I sat down last week with Erika Walser, twenty-four-year-old local resident who became the manager of Prospero’s Books on Center Street in Manassas last month. And it didn’t take long to realize that she is a woman on a mission.
“Books are my life. It’s as simple as that,” she stated as mid-morning traffic passed by outside twenty feet away outside the store. She credited her family and her college experience for her love of books and reading. “I had an amazing professor at NOVA,” she smiled, “who really put me on to history.” She then transferred to Virginia Tech and found not all the education took place in the classroom.
“I worked in a dining hall and met local people. Blacksburg is smaller than Manassas, so I could go to Kroger at midnight and see someone I knew. There was truly a sense of community there.”
Walser worked at the bookstore starting as a fifteen-year-old in 2006, at the end of her freshman year. She was also an associate at Old Navy starting in 2009, and served as a nanny the same year.
“The more places I worked, the more I wanted to stay at the bookstore. I love independent bookstores. I have so much more latitude here than if I worked for a chain. Old Navy taught me that.”
She noted that she stopped reading books for fun in high school. The birth of her daughter Zoё brought her back to them in 2014. “I had the time to read for the first time in a while. And I rediscovered the wonder of reading.”
When I asked what she liked most about working at Prospero’s, she said, “The people. The people and their stories.” Regulars come in daily, and she remembers their names and their background. “Many of them are talkative older men,” she remembered, smiling at me, a talkative older man. She continued to greet customers warmly while we talked, with the signature personal touch of the store. She knows book preferences of regulars and all about their families.
She couldn’t think of much she didn’t care for about the job, but she did mention people coming in asking to see Pringles the cat, a long-time feature of the store, who died a year ago. “I figure if they don’t know, then they haven’t been in for a while. Some people ask about Pringles and when they find she’s gone, they leave. But that’s a small annoyance.”
The new manager has made some changes in the store. “We’re gutting the store if you will,and we’re more selective about the books we do stock. We want to make it a special place. We’re also paying more attention to inventory. Recently, we started a display of local authors’ books at the front of the store and sponsor book signings with various writers at different times, especially on First Fridays when the stores stay open later and offer food and special events. These benefit us and local authors.”
She praised store owner Gary Belt. “He’s here at 6:30 in the morning sweeping the sidewalk in front of the store. He also works at home (we all do) and travels to acquire books.” She paused. “He saved the store and of course I’m happy about that.”
All this effort adds up to a place that Walser wants customers to experience as “an amazing place.”
“I want to help people learn through books and give them a fair price for the books they buy and also the ones they sell to us.” If books are not suitable for sale, she donates them to area churches.
“I hope people will understand the importance of supporting local independent businesses. Sure we all shop online and at the big chains, but stores like this one offer a unique experience.”
“This job does a lot for me,” she concluded. “I work with books all day; I’m with interesting people, and I’m helping to sustain and improve our community. You can’t do much better than that.”
Walser is clearly not a typical Millenial. And she has never used an electronic book of any sort. “They’re hard to read; I can’t write in them easily; and I can tell what other people are reading when they use ‘real’ books. Without that, I have less of a sense of who they are. And that’s important.”
Another customer came in and Erika Walser, a woman on a mission, walked out from behind the checkout counter to greet another customer and find out more about her story.