One alumnus’s love of books speaks volumes.
Ward Tefft never intended to go into the book business, but it seemed as though fate had other plans.
After graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University with a bachelor’s degree in English, Tefft attended graduate school at the State University of New York in Buffalo. Armed with his master’s degree, Tefft made his way to New York City where he lived and worked at several different bookstores. That’s when, “I really got into it,” he said of the business.
When Tefft ultimately returned to Richmond, he toyed with the idea of opening his own bookstore. Then an old building on Cary Street near VCU’s Monroe Park Campus came up for sale. The timing felt right so Tefft took the plunge and Chop Suey Books opened in March 2002.
“It’s an amalgamation of places I’ve worked,” Tefft said. “I took what I liked about all of them.”
Chop Suey is not just a bookstore. It’s more of a cultural center. The store sells used books — from paperbacks to more expensive, collectible tomes — and holds numerous and varied events, such as 24-Hour Bookman parties, Bring Your Own Chair Night and Trailer Park Theatre.
It’s rare that an independent bookseller can compete against the big-box retailers, but the Chop Suey formula has worked well. So well, in fact, that in November 2006, Chop Suey Tuey opened in Carytown.
“We’re not successful in the conventional sense,” Tefft said. “But loving what I do helps us succeed. Everyone who works here really believes in having an independent bookstore in the area.”
In 2006, opportunity knocked once again. Tefft’s friend, Shelley Briggs — a 2004 VCU College of Humanities and Sciences graduate who is now pursuing a master’s degree at VCU’s School of Social Work — wanted to buy a bus and travel around to offer free bike repairs to the community. Tefft had been thinking of starting a bookmobile so the two began collaborating. “Books on Wheels,” housed in a bright blue school bus called “Moby” (for “Mo’ Books, Mo’ Bikes”), travels mainly throughout the Richmond area promoting literacy and alternative transportation.
“Books on Wheels” now has two buses. “A fleet,” Tefft said. In March 2008, for the second straight year, Tefft and Briggs traveled to North Carolina, Florida, Louisiana and Texas for a week, doling out books and repairs. This year they brought along three bike mechanics.
When Moby rolls into town, people appreciate what the pair is doing even if they don’t take a book or get a bike fixed, Tefft said. And kids love Moby! “They all want to go on the bus,” he said. “It looks really wild.”
Tefft divides his time between the bookstores and “Books on Wheels” to see that both do well. “I work really hard,” he said. “I’m busting my butt to get books in here — good books.” At present, Tefft doesn’t have a new project lined up. But he knows that could change in an instant.
“These things happen as they happen,” Tefft said. “It’s Richmond; there’s always opportunity here.”