An intriguing take on the indie bookstore emerged in the backroom of Sullivan’s Records in Charleston, West Virginia, when, in early 2017, bibliophile Joe Solomon approached shop owner Samuel Lowe about opening a “book nook” inside the shop.
It was a unique idea that has since led to as many as a dozen nooks across several counties throughout the state. Known as Homeward Bound Books, the nooks are as small as one or two shelves or, as in the Sullivan’s case, a sizable portion of the retail space, tucked inside such businesses as bakeries, cafes, a gelato shop, and a farmers market, among others.
Despite being a book lover himself, the idea took a little time to percolate for Lowe. “It wasn’t on my radar,” he says. “As a store owner, people will approach you with bizarre offers and ideas all the time, and the usual answer is no.” But further discussions with Solomon – who promised a curated, hand-picked selection of quality books – led Lowe to reconsider.
“I always thought that books were a natural fit with a record store,” Lowe says, noting that Solomon’s vision brought him around to the idea. What started with a few shelves led to an inventory of thousands of books filling the back room of Sullivan’s. Eventually, the entire inventory was moved to the main sales floor, with a dozen or so shelves of books lining an entire side of the shop.
Lowe admits that customer response was a little mixed at first. “Some people come into a record shop, and all they care about is records, so as far as they’re concerned, anything that isn’t vinyl is taking away space that could be used for albums. But they come in here and see the hand-picked selections Joe puts together, and they’re frequently blown away.”
Solomon curates his books from a variety of sources, often inheriting libraries of desired older books from Charleston’s aging population. A good portion of his supply, he told the Charleston Gazette-Mail in 2017, comes from West Virginians who have cleaned out their shelves to move out of state or into a retirement community.
Grant funding from Strong Mountain Communities allowed Solomon to expand Homeward Bound Books throughout 2017 and 2018. He works with business owners to select inventory that will speak well to that shop’s clientele and personally delivers updated stock. A commission model on sales benefits both Homeward Bound and the business in which the nook is housed.
And, most importantly, the model is benefiting customers who may wander into a space not necessarily seeking a book but walk away with an unexpected treasure.
“Impulse buys work well,” Lowe says. “People who aren’t necessarily here for that purpose are confronted with desirable, quality books that are pretty cheap, and they tend to pick some up because of the great selection.”
With Lowe’s record shop serving as the unofficial home base (and primary drop-off donation spot) of Solomon’s venture, eleven additional businesses are part of Homeward Bound’s growing footprint throughout the Mountain State. Books are currently available at the following locations:
- 34:Ate, 210 Pike Street, Williamson
- Addison Visitors Center & Gallery, 110 N. Main Street #100, Webster Springs
- Appalachian Coffee House, 32 Bounds Lane, Mount Nebo
- Caffe Romeo, 1026 Bridge Road, Charleston
- Coal River Coffee Company, 64 Olde Main Plaza, Saint Albans
- Dough Re Mi, 39 College Ave., Buckhannon
- Kathy’s Country Bakery and Coffee Shop, 39337 Coal River Road, Whitesville
- Moonlight Cookies, 210 11thStreet, Huntington
- Rock City Cake Company, 205 Capitol Street, Charleston
- Santangelo, 280 State Hwy 32, Thomas
- Sullivan’s Records, 1588-A Washington Street East, Charleston
- The Wild Ramp, 555 14thStreet West, Huntington