Iconic Ninth Street Book Shop Set to Close
Wilmington's only general-interest bookstore will shutter in January if the owners can’t find a buyer.
Jack and Gemma Buckley, left, serve patrons in their Wilmington store.
The Ninth Street Book Shop has been a labor of love for two teachers who went downtown to buy furniture one day in 1977 and bought a bookstore instead.
“We just did it on a whim,” Gemma Buckley said. “Our parents thought we were crazy. Within a month, we went from walking into that store to owning it.”
The 1980s were wonder years for Wilmington. As Gemma Buckley put it, “Oh, my God. People would come out in wave from the DuPont Building. The whole city just hummed. You had so much pedestrian traffic.”
They started seeing a big dropoff in 1992. “That’s when DuPont started cutting and relocating,” she said. “Before that, workers felt they could take a whole lunch hour and patronize a local shop. Now they don’t because a lot of them are juggling lots of balls. The mindset is you just stay at your desk. I think they almost make people feel you could be expendable if you aren’t there as much as you should be.”
When The News Journal and Hercules and then DuPont pulled up stakes and left the city, dozens of retail shops got caught in the undertow, but Ninth Street adapted.
“The News Journal was an immediate and significant impact. DuPont really hurt. They took 10,000 people out, and these were better-paying positions,” she said. “They were people who had a different mindset. They appreciated being downtown as a place you could get things done on your lunch hour. After they left, there was less reason to come downtown, so eventually there were fewer services here. It was a chicken-and-egg thing.”
The Buckleys mortgaged their house — again. “It’s pretty much a perpetual thing,” Jack Buckley said.
They did everything to attract the businesspeople who were left — evening hours, joining the art loop, running gift-wrapped books outside to customers who wanted to buy but didn’t want to park.
New office towers brought people but they installed their own restaurants and services so workers never had to go outside. As Jack Buckley put it, “We are an office park. They can park there and they can work there and they can eat there and then they can go home. They don’t have to think about being in the city.”
Now, at least 60 percent of Ninth Street’s clientele is working poor and lower-middle-income readers.
“We have very well-to-do people who come in, and we have homeless people who will come in,” Gemma Buckley said. “Sometimes, the homeless people will be talking to someone on their cell phone and they’ll say, ‘I’ve got to go. I’m at my bookstore.’ My bookstore!! Thank you!”
Some regular customers who are homeless shop for a couple books each month when they get their checks.
“The working poor is more important to us than our business clientele,” Jack Buckley said. “The working poor is the heart of our business.
Ninth Street Book Shop, a name that suited it better before its move to Market Street, has become a downtown institution over 40 years.
When DART wanted to move a favorite bus stop in 2012, the shop became the unofficial headquarters of a bus riders’ movement that gathered more than 2,800 signatures on petitions to stop the move.
When ultra-conservative national talk show host Mike Gallagher wanted a local bookstore to host his Wilmington stop on a cross-country tour, the Buckleys, whose politics lean left, instantly agreed, with one caveat: “We would call up all our outspoken lefty friends and ask them to show up and protest at the store,” Jack Buckley said. “The show was a great success with people of all political stripes attending. Mike pulled up to signs and chants.
He interviewed lots of locals and signed lots of books.”
There have been surprises:
- The day a customer brought an anatomy book up to the sales counter and pointed out that someone had cut all the feet out of the pictures.
- The Saturday the naked toreador showed up on Ninth Street. “This guy’s naked and he takes off his cape, which was just a big old raincoat, and he’s like this with the DART bus,” said Jack Buckley, motioning like a toreador. When a woman took umbrage, Gemma Buckley said, “But could you see that at Christiana Mall?”
While the Buckleys clearly love what they do, the businesses has had its ups and downs. “I need 150 people a day to walk into my store to be successful, and we haven’t been near that number in a long time,” Jack Buckley said.
A quick history:
- Ninth Street Books started out life as the Paperbook Gallery on Orange Street, a long, narrow shop filled with hanging plants leftover from the last owner. “Plants outsold books some months,” Jack Buckley said. “At first, we really couldn’t have made it without the plants.”
