A Southern Bookstore Serving Up a Little Bit of Everything

RICHMOND, Va. — “The joke was that when we opened up, we had three Civil War books,” said Ward Tefft, owner of Chop Suey Books, “But we’re in Richmond so we see a lot more now, and it’s grown since then.” Since it first opened 17 years ago, the store has grown more than just its local history holdings, and has become a well-stocked stop for book lovers strolling the vibrant Carytown district of Virginia’s capital (and former capital of the Confederacy). As described on its website, Chop Suey Books offers “gently used literature, art, photography, architecture, design, philosophy, poetry, theater, film and the like” volumes.

Tefft, 47, knew the Carytown area from his days as an undergraduate studying English at nearby Virginia Commonwealth University. After earning a master’s degree in English from the State University of New York at Buffalo, he ended up making a living largely by working in independent bookstores, including the late, lamented Skyline Books that once brightened Manhattan’s West 18th Street.

Although the move was already in the works before the September 11 attacks on the city, Tefft left New York and moved back to Richmond in October 2001 with a truck of “about 3,000 or 4,000 books” he’d collected and an idea for a used-books shop of his own. A few months later, he found a retail space and a name for his store — in a building at 1317 W. Cary Street that still sported a rusted hanging sign for “George’s Chop Suey,” a long-gone restaurant.

[Heading south? Read “36 Hours in Richmond, Virginia.”]

While the store’s culinary-themed name is a nod to neighborhood history, it’s also sincerely inspired by the concept of the dish itself, considered to be a Chinese-American creation. As Tefft explains, the name “chop suey” is thought to have derived from the Mandarin “za sui,” which translates to “a little bit of this, a little bit of that” — much like the contents of a used-books shop.

The store opened in 2002 and has expanded in many ways since. Chop Suey Books moved from its original building in 2008 and is currently located in a larger space at 2913 W. Cary Street across from Richmond’s landmark Byrd Theatre, a 1928 movie palace still in operation showing second-run films. Tefft handles the daily business of buying, selling and trading books for store credit with the help of six employees and WonTon, the store’s affable tuxedo cat, who freely patrols the place.

WonTon has a lot of room to roam. In addition to the ground-floor sales area — where newly released titles can also be purchased — Tefft was able to expand the store bit-by-bit over the years and now rents the entire second floor of the building. A trip up the stairs reveals five more rooms packed with shelves and free-standing racks of books.

The Children’s Room is organized chronologically from expectant-parent guides to board books to picture books and all the way around to the young-adult titles. The walls of the room are decorated with brightly painted murals of the store’s cat having fantasy adventures, but other whimsical bits turn up elsewhere around the store — including a large stuffed pink unicorn perched atop a shelf of adult memoirs and biographies.

The second floor also houses the store’s Fiction Room. “This is our most popular room,” said Tefft, who said he’s tried to make the literary-fiction titles for sale there inclusive and representative of different points of view. “We try to get a strong international selection, African-American and indigenous authors.”

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