Reading under the sea
October 2, 2009
Next to the Smithfield Ham Shoppe at the end of the block on Prince George Street, a small staircase under to a large sign with a mermaid on it and a downward-pointing arrow are the only evidence of the small shop below. Leading down to a nautical doorway with yet another painted mermaid, the steps lead the roaming tourist or student down to a bookshop with more personality than the giant Barnes and Noble just one street over.
The shop is cozy, and with a maze of shelves packed to the brim with books and knickknacks. Sitting atop a table, a three-foot bronze mermaid statue topped by a tri-cornered hat welcomes customers into the store. Quotations from literary figures and illustrations of undersea life are painted on whatever wall space is still available.
“It’s the best bookstore I’ve ever been to,” Williamsburg native Kellie O’Malley ’10 said. “I once found a first edition copy of ‘My Antonia.’”
The history of the bookstore are as unique and eclectic as the shop itself. A few decades ago, Mary Lewis Chapman ’54 had the idea of opening up a used bookstore in Williamsburg.
“At that time, I was editing a small journal I had founded called ‘Literary Sketches’ which I ran for about 25 years,” she said. “There was a high-end antiquarian book store in Williamsburg at the time but not a general used one.”
She originally opened a store called The Bookhouse located on North Boundary Street.
“The rent was so reasonable I couldn’t have failed,” she said.
Later, in January of 1985, the chapman moved the store to its current location on Prince George Street with the help of her husband Andrew.
The Chapmans said that the most exciting part of running a used bookstore was finding the merchandise to fill it. The couple relied on word of mouth and scouring the area for finds to stock the shelves.
“People would sometimes call us looking to sell their collections, and we would go to houses to see them; and sometimes we’d discover something unusual or valuable,” Andrew Chapman said. “Often we’d find early 20th century children’s books, often with illustrations by Wyeth or one of his contemporaries. We would make trips to New England and stumble upon Virginian books. You’d find them dusty and rusting on the back shelf of an old barn.”
Friend and neighbor Sherrie Chappell began helping out in the mid 1990’s because she identified with their homegrown operation.
“I’m not even sure when I started working there,” Chappell said. “Just helping out; I enjoy working with people.”
The couple sold the store to Urise Eaton in 2000, who transformed the shop into The Mermaid Bookstore. After hiring a local artist to come in and paint the aquatic decorations, she placed numerous mermaid figurines and trinkets throughout the store and she reopened in January of 2001.
This past summer, Eaton decided to return to her work in the Peace Corps. She was going to close the store until Hatley and Jackie Mason decided to step in.
“I’d always been a customer for the past 12 years or so,” Hatley Mason said. “When we heard it was going to close, I had to step in to save it.”
The Masons have owned and run the store since June of this summer. Hatley said the experience has proven to be both challenging and rewarding.
“The biggest challenge has been researching which books are quality,” he said. “What’s valuable and what’s not.”
Like the Chapmans, the Masons will continue to put emphasis on books produced in Virginia and books about early Virginia and Colonial history.
“We’re trying to preserve books from the past that have lasting value and meaning,” Hatley said. “That includes out-of-print books as well as those covering Colonial history and things special to this area. The first gardening guide was published in Williamsburg by Edmund Randolph. And a lot of early cookbooks were published here too, and we want to keep those books, and interest in them, alive.”
However, according to Mason, the customers continue to make the store what it is today.
“The people that come in, they’re just delightful and the best part of the job,” he said. “You never know who’s going to come in. We’ve had deans of colleges, people from the State Department, chefs, actors and musicians. The place attracts all sorts of people.”
Chappell, who still works once a week, asserts that the store loves to sell to students, especially since they carry inexpensive Dover Thrift paperbacks of novels required for English classes at the College of William and Mary.
“We really want to give students a fair price,” Mason said. “If they come in looking for Byron, I’m not going to direct them to a first edition.”
The Chapmans still help out with the store, coming in on Tuesdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. to run the register and answer the questions of curious customers.
“Old customers often come back to see us, and we love to see students,” Andrew Chapman said. “They were great readers when we opened up then. And hopefully they still are now.”