“The joke was that when we opened up, we had three Civil War books,” said Ward Tefft, owner of Chop Suey Books. “But we’re in Richmond, so we see a lot more now, and it’s grown since then.”
Since it first opened 17 years ago, the store has grown more than just its local history holdings, and has become a well-stocked stop for book lovers strolling the vibrant Carytown district of Virginia’s capital (and former capital of the Confederacy). As described on its website, Chop Suey Books offers volumes of “gently used literature, art, photography, architecture, design, philosophy, poetry, theater, film and the like.”
Tefft, 47, knew the Carytown area from his days as an undergraduate studying English at nearby Virginia Commonwealth University. After earning a master’s degree in English from the State University of New York at Buffalo, he ended up making a living largely by working in independent bookstores, including the late Skyline Books that once brightened Manhattan’s West 18th Street.
Although the move was already in the works before Sept. 11, Tefft left New York and moved back to Richmond in October 2001 with a truck of “about 3,000 or 4,000 books” he had collected and an idea for a used-books shop of his own. A few months later, he found a retail space and a name for his store — in a building at 1317 W. Cary St. that still sported a rusted hanging sign for “George’s Chop Suey,” a long-gone restaurant.
While the store’s culinary-themed name is a nod to neighborhood history, it’s also inspired by the concept of the dish, considered to be a Chinese-American creation.
As Tefft explains, the name “chop suey” is thought to have derived from the Mandarin “za sui,” which translates to “a little bit of this, a little bit of that” — much like the contents of a used-books shop.
The store opened in 2002 and has expanded since, moving in 2008 to a larger space at 2913 W. Cary St. across from Richmond’s landmark Byrd Theatre, a 1928 movie palace that shows second-run films.
Tefft handles the daily business of buying, selling and trading books for store credit with the help of six employees and WonTon, the store’s affable tuxedo cat, who patrols the place.
WonTon has a lot of room to roam. In addition to the ground-floor sales area — where newly released titles can also be purchased — Tefft was able to expand the store over the years and rents space on the second floor of the building. A trip upstairs reveals rooms packed with shelves and free-standing racks of books.
The Children’s Room is organized chronologically from expectant-parent guides to board books to picture books and all the way around to the young-adult titles.
The second floor also houses the store’s Fiction Room. “This is our most popular room,” said Tefft, who said he has tried to make the literary-fiction titles for sale there inclusive and representative of different points of view. “We try to get a strong international selection, African American and indigenous authors.”
Chop Suey Books hosts a book club and literary events with authors.
Paintings by area artists decorate the shop’s walls, but the store’s support of Richmond’s creative community goes even further. In 2014, aided by a Kickstarter campaign to raise money, Tefft teamed up with artist Noah Scalin to release a hardcover catalog of Scalin’s “Skull-a-Day” multimedia art project.
Since then, Tefft’s publishing project has released other titles showcasing the work of local creators, including a “Murals of Richmond” photo book and “River City Secrets: Stories From Richmond,” a short-fiction collection aimed at middle-grade readers.
Chop Suey Books houses more than 45,000 titles — with more on the way to keep the browsing experience unpredictable. As Tefft noted, “We have three storage spaces full of books that are just waiting to come into here.”