Old Books on Front Street
Grand Re-opening December 5th
Ribbon Cutting Ceremony, 3 p.m.
In the 1947 American classic, “Miracle on 34th Street,” the jolly old man, Kris Kringle, has a tender voice, a snow-white beard and a twinkle in his eye. And he holds the heartfelt belief that he is, in fact, Santa Claus. Hired by a single mother and career-oriented Maureen O’Hara, Kringle later takes the Christmas throne at Macy’s department store, instills the spirit of selflessness over the belief of commercialism held by his corporate bosses and imbues benevolence in his wake. Yet, Kringle’s real victory comes from breaking through the common-sensical protective casing of a skeptical know-it-all little girl, as he gives her the greatest gift of all: the virtue of imagination and the permission she very much needed to believe in fairy tales.
“Miracle on 34th Street” is and always will be a well-told story of human generosity. Within our modern 21st century mercantile scope, owner Gwenyfar Rohler of Wilmington’s iconic Old Books on Front Street experienced the same undeniable power of selfless giving and moral righteousness on February 27th, 2010. Fairy tales, as proven on that afternoon, do exist.
Author of two books, “Your Health is in Your Kitchen” and “The Promise of Peanuts,’ Rohler stood in her kitchen on January 12th, when a telephone call from her father, Lloyd, changed her life. After a quarter of a century in business, her bookstore was condemned following years of neglect by its owner and her landlord, Edwin Peacock. When Peacock returned from a two-week ski trip in the midst of it all, he delivered more overwhelming news: They had 30 days to vacate the premises.
“To be honest I was not sure I had heard him correctly,” Rohler remembers. “Shock did not really describe it. Throughout it all, my Dad was the voice of reason. He reminded me that we couldn’t keep talking with people who wanted to have an opinion about how the condemnation happened. We had to let it go. After a lot of hemming and hawing, we did. We let it go. When we put out the call for help to move everything out of the store, we expected 20, maybe 30, people to show up. I was wrong.“
Rohler released a curtain of tears. “Saturday February 27th turned out to be the most incredible day of my entire life.”
For two and a half blocks, a continuous stream of people gathered to aid Rohler in a true modern-day miracle that rivals 1947’s idea of compassion and consideration. With an absolute absence for words, tears in her eyes and a heart that overflowed with appreciation for her community, Rohler marveled at the sight of more than 300 supporters as they helped save her family business. Perhaps unknowingly, all those who participated that afternoon created Wilmington’s own miracle on Front Street.
For hours community members worked without pausing. More than 150,000 books were carefully placed inside an estimated 10,000 cardboard boxes donated by restaurants from all over the community. By 4 p.m. countless bookshelves and numerous filing cabinets were totally emptied, fastidiously dismantled and moved. All that remained were security mirrors.
“When you’re in the middle of something like that you have to keep going,” Rohler reflects. “Everyone is looking at you to act, but as soon as you have a moment to sit and to think, it’s overwhelming. When it was over, and I was home, I spent the whole night crying. We are the luckiest bookstore in the world. I felt like George from ‘It‘s a Wonderful Life.’”
However, Rohler’s battle was just beginning. Soon she had to focus on finding a new building to call home. For months she rented storage space in the basement of the Bullock Hospital at 221 North Front. She kept sales going with the help of all locally owned Port City Javas who sold her books in their stores. Most importantly, she considered every commercial property from 17th to the river, Dawson to Brunswick. She and her family decided on the ailing 100-year-old Liverpool building, located beside the Soapbox downtown. Much debate centered on who would best preserve the historic character of it, and in the end, Rob Zapple won the bid.
“The construction permit seemed to take forever. It was to a point I thought I’d be old and grey,” Rohler jokes, finally able to quell her tears. “The fire department was freaking out because we wanted a bakery in the store. The heat load of the ovens combined with the fire load of the books was a huge battle—everyone thought we were going to die! Then the surprises started to arrive. We found out the second floor was, in fact, not a second floor at all.”
Between the first floor ceiling and the second floor was a perfect 3-foot gap. Rohler discovered her new building had a secret history as a soda fountain during prohibition, and the findings didn’t cease there. As the footers for the second floor were poured, the ground began to collapse and sent construction workers tumbling. To everyone’s surprise a 30-foot long, 5-foot wide, 5-foot deep, 3-inch-thick vault revealed itself. To say the least, Rohler’s remodel developed into an engineering nightmare that ultimately included two inspectors and a full scale model of all the plumbing for the entire building.
Finally, on November 26th Rohler‘s dream to reopen the store seemed closer to reality; the precious books kept so long in storage were ready to be moved into their home at 249 North Front Street (The Gaylord Building, which once housed the original Old Books on Front in 1982, when Mr. Daughtry owned it).
“I have the greatest staff in the world,” Rohler declares. “Ted Roberts, Austin Fenwick and Seth Parham—they’ve been building out bookshelves for the last month around the clock. Jock Brandis, the love of my life, designed all the bookshelves and has gotten me through this year. During the whole process, we all looked at each other like it was the recognition of walking zombies.”
Old Books on Front Street aims to reopen at its new location on December 5th at 3:30 p.m. New offerings and updates to the store include Samantha Smith’s Sugar on Front Street café, located inside the building. Also hanging will be a Michelle Connoelly-commissioned portrait of the Rohler matriarch, the late Diana Rohler. The new building will host the Port City’s first Literary Juke Box, which juxtaposes one’s love for classic literature and music. Mayor Saffo will aid in bridging the past and the future together by participating in a ribbon-cutting ceremony. The Rohlers welcome the community in celebrating a new chapter for Old Books—something they are grateful to continue writing.