Cheryl Bartnett prepared for an empty nest by buying books.
In fact, she also resurrected a bookstore to put them in.
“This is kind of my retirement project,” Bartnett says.
August marked her one-year anniversary as owner of the new/old Webster Groves Bookshop. Although the bookstore business has never been a cash cow, Bartnett is happy with the first year’s sales: “It surpassed my wildest expectations.”
The wood-paneled, corner shop was a fixture in town for more than half a century. In 2016, owner Ann Foy, then 79, closed the landmark at 100 West Lockwood Avenue, citing her declining health. She, too, had become a bookstore proprietor after her children were grown, buying it with her husband in 1999.
When the store’s closing was announced, loyal customers mourned the intimate space’s homey feel.
“I’m going to be very sorry to see it go,” Bliss Shands of Kirkwood said in 2016. She estimated she’d shopped there for 30 years. “They were awfully good about ordering books I want. And the whole interior of the shop was so charming.”
Bartnett, who had worked briefly for Foy, said upset customers even came in “for one last smell.”
Three years later, the Lockwood site houses the Clover and the Bee. The restaurant pays homage to the old store, noting on its website that owners used a literary reference from an Emily Dickinson poem for the name.
Sometimes lunch patrons walk half-a-block to the new store at 27 North Gore Avenue, finding a virtual reincarnation of the old Bookshop.
The original rough-hewn cedar paneling is on the walls, as are the original shelves, built by Franciscan monks. (The store was founded in 1965 by Natalie Sheetz and Julie Robinson, who hired architect Robert J. McClenahan to design it.)
The large white Japanese lanterns are new, but they look like clones of the lights that hung for decades from the shop’s ceiling.
Although the store is slightly smaller, Bartnett says some customers are a “little spooked” that it’s so similar. At least one has looked around confused, thinking she was in the old store.
Six months after the original Bookshop closed, Bartnett and her husband would peer into the vacant space during walks. They contemplated whether to open a store and asked the building’s owner if they could have the shelves and wood.
Bartnett knew it was a big step, but thought, “If we decide to do this, we have it. If we don’t, we have a storage locker of cedar we have to get rid of.”
They eventually found a space in the Old Webster area when a fabric shop closed. As their younger son was about to go to college, Cheryl and Neil Bartnett spent weeks putting up paneling and painting.
She felt her new business wouldn’t quite be starting from scratch. Every Monday, Bartnett had gone to see Ann Foy, who was living with her daughter. Foy gave her blessing to use the Webster Groves Bookshop name.
She introduced Bartnett to sales reps and talked about ordering books.
“I’d sit there and make notes and ask her a million questions,” Bartnett says. “It gave her something to be excited about again.”
Foy also wrote letters to former customers, telling them the shop was reopening.
When the store debuted Aug. 7, 2018, customers returned, paying full price for books in lieu of online discounts. “The community has come back and so embraced this place,” Bartnett says.
Four days after the opening, Foy’s family gathered for her birthday. They wanted to see the Bookshop. Foy insisted on going, so they took her in her wheelchair. A photo of her at the new shop would run with her obituary just a few months later. This past May, the store was the site for the family’s celebration of Foy’s life.
Bartnett says: “I miss her every day. I think, ‘What would Ann choose?’”
Bartnett, who had only worked at the old store for eight months, says she’s been “slowly getting my book feet.”
She has a carefully curated collection of classics and quality new books, usually just one copy per title. There are children’s books, but few toys. Now, she’s planning to turn a lower