When Old Books on Front St. in
Wilmington, N.C., reopened this past December in a new location, it marked the
end of a dramatic, 11-month odyssey for owner Gwenyfar Rohler.
In January 2010, the building that
housed the store was condemned by the city and had to be vacated within 30 days--and
more than 175,000 books moved into a nearby storage facility.
Some 300 people turned out to lend
a hand, even rolling book-laden shelves-on-wheels down the street.
"I call it the Miracle on
Front Street," said Rohler. "I thought we might have 30 or 40 people
come, and that if we started at seven or eight in the morning we might have
half the books out by the end of the day." But by mid-afternoon the job
was done, and the laborers headed to the brewery across the street where they
were treated to beers on the house.
The building's doomed fate was a
blessing in disguise of sorts. With increasing rent, Rohler had decided it was
time to purchase a building to house the used bookstore. She was considering
making an offer on the current space when she got the news that it had been
condemned. "Somebody upstairs was looking out for me and did not let me
make an offer," said Rohler. "So this began the most exciting and
After looking at "every piece
of available commercial real estate in Wilmington" and settling on one, Rohler
received a phone call from the city's mayor, who was selling a c. 1910 building that had been in his family for
decades (it housed a soda fountain during Prohibition). A complete renovation
of the two-story Front Street building included adhering to guidelines
established by Wilmington's Historic Preservation Commission, of which her
father is a member. An ornately pattered tile floor "was the only thing
worth saving. I refer to it as my quarter-of-a-million-dollar floor," said
In addition to recycling bookshelves
from the previous storefront, 2,000 feet of new shelving was constructed--some
of it with wood from the set of a film that had wrapped. The Wilmington area is
a major filmmaking center, and Rohler sells and rents books for use in television
shows and movies.
"The film industry in an
incredible boon for us. It's what really pays the bills, and we move heaven and
earth for them. If they call and need something by seven the next morning, I'll
stay up all night to make it happen," said Rohler. The store recently
supplied 30 feet of business and economic books for the TV show One Tree Hill and a selection of titles
for the feature film Bolden, about jazz musician Charles "Buddy" Bolden. "We actively work on these
relationships," noted Rohler. "But when you need 60 feet of books,
hardback, pre-1930, in the color scheme of red, brown and black, we're your
only game in town."
Construction materials for the
renovation were purchased from a family-owned lumber yard and a hardware store
in town. Rohler writes a column called "Live Local, Live Small" for the
alternative weekly encore magazine. "As
a small business owner, I have made a commitment not to buy anything off the
Internet, from a chain store or a chain restaurant," Rohler said. Her
column documents her experiences shopping local.
Rohler is also the author of Your Health Is in Your Kitchen: Why Momma
Made Chicken Soup and The Promise of
Peanuts: A Real-Life Fairy Tale, a picture book about the invention of a
peanut sheller used in developing countries to fight hunger and aid commerce. (The device was created by Rohler's
husband, Jock Brandis, a former film technician and humanitarian, and proceeds
from the book benefit the nonprofit Full Belly Project.)
Old Books on Front St. is now in
its third location since opening in 1982, all of which have been on downtown
Wilmington's main thoroughfare. When bookshop founder Dick Daughtry retired in 2007,
he approached Rohler and her family--longtime patrons of the store--about
buying the business. "In retrospect, he had been dropping broad hints for
a while," said Rohler.
After its extreme makeover, the
store now has a separately owned and operated cafe, Sugar on Front St., with lunch
counter-style seating; a staging area for events; and Rohler's "dream storage
space" on the second floor, along with a rental apartment. Another intriguing
feature is a jukebox programmed with literary-themed recordings. Customers can
purchase or use store credit to hear selections like Hamlet's soliloquy; poems
read by Shel Silverstein, Dylan Thomas and Allen Ginsberg; and songs sung by
Bob Dylan and Paul Simon.
When it came time to restock the
shelves at Old Books on Front St.'s new locale, there was yet again no shortage
of helping hands. Some turned out a second time, along with first-timers who
previously had been out of town or couldn't lift heavy boxes.
"For our community to rally
around us the way they have has created a feeling of investment for many people
that they did not have before," said Rohler. "They'll come to us
before a chain or online because they helped us move and have an incentive for
our success. It's quite a gift."--Shannon McKenna Schmidt