A freshman enthralled with a poster of Bob Marley, spliff in hand, worries that her parents will see it on her dorm room wall. A woman lets out a whoop when she stumbles on her high-school yearbook, having lost her copy years ago. Art students bring in projects they’ve created from prints and magazines purchased there.
The Richmond Book Shop, in the heart of Virginia Commonwealth University’s campus at 808 W. Broad St., is easy to miss when you’re driving by, but impossible to resist on foot, with a lineage that dates to the Great Depression.
Cooper’s Old Books opened in 1929 on the 100 block of East Main Street. In 1957, Vincent Gilligan, grandfather of “Breaking Bad” creator Vince Gilligan, acquired the store and renamed it the Richmond Book Shop. He moved the store to this location in 1969.
Owners Robert Lewis and Kathryn Pritz took it over in 1995 when the Gilligans wanted to close down and were selling off stock. Lewis, an inveterate collector, kept coming home with boxes of books. Frustrated with the mounting clutter, Pritz suggested he buy the store instead to have a place for all those books.
“This whole area was very different then,” Pritz says from behind the yellow enamel cash register, a holdover from the Gilligan days. “You didn’t go down the side streets or out at night around here. They were still having fights across the street at Ivory’s [Uptown Lounge]. The neighborhood has come a long way.”
A fire in an alley struck in summer 2006, destroying a cache of 1860s leather-bound law books and court reports upstairs, necessitating a two-month closure for renovations. Pritz credits the influx of new businesses and people living above the shops as the reason the area feels like a real city.
Students quickly found the shop and made their needs known. Posters, especially in August when a new class arrives, are big sellers, ranging from an iconic Che Guevara print to Alphonse Mucha’s distinctive art deco works. Author Jane Austen’s work is perennially popular. Pritz quickly learned that students come in with limited budgets needing images for art projects. Her solution is “bag boards,” images packaged against cardboard and stored in plastic bags, such as a 1950 newspaper clipping with the headline, “Lena Horne Wed to White Man.” Using old magazines and books not in the best shape, she removes pictures and sells them individually. An 1897 medical book yielded dozens of intricate illustrations much sought after by medical students because they show more detail than photographs.
Many of the shop’s regular customers began as students. “People tell me Gilligan’s was the first place they ever bought a comic book,” Pritz says. Their selection of older comics — 1986 “G.I. Joe,” 1993 “Ren & Stimpy,” 1996 “X-Men” — is the yin to Velocity Comic’s yang, where only new comics are sold a block down. “We send a lot of customers back and forth.”
Books representing every genre line the shelves. You’ll find erotica next to magic, and that’s just a fraction of the stock. Originally, the store carried new postcards but discovered vintage sold better, including an entire selection of old state postcards. Framed art leans against shelves holding classic magazines such as Life, Saturday Evening Post and Modern Romance, the latter with a screaming cover tease, “Must I Marry Her?” Vinyl is available in album format — big band to the Thompson Twins — and 45s, as varied as Gene Pitney and Partridge Family.
Given the season, great gifts abound. A poetry lover would swoon for a Cambridge edition of “Mrs. Browning’s Complete Poetical Works” from 1900. Someone with a bent for mixology might adore a 1922 “Scotch Whisky, a Guide” with a pencil-written inscription, “A whiskey bottle’s an awful inconvenient thing, its own muckle for one, an’ not enough for two.” Jazz fans would no doubt appreciate old issues of Downbeat, such as March 1973, an Ellington special with Quincy Jones, Peggy Lee, Ray Charles and Roberta Flack featured. Beat generation memories are conjured up with Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s 1962 collection “Unfair Arguments with Existence.” Foodie types might relish 1971’s “Culinary Arts Institute Encyclopedic Cookbook,” tabbed like a dictionary and covering skills as diverse as deboning a chicken and making bologna cups filled with peas and rice.
“If I knew how many pieces we had here, I’d probably run down the street screaming,” Pritz says. Instead, she remains a calming presence who likes nothing better than to have her reading interrupted to help find something for a customer, whether it’s comic artist Mark Bodé stopping by during Comic Con or a punk band wandering over from Strange Matter before a show. “I’m running a three-ring circus here,” she says. S
The Richmond Book Shop, 808 W. Broad St., is open Mondays through Saturdays from 2-7 p.m.