“I’d live to be 300-years-old, and I’d still never be able to read them all,” chuckled Bob Schurtz, Owner of Downtown Books. During our interview, I received the answers to the questions I’m sure many ponder as they pass by the shop: Why so many books? Why not clear some space? Why do you give some of your books away? The responses I received were gratifying.
Before our meeting, I stuck my head inside the shop, and informed the owner that I’d return after getting a coffee at Bella Gelato. In a courteous tone, he replied, “Oh, you’ll need to have the coffee there. There are no drinks allowed in the bookstore.” After finishing my coffee, I inched my way through the book stands and stacks to the front left-hand side of the store, which could be described as a modest chair surrounded by a fortress of neatly stacked, used books and magazines. As a writer and booklover, I found it to be beautiful and possibly a little cramped for space, all at once; later, I understood why the crowded colonies of books, magazines, cards and dvds were imperative to the business and to the owner.
Downtown Books’ longevity of 39 years requires more than the owner’s love of books to keep it open. “I’m always struck by the generosity of people. People put books in boxes and take the time to drive them down here.” What began as a nickel-per-donation system, has become a local bookstore which is close to being completely stocked by community members’ donations. These boxes greet Bob as he enters his shop, and are the partial answer to the ultimate question I sought to discover: What does it take to keep an independent bookstore open?
Downtown books is not your typical bookstore. Bob stated it best: the “[s]tore has a life of it’s own.” I wouldn’t normally call a business owner that I barely know by their first name, but Bob is the kind of guy you feel as though you’ve connected with a moment after meeting him. There’s a humbleness about him which is apparent in, and out, of Downtown Books. Recently, in the grocery store, I noticed Bob pushing his cart within the same aisle. It was during the end of the day when most of us are tired and our faces simply don’t have the energy to hide our exhaustion. Not Bob. That content nature I spoke of earlier seems to be a way of life for him, which makes me even more proud to have him as a long-standing business owner within our downtown community.
“I don’t throw any books away,” says Bob. “Some people like books to be treated with respect.” As a writer, and avid book reader, I was moved by this way of life. “I don’t discard books. I never throw them away. Sometimes collections and books will sit around for a long while and I alternate them. Eventually someone picks them up.” With a proud look on his face, he stated that he probably has just as many books at home, and even though he’d never find the time to read most of them, he believes in respecting them.
However humble, downtown’s sole bookstore owner (a former school teacher) is far from naive, “[s]mall independent bookstores are drying up.” Or should I say, he’s not naive about his past naivety. “I probably should’ve gone out of business in the early 1990’s.” Bob is used to his customers, and passersby, dropping in just to pose the question, “[y]ou’re still here?!” He’s surprised too. “When I wrote the check [to buy the business], the owner, Mr. Lang, asked if I wanted to save some of the funds for working capital. I didn’t know what that was. Now, I hand my accountant paperwork and hope he has a TV on for me to watch while he reviews it all.”
I was surprised to learn that, before Downtown Books’ current location, it was situated a block away. The former building was bought by a new owner in the 70’s, and Bob was told to leave with very little notice. Poet William Carlos Williams once wrote: so much depends upon a red wheelbarrow. This is especially true for Bob; most items were relocated by wheelbarrow at a time that he worked the midnight shift, 40-hours/week, at 7-11. Between the two full-time jobs, he totaled 84-hours/week. As I gasped, Bob smiled and said, “I was young and still had some energy then.”
How does an independent book store stay open?
A caring community + respect for books + humble nature = 39 years and counting
Towards the end of the interview, I learned that there’s more to Downtown Books’ formula of success. “The McHones are the best landlords,” he said as he looked at the ceiling on the opposite side of the shop. “One day a woman holding a baby came in and told me that they liked my pet raccoon. I smiled but it was feral. I made a quick call to Hunter Woodard and it was taken care of straight away. It’s better than owning. I can’t call Hunter when I have raccoons at home,” he grinned.
Hunter Woodard, business development manager at James McHone Jewelry shares the sentiment: "For the last 10 years, Bob and I generally arrive at work around the same time most days. He takes the time to stop and say hello or good morning. His warm and welcoming disposition I feel is what makes our downtown. Hunter believes that downtown is not merely a collection of shops, offices, restaurants and apartments but rather a the heart of a community. "And it is merchants like Bob that make this downtown so inviting for the community and visitors."
“When I go out of business I’ll prop the door open and when I return there will be more books. I’m in my 60’s--maybe I have retired and just don’t know it yet.” If you ask me, it doesn’t seem like Bob has slowed down as much as he might think. Each morning he wakes up at 4am to care for 14 horses. After his work in the bookstore, he returns to complete nightly chores. However, during the day, he can be found sitting inside a fortress of used books, representing and protecting part of Harrisonburg’s past, while setting the best example for our future.
Written by Angela Carter, an author, poet, motivational speaker, spoken word performer, visual artist, director of outreach at a local nonprofit. Her writing in her full-length poetry memoir, Memory Chose A Woman's Body, was nominated for a 2014 Pushcart Prize. Her poetry performances have been featured in a multitude of venues including The KGB Club in Manhattan and Busboys and Poets in DC. Angela is an advocate of the healing ability of the arts. She, her husband, two daughters and two dogs reside in Harrisonburg, VA after relocating, from Bath, England, approximately 10 years ago. The Carters are proud to be a part of Harrisonburg's growing, and caring, downtown community. Read some of her work here.