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After a quarter-century in business, longtime Bookworm bookstore owner Barbara Lowell says it’s time to go out of business.
“This Memorial Day weekend will be our 25th anniversary,” said Lowell, who opened the shop with her late husband of 40 years, former Holden Beach Mayor Jim Lowell, in May 1988.
She plans to keep the shop on Holden Beach Road open for one more summer season before closing on Labor Day.
Lowell’s reason for shutting down shop is simple.
“There’s no money coming in,” she said, seated at the front counter of the bookstore at 2980 Holden Beach Road.
“This is the worst winter ever in the history of the business,” Lowell said.
The popularity of other reading modes such as electronic books has had an effect.
“I think it’s kind of a death for all the independent bookstores like me working to hold our heads above water,” she said, adding e-books have their place.
Another factor is free books offered at libraries.
“I can’t compete with them,” Lowell said. “It’s sad, but it’s time. I’ve gotten to know so many people, including children who now bring their own children.”
These “grown-up children” bring their offspring to buy the same children’s books they read. The “classic” books still dominate the shelves of the children’s room at the store, including “Make Way for Ducklings,” “Runaway Bunny,” “The Little Engine That Could,” Dr. Seuss, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew.
Lowell still sells them. In fact, the store has an inventory of more than 11,000 books she would like to sell before she goes out of business. She knows that’s the number because bookstore volunteer Nancy Forrest counted them.
The shop has also tried to keep pace with more recent titles including Harry Potter, “The Hunger Games” and other popular-selling books.
Starting a bookstore
Lowell and her husband, Jim, who died from esophageal cancer in January 2012 at age 78, moved to Holden Beach from southern Maryland.
“We came here to escape from the rat race,” she said.
Jim was a former Catholic priest and director of community affairs for the Federal Reserve Board. Barbara, a registered nurse, had directed an obstetrics and two psychiatric departments.
“We had bought a beach house in 1985,” she said. “That was as far south as we could come for a long weekend from southern Maryland. We searched from Topsail to Sunset, and Holden just captured us. We saw a house, and we bought it.”
They opened a bookstore at its first location on the Holden Beach Causeway “because we didn’t know what else to do,” she said. “We were too young to retire. Neither of us had been in the retail business before. We sure made a lot of mistakes along the way.”
Still, “it was a joy,” Lowell added. “There’s a lot to be said for going to work at 10 a.m., wearing what you want and setting your own hours.”
They lived just a mile away, “even if you didn’t make any money—and we didn’t,” she said. “We never made any money, but we could afford it.”
The Lowells were devoted to their new town. Jim served as Holden Beach mayor from 1997-2003. Barbara served on the hospital board and as president of the Greater Holden Beach Merchants Association. She also started a local rendition of Concerts on the Beach.
When the shop moved to its second location at 3004 Holden Beach Road, it was adopted by a large Maine coon cat named Big Boy who officially lived at the hardware store next door.
Thus began the tradition of bookstore cats at Lowell’s, which moved to its third location at 2980 Holden Beach Road in 2007 and currently has three cats that have adopted it named Babe (“Baby”), Tyler and Sebastian.
People often stop by just to visit with the cats.
There are good memories, too. During Jim’s tenure as mayor, she said they had to evacuate about five different times for hurricanes. They, along with a storeful of neighbors, wound up at the shop with sleeping bags.
“We’d have a hurricane party at the bookstore,” Barbara said.
Lowell credits faithful worker Eric Reese, who has been with the shop since May 23, 2000, for assistance. Her own son, Matthew, lives in Colorado.
“I miss him and love him desperately,” she said. “Eric is my ‘local’ son. He is dearly loved, too.”
Reese still helps out occasionally at the shop.
“He helped out so much when Jim was sick,” she said.
When the bookstore closes, its three cats will go home with Reese, Lowell said.
Time to close
With Jim gone, Barbara says she can no longer continue their business.
She said she’ll be 78 years old in July. She also took a fall last year that put her out of commission for six months.
“It gave me lots of time to think about the future,” she said.
She wants to spend more time with their four children and three grandchildren living in four different states.
“If somebody came in today and offered me $20,000 for everything, including the furniture, I’d take it and say thank you,” Barbara said of the shop filled with 39 bookcases. Until Labor Day, the Bookworm remains open to the public from noon-5 p.m. five days a week and is closed on Sundays and Wednesdays.
Longtime customers Cynthia Scramlin and Earl Walrath, who stopped by the Bookworm last week, said they’re going to miss the store. They said Lowell is a lovely lady with a big heart.
After closing at or on Labor Day, Lowell said she hopes to have everything taken care of by Oct. 1. Then she plans to visit her daughter in Delaware.
“From there, I’m not sure,” she said. “I love Holden Beach, so I will certainly keep my property here. We moved here to get away from northern winters, and my children love it here. It’s nice for them to get together every few years and have a reunion.”
She said she’ll miss all the friends she’s made over the years who have come to the shop from so many different states and countries.
“It’ll be difficult saying goodbye to everybody, but we’ll get through it,” Lowell said.
Laura Lewis is a staff writer at the Beacon. Reach her at 754-6890 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.