ASHLAND A hardy Ashland bookstore has survived a fire, a flood and the rise of e-books.
Donna Blair attributes the resilience to a loving family and a loyal customer base.
“It’s almost like a community store,” said Blair, the owner of D’s Book Exchange. “The customers will even wait on other customers. That’s something you just don’t see anymore.”
D’s Book Exchange is a quaint local business wedged between an abandoned Foodland and a discount outlet off 13th Street in Ashland. A storefront sign above the tall glass windows reads “The Paperback Exchange,” but the business is now officially D’s Book Exchange.
Blair, 65, took ownership of The Paperback Exchange from her longtime friend, Diane DiLego, two years ago.
Inside D’s Book Exchange, a bell attached to the front door jingles each time someone crosses the threshold. It’s meant to alert Blair of a visitor’s arrival, but for the metaphorically inclined, it’s a ship bell calling on bibliophilic voyagers to hop aboard and discover a vast sea of literature.
Blair’s island desk lies in the middle of fully stocked bookshelves. When she’s not helping a customer retrieve a book off a shelf, she’ll typically near her desk, answering the phone, ordering new inventory or reading a book of her own.
The store inventory drips with nostalgia, with class protagonists like Judy Bolton and Huckleberry Finn lining the shelves. The store crosses all genres, and offers a selection of new-age novels for readers young and old. And if the book exchange doesn’t have the book a customer is hunting for, she will find it, Blair said.
“It may take me a few days, but I’ll find it,” she said. “I order books, and we (Blair and her husband, Wendell) also try to go out every three months on a book buying trip. We go to thrift stores, book stores — all kinds of places looking for books for customers.”
Blair keeps record of customer requests by jotting them down in a green, three-ring notebook. “That’s my book bible,” she said.
Sometimes, the books in her “book bible” arrive on her desk by chance.
Customers bring in paperbacks to trade or receive in-store credit, hence “the book exchange” in the store’s title. Blair said she’s picky about the condition of the books she receives — she usually won’t accept any with heavy damage or missing pages — because selling books she knows aren’t in good condition wouldn’t be fair to the customer.
She does keep a hidden stash of old, worn out books tucked away inside the store. Those are reserved for young readers in need.
“I get them at yard sales or flea markets, sometimes for just a quarter. It’s the same book, same words as the new reprints,” she said. “I do this because I’ve got customers I know are on a fixed income. If a parent comes in and says, ‘My kid needs this book tomorrow or he’ll get an F,’ we’ll throw tape on that book. When the teacher sees it in their little hand, they don’t get an F.”
Providing books for children is a major part of the business. August tends to be Blair’s busiest month, because it’s when parents and schoolchildren find out what books they’ll need and know who to call for help.
When August rolls around, or any other time business livens and Blair needs some help of her own to handle day-to-day operations, she said she can count on her family and close friends. Her children and grandchildren grew up in the store and help run it along with her husband, Wendell.
She also gets occasional help from DiLego, who opened the book exchange store in 1980 in Summit. It was there and then a friendship was born between the future business partners.
“I was Diane’s first customer. Well, my daughter says technically she was her first customer because I was two weeks past my due date. She said she got in the door before I did,” Blair said with a smile.
In the mid-1980s, a fire engulfed the building DiLego’s store was located in, burning nearly every book and leaving the business’ future in doubt.
But with the help of donations from book lovers, friends and family, Dilego’s paperback store rose from the ashes and relocated to its current spot around 1987.
Blair said she remembers watching friends of theirs bringing “full pickup load of books” to help jumpstart the business. Through the ’80s, DiLego and Blair’s friendship expanded into a business partnership.
“After we met, I started working for her, and it just sort of grew from there,” said Blair. “First, I just helped out when they needed somebody. I started working more and more and then I took over the Ceredo (West Virginia) store.”
Blair ran DiLego’s other bookstore in Ceredo, which was also known as D’s Book Exchange, for several years before buying it around 1994.
In May of 2011, the Ashland bookstore was hit with what seemed like another disaster. A fallen tree had blocked a nearby culvert, causing the creek behind the old Food Land to overflow when a series of storms struck the region. Flood water poured into the parking lot and surrounding stores, laying waste to most of Food Land’s inventory and forcing the grocery store’s closure.
A Rite-Aid that used to occupy the building on the other side of the bookstore was also washed away by the flood.
But the little paperback store refused to end its story. DiLego even posted a “NOT CLOSING” sign in front of the business two months after the flood.
She also told The Daily Independent despite taking in six-inch high water and losing about 24 trash bags full of books, the business recovered and hadn’t suffered any noticeable drop in business.
Blair said the business’ sustainability was and is a testament to the strength of the local customer base, which has not abandoned paperbacks and hardbacks for digital.
Aside from the familiar texture and the satisfying bend of the spine of a book, the reasons many readers still prefer printed books in the e-book era are simple.
“If I’m sitting here reading this book,” said Blair, as she held up a Stephen King novel that was lying near her desk, “I can read as long as I want and as late as I want and my battery’s not going to go dead.”
Blair, who said she still reads about 25 to 30 books a month, pointed out that printed books never force readers to lay in odd positions to keep the book connected to a charger in the wall.
“And who wants to take an electronic device into the bath tub and read, or to the beach?” she said.
Whether customers are in need of a vacation book, or one to get them through the week, they stand a good chance at finding what they’re looking for at D’s Book Exchange.
“I just love connecting people with that one book,” said Blair.
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