Beloved neighborhood bookstore closes its doors

At the Chapter 11 bookstore in Norcross, the staff knew most customers - and their favorite genres - by sight.

Everyone from the manager to the cashier was an avid reader who could recommend a book tailored to any customer's taste.

It's what separated Chapter 11, a small, family-owned chain, from the Barnes & Nobles and the Wal-Marts that happen to sell books. And it's why the tiny Holcomb Bridge Road bookstore will be sorely missed.

Chapter 11 recently announced it would close six stores, including the locations in Norcross and Snellville, as part of its bankruptcy declaration. Though the chain consisted of 13 stores, each location retained the feeling of an independent, neighborhood bookstore by tailoring the book selection and author visits to the community.

On Wednesday, customers filed through the Chapter 11 store to say their final goodbyes to a staff they've grown to consider friends over the years. There's Elton Porter, the manager who's been there for just three months but has already gotten to know many of the customers. There are Sarah, Susan and Garry, the attentive staff members. And then there's the store's assistant manager, George Scott, a quasi-celebrity who has a knack for spot-on recommendations.

It was this devoted staff, especially Scott, who helped convince Chapter 11 owner Perry Tanner to save the store, when the former tenant Waldenbooks decided not to renew its lease. At the time, customers

rallied around the store, begging Waldenbooks parent company Borders not to close the doors.

A year and a half later, Tanner said he's sad to see the store go, but he explained he had to do what he had to do to keep the chain afloat.

"I find no pleasure in any of this," Tanner said. "If money wasn't an option, this would be the first bookstore to stay open. If Elton and George and Sarah would work for free, and the publishers would help us out, we'd stay open every day."

The news trickles down

Most customers found out about the imminent closing when local media outlets broke the story that the company would file for bankruptcy. During the next few days, the Norcross store staff notified some of the regular customers via phone calls. The rest learned after they read the short note, which quoted Shakespeare's "Parting is such sweet sorrow," posted on the door of the store.

The response from customers has been everything from tears to anger, the managers said.

Judy Smith of Alpharetta first found the Norcross Chapter 11 after her own Chapter 11 store in Alpharetta closed. On Wednesday, she picked up nearly 50 half-price used hardcovers, mostly mysteries and slice-of-life titles. She'd carried out a similar pile just the night before.

She said she'll miss the store, whose staff she'd gotten to know and whose recommendations she trusted.

"I'm very upset," Smith said. "I can still go to the Sandy Springs store, but it's not going to be the same."

A caring staff

Porter, a self-described "refugee" from the Barnes & Noble chain, said working at Chapter 11 gives him a chance to be out on the store floor, talking with customers and hand-selling them books.

He also got a hand in selecting which books best fit the store's customer base. In Norcross, the customers tended to be a bit older and were interested in reading about politics and current affairs, as well as picking up their latest book clubs' picks, Porter said.

And, of course, whichever mysteries and suspense novels were Scott's latest picks.

Scott lives just around the corner from the bookstore and has biked to work every day since he started in 1998, when the store was still a Waldenbooks.

In fact, Scott has a long history in the Spalding Woods Village shopping center that houses Chapter 11 - he met his wife when he made her a sandwich at the Subway just a few doors down. These days, you're likely to find him in the Outback Steakhouse on the nights an author visits the store, eating and drinking with staff and customers. They're more than that, though. They're friends.

He's been invited to dinner at some of their homes. He's watched a few of his longtime customers' children take their first steps.

"I have a real personal connection with this neighborhood. I've lived here for 25 years," Scott said. "These people are my friends and my neighbors."

Scott, an avid reader since he was 3 years old, said he reads between three and five books a week. But he refuses to waste his time on a bad book. If he's not hooked by the first chapter, he'll put it down.

He read his way through the classics at a young age and these days reads mostly suspense novels - the gorier, the better. Over the years, he's developed a knack for recommending books his customers will love, even if he hasn't read them himself.

He starts out by asking what they enjoy reading and who are their favorite authors. Then he walks them to the shelves and starts pulling down suggestions. Not just one or two, but armfuls. Scott isn't pushy, and he doesn't claim to know everything about books. He's not offended when customers turn down his recommendations.

And he always encouraged them to come back in and let him know what they thought.

As for the future, Scott's not sure where he'll end up. Chapter 11 has offered him a position at one of the chain's other stores, but he hasn't decided if he'll take it. He said he feels attached to the Norcross neighborhood.

"This is my neighborhood. I feel very strongly about having a neighborhood bookstore here," Scott said. "These customers have enriched my life. How many places can you work where every customer knows your name?"