The bookstores of Charlottesville and their untold stories.
Words by Dan Goff. Visuals by Chandler Collins.
What is Charlottesville known for?
Ask anyone who doesn’t live in the city, or at least who doesn’t live in Virginia, and they’ll probably respond, “It’s the place where those white nationalist rallies happened.”
Ask a student of the University or a resident of Charlottesville, and the answers will get a little more specific and varied — maybe something about the University sports teams, or something about the Dave Matthews Band. Tina Fey might be mentioned.
But these facts fail to represent the community. Charlottesville’s history is rich, but too often overlooked. And at the center of this neglected history are five independent bookstores, doing their best to survive by selling stories while their own stories remain untold.
It’s time to tell these stories.
When Julia Kudravetz bought New Dominion Bookshop in October 2017, she knew she was purchasing one of the most iconic pieces of property on the Downtown Mall. It’s a responsibility she’s not taking lightly.
“I want for us to be a bookstore which is looking outwards and looking towards the future,” Kudravetz said.
Kudravetz prefaced this by describing the bookstore’s past, a history so vibrant and unusual that it, as Kudravetz suggested, “sounds like something out of Hemingway.”
“It’s the oldest independent bookshop in Virginia — one of the oldest in the country,” Kudravetz said. “The earliest record we can find is from 1924.”
The first owner she mentioned was Christopher Columbus Wells, a “World War I ambulance driver, who moved back to Charlottesville to start this place.”
New Dominion’s original location was where the Mall’s CVS currently is, Kudravetz said — the city’s ultimate social destination.
“From the stories people tell, it was the center of Charlottesville,” Kudravetz said. “People would stroll through for books, but also gossip and conversation.”
This original building housed New Dominion for decades. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that it moved to its current location, which, as Kudravetz explained, “used to be an old shoe store.”
It’s hard to believe that anything as mundane as footwear was ever sold in such a beautiful space. With its sweeping staircases, frosted glass skylights and, most importantly, towering bookcases built into the walls, it seems like a building that has always — and will always — house literature.
Carol Troxell, the owner of New Dominion until her sudden death in January of last year, was responsible for this move when she took over the shop. She and her husband Robert bought and renovated the building to bring it to its current form, Kudravetz said.
Then, Kudravetz jumped to the part of history that included her.
“I had been working here — moonlighting, doing social media and also selling books for New Dominion at a reading series that I founded,” Kudravetz said.
She was also teaching community college at the time of Troxell’s passing, but she said the prospect of owning a bookstore — not to mention, a cultural landmark — was much more appealing.
“I wrote to her husband and said, ‘I love the shop and I would be in a position to buy it — would you hire me as a manager?'” Kudravetz said. “He didn’t know what he was going to do with it … so he hired me.”
Kudravetz officially bought the store at the end of October, bringing it to its current state.
And what state is that? Kudravetz seemed to have mixed feelings about what should be preserved and what must be updated, to preserve — and persevere — in a larger sense.
“I think with anything that’s been around 100 years, there’s some real quirks,” Kudravetz said.
She explained one such quirk that she had already rectified — the absence of cordless phones in the store.
“There are some things that of course I want to change,” Kudravetz said. “But then there are some things that are really part of the texture of the shop, which I love.”
She had a lot to say about the shop’s future, so many plans and upcoming events that visibly excited her.
“We’ve got 13 events during the Book Festival — that’s a lot for our little shop,” Kudravetz said, grinning, name-dropping considerable authors such as Nathan Englander.
On a smaller, more immediate scale, Kudravetz said she is working every day to make New Dominion a more accessible and attractive location for residents of Charlottesville.
“People are not going to just discover us on their own,” Kudravetz said. “We need someone to be reaching out to new communities in Charlottesville.”
Despite her ambitious outlook and palpable happiness, Kudravetz acknowledged the struggles that independent bookstore owners face. She agreed that Charlottesville’s small business community, particularly in the context of literature, was “strangely thriving,” and said later in the interview that New Dominion survives “on sheer force of will.”
But Kudravetz also said that she’s found the “secret of surviving,” or at least one of them — namely, being attuned to customers’ needs, desires and interests.
“What I love about here is that you know a lot of the customers,” Kudravetz said. “You get to know them over time, and if you’re good, you remember the books they bought in the past … I think that’s the tradition of really knowing the customers. I think that’s the secret of surviving.”
This ties in nicely to Kudravetz’s plans for the store’s future. “I want us to be a bookshop for all of Charlottesville … for students, for seniors,” she said.
Kudravetz seems unsure whether New Dominion will thrive or merely survive in the years to come, but her interview made it clear that she is doing everything in her power to achieve the former. If her goals come to fruition, the shop will be a modern reincarnation of its former self — a bookstore that is both a reflection of, and a destination for, its community.
New Dominion isn’t the only shop on the Downtown Mall recently under new management. Read It Again, Sam, located on the same side of the Mall and a few blocks closer to its center, was subjected to similar tragedies and significant events in 2017.
