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The Outer Ward

Chop Suey Books is Richmond's creative ground zero.

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Be careful what you ask Ward Tefft to do. He just might do it.

Originator and owner of Chop Suey Books — Used Books to Go! — in Carytown, Tefft is in the middle of any number of culture-centric collaborations at any given time, including this weekend's Best Friend's Day festival (see next page). Chop Suey, from the Mandarin “Za Sui” — meaning “a little bit of this, a little bit of that” — perfectly characterizes Tefft's open-minded philosophy toward books, readings, art, photography, music, crafts and film.

“A large part of what I do is based on my collaborations with other people, in large part my customers,” Tefft says. “You open your door and let people come in. The more open you are, the more you experience, like life.” Although Chop Suey has weathered two robberies at gunpoint and a handful of surprising shoplifting incidents, the benefits of Tefft's open-door policy — and mind-set — are overwhelmingly positive. 

After growing up in a planned community in Columbia, Md., with “plenty of pools and parks but not much culture”), at 18 he left for a year at Guilford College and then a year in Germany, before receiving his bachelor's degree in English from Virginia Commonwealth University and a master's degree in English from the State University of New York at Buffalo. By the end of his career in higher education, Tefft says he was “totally disheartened by academia. There was a lot of posturing and exclusionary language, a lot of people talking, but not a lot of people doing.”

In order to do, Tefft commenced an “accidental apprenticeship” at a series of bookstores, beginning with Brian Lampkin's tiny used-book shop, Rust Belt Books, a huge influence on Tefft. “The books were very inexpensive,” he says. “It was obviously done for love, not as a capitalistic venture.” After moving to New York City, Tefft got a job with Rob Warren of Skyline Books in Williamsburg, and then the Dia museum's bookstore in Chelsea. “Here I was overeducated,” he says — “you can't do anything with a master's degree in English, except for maybe work at a used-book store.”

In October 2001, Tefft moved back to Richmond and, wanting to remedy the lack of local used-book stores, opened one himself. He and filmmaker Patti Doyen leased George's Chop Suey from VCU painting professor James Bradford eight months ahead of their schedule. “We heard rumors of Chinese George chopping off the hand of a man who tried to rob him in Union Hill, so he relocated to Richmond,” Tefft says. “It was mostly a drinking establishment with a speak-easy feel.” When the doors opened in March 2002, Paul Watson's band played opening night, local photographer Jennylyn Pawelski organized the first art opening and Spokane played at the first reading. And the rest, other than a move to Carytown in 2006, is history.

“I think the magic of Chop Suey is that we don't do these readings based on sales or national attention,” Tefft says. “They're underpublished or unpublished but still have a lot to share.” The Von Gribley reading series (a play on McSweeney's and a reference to those little disconnected pieces of fried chicken) started by Sommer Browning was later taken over by an assistant professor of women's studies at VCU, Liz Canfield, and is still going strong.

The community events in which Tefft partakes are many. After holding a craft fair in the parking lot of the Hand Workshop in 2003, co-organizer of the Worn Again Fashion Show, Anna Virginia, asked if she could move her market to Chop Suey's backyard. Together, Virginia and Tefft developed what the Bizarre Market is today, with 10 percent of sales benefiting first the Read Center and then a series of different nonprofits. The Holiday Market is now run by local writer, Bird Cox, and the Bizarre Market has continued at Art180's Jonny Z Festival each August since 2008. 

In 2007, after social work student Shelley Briggs' car was totaled, she and Tefft decided to buy a school bus. Within a month the bus was painted, a trip to New Orleans planned and Books on Wheels, a nonprofit offering free books and free bike repair in primarily at-risk neighborhoods, was born. Briggs has since opened the thrift store Books, Bikes and Beyond to raise money for Books on Wheels.

Tefft has been a tireless organizer of Best Friends Day, the four-day smorgasbord of bands and swimming coming up in its ninth year this weekend, alongside Tony Foresta, Curtis Grimstead, Shelley Briggs and Erin Briggs. But this year, instead of a scavenger hunt, Tefft plots a grown-up version of the elementary-school field day, which may or may not include a rigorous set of spin the bottle.

Chop Suey also collaborates regularly with Gallery5 and River City Reads, a bimonthly, city-wide book club started by Carra Rose. Gone but not forgotten are Chop Suey's specials of yore: the Jon Cage Musicircus organized by Brian Jones, the 24-hour Bookman and the Trailer Park Theatre — two and a half hours of movie trailers.

But one need not scavenge beyond the bookstore to find its talent. Writer Mark Hutchison, editor of the literary magazine “Makeout Creek,” Andrew Blossom and artist Ryan McLennan of the newly released “The Cost of Comfort” are Tefft's knowledgeable employees, second only to WonTon, their photogenic feline mascot.

“For whatever reason, I've become the face of a lot of things, but I don't want to eclipse somebody else who does as much or more work as I do,” says one of Richmond's leading creative point men. “My luck is having really creative people around me.”

Visit chopsueybooks.com or call 422-8066 for information about events at Chop Suey.

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