By Alexander Shedd
Those who enjoy spending a warm spring afternoon roaming the sidewalks of downtown Salem may be familiar with a particular storefront at Broad and Main, right between Charlotte’s Web and Joe’s Deli, a structure shared with Blue Moon Vintage Mercantile. The façade is adorned with two words in massive white print: “USED BOOKS.” This is the home of Wonderous Books & More, a used bookstore fully owned and operated by 21-year-old Salem native Savannah Oaks.
“I was actually away at college,” explained Oaks. “I attended Bridgewater College for about a year and a half…It was January of 2019 and I got a phone call from my mom. I knew I wasn’t happy at Bridgewater; I knew I wanted out…so she called me and said, ‘I don’t know if you noticed this, but the bookstore in Salem is being sold. Do you know anyone who would be interested in it?’ And I was like, well, me.”
In 2018, Savannah visited a bookstore in Salem, Massachusetts, where she fell in love with the comfort and aesthetic of the used bookstore experience. After learning of the Salem, Va. bookstore’s impending closure in January 2019, she became curious about the possibility of owning her own, particularly after the owner at the time informed her that no interested parties wished to keep the business as a bookstore.
“[The former owner] told me a lot of people that are interested in it don’t want to keep it as a bookstore, they want to change it into a record store, or they want to do antiques,” Oaks recalled. “So I’m thinking, well, Salem doesn’t need another antique store, in my opinion. I like the ones that we have, but there’s just a little too much. So I just took the job, and I said, you know what, this opportunity is never going to happen again like this, so let’s just do it.”
Savannah was ecstatic to become the new owner of the store after securing a bank loan during her spring break the following year in March 2020, when she was just 19 years old. But only three weeks later, the first statewide lockdown due to the spread of COVID-19 went into effect, devastating small businesses across the Commonwealth as cases rose and people quarantined themselves indoors. Undeterred by this unforeseen catastrophe, Savannah took a chance and kept Wonderous Books open with restrictions during the pandemic, using the time to completely reorganize and refurnish the store.
While staying open during COVID has been a daunting task, Savannah was grateful for the chance to redesign the store, and noted that it was difficult to tell how much the lockdown actually affected business. “I don’t want to say that I don’t hate the pandemic, because I do, but there were pros and cons with the beginning of the store opening the way it did,” she said. “It certainly didn’t help, but a lot of people ask, ‘how has COVID affected your business?’ I can’t say. But we’re doing really well now.”
She continued, “The worst experience was April 2020. It was the uncertainty of this place. The only thing that kept me going was, at that time, we just revamped everything. That’s what kept me going, just working towards my dream and how I wanted this place to look…People ask me a lot, ‘do you have a business plan?’ and I say, yeah, it’s one word: survive.”
As for her favorite part of running the store, Savannah has come to love connecting with her customers and the Salem community. “I would say probably my best experience would be the whole thing. I was a very socially anxious person when I bought this place…so my best experience is going out and meeting people, talking to people, and sharing stories that we love.”
While impressive in and of themselves, Savannah’s accomplishments at Wonderous Books are even more so in light of her struggles with dyslexia and ADHD, conditions with which she was diagnosed as a child. “My biggest joke is, I’m dyslexic, and I can’t read, but I own a bookstore,” laughed Oaks. “I didn’t read on my own until 7th grade. I had a teacher tell me she didn’t believe in [my dyslexia and ADHD], so there’s no reason why I shouldn’t be able to read on a 7th grade level, and if I didn’t, she would hold me back. Well, I picked up Twilight because the movie was out. My father didn’t like Twilight, so he told me not to read it. I was the defiant child, and I was like, I’m going to read this book now, and I’m going to make a point of showing you that I’m reading it. So I read Twilight, and I fell in love reading it. And that’s why I’m stuck in the young adult genre now—it’s comforting to me.”
Savannah also went on to talk about some of her favorite authors in the young adult fiction genre, including Holly Black (Folk of the Air, The Spiderwick Chronicles) and Virginia native author Maggie Stiefvater (The Wolves of Mercy Falls, The Raven Cycle).
As Virginia begins to move past COVID restrictions on businesses, the future is looking bright for Savannah and her store. One upcoming event for Wonderous Books & More is the Roanoke Valley Holistic Expo on May 15 at the Salem Civic Center, a convention hosted by GLOW Healing Arts in Salem, a business with which Savannah works closely as both a friend and instructor for GLOW’s wellness-related classes. Wonderous Books will attend the event as a vendor.
Additionally, this Saturday, April 30 is National Independent Bookstore Day, a day celebrated across the country as a time to patronize local bookstores and find rare deals. Wonderous Books & More will be having specials to mark the event, including 10% off new books, free gifts with the purchase of a children’s book or any purchase over $10, and a “blind date with a book” display in which customers can take a chance on an unknown book based only on its genre and first line.
Though difficult, the experience has been overwhelmingly positive for Savannah overall, and her friends and neighbors in Salem have made it all worth it. “You might have an amazing week one week, you might have a horrible week the next. There are ups and downs, and that’s in any business, where you question, are you going to make it?” she mused. “But community outreach is the biggest thing I’ve learned, because you have to have the support of the community to stay viable… I want [the store] to be a place where people can come and hang out and talk about things they love. It always makes my day when I can talk with a group of people that come in as strangers, and we can talk about books, and they leave as friends.”
Wonderous Books & More, located at 25 W Main Street, is currently open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturdays, and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays. The store is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. Wonderous Books is a trade- and donation-based business and does not offer cash for used books.