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Owner of Beloved Bookstore Weighs Closing Shop

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“Happy 30th Birthday,” reads a hand-painted, red-lettered sign posted over the door of Book People.

“So you've been here for 30 years?” the FedEx guy inquires while he delivers a new credit-card reader.

“No, I go home occasionally,” says shop owner Ruth Erb, deadpan.

Erb — wry, diminutive, with a faded German and Icelandic accent — is as much a West End fixture as her small, used-and-new bookstore on Granite Avenue. But after three decades in the business, Erb, 78, plans to retire in 2011.

She says she'd like to sell the little shop and its tens of thousands of volumes to a book lover with a head for business. But to turn a profit, she says, Book People would need to develop a strong online presence and perhaps relocate to a spot that gets stroll-by traffic.

Erb opened Book People on Dec. 1, 1980, at Willow Lawn. Six years later she moved it to the cozily chaotic space on Granite, and her approach to running the shop hasn't changed much since. Erb and her four employees communicate by leaving each other daily handwritten notes in a thick three-ring binder. The only inventory system is the memory of the staff, although Erb now has someone scanning and digitizing the tens of thousands of volumes “so we know what we actually have.”

Besides the standard assortment of paperbacks and Virginiana, there's a Latin version of “Harrius Potter”; a $300 Dorothy Sayers first edition; a leather-bound anthology of every “Peanuts” cartoon; and hoary medical texts that have lived here for decades.

Erb was born in Germany, but in 1938 her family immigrated to Iceland to escape the Nazis (her mother was Jewish). As a teenager Erb studied the violin at a music academy in Vienna. She met James Erb in choir practice. “And fell in love,” she says, looking at her husband.

“Well, we more argued than anything else,” he says. They married. She was 19.

James Erb was the University of Richmond's choir director for 40 years, in addition to being a composer and conducting the Richmond Symphony chorus. The two live at Westminster Canterbury.

It's still business as usual at Book People, with the regularly scheduled German Scrabble matches and local authors signing books. But Ruth Erb says she'll make the decision to sell or close this year, hoping for the former. “I think it's an unlikely hope,” she says. “But yes, I'm hoping.”

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