- It made several hops around downtown, including a long stop at the now defunct Ninth Street Plaza. There, they experienced four of the five break-ins in store history, all in a row and all by the same perpetrator, who didn’t take anything.
- As Ninth Street traffic slowed to a trickle in 2012, the Buckleys announced they were closing, but loyal readers rallied to keep them. Customers called city officials. Contacts were made. The shop found a smaller home in a Buccini/Pollin building at Eighth and Market. Four hundred customers voted the Ninth Street name should remain, and it did.
Two plate glass windows at the new store offer a fishbowl view of all that’s going on at the corner. It’s not pretty.
Crime in the central business district is low, Jack Buckley said, but what he terms “bad behavior” is a staple there. Salty language. Acting out. The occasional sleeping vagrant. As he put it: “Loud. Offensive. Profane. A lot of that goes on and that’s a big deterrent. Every day we see it. Domestic issues being blasted out right on the mall. The arguments that go on … I saw a man kick in the side of a woman’s car.”
Customers who walk into that often do an about-face, he said: “You see that little look on their face. ‘Oh, oh, this bothers me a little bit.’ And they’re not coming back. Your block has an X on the front of it now.” He thinks a police patrol would turn that around.
When they come to work in the morning, the Buckleys occasionally find a person camped out under their graceful black awning. “You feel bad for them, but, at the same time, maybe other people don’t want to come in here,” Gemma Buckley said. “It’s not that they don’t have a right to be there. From a human rights perspective it’s OK, but, from a business perspective, it’s a problem.”
At 67 and 69, the Buckleys decided this holiday season would be their last. After 40 years of rarely having more than one day off in common, they are hoping someone else will find the prospect of owning a bookshop as joyful as they did.
“We’re getting to the point where they are no guarantees,” Gemma Buckley said. We want some quality time together. We’re not sure how long we’re going to have our health. We have hobbies. We have interests. And, when you’ve got a business six days a week, you can’t take days off together. Our son calls us the Cal Ripken of marriages — all day, every day, never miss a game.”
Gemma Buckley, who knows thousands of customers by name, teared up when she said, “I’m going to miss the people. I’m so grateful to all the people who have been so loyal.”
“Ninety-nine percent of this whole thing has been positive,’’ Jack Buckley said. “I’d love to pass this on. Leaving the city without a bookstore, I feel bad about that. There’s always been one here for a long, long time. This city deserves one.”
Landlord Rob Buccini said his company was honored to work with the Buckleys, whose presence he said was a major part of the transformation of Market Street. “The goal would be to help them in any way possible to sell their business, as we see the benefit of having the local bookstore on our historic main street, ”Buccini said. “In the unfortunate case that it did not sell, the space would be the only corner retail space we have available in our Market Street and a prime location, and we feel confident it would be filled.”
Doug Hodges, a Random House representative who has Ninth Street on his sales list, said it is one of his favorite bookshops. “The store looks great with good fixtures and great displays. They are up-to-date with systems …” he said. “The best thing has been Jack’s and Gemma’s enthusiasm for books. They communicate that enthusiasm and joy to their customers. I am going to miss seeing them.”
“The city’s in a transitional phase. Just like we took a limited leap of faith, it would take someone else to take a leap of faith,” Gemma Buckley said. “The store has potential. It has a lot going for it. It would take somebody who would definitely have to love what they’re doing because it’s certainly not going to be a big revenue store. You can survive. Thrive? Coming soon, hopefully.”
“The city’s got to bounce back,” her husband said. “You’re not going to turn this town into Pittsburgh overnight. Retail’s going to be the drag. If they get residential, I think it’s possible we can have lots of places to eat lunch and lots of places to drink coffee, but retail’s going to drag. If you go to a mall, it’s all about women’s clothing. When we see people walking into our store with another’s store’s bag, that means they’re shopping. We don’t see that often.”
This story originally appeared on DelawareBusinessTimes.com.