especially those by smaller publishing houses or local authors, and they are receptive to recommendations from customers.  Recently, a customer asked for Marty Taylor’s memoir, River Me, but the Book People sellers were unfamiliar with the title.  The customer said he read about River Me in the Rappahannock Times, so Ruth called the newspaper and asked how to acquire the book.  The Rappahannock Times gave her the author’s phone number, and after a short conversation with the author, Book People carried River Me.  A friend of the author lives in Richmond and hand-delivered the book.

Events, like the upcoming signing and discussion with Belle Boggs, author of Mattaponi Queen, allow readers to form connections with their favorite – or soon to be favorite – authors. Readers also come together at Book People through events like the monthly Book Swap.  The first Sunday of each month, come checkout recommendations from fellow readers, talk books, and take home a free book.  Yes, free.

Ruth also likes to work with other local bookstores, strengthening the community of booksellers.  Newspaper clippings advertising other local independent bookstores, like Fountain’s social media presence, are fixed to the bookshelves.

Ruth’s passion for aiding creativity and imagination inadvertently led her to open a bookstore, which I think is one reason she’s so good at it. “I had wanted to find a part-time job in a hardware store. I guess I liked dealing with people’s’ ideas and creativity,” Ruth said, “but through a fluke I got a seasonal job in an independent bookstore, and when my term there was over, I felt bereft. I sat in the storage room and cried. Then they needed a manager, and I took the job. That store closed and…I took a deep breath and decided to spend my savings on opening my own.”  Book People opened December 1, 1980.

Character

Ruth has fun with books and interior decorating, which sets Book People apart from the cookie-cutter big box stores.  The space looks lived-in and loved.  Newspaper clippings cover bookshelves and walls, welcoming the visitor to pause for thought, to check out a helpful review, or share a laugh.  Rows of photographs behind the front counter were pulled from books where their owners forgot them.  Doormats and signs display a little of Ruth’s personality.

The converted house has mantels where books are stacked, big front windows, fancy crown molding, and a little lawn with flowers.  Milk crates slide under benches and tables for extra book storage.  Chairs are positioned to catch afternoon sunshine.

Each day Ruth opens the store with a sense of belonging.  “I feel at home,” she said.  I have to admit I do, too.  This is the type of shop I would have spent hours in as a kid.  It smells of books the way libraries do.

And books, of course

Book People carries over 20,000 new and used books, including rare collectibles.  They specialize in books on music, used sheet music, and foreign language editions.  They carry books in Afrikaans, Arabic, Bulgarian, Chinese, Croatian, Czech, Danish, and the list goes on.  I even found a foreign edition of a novel by local author David L. Robbins, but don’t ask which one because I couldn’t read the title.

Book People also sells used magazines (perfect for stocking up on great recipes and DIY projects) and audio books, and new cards, journals, bookmarks, and other gifts for readers.

One of my favorite services is Book People’s book search.  If they don’t have a book, they’ll order it and search for out-of-print titles.  For years I wanted a used copy of Tuck Everlasting with Natalie Babbitt’s cover art but couldn’t find it.  I told Ruth and three weeks later she had one waiting for me.  (It’s like whipped cream on cheesecake – unexpected but so sweet.)  The talk about Tuck Everlasting led into a discussion about favorite childhood books and upcoming books for young readers.  I don’t get that type of attention and consideration and knowledge from chain stores who are concerned with covering the floor and hawking the latest big-name author.

Come check out Book People and some of their upcoming events.

Saturday, August 28, 4-6p.m. Belle Boggs reads and signs Mattaponi Queen; reading at 5p.m.

Sunday, August 29, 1-5p.m. German Scrabble (Put your knowledge of German vocabulary words to fun and entertaining use.)

Sunday, September 5, 3-5p.m. Book Swap

A list of events for nonfiction books is here.

Suggestions for getting the most from a visit to Book People

  • Come with a list of titles or favorite authors, because the inventory is large and can be a bit overwhelming, though it is still fun to browse.
  • If you can’t find it, ask a bookseller.  They know their store.
  • If they don’t have what you’re looking for, tell a bookseller and Book People will find it for you.
  • Ask Ruth for recommendations.
  • Plan to stay a half hour on your first visit.  It took me a few minutes to get the layout of the store.
  • Chat.  Even if you aren’t a big talker, like me, take a few minutes to say hello and get to know the community of readers.

Additional photos

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