Neither time, nor the pandemic — not even the fire inspector — can end Downtown Books’ story

Downtown Books is filled with shelves, boxes and stacks worth of books and other media. (Photo by Matt Young)

By Charlotte Matherly, contributor

If there’s one thing to know about Bob Schurtz, it’s this: He never throws away a book.

That philosophy snowballed into Downtown Books, his legendary — albeit overflowing — bookstore on Water Street. Sitting at the front desk littered with packages, CDs and wall-to-wall books, Schurtz explained how he came to own the store 45 years ago.

As he tells it, there used to be a shop a few blocks down the street that sold magazines, cigarettes and books. He went inside a few times, he said, but one day in 1976, the owner’s wife asked if he wanted to buy it.

“I laughed in her face,” he said, chuckling. “Four months later, [I] came back in and said, ‘Yes, I want to buy the store.’”

During those four months, Schurtz had moved to North Carolina in hopes of buying a record store his friend had told him was for sale. When that didn’t work out, he came back to Harrisonburg, bought the store and transformed it into Downtown Books. 

Schurtz got booted out of that space in the early ’80s when a new owner bought the building. He moved all the inventory to Water Street in wheelbarrows, and while someone else took over the store for a year after it moved, Schurtz returned in the early ’80s.

For years, he’s had over 100 customers every day — that is, until the pandemic. Now, he said, fewer than 10 people come to Downtown Books on an average day. In-store sales have been few and far between since the pandemic began, but Schurtz has been selling books on Amazon to make up the difference, along with boarding horses at his farm.

“Financially, you know, it’s kind of just hit the skids,” Schurtz said. “As if [the book industry] weren’t changing enough, it’s almost like the pandemic kind of accelerated us like 10 years into the future.”

That’s why he decided to put out the free book table in front of his store. He pointed out a few regulars as they passed by, like a man who works downtown who Schurtz said he’s chatted with a few times. But, Schurtz said, hardly anyone comes inside to buy a book when they can take them free of charge.

Even with a steady outgoing stream of books, the store’s inventory just keeps on growing. 

Schurtz said there are days when he receives more books than he can get rid of. Several times a week, he said, he comes to work to find another box of abandoned books on his doorstep. Those books get piled into a heap on his desk by the window, loosely arranged into stacks 10-20 books high. There are also mounds of Amazon orders waiting to get shipped out and shelves of CDs perched on the desk. Just past the desk lies another blockade of books — those are the ones from the back room that Schurtz said the fire inspector made him clean out three years ago. 

Past the desk, boxes full of comic books line the giant wall of the now fire-inspector-approved former inventory room. 

Years ago, Schurtz said, someone drove past him on the way to the dump with a truck full of those comics. Unwilling to let hundreds of stories of superheroes go to waste, Schurtz took them off the man’s hands. He bagged and boarded them himself, and he’s still selling the comic books, which, he said, still sell well.

After squeezing past the comic books, the rest is a free-for-all. Paperbacks and hardbacks alike line the jam-packed shelves, and overflowing tubs of books obstruct the short aisles. There are sections for postcards and DVDs, but the rest is a booklover’s paradise. 

When asked if he has an organizational method, Schurtz waved generally in the direction of romance, advice and other genres. But at this point, his system is more Jenga than genre: “pretty much where stuff will fit,” he said. 

“It’s kind of like a more of a zen experience where you just come in and hope a book falls on you and you say, ‘Ah, I’ve been meaning to read this!’” Schurtz said, raising his voice as though he were a customer.

Over the years, Schurtz has seen downtown Harrisonburg evolve. Glen’s Fair Price and Kline’s Dairy Bar have stuck around, he said, but all the other stores have been closed down to make way for restaurants and offices — even Jess’ Lunch, which sold its primary location at the beginning of 2020 and got evicted from its second restaurant last fall.

Harrisonburg has, Schurtz said, been “yuppified.”

But while Harrisonburg’s evolved, it’s stayed true to Downtown Books. Schurtz said that sometimes, people will come in just because they’ve always been curious about the store or they’ve heard of its reputation as the one-stop shop for comic books, DVDs, postcards and pins in addition to the books. Some people come in after years at a time to see if Schurtz himself is still there.

“Who would be stupid enough to still be there, trying to sell books?” Schurtz said.

Books are wedged into seemingly every nook and cranny of Downtown Books. (Photo by Matt Young)

Although he admitted it’s a risky business model, almost everything in his store costs less than $2.99. He said some people like to come in and spend hours browsing the shelves, filling bags with books that cost mere cents. 

He jokes often about how long he’s been on Water Street with more books flowing in than money, but it’s not the cash that’s made him stay.

“What does keep me here?” he said when asked why he’s stuck around for so many years. He paused and answered half-jokingly: “Inertia.”

The other reason, he said, is that people love books.

“People still come in, take a deep breath and go, ‘Oh, the smell of books,’” Schurtz said.

Over the decades, it’s been community support that’s kept him going, which Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance (HDR) Executive Director Andrea Dono said is a staple of the Friendly City. Even as Schurtz watches businesses come and go, the growing local community continues to show up.

Dono said Harrisonburg has a strong “support local” ethic among its downtown businesses — one that’s thrived even throughout the past year of the pandemic.

“It sounded like businesses were closing left and right and in some places, I think they might have been, but I really believe that the people who are in downtown worked really hard to stay open and make it work,” Dono said. “Knowing that you have a whole network of people supporting you really helps you make it through.”

Hunter Woodard, Schurtz’s property manager, said even before his company, Water Street Investments, bought the building in 2006, Schurtz would always say, “Hello.”

Schurtz is one of the long-term tenants who helps make downtown Harrisonburg special, Woodard said.

“Downtown is what it is because of the people,” Woodard said. “Bob’s just been a part of downtown ever since I can remember.”

Even with 45 years of the book business under his belt, Schurtz doesn’t plan on leaving soon. He likes providing his community with a bookstore.

“People just like the fact that there’s a bookstore,” Schurtz said. “It’s nice to do something where you feel like at least you’re appreciated by some people.”

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