“Old staff, new variant – please wear a mask” reads a paper sign on the front door. Stacks of dusty paperbacks and cloth-bound volumes surround the reception area. Copies of “Das Kapital” and books on postmodern feminism sit alongside biographies of Lincoln and histories of the US Constitution. A stool in front of the cash register bears the logo of the Salem Red Sox, a minor league baseball team from Virginia. Everything about Heartwood Books on Elliewood Avenue evokes a sense of the past and the unique identity of its owner Paul Collinge.
Customers can usually find Collinge rearranging books, giving a recommendation and, if he’s not wearing a mask, offering a welcoming smile. Collinge has run the store with his friend Art Collier for nearly forty years, creating a source of community for his customers and employees.
College sophomore MaeEllen Megginson enjoys asking Collinge and Collier for book recommendations and loves the small-town vibe the two friends bring to the store.
“It’s nice to see the same faces every time,” Megginson said. “It’s one of the things that makes a big school feel smaller.”
Collinge began selling books in 1969 while a student at Georgetown University. He studied philosophy before dropping out to help start a non-profit bookstore specializing in anti-Vietnam War material. Eventually he moved to Charlottesville and opened Heartwood Books in 1975.
The store still reflects Collinge’s philosophical and political bent. Shoppers will find an eclectic mix of books lining the aisles, including older academic and political books that are hard to find in mainstream bookstores. Collinge says students often read famous books by classic authors like Virginia Woolf or Walter Scott in their classes, but could also benefit from reading their more obscure works.
“I sometimes tell people that we specialize in books that you should have read, but didn’t,” Collinge said.
Along with the countless novels and pieces of literature housed in the store, Heartwood Books also holds emblems of Charlottesville’s past. A paper flyer near the front door shows what Elliewood Avenue looked like when the bookstore first opened. The leaflet shows a sketch of a quaint tree-lined street with student accommodation and parking where Crozet and the Biltmore are now located.
Collinge recalls that the Corner felt more like a small town where the University mingled with the surroundings. Locals shopped or went to the laundromat and stopped at stores like Heartwood Books along the way.
Over the years, however, Collinge says the area has become more separate from the Charlottesville community.
“He gradually became more captive to the University,” Collinge said. “And the townspeople [don’t] come here.”
The 1975 leaflet also shows two other bookstores that have since closed, part of a nationwide trend of bookstore closures. From 1998 to 2019, the number of physical bookstores in America was approximately To cut half.
“Most of the time it’s because [of] a sharp decline in actual book reading,” Collinge said. “And number two, there’s a feeling… that you can still get the book.”
Collinge says online booksellers have made it easy and inexpensive for students to find required books, and have reduced the likelihood of students searching for books they haven’t heard of. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he was forced out of the store and drastically downsized the business.
“[The store] is really, at this point, a bit of a limp,” Collinge said, “but you know, I make a little bit of money on it. And Art, who has worked for me for about 40 years, still has a job. But, you know, I’m 73 and he’s 69. So we’re not going to do this any longer.
Heartwood’s rare book business has been particularly hard hit, according to Collinge. Despite this challenge, he hopes to recoup rare book sales in the future, as it’s the part of the business he’s been most passionate about over the years.
“I had a lot of interesting things,” Collinge said. “I helped manage a collection containing the first printing of Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, which was very rare.”
While the outlook for independent booksellers like Heartwood Books may be bleak, Collinge says young people are still reading a lot. National polls reflect this trend, showing that general readership has declined over the past decade, but has remained more stable than the number of bookstore closures suggests. Collinge believes most of her sales are now made by young female university students. In this sense, the purchasing power of students seems to have a significant impact on the fate of the store in the future.
As Megginson suggests, Heartwood is not just a charming novelty, but an important part of student life. The store provides a home for used books that might otherwise be thrown away and exposes students to books they wouldn’t often come across in their classes.
So whether students buy a required book for class, choose a fun read for fall, or purchase a rare book as a gift, Heartwood Books continues to be an integral part of the Charlottesville community.