The Story Behind Old Books On Front Street in Wilmington, NC
by Dianna Dames
I noticed Old Books On Front Street about a year ago. It’s nestled towards the end of the shops on Front Street, closer towards Cape Fear Community College. They had a chalkboard easel set up on the sidewalk in front of the store that said, No one loves that old Kindle smell. Of course, that joke brought me into the store.
Gwenfar Rohler, who’s the managing partner of Old Books on Front Street sits across from me in the small communal area amidst a couch and a couple of chairs. This is where book clubs meet on a weekly basis. Her shoes are off and live piano music plays in the background.
The piano, dubbed Estelle, was brought in about one week after a man Rohler had never met before asked if she could use a piano. He said it would serve the purpose of creating a public art experience. The man’s name was James Jarvis, and he now gives piano lessons five days a week at the bookstore.
The bookstore, sometimes referred to as just Old Books is a homey, mellow environment now, but it was a tough fight to make it to this point in the journey. “Losing your bookstore would have been the end of the line for most independent bookstores,” Rohler tells me.
She credits the community –and the community alone – for Old Books overcoming a series of road bumps that should’ve shut her dream of owning a bookstore down. But what caused the community band together to keep her bookstore functional in one of its toughest stages?
In 1982, the bookstore functioned as Daughtry’s Old Books on Front Street. Eventually, the building was condemned and owner, Richard Daughtry, moved the store to a new location in 1983.
About 14 years ago, Mr. Daughtry went to Mr. Rohler and said he wanted Gwenyfar to buy his bookstore. So, that’s what she did. Gwenyfar describes the purchase as a family endeavor. She was only 24 years old at the time she bought the bookstore, so her parents played a huge role in helping her keep the business running. She called her mother and father her “managing partners.”
Gwenyfar still calls her bookstore a family business even though her parents have passed and she is now the only one managing the business. She says she continues to make every decision with her parents in mind, which is why she still sentimentally titles herself “managing partner,” rather than “manager.”
In 2010, the second location was condemned at the fault of the landlord, and the Rohlers persevered on to open the doors of what is now Old Books’ current location. Gwenfar couldn’t participate in the moving-in process as much as planned because of personal reasons. So she called on the community for help. “Hundreds of people showed up and moved us into storage and then moved us into this building and unpacked,” Gwenyfar recalls, with a look of true gratitude.
Fourteen years later, Gwenyfar still has a passion for selling books. She told me, “Ninety-nine percent of the people who walk in these doors are in a great mood and are excited to talk about something they’re interested in.” The store holds nostalgic value with some visitors, as Old Books has been the backdrop of wedding proposals, a stop on anniversary and birthday to-do lists, and a hangout spot for those who grew up in Wilmington.
Gwenyfar describes the process of customers bringing their kids in and those same kids returning as teenagers with friends or on dates. “This is a place you can enjoy as a small child,” she continues, “but you can come back as a teenager and it’s interesting, intriguing, and hip enough that you’re cool with bringing your friends, or even the person that you might be romantically trying to impress.”
Old Books has a few projects in which visitors can participate. On Saturdays, there is a literary history walking tour that covers about two and a half miles of downtown Wilmington. The tour starts in the year 1595 and finishes in the present. The tour addresses the history of education in the area, newspapers, bookstores, theater, and more.
On Sundays, there is live piano jazz where guests are free to relax and have a drink at the only book store in the county with a beer and wine license. Out-of-towners might appreciate the fact that right above the bookstore is an apartment loft for rent, known as The Top Shelf. This space features a life-size Scrabble board.
Down the street is the literary-themed bed and breakfast in the home where Gwenyfar grew up. She decided to repurpose the space instead of selling it. Each room is themed on a North Carolinian writer. Some include Maya Angelou, Tom Robbins, and Zelda Fitzgerald. “Harry Potter or even Jane Austen would have had more commercial value, but I think it would have been a little disingenuous,” says Gwenyfar. “We have some really remarkable writers from North Carolina.”
Old Books is a pleasant place to visit even if you aren’t looking for a specific book to buy. The cozy setting offers a place to relax, study, browse, and if you visit at the right time, have a drink and listen to some live music.
Old Books On Front Street is located at 249 N. Front Street in Wilmington, NC. They are open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and on Sundays from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m.