2014-05-26

Gently Used
—non-fiction by Robert Boucheron


Chris Oakley founded her bookstore on little more than a whim. A slender woman with long brown hair and a lively manner, she appears to be about forty. Yet she grew up in Louisville, Kentucky and Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania in the 1950s and 60s. At the University of Delaware, she helped produce an underground newspaper and poetry readings. In Wilmington, she worked in printing and magazine layout. In 1993, she visited her sister in rural Virginia.

     “I fell in love with the countryside,” she says. “I was certified in prepress and a member of the typographers’ union. A printer hired me.” After a year or so, it was time for a change.

     “I had been in used bookstores that were dark, dusty, poorly laid out, and crammed with books that nobody in their right mind would buy, books that were tattered, stained, and had pages torn out. How about a clean, well-lighted place, as Ernest Hemingway wrote, stocked with recent titles in good condition?”

     There were already two used bookstores in the small town of Charlottesville, Virginia. Both matched her description of what was wrong. The historic center of town was reviving, with a new pedestrian Main Street Mall. And on the Mall, a new mixed-used building was opening—York Place, named for the black slave who went with Lewis and Clark on their 1804 expedition. The African-American owner Chuck Lewis needed tenants for the street-level arcade. With a partner, Krista Farrell, Oakley leased a space. With a few hundred books and no financial backing, they opened for business in November 1995 for the Christmas shopping season.

     Oakley’s Gently Used Books still occupies the same space, plus the one next door. The store doubled in size in 2011, and now has 15,000 books on its shelves. Farrell left after a year to take a job with the public library, and another partner came and went, but Oakley carries on. She is true to her mission.

     “I’m selective in what I buy,” she says. “No textbooks or romance novels.” Oakley keeps up with trends. She reads trade magazines like Goodreads and Shelf Awareness. She has subscribed to the New York Times Book Review since age thirteen. She snaps up hundreds of titles at an annual sale by the public library. More come from people who are weeding their home libraries. The books she accepts are clean, free of underlining, with spines intact. Most the stock looks new. Oakley offers cash or store credit, which keeps them coming back for more. And she asks what they like: “My customers taught me what to buy.”

     Charlottesville may be small, but it’s international, with a mayor from India and street vendors from Tibet. The University of Virginia attracts students and faculty from all over the world, and Thomas Jefferson’s home of Monticello attracts tourists. Accordingly, Oakley’s store has sections for foreign languages and travel. A locked glass case protects a few dozen collectable books.

     “I don’t carry rare books,” Oakley says. “Several dealers in the area have expertise for that. In the glass case are some signed first editions, scarce Virginia history books, and sets like the original Codex Alera series of novels by Jim Butcher. Theft is not an issue, but accidental damage is. I learned the hard way.”

     Apart from the glass case, customers can browse to their heart’s content. Prices are low, half the original retail price or less. “This is a store for readers,” Oakley says, “people with a passion for reading.” A few minutes of talk reveal that reading is Oakley’s passion, too.

     “Authors go in and out of fashion,” she says, “especially when a book inspires a movie. Joyce Carol Oates is up and down. The seafaring novels of Patrick O’Brian and C. S. Forester were best sellers for years, but now they’re in a lull. Earlier writers on the sea like Jan de Hartog and C. Northcote Parkinson are sailing back. I thought I had a handle on mystery writers, then people asked for books by Louise Penny, a Canadian whose mysteries are set in the province of Quebec.”

     The store’s specialty is science fiction and fantasy, to judge by the amount of shelf space they rate. Mystery and crime are not far behind. Customers are aware of this bias. They drop in for specific titles and to chat with like-minded enthusiasts. Oakley knows with uncanny accuracy what she has in stock and what is flying off the shelves. She attends genre conferences like LibertyCon in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and RavenCon in Richmond, Virginia. The latter name alludes to the poem “The Raven” by Richmond’s Edgar Allan Poe.

