Sit with Ruth Erb for a few moments in her bookstore Book People and you’re tempted to throw your To Do list aside and just spend the morning browsing, a reader’s favorite pastime. Since 1986, Mrs. Erb has been catering to Richmond tastes from her small jewel of a bookstore that is now for sale. (She hopes the next buyer will keep her on staff.) Born in Iceland, she studied music in Vienna where she met her husband. Marriage, life and work brought her to RVA. Mrs. Erb started working at the Willow Lawn bookshop Atticus and the owner of Shevel’s, the men’s clothing store, suggested she open her own bookstore when Atticus closed. And Book People was born. Thirty-four years later, Mrs. Erb is still making book lovers like me happy.
I admit the first question I asked the pleasant, matter of fact Mrs. Erb was if you worked in a bookstore, did you actually spend a large part of your day reading? The response was a soft chuckle and a quote from Wendy Welch, author and owner of The Little Bookstore in Big Stone Gap: “If you’re a reader, don’t own a bookstore. Get a night watchman’s job.”
Talking to a longtime book dealer like Mrs. Erb has its share of surprises. She is not anti-Amazon, the business is big enough for all of us, and she has no reason to believe there are fewer readers these days, though obviously a lot is done online; she cites a favorite cartoon where someone hangs his Kindle in the air so he can have a good reading lamp. Mrs. Erb says what she is more interested in is coming back in 100 years and seeing what the world and readers are like then. And favorite authors? She lights up and mentions Nabokov, Hesse, Mattheissen and proceeds to quote Mr. Nabokov so eloquently, I make note to run home and pull down my copy of Nabokov’s Dozen and be sure to read Pnin.
In a small rectangular pale blue cottage on Granite Avenue, Book People rests curbside with this welcoming sight: cartons of inexpensive books on tables outside; an umbrella to shield from the too bright summer sun; and a coral Adirondack chair to encourage a quick peek. A car trunk stays open with more books so Mrs. Erb doesn’t have to tote all those heavy boxes. Inside awaits a book lover’s dream of the old and new, the just announced and the forgotten. And how can you not love a bookstore where a favorite customer leaves requests taped to the front door and she sends in the orders as she receives them? So much more charming than the faceless Internet.
If you’re pressed for time, I suggest you do not visit Book People. There’s so much to look at it’s hard to get out of the door quickly. A colorful paradise with little benches and stools to sit on. And, as a final note, I bet most people are like me when they do finally make their slow goodbyes and head for the door. We trot down the steps, starting a wish list on what to read next, and we can’t wait to get home and pick up the book we’re enjoying that’s sitting on the bedside table.
Book People, to borrow from Mr. Nabokov, is “an enchanted isle of time.”
536 Granite Avenue
Richmond, VA 23226