Boulder's Red Letter Secondhand Books looks much the same as it did when it opened almost 25 years ago, with books loosely organized on shelves and overflowing into jumbled stacks on the floor in the quirky little shop.
When original owner Jon Murray recently decided to retire, he sold the store in downtown Boulder at 1737 Pearl St. to an employee with a used book background — and a commitment to keeping the treasure hunt feel that keeps drawing loyal customers back, including those from other states and even countries.
"Places like this lend a town its soul," said new owner Seth Rowland. "You're always walking away from here with a story."
With a dad who was a bookseller, he said, he grew up with a love for books. He opened a used bookstore not far from Red Letter Books about 10 years ago called "Happenstance," but he couldn't make money and closed it in 2007. Several years later, he started working at Red Letter Books.
"I don't know what else I would be doing other than this," he said. "I have the bug."
He said he knows how tough the independent book business can be, but likes his odds — especially since Red Letter Books is in a university town and has strong name recognition. Summer, he said, is usually the store's busiest season with tourists and students in Naropa University's summer writing program contributing to sales.
"We have great support from the community," he said.
The changes he plans to make are limited to some building maintenance, more online selling and possibly freshening the storefront. He said he's also spending some time digging into the shop's unopened boxes of books, some that haven't been touched for 15 to 20 years. It was in one of those boxes, he said, that he recently found a signed Salvador Dali book.
The bookstore offers an eclectic mix of titles, from popular fiction like "Twilight" to a small book of writings, cartoons and rules from an internment camp for U.S. soldiers in the Philippines from 1942 to 1945. There are cookbooks, classics, vintage children's books, field books, religious texts, piano music and a couple of shelves of Shakespeare.
Prices range from $1 to thousands, with the most valuable books either locked in glass cases or kept in Rowland's home. Altogether, the store's collection totals 50,000 to 60,000 books.
The store, Rowland said, may not be as neat and organized — or "sterile" — as a typical chain. Instead, he said, it's designed for exploring.
"It's the sort of place where books will find you," he said. "You can just stumble into something you didn't know you were looking for."
Emily Owens, who grew up in Boulder, said she considers the bookstore a piece of "old Boulder" and was happy to see it sold to an owner who wasn't planning a major overhaul.
"Nothing about its interior or exterior has really changed in all these years," she said. "You feel like you're going back a couple of decades. You'll find old "Life" magazines under these stacks of newer books. It's like going in your grandmother's attic."
Plus, she said, it doesn't take long to become a regular.
"Once you go there a few times, you feel like you belong there," she said.
Contact Camera Staff Writer Amy Bounds at 303-473-1341 or firstname.lastname@example.org.