“Eclectic” is how Randy Shell describes his selection at downtown Wytheville‘s Oracle Books. It’s also how he likes his customer base. “The fun is in the mix, the interaction between me and the customers, and between the customers themselves. I want people to linger and exchange ideas. That’s what a bookstore is all about.”
Oracle books is the only bookstore in Wytheville, a community in the midst of a downtown revival. “We were passing through. We were immediately attracted to the community,” says Shell. Four years later, not only Shell and his wife, but two of his four siblings, his parents, and his wife’s parents have all moved to Wythe County.
“I owe my love of books, reading and learning to my parents,” says Shell. “They read to us. We didn’t have TV until high school, and as we got older, we debated at the dinner table. Of course, I wanted to have a good understanding so that I could hold my own in the conversation.” It worked. Shell seems to be able to have a conversation with anyone about any topic. And it’s a two-way street he says. “I’m always learning from my customers.”
“Most of the people who come in have a passion,” says Shell. “They want to talk about their specific interest, but they’re also looking for the unexpected…something they didn’t know existed. They can find something in the store that there would be no way of stumbling upon on the internet.”
Good conversation, of course, is one of the features of a good physical book store. In this one, Shell’s father, Bervin, adds to the mix. There’s a comfortable chair in the center of the store where customers might find the elder Shell, ready for a conversation on European travels, his military service, Civil War history, or a host of other topics.
While this is Randy Shell’s first bricks-and-mortar store, he has sold books online for years. “This is where I want to put my energy now,” says Shell. He sees the potential to create a gathering space and a sense of community around books. He plans to host monthly events around books and music. “It’s about the joy of people. The space can bring them together. Online, I might as well be selling widgets.”
Recently Shell arrived a little late to open the shop. He found four people waiting outside. “When I apologized, one customer said, ‘No problem. We were having a great conversation!’ Then they came in and continued talking throughout the morning.”
Shell sees the bookstore, which he opened in December, as a way to pass along his love of books and reading. “We’re a general used bookstore,” says the 59-year old proprietor, “and the books are anywhere from 250 years old to current releases.” The books range in price from $1 to $3,000, but some are even free. “For the very young readers who come into the store, I have books that I’ll give them.”
Sometimes though, letting go of a book is harder for Shell, who loves signed copies. He holds up a volume inscribed by polar explorer Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd. “It’s just cool to know that he held this in his hand.” When a book has found a good home, it’s not difficult to let go of his treasures. “Today, I sold a slipcase copy of J. R. R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit. The customer was really excited, and that made me happy. But sometimes,” he adds, “it’s harder.”
Shell spent nine years in the Air Force and then had a 25-year career in child protective services in Austin, Texas. He remains a voracious reader and prefers reading world literature, studying the global newspapers, and perusing the rare books that come through his door. Ask him to show you the 1808 latin reader a Loudon County landowner gave to his son, or the 1830s math primer.
Shell gets recommendations from World Literature Today, and he will happily recommend a book. “We’re living in a great time to hear from people we haven’t heard from before. There’s terrific literature coming out from Africa, women’s voices.” Currently he’s reading Unbowed by the late Kenyan environmentalist and Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai.
A customer at the counter talks about farm implements and steam engines. “That’s really interesting,” says Shell, listening, and then adding to the conversation. Everyone who enters can be both seeker and guide. It’s an environment that both reinforces and flips the expectation in a place called ‘oracle’. The prophets are many. They surround us, with voices held within the books rapidly filling the rooms. “I keep building shelves,” says Shell. “It keeps expanding.” ★
Oracle Books is located at 275 West Main Street in Wytheville and is open from 10 AM to 6 PM on Wednesday to Saturday.