Get Lit: Independent Bookselling with Ward Tefft

December 07 2014

Just a short walk away from Need Supply Co., Chop Suey Books is Richmond’s secondhand lit haven. True to its name, the two-story shop serves up an eclectic selection of obscure gems and beloved classics. Its shelves brim with the potential energy of newfound knowledge as shop cat WonTon naps in the display windows.

Amid the steady influx of used titles and the hustle of the upcoming holidays, Chop Suey recently made its first foray into the publishing world, with the new 260 page compendium of artist Noah Scalin’s Skull-A-Day project. We caught up with Chop Suey’s owner Ward Tefft to talk about the new book and to find out what it takes to curate a winning secondhand selection.

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Can you tell me a bit about your background? How did Chop Suey get started? 

Chop Suey started in 2002. Our first location was in a building that used to be called “George’s Chop Suey” It said that on a rusted-out sign out front. The sign’s still there but you can’t make out the lettering anymore. A bunch of my friends used to live in that building back when it was being rented as a living space, we used to hang out there all the time. I was living Brooklyn working for different bookstores up there. I moved back down to Richmond in October of 2001 and was planning on opening a bookstore in about two years. But when that space went up for rent I realized it just made sense: Chop Suey Books. The phrase is an Americanization of the Mandarin “Za Sui,” meaning “a little bit of this, a little bit of that,” which is the chop suey dish. You know, whatever you got.

I was collecting books up in New York for about three years. I rented the biggest Ryder moving truck you could rent without a commercial drivers license and drove it down to Richmond filled with books. We thought “Man, we have too many books, we’re going to fill this place, no problem.” And then we got them out of the boxes and the store was only half full. We had a lot of stuff, about 5-10 thousand books. But we have 50,000 books now. It quickly grew. Once you open your doors and things get going it really starts to grow.

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How do you keep track of all of those used titles in the shop? 

We don’t. Really, it’s just being familiar with what you’re dealing with. Being selective of what we carry. We really curate what we have. So doing that, we have a pretty good knowledge of what’s in and what’s selling. You don’t really need to know bookstores, as much as you need to be aware of your surroundings. That’s how I first learned it, and I had never really worked in a bookstore. You just make yourself aware of what’s going on. You look at each book, you see it, you might notice “Oh man, this is a cool copy,” you’re just aware of what’s going on around you. And we all talk. We’re lucky to have a pretty tight knit community working with us.

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Chop Suey recently stepped into the publishing world, what sparked that move? 

So we published Noah Scalin’s Skull-A-Day in October. For Noah, the book’s been 8 years in the making. He started the website in 2007. He later had a book on the project, kind of a crafty book, and it went out of print inexplicably. We jokingly told him, probably around 2009, “Hey, when you’re ready, Chop Suey will publish it.”

He spent the next couple years talking to different publishers and everyone told him, “That’s old. That’s already been done. We want something new.” But it’s an amazing project. I was talking with Noah recently about this beautiful book we just got in on Gauguin, the French impressionist. Gauguin’s been done. How many books are there on Gauguin?  You can say the same thing about that Gauguin book. Not to say that Noah’s Skull-A-Day project is on par with Gauguin, or not to say it isn’t. But there’s this idea that everything has to be new. It really discouraged him, and it’s discouraging to me as well. We carry old books because they’re worth having. We don’t always have to have the new thing. It’s such a great project, to even have my name associated with it is an honor. He designed the book himself. It’s beautiful.

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I’d seen it before in website form, but it’s so much fun to flip through as a book. 

It’s a different experience to have it in a book. No one’s going to look at all 365 skulls at once online. The cool thing about it is it’s kind of an extension of what we already do. He’s a good customer, a good friend, and it’s a symbiotic kind of relationship that just makes sense. The other thing that I really like about it is it’s a middle finger to everyone who come into the shop with a Schadenfreude tone asking, “Oh, aren’t you afraid of digital books putting you out of business?” First of all, no, because look at what happened with record stores. I’m not the only one saying this, especially with the sales of e-books, how well they’re not doing, but the demise of the book hasn’t happened. There’s really nothing like a physical book. Skull-A-Day started in the physical world, was digitized, put online, now we’re taking it offline and putting it into the real world again. It’s such a cool cycle.

As a small business, how do you see Chop Suey’s role in the community? 

It sounds kind of pretentious to say “We see ourselves as a hub” because we’re also not stationary, we go out to other hubs. Kind of how we work with Need Supply Co. , how two stores on the same street work together to curate a book selection in your space. Similar to that, we’ve got an event coming up at the local craft brewery Hardywood with 28 Richmond authors, most of whom have had books come out in 2014. Poetry, fiction, non-fiction, art, comics, kids books. The cool thing is, I don’t think there’s one author there that knows all of the other authors the way we do. In that way, we are the hub for this particular event. Chop Suey is very amorphous. Sometimes we’re taking part in other people’s things. Sometimes we’re hosting our own. Sometimes all of us just show up in the same place. Coming down from New York, you realize there’s a lot of stuff happening there, but you can do a lot more here. Richmond allows you the space and the freedom to experiment.

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