It might be a shock to learn that Dennis Kocik has only owned and managed the store since last December — he speaks of Read It Again, Sam and moves through the space as though it has been his focus for many years. Any old-time customers, however, know that Kocik is filling a suddenly and tragically vacated void.
“Read It Again, Sam was started by Dave Taylor 30 years ago,” Kocik said. “Ten years of it was in Lovingston, where they lived, 20 years right here.”
The “right here” refers to another beautiful building — not quite so grandiose as New Dominion, but remarkable in a quieter way. Marble floors and polished wood paneling abound in the store, remnants of the jewelry shop that once occupied the space that lend a refined but unpretentious mood.
The store is made even more unassuming by the endless figurines, posters and assorted movie memorabilia, all of it starring and celebrating Humphrey Bogart.
“[Taylor] liked the movie ‘Casablanca’ … apparently he was a big Bogart fan,” Kocik said with an understated smirk.
The name of the store itself — done in gold lettering on the front windows, along with a sketch of Bogart’s face — is a play on a classic, though oft-misquoted line from “Casablanca.”
If Read It Again, Sam, is in some ways a shrine dedicated to Bogart, it has recently updated its decor to celebrate the late Taylor. Near the front of the store is a black book nearly full of condolences from long-time customers, and next to that is Taylor’s laminated obituary. A quick flip through this book gives an idea of the impact Taylor had on the community. Dave was a good fellow. Part of the fabric of downtown. Many years — many books.
Kocik’s recent acquisition of the store is still very much on his mind, as evidenced by the amount of time he spent talking about it.
“When I found out Dave had died March of last year, I remember telling Barbara, the manager … if she was looking to sell, I’d be interested,” Kocik said.
Though Kocik has no previous experience running a bookstore, he’s familiar with the sellers of Charlottesville.
“I’ve never owned a bookstore, but I’ve been buying books here 20 years myself,” he said. “I bought books from all of [the bookstores on the Mall], including those that are no longer here.”
When asked about the competition of other bookstores on the Mall, Kocik claimed that it was nonexistent.
“I don’t even look at it as a competition,” he said, though he did admit that “it’s unusual for this small area to have that many bookstores.”
To this phenomenon, he attributed the “bookstore experience” as the main reason.
“Buying from Amazon is one thing because you’re buying something that you can’t touch and feel,” he said. “You just pray that it’ll come in good condition. Here, you can browse, and you actually wind up seeing a book that you weren’t looking for.”
Kocik stressed that “you don’t get that from a Kindle,” becoming visibly more passionate as he continued to discuss the physical element of books and bookstores.
“There’s something personal,” he said. “You get up-close with a book.”
During the interview, customers filtered in and out of the store, sometimes buying books, sometimes just saying hi to Kocik. A few of them referred to him by name, a testament to the impact Kocik has already made on the community in just a few months.
“I always quote the ancient Roman Cicero,” Kocik said. “‘A room without books is like a body without a soul.’ We have soul. We have a lot of soul.”
To call Blue Whale Books a bookstore might be a misnomer. To be sure, the shop is filled with bookshelves packed to the brim — ancient, dusty tomes under glass, a few stacks on the front desk. But owner Scott Fennessey has a novel business plan to diversify the store’s products.
“We’ve started selling prints and maps,” Fennessey said. “People find [them] fascinating. I think part of it is an increase of interest in visual materials. A lot of people have lost interest in older books, just as objects — whereas, for some reason, the picture out of a book is more fascinating.”
Fennessey’s shop has changed its wares to reflect this interest. A good part of the store is devoted to prints — idyllic scenes cut out of illustrated novels, anatomical diagrams from reference books, sprawling, full-color maps taken from atlases.
Fennessey used one of his more picturesque prints to explain how he had gotten the idea.
“This is a printout from a book that I’ve had on the shelf for literally 20 years and just couldn’t sell, because you look at it and the title is in Czech,” he said.
He continued that, despite the “15 color linocuts” within the book, it had no chance of selling.
“I was gonna put it on the dollar shelf, just out of disgust,” Fennessey said. “But I was looking at it and I thought, ‘I’m just gonna try to sell the linocuts.’ And as I was packaging these plates, I sold two of them — for more than the book cost.”
Fennessey attributed what he calls the “antiquey factor” to the success of the print business.
“For people under the age of 35, they want something ‘antiquey,'” he said. “They want the experience of something old, but they don’t want the whole book.”
There’s a peak price for this factor, he added — “under 50 dollars.” But just out of fascination, people may spend “10, 20, 30 bucks” on a print.
Aside from the artistic novelty, Fennessey has another incentive to get customers in the store — a furry, friendly incentive that waddled in and out of sight throughout the entire interview.
“Gizmo is 10,” Fennessey said, laughing as he hoisted his dog into his lap to pose for photos.
“She’s a really sweet dog. She likes kids. She’s good at bringing in customers — she’ll just sit right in the door, and people come in because of that.”
Fennessey seemed sublimely unconcerned as he held the compliant corgi, telling an anecdote about Gizmo’s encounter with a baby rabbit. Missing from Blue Whale was the air of uncertainty, though faint, that permeated every other bookstore featured in this article.
