Chop Suey Books Rebranded as Shelf Life Books


More than a year after buying Chop Suey Books, Carytown’s iconic bookstore, its new owners have rebranded it as Shelf Life Books. The store is located at 2913 West Cary Street.

Shelf Life, whose website bills it as the area’s largest independent bookstore, will still feature old and new books and literary events.

Owner Chris McDaniel sent an email to Style Weekly addressing the name change. We are adding more of that email to this original blog post, which needed clarification and additional explanation.

"The necessity of the name change was apparent to the McDaniels even as they negotiated the sale. "Chop Suey is cultural appropriation, and it doesn’t align with our vision of respecting all individuals and cultures,” Mr. McDaniel explained. After analyzing the name and branding of Chop Suey Books, we determined that it was harmful to Asian communities and perpetuated dangerous stereotypes. Yet the McDaniels and the staff wanted the store’s loyal following to know everything they loved about the store would remain, and they wanted to take the time to craft a name and changeover that would reflect both the store’s values and its meaning to the community.

For months, the staff had a running Slack channel for name change brainstorming, and Shelf Life emerged as a candidate that resonated with everyone on multiple levels. “Having books on your shelf and in your life can help you shape the life you want to live. Sharing books with the community can help shape the community life you want to see,” said staff member James De La Rama. Local artist Aaron Holmes developed the Shelf Life logo, featuring a wooden shelf with a small stack of books and one open book sprouting a plant. The words “Shelf Life” are spelled out in sprouting twigs. “I love how organic the logo is, especially the lettering,” Ms. McDaniel said. “You can’t just mass produce this, just like you can’t mass produce or market the place a local store holds in a community’s heart and soul. You also can’t constrain it. Those twigs refuse to be held in place by their letterly shape; they’re going to grow!” The store’s exterior signage was replaced with original art by Lizzie Brown, a Mending Walls RVA contributor.

“As we learn and grow as individuals and communities, we collectively shift our understanding of names and what they mean,” said general Manager Felix Salmoran. “At Shelf Life, we encourage analysis and interrogation as a means to practice care and intention.” “What we say and do impacts our community. We want to uplift others,” added De La Rama

The email also listed the store's core values as the following: "We believe in the ability and responsibility of individuals, communities, and societies to evolve toward more just, peaceful, tolerant, sustainable, and joyful ways of being; We believe in the transformative power of art, especially the written word; We aim to center marginalized voices in what we sell, how we staff, and how we interact with and support our community; We aspire to establish our bookstore as a safe space. Racism, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, ableism, and any other form of discrimination will not be tolerated; We will listen when our community tells us we have failed, and we will make amends and reparations whenever possible."

Ward Tefft, who founded Chop Suey two decades ago, agrees that it’s time Chris and Berkley McDaniel, the new owners, rebranded. “I'm definitely proud of the 20 years I ran Chop Suey Books, and look forward to seeing what's in store for the next chapter,” Tefft said.

Tefft now owns NoHow Books, which will publish ”Mending Walls,” a collection of murals painted in Richmond after the George Floyd murder, on April 23.

Corrections: An initial version of this blog misstated the number of books in the store, and also did not clearly explain the reason behind the name change. We have added more context to this update.