Help change future for beloved Mount Airy bookstore

ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Cynthia Potter and Greg Williams, co-owners of Walk A Crooked Mile Books located in the Mount Airy train station, say they're closing after 18 years - but they're open to other ideas.
ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Cynthia Potter and Greg Williams, co-owners of Walk A Crooked Mile Books located in the Mount Airy train station, say they're closing after 18 years - but they're open to other ideas.
Posted: February 05, 2014

YOU WOULD HAVE thought I punched James Wright in the gut. And in a way, I did.

As Wright chatted with Greg Williams, the owner of Walk A Crooked Mile Books in the historic Mount Airy train station, I mentioned that the store was closing.

Williams had announced it on his blog and posted signs around the neighborhood. Earlier in the day, another customer had come into the Devon Street shop to say how sorry he was to see them go. "Such a shame," the man said.

But Wright, a longtime loyal customer, hadn't yet heard.

"What do you mean you're closing?" he said, searching Williams' face for a sign that this was all a bad joke. "No you're not . . . ," he said, in hopeful disbelief.

Williams looked visibly pained as he confirmed the news. "We are," he said. "We're really closing."

Come August, after more than 18 years in the Frank Furness-designed building that's been a backdrop for all kinds of relationships - including Williams' own with his partner Cynthia Potter - he is closing his bookstore.

And you know what? I blame myself, and every single person who's passed by the stacks of books on shelves outside the funky bookstore, or seen one of its quaint fliers stapled on a telephone pole and thought: Cool place, I'll really have to check it out one day.

"I don't see fault," Williams said. "It's just change."

And as much as he loves the bookstore he's run out of the rented back of the station, Williams is ready for it. He wants to spend more time with grandchildren. And at 65, lugging books around is taking a physical toll. So is trying to keep a used bookstore open in the changing landscape of book sales.

He'd love to pass the torch to a new owner. But so far, he said, that probably won't happen.

"I can't limp along forever waiting for a white knight," he said.

Call me naive or nostalgic or even a bit of a dinosaur projecting her own angst about being part of another dying business - but I'm not going to let this place just disappear quietly into the night.

Sure, landmark stores close all the time, and technology has changed our buying habits. But how many of these cool neighborhood places are we going to let go without considering what we're really losing?

And at Walk A Crooked Mile, it's not just books. It's a sense of history, of community. Of family, Williams said.

What about a new buyer? I suggested, quietly indulging my romantic fantasy of owning a little bookstore. Williams said he's had a few inquiries, but nothing solid.

What about a co-op? Mount Airy is home to Weavers Way, a member-owned, cooperative grocery store. Maybe they could team up? You know: Buy local. Read local. (There certainly seems to be an appetite for that in Mount Airy, which is also home to the Big Blue Marble Bookstore, another independently owned bookstore that sells new books.)

Williams said the idea of a co-op had been floated. There were even some meetings held, but nothing came of them.

Well, here's our chance - maybe our last chance - to revisit that idea. I called Bob Proehl, director of operations for Buffalo Street Books, a community-owned cooperative bookstore in Ithaca, N.Y. Three years ago, the independent bookstore found itself on the verge of closing - and then they reached out to the community.

Proehl said over the years he's gotten several calls from independent bookstores looking to do the same thing. And although the model can't work for all stores, he often offers this advice: Find a way to communicate to the communities they are in that they are more than a retail space, that they are part of the fabric of a community that more and more people say they want to be part of.

With their concerts and yard sales and overall reputation as a community hub, Walk A Mile certainly fits that bill.

"If there is a commitment from the community, it can happen," Proehl said. "There's always hope."

Williams has a few months to say goodbye to his customers and friends. But he's clearly already mourning the loss.

"If I think about closing down . . . ," Williams choked up and looked away. Moments later, Wright walked in to pick up an obscure book about varnishes Williams had set aside for him.

"There has to be a way to keep it open," Wright said.

I'm with Wright. And it starts with all of us putting our money and support behind those ubiquitous Buy Local bumper stickers.


Email: ubinas@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-5943

On Twitter: @NotesFromHel

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