“We’re all sort of fleeing the book market,” Fennessey said at one point. “You gotta make a living.”
Fennessey’s methods shouldn’t necessarily be called a flight from bookselling, but they are a clever — and potentially long-lasting — repurposing of the book.
A living legend and his labyrinth
Tucked into one of the crevices of the Downtown Mall, Daedalus Bookshop is easy to miss — but essential to experience. Its modest storefront isn’t the most promising, lacking the gold-embossed banners of New Dominion or the elegant marble of Read It Again, Sam, but just a glance inside reveals an enchanting labyrinth of literature.
Think Heartwood, but exponentially larger and more intricate. Three rickety, claustrophobic floors of novels and nonfiction boast every subject imaginable. And sitting in the store’s center floor, at the nucleus of his creation and accumulation, is one Sandy McAdams.
An undeniable fixture of the community, McAdams is just as eclectic and full of life as his sprawling bookstore. This liveliness is somewhat kept in check by an advanced age and steadily advancing multiple sclerosis, the combination of which have confined McAdams to a motorized wheelchair, but he is still a sight to behold.
And he had so much to say.
“Right away, I thought, Charlottesville would have a brass band and parade for this great used bookshop,” McAdams said, chuckling. “But it’s gone unnoticed. It’s still unnoticed.”
McAdams was describing a time long past — 44 years, by his estimation — but he made the era come alive with lively stories and facial expressions to match.
The conversation took many unexpected turns. As a result, many questions were left unanswered or only partially so.
For instance, McAdams explained that he started the iconic C&O Restaurant with a man named Phillip Stafford but failed to go into any further detail.
“When I first moved here, they were digging out the Mall to put the bricks down,” McAdams said. “And myself and my partner — one end was the C&O Restaurant, and I had the other [end of the Mall].”
Daedalus Bookshop is a place rich with history, and though unnoticed by many residents, it has not gone entire unsung — even on a national scale. At one point, McAdams dug around in one of his stacks of books, eventually pulling out a brightly colored one called “Footnotes from the World’s Greatest Bookstores.” Daedalus Bookshop was one of the featured stores.
According to the book, McAdams “built all the bookshelves, did all the masonry, shelved three floors of books and mapped the building’s contents.” This incredible fact prompted McAdams to call himself a “hard worker,” a phrase that was repeated multiple times throughout the interview.
“I don’t cook, I don’t know anything about wine, but I’m a hard worker.” This was in reference to the C&O Restaurant, and the hand McAdams had in designing it.
“I never did things so much because of talent, but more because I was a hard worker.” This was a nod to McAdams’s decision to move to Canada to avoid the war draft, as he feared he would “kill a huge number of … people” if he was drafted because of his inherent hard-working traits — just another chapter of the man’s incredibly varied life story.
This hardworking trait of McAdams’ was also displayed when he showed off a newspaper that he helped found, print and publish called “The Times of Charlottesville.” Though it only existed for two years, it serves as another testament to the impressive cultural impact McAdams has had on Charlottesville.
Even to this day, McAdams is a hard worker. Throughout the interview, he was zooming around in his motorized wheelchair — picking up books seemingly at random from stacks, checking for prices, sometimes marking in them with a fat pencil. McAdams doesn’t let his illness or his age slow him down — he’s still constantly in motion.
From speaking to McAdams or just by stepping into his shop, it is clear that he has devoted his life to collecting stories. Of all the tales he has compiled over the decades, undoubtedly the most interesting is his own. The story features a rotating cast of characters, some of them just mentioned — his daughter, his “darling wife,” his business partner Stafford — and some walking into the store by chance.
This latter category was a near-constant interruption to the interview, but provided more insight into McAdams’s character than even the most well-thought-out question could. An “unbelievable mailman who’s become a friend” dropped off some packages, prompting the bookstore owner to question the man about whether or not he’s visited the doctor yet for some unknown ailment.
After their brief interaction, McAdams shouted at the man’s retreating figure, “Keep my love around you!”
Another, younger employee also stopped by — someone McAdams referred to just as “John.”
“We have a book club,” McAdams explained, apparently referring both to an actual club and to his coworkers in the shop. “As I get weaker and weaker, they said they would take turns working one day of the week.”
John was a character himself, encouraging McAdams to tell stories about “sex in the stacks” at Daedalus — “just like in Alderman Library,” he said.
This led McAdams to declare, “I started it!”
The interview never really came to an end. McAdams eventually said to “come in again … [to] talk more.” It seemed clear that the mysterious old man had only relinquished a tiny portion of the illustrious past of the bookstore and his own impressive story — but what little he did share was incredible.
Considering the wealth of stories, knowledge and genuine passion found in McAdams’s character, one can’t help but imagine what similar qualities must have existed in Carol Troxell of New Dominion or Dave Taylor of Read It Again, Sam. But rather than mourn what lives have been lost, their vibrant impacts on the city of Charlottesville should instead be appreciated.
Just as authors’ legacies are preserved in their writings, so are these bookstore owners immortalized by their lives’ work — brick-and-mortar testaments to the power of the written word, and its ability to bring a community together.