     Oakley has met best-selling authors, and she counts a few as personal friends—Kim Harrison, for example, who wrote The Undead Pool, published in February 2014. Oakley hosted a book signing for her last year, an unusual event for a used bookstore. Harrison was in town for the annual Virginia Festival of the Book, held a block away in March. Oakley has long participated in the festival as the moderator of a discussion panel for science fiction and fantasy.

     She also hosts a Kids’ Book Swap on Saturday afternoon during the festival. The book swap spills into the arcade, with thousands of books to share and trade, and about twenty excited children. Strangely, there are always more books left over than when the event started. Oakley has learned to bring extra boxes. Inside the store is a section for kids and young adults, with books displayed at their height, and a beanbag for them to browse in.

     Oakley tried advertising in the early years. “To be effective, ads need to be well-placed and frequent,” she says. “Shotgun ads that run only once, for example, are a waste. I sent an email newsletter. But it took hours to write and edit, and time is precious. With no employees, all the chores fall on my shoulders. I’m listed in business directories, and book lovers know I’m here. Downtown is a great location. Tourists find their way here, and people come on book buying binges.” Seven bookstores now cluster within a few blocks.

     Success comes from more than location and luck. Oakley logs every book sold in a notebook next to the cash register, she straightens shelves daily, and she checks for books that migrate to the wrong section. “I take inventory once a year,” she says. “I purge damaged books and ones that have been here too long.” She donates the slowpokes to charities like Goodwill and the SPCA.

     An unusual move was to offer display space to John Ruseau, who paints watercolors of architecture and marine subjects. Now retired, Ruseau taught art at the University of Virginia, and for years he had his own gallery. His colorful, detailed paintings of Venice and classical architecture draw people inside. In return, Oakley is glad to help her friend with a sale now and then.

     Other than fine art, Oakley resists adding non-book merchandise. Near the front are two revolving racks filled with miniature books, like postcards. At a few dollars each, they make perfect gifts. As for coffee and snacks, a Cuban café and two Asian restaurants are steps away in the arcade. To placate fans, she sells a T-shirt printed with her slogan “Gently Used.”

     After dabbling in online sales, Oakley saw that she was competing with online retailers that have huge warehouses. “At the moment, I have 450 books listed on Amazon. Online sales are a small percentage of my total.” When asked about e-books, e-readers, and the death of print, she shrugs.

     “Sometimes, I think I’m selling widgets, a product that’s obsolete. But the store has always paid for itself, even during recessions. People keep buying books. Staying open seven days a week, however, is getting old. I’ll close Sunday and Tuesday as an experiment.”

     The main attraction, of course, is Oakley herself. She asks each customer how she can help, and a conversation ensues. On one occasion, the customer was a man visiting from out of town named Jim Beall. An engineer and inspector of nuclear power plants, Beall was attending a four-week training session at the Federal Executive Institute in 1998. A science fiction fan, he canvassed all the bookstores on his first free day, ending at Oakley’s.

     “None of the staff knew much about the subject,” he says. “They couldn’t answer questions, and their shelves were disorganized. I walked in here and hit the jackpot. We got to talking, and I was even more impressed.” Recently divorced, Beall thought he detected a reciprocal interest.

     “Let me see that left hand,” he said. Oakley smiled and held up a ringless hand. By the time his training session ended, they were engaged. They married in 2000. Beall retired and stopped commuting to Washington last year. He helps out in the store, especially in science, mathematics and military history, but he says Oakley makes all decisions. And he loves to tell how they met.

     “I came in looking for science fiction, and I found a fantasy.”


___
Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia. His academic degrees are Harvard, B. A. in English, and Yale, M. Arch. His stories, essays and book reviews appear in 2014 in Belle Rêve, Bangalore Review, Coup d’État, Digital Americana, Digital Papercut, Lowestoft Chronicle, Outside In Literary & Travel, Piedmont Virginian, Poydras Review, Ray’s Road Review, Short Fiction, Work Literary Magazine, and The Write Place at the Write Time.

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