Prince Books Celebrates a Reign of 25 Years

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The silver anniversary celebration of downtown Norfolk, Virginia's Prince Books may be understated, but the community it has served since 1982 has been enthusiastically showing its support.

Owner and co-founder Sarah Pishko told BTW that the store plans a 25 percent-off sale with refreshments on Wednesday, October 10. The tasteful and low-key commemoration is characteristic of the downtown fixture, which caters to readers of all ages and interests, and offers sandwiches, coffee, wines, and gifts, through its partnership of five years with Taste Unlimited.

In a 2,800-square-foot space, 2,100 is devoted to the bookstore. The corner site on Main Street is the bookstore's third location in 25 years. Both previous locations have been redeveloped and make the area more diverse and dynamic. "The whole street has changed," Pishko noted. "We were originally part of a strip of rundown stores." Now on Prince's original site is a Marriott Hotel, a popular spot for conventions, which bring business to the bookstore. Nearby in the Selden Arcade, the store's home from 1984 to 1994, a free, public museum space, d'Art Center has opened.

Situated one block from the Intracoastal Waterway and in the hometown of the nation's largest naval base, Prince Books stocks plenty of boating and military reading as well as many Chesapeake Bay and Outer Banks, North Carolina, titles.

Recalling the store's inception two-and-a-half decades ago, Pishko said, "There were no bookstores in Norfolk then and I wanted to give it a try. I found a partner, and we pulled it off." She bought out the partner about 20 years ago and became the sole owner.

Two Norfolk bookstores, one independent and one chain, closed in the past year; however, one of the store's newest neighbors is a 28,000-square-foot Barnes & Noble college store in the MacArthur Mall, two blocks away. The two-story "academic superstore" opened in August in connection with Tidewater Community College, which recently moved one of its four campuses downtown.

John Berendt at an event for City of Falling Angels at Prince Books.

When plans for the B&N were announced, Pishko decided she wasn't going to wait to see what the store's presence would mean to her business. At this year's BookExpo America, Prince Books was the subject of the American Booksellers Association's case study, "What to Do When the Competition Comes to Town," which is tracking the store's response to its prospective competition. Pishko also hired a PR firm to develop some print materials and copy to use for publicity. Top reasons for shopping at Prince Books -- including "We Read What We Sell" and "We Love Local Authors, and They Love Us" -- helped remind people why they love the store, according to Pishko.

The publicity push has had an impact. "It had the effect of helping to temper local enthusiasm for the [B&N] opening," she said. "People could see that it's not all a great thing."

Several news and feature stories on the merits of independently owned, local businesses in general, and Prince Books specifically, have also appeared in the local media. In Port Folio, a free Norfolk-area weekly, an article entitled "A Prince and a Noble" asked, "Will the opening of a new Barnes & Noble ... hurt the independent local favorite, Prince Books?" Pishko, who is quoted widely in the article, emphasized that independent bookstores "have so much personality. We're all so different, unique, not just the same."

Another column, this one by Norfolk resident David Giffiths in the daily Virginia Pilot, said, "From its green awning and sidewalk tables, Prince Books features a modest yet chic inventory of books and magazines, hosts frequent author readings and offers friendly, personalized service -- typically on a first-name basis with regular customers -- that has been around for years...We sort of took it for granted because it was always there. But now it has competition. Yet Prince Books is exactly what a neighborhood bookshop should be."

Pishko was gratified, and a bit surprised, at the paean to her store. "He [Griffiths] is not a very well known customer here," she said. "We had no idea he would write such a nice column about us." Pishko emphasized, "We'll have nothing to worry about, so long as enough people remember how much they like the store and keep shopping here." --Nomi Schwartz