Since 1969, Richmond Book Shop has thrived, keeping its original vintage feel alive for a new generation of Broad Street literati.
For the vintage-holic — or frankly, anyone who appreciates culture — walking into Richmond Book Shop is like being a beer enthusiast walking into your favorite brewery. Bob Marley and Ralph Steadman posters decorate the glass window facing busy West Broad Street, along with other vintage postcards and prints. Across from Rumors Boutique and next door to Alchemy Coffee, Richmond Book Shop has been a staple in the River City since 1969.
What keeps customers coming back to the shop is undoubtedly the collage-like aesthetic of both old and new art, literature, and all-around cool shit: at the back of the store, a mannequin with a skull as a head can be seen lounging atop a bookcase. A sun-faded hula-girl outfit hangs on a mannequin at the front of the store, by some cardboard boxes. Categorized glamour shots and pin-ups of living and dead (but mostly dead) celebrities fill the corner.
Big, comfy chairs are strategically placed at the intersections of the different book genres. The flair of Richmond Book Shop speaks to an understanding for the human experience — an existence that feels akin to the wisdom and zen experienced in the back of a hippie’s van. The store has, somehow, managed to garnish wisdom with age. The feel and aesthetic is old-fashioned but not overbearing — and it provides lots of things to read and look at.
“It’s been here,” said Kathryn Pritz, who co-owns the store with her husband. “It started on Main Street as Cuckoo’s Books in 1949, and then the owner at the time moved the store here in 1969 and changed the name to Richmond Book Shop.”
The Pritzes have owned the shop for about 25 years. “They were selling it in 1995, and at first my husband was just buying tons of stuff,” Pritz said. “I was like, ‘Why don’t you just buy the whole business?’ And we discussed it and he did.” She laughs.
The husband and wife pair have successfully managed to navigate the fluctuating economy, VCU’s expansion attempts, and, most impressively, the digital age.
“We have more than the usual bookstore, with posters, prints, records, and tapestries. We had to expand, because at the time, the digital world was taking off. Everyone was like ‘Oh, I’m gonna buy it on Amazon,’” Pritz reflected. “But over the years, it went from people being enthralled with e-readers to ‘I can’t stand reading a book online, it hurts my eyes.’ Besides, there’s just something about actually holding something in your hand and being able to examine it, and know that this is what you’re gonna get.”
Old-school retail stores like Richmond Book Shop have become more and more of a rarity in the area as VCU has grown, but Pritz doesn’t see the university’s increased presence in the area as entirely bad.
“There’s pros and cons,” she said. “VCU tends to want to buy everything in sight and not everybody wants to sell. But compared to 1995, it’s a lot safer. You didn’t walk down the back streets here at night. You just didn’t do it. They came in, between all the different agencies, local and feds; cleaned it up — right up. And a bunch of students started moving in.”
The shop seems to be one of the rare stores that have actually benefited from the expansion of VCU. Students and young adults can be seen, at any given moment, poking their heads in to see what’s up with the cool posters in the front, thumbing through old postcards and fashion magazines, or browsing the shelves; not exactly looking for anything, but interested in everything. Perhaps the specificity of the store, along with its quirkiness, was what helped it weather the changes of the city.
They say niches get the riches, and niche is Richmond Book Shop’s specialty.
Although the shop continues to maintain good business (despite odd hours), Pritz is adamant that Richmond Book Shop is still a “passion” project. “[Like] a lot of the book sellers, we don’t do it to make a huge profit or anything,” she said. “It’s more of a love for it than you’re going to make a lot of money. You don’t — it’s a tricky business.”
Richmond Book Shop may be surviving, but in the age of the internet, things are a bit more tenuous than they once were. “It can be very rough during the summer and Christmas breaks, but I think there will always be a love for the actual physical book,” Pritz said. “I don’t think that will ever go away. If it does, that will be a very sad day for mankind.”
With carpeted floors and eclectic decorations, the vibe of Richmond Book Shop feels almost like the vibe of a store that would sell healing crystals instead of books. One can’t help but feel serendipitous when browsing — that whatever you pick up, somehow, was meant for you to pick up.
So when you browse at Richmond Book Shop, follow your instincts. After all, that’s the way the store was set up in the first place.
Photos by Ethan Malamud