Have you ever seen someone adrift in a bookstore? It can be a tiny space, and yet they look lost — not physically, but mentally. Maybe they draw the books up to their face to smell the paper and binding glue. Maybe they stare at the cover longingly, whether it’s a picture or a smooth leather finish. Perhaps they stand still as statues for long moments as they fall into the third paragraph on page 231.
If you’ve encountered one of these souls, you’ve met a Book Person. Book People are always on the lookout for literature. You’ll see them in libraries, certainly, but the most common place to observe a Book Person in the wild is at a used bookstore.
Fortunately, Dr. Chuck Wood (whose day job is teaching at Wheeling University and writing about astronomy) has provided a new habitat for Book People at Vigilant Books on Market Street.
THE VIGILANT FIREHOUSE
You may remember Chuck and his wife Vera Uyehara as the winners of 2017’s Show of Hands. Vigilant Books’ ultimate destination will be the North Wheeling firehouse across the street from their home. It’s a property Chuck has been watching for years.
“I sit in my favorite chair and … I see the top of the Vigilant,” he said. “Fifteen years it sat empty with rain coming in. So we finally bought it three years ago with the idea of making it into a bookshop and a café. And it’s taken forever to get the roof repaired. You know, it’s 128 years old. Everywhere you look, there’s something that needs to be repaired. So I thought, our goal is still to fix that. It’s in our neighborhood, we don’t want it to decay further.” It takes a specially certified roofer to work on a historic building. The wheels of renovation turn slowly, but Chuck hopes to open the firehouse in the next 18 months or so.
Because the Woods already owned the Market Street property, it was a logical choice to open Vigilant there as a temporary location while work continues in North Wheeling. Now that it’s up and running, however, Chuck has modified his plans.
“We decided we’d make a temporary bookstore here. My thought is, this is so fun, and it’s such a neat space that when we get [Vigilant] up, we’ll keep this going too,” he said.
Chuck hired his two employees, Chelsee Helminski and Lauren Cuff, when he spotted them in the store and identified them as book lovers. He works 30 hours a week at Wheeling University and needed folks to operate the store during the week.
According to Chuck, “Chelsee came in with her baby, and I realized how much she knew about books. So I said, ‘Do you want a job?’ And Lauren is a neighbor. I’d see her walking her dog. She came in, and the first thing she did was sniff and say, ‘I love the smell of books.’ I said, ‘Here’s another keeper.’” (The word that describes the smell of old books is biblichor.)
Chelsee brings baby Eden to work with her, and Eden shares her mother’s love of literature.
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“We have four generations, counting Eden, of book lovers,” Chuck said, as Eden crawled over to the bookshelf to inspect the children’s books. “Eden likes the books more viscerally than anyone else. We just hold them. She puts them in her mouth and smells them.”
Vigilant Books is a small space, so while the children’s book section isn’t enormous, it’s rich in memories. Young folks will find everything from YA fiction to Star Wars lore to Little Golden Books. (Remember The Tawny Scrawny Lion and The Saggy Baggy Elephant?) It’s a great place to bring your child and let them browse.
Browsing is key in used bookstores. Chuck showed me sections on gardening, art, pets, military, religion and philosophy, among others. He has biographies and cookbooks. Vigilant may not have the exact title you’re looking for, but you’re guaranteed to find something interesting. Often, these spur-of-the-moment choices lead a reader to a world of new interests and authors.
One of Chuck’s favorite shelves holds a 1909 first-edition set of the Harvard Classics, a 51-volume collection assembled by the school’s then-president, who said that reading the entire collection was equivalent to a Harvard education. (Supposedly, only Malcolm X has ever read them all.) Chuck has mixed feelings about the books and, as much as he’d like to find them a home, would be sad to see them go. He feels that way about all of them, and Chelsee and Lauren are always very excited when new books arrive.
Opening a used bookstore has its advantages. Rather than having to buy new stock, almost all of Vigilant’s books have been donated as kids grow, people downsize and clean out their homes. Chuck offers store credit for donations.
Chuck loves the idea that Wheeling could be a destination for bookstore lovers. In fact, there are Book People out there who seek out various towns known for their bookstores.
“My thought is that Wheeling has some of the attributes of these other towns,” he said. “It’s in a scenic location. Historically interesting. So I’m hoping that we can get these two up, and Tom [Stobart] over at Paradox [Books] will keep going.”
Chuck finds Book People interesting. They’re interested in the world around them, he says. He and Lauren and Chelsee enjoy talking to customers about what they do and what they read. And thanks to regular donations, his supply of titles is constantly being refreshed.
Those titles include some local authors, too. You can find books by Jeanne Finstein, Alice Hembra and Adeline Schneider. Chuck has written several books, as well. A handful of authors attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony in early November for Vigilant’s grand opening, including Vera’s father, Cecil Uyehara, who has written half a dozen books.
Vigilant Books is located at 1900 Market St. and is open every day of the week. It’s a perfect place to spend a rainy afternoon or a relaxing Saturday. Whether you go in with an intention or just to browse, odds are you’ll meet blissful Book People in their natural habitat.
• Laura Jackson Roberts is an environmental writer and humorist in Wheeling, West Virginia. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Chatham University and serves as the Northern Panhandle representative of West Virginia Writers. Her hobbies include hiking, travel and rescuing homeless dogs. Visit her at laurajacksonroberts.com.