Friday, December 30, 2011

Books Strings and Things

Customers browse the record bin at Books Strings & Things, 214 Draper Road

[ I know I did a previous posting on this but it felt like I really didn't do it justice, plus now I have some more photos to share ]

This was not only one of my personal favorite places in town, but one of the most classic businesses ever to grace Blacksburg.  When I ask people around my age what they miss about the Blacksburg of old, Books Strings & Things is almost always at the top of the list.

The unabridged dictionary
Part book store, part record store, part reading room, part social gathering place ..... and an eclectic decor of natural woods and little nooks that made it almost cozy and homey.

It started out a little smaller at first, and in 1974 and 75 they expanded into the empty space adjacent to the original store thanks to the help of local artist and craftsman Peter Montgomery.  The owner, Richard Walters, started the establishment just around the corner in the alley in the latter part of the 1960's but it's "hayday" was in the 1970's for sure (or so it seemed).

There was something very inviting about the place.  It even felt friendly the moment you walked in, and you wanted to stay there for hours.  Old buildings with exposed bricks and lots of wood have a way of feeling comfortable.




Dick Walters at the antique register
No one seemed to mind if you got lost in one of the book nooks and just sat there reading.  After all, there were chairs awaiting your tush if you were so inclined. 


I think I bought most of my vinyl records there.  The music of that era was so great, so exciting, people were constantly clamoring to see what new albums were available from their favorite musicians.  Another cool thing about LPs was the artwork.

I remember at times Dick Walters would put out a large quantity of paperback books in a trash bin, as if throwing them away (the covers were torn off), and left it out on the sidewalk for anyone to grab .... a great way to get a freebie.



20 comments:

  1. Nice post, Dennis. That dictionary was very helpful in many a clarifying discussion about just about any topic. Great pic of young RW.

    I was there in the 80s and worked there for seven years first in Blacksburg and then in the Roanoke store.

    Some factoids about the business

    R hired people knowledgeable in books and music; most of his book people had MAs in Lit and most of the record people were musicians or afficionados. The first job you got as a newbie, besides the reasonable expectation of two hours a day at the register, was putting away books or records, so that prior to having a computer system, we knew pretty much what was on the shelves and where things were.

    The inventory system involved typed cards which listed how many copies we carried, dates sold, as well as full ordering info. (Making these was facilitated in my time by an IBM Selectric typewriter with a memory, so that you made the first card and automatically retyped the rest). If anyone runs across one of these cards in a book you own, let me know! They were supposed to be removed upon sale, but we sometimes forgot, much to the chagrin of our buyers.

    The store flourished in the 80s as well, doing around $2 million or more in business. We were a pretty efficient operation most of time (except when you-know-who got a wild hair). And according to my rep friends in later years, one of the best book/record stores on the East Coast.

    George Whitman, the founder of the Sylvia Beach-inspired Shakespeare and Company in Paris, was a once removed influence on Richard, who based the cultural vision, as well as the visual and spacial appeal of the store on Ferlinghetti's City Lights in San Francisco. So BS&T had some nice literary provenance.

    Working there was a bibliophile and audiophile's dream job, as R was pretty generous, and allowed us to learn our jobs as book and music sellers, and we got to spend time with the last of the truly great book salespersons who came to take our orders, and like the Godfather of all Southeast reps, George Hopkins, who seasonally took the whole staff to wine and dine, and helped me to eventually become a buyer.

    The daily work of talking to Blacksburg community members about diverse topics and helping them find books and music for knowledge and enjoyment was the best part of the job. You really had to know what you were talking about!

    R encouraged us to learn topics beyond our usual kens, and my avocations became cello music, art, architecture, and children's books. Many of the people involved are still in related businesses and careers, and we fondly look back on what was an amazing privilege and opportunity to be able to work in such a great bookstore with such amazing people and customers!

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  2. That was me, above--forgot I had not set up a profile.

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    1. I've seen/read you as a friend of Betty's (on fb). Very lovely paean to BS&T

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  3. I lived in Blacksburg as a kid in the '70s and '80s, and Books Strings & Things is definitely one of the biggest things I miss about the Old B'burg. It was a great place for kids too - I remember there being toys (puppets, maybe?) and kites hanging from the ceiling. My parents would bring my sister and me there, and all of us could hang out for a long time and find things to entertain us. I sure do wish we had a comparable bookstore in town now.

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  4. I grew up in 1960's Blacksburg. The first BS&T was around the corner. There was a dingy little (hip) coffee house listening room where folkies reproduced their Dylan repertoire. My father, a TECH Prof., warned me not to go in there because they sold Mao's little book - so of course I went. Richard was an inspirational irreverent role model for impressionable youth. Great to see these pics - thanks.

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  6. I loved going to B, S & T! I got a lot of records and books there. And I remember even my mother was highly disappointed when they had to close.

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  7. Bought numerous books and records there, just used to go through the bins looking for album covers with bands with long hair.

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  8. I grew up about 30 miles from Blacksburg and remember making trips there in high school (early 70's) since it was the only non-mainstream place around to buy albums. I was at Tech from 73-77 - in those days before the internet you'd look for news of a release in the latest copy of Rolling Stone and then keep checking BS&T until it showed up. I'm pretty sure their price for new LP's in those days was $3.47.

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  9. attended VT from 78 to 82 and loved BS&T; i remember albums costing around $5. also Mish Mish (spent a lot of time and money in there) and loved a used record store, called something like Round and Round maybe??

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    1. Good news -- Mish Mish is still around, although they've moved around the corner onto Main Street.

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  10. These guys were great. If they didn't have an album I wanted, they would order it for me. Love, love, loved this place. Wish it was still here.

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  11. This is where I was introduced to underground music!

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    1. My bad. I was there in '71...best time of my life. I wish someone would invent a time machine!

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  13. I was thinking their prices in 1976-77 was $4.23 for an album, whereas other places charged $5.99 or $6.99. Used to love to go in that store and look through the albums. It was like a weekly adventure for me, and sometimes I'd go hog wild and buy about 10 at a time. Gosh, those are good memories!!!

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  14. Does anyone know whatever became of Richard? All of us undergrads back in the 60s referred to him as Richard, and Richard was "God" to many of us in that crazy generation. He knew everything that we wanted to know about every book and vinyl. I heard in the 70s that he had a farm outside of B'burg and was into the back to the land movement.

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