On September 25, the fire in Georgetown, S.C., that leveled eight buildings on the town's historic Front Street also destroyed Harborwalk Books, a 38-year-old independent bookstore.
|Co-owner Michele Overton (c.), with daughter Lauren Call and mother-in-law Sue Overton
Before the fire, Michele Overton and her husband, Dolphin Overton, had been speaking with Ann Carlson, Harborwalk's owner of 15 years, about buying the store when she was ready to retire. The pair had no bookselling experience--Michele worked as a real estate broker and appraiser, while Dolphin was a pilot for FedEx--but were close friends with Richard and Lisa Howorth, owners of Square Books in Oxford, Miss., and with novelist Mark Richard. Between getting to know the Howorths and their store, and joining Richard on the bookstore tour for his novel Fishboy, they fell in love with the idea of owning an indie bookstore.
"It seemed like such a neat thing to do; our plan was take over after my husband retired," recounted Michele Overton. "But two days after the fire, Ann said she needed to talk."
In short order, the Overtons purchased the store and, under Carlson's guidance, began rebuilding. They moved across the street, into a building the Overtons had purchased well before the fire. Most of the building had already been rented out; Harborwalk Books took a 1,500-square-foot section that was once an attorney's office.
"It was a bunch of little rooms with one big conference room," Overton said. "Basically we just gutted it. We installed bookshelves on every piece of wall possible."
Harborwalk Books opened for business on October 10, but had nothing to sell but newspapers. Carlson put them in touch with publishers, while Duvall Osteen, the daughter of Graham Osteen, president and co-owner of Osteen Publishing Company, Sumter, S.C., and assistant to literary agent Nicole Aragi, began contacting publishers and asking for donations.
"She's amazing," said Overton. "We've been sent boxes and boxes of books to help us fill our shelves."
Overton's family has been all hands on deck, with her mother-in-law, son-in-law and daughter all chipping in and working at the store. Overton plans to bring in more help eventually, but for now is occupied with getting her bearings in the book business and getting the shop up and running.
To that end, the broader Georgetown community has also been immensely helpful, she said. Contractors began working on the new space and installing shelves almost immediately. Community members have come in droves to buy and, with the inventory as sparse as it currently is, order books.
"They're not ordering one book, they're ordering six or seven," Overton recalled. "They're ordering Christmas lists, they're spending a hundred dollars at a time. This town is just unbelievable. From the minute we opened the door, even with construction going on, people were coming in. We still had wet paint everywhere, we didn't have a lot of books, but they'd come in and order."
To commemorate the other buildings that burned down, as well as give something back to all the Georgetown residents who have helped, Overton has hired an artist to create a mural of all the historic buildings that were lost. According to Overton, all of those businesses, save for two restaurants, have managed to find new locations.
Harborwalk Books will host its first major event on Black Friday, November 29. As part of the Moveable Feast reading series, author William Woodson (Waccamaw Gold) will visit the store. In December, Harborwalk will host Celia Rivenbark, author of Rude Bitches Make Me Tired (St. Martin's Griffin).
"We want to get people down here to shop with us, to let them know we're still here," said Overton. "We want to let everyone know that we're back in business again. We'd love for people to stop by and visit if they're ever in Georgetown." --Alex Mutter
Harborwalk Books is located at 105 Screven St., Georgetown, S.C. 29440; 843-546-8212; firstname.lastname@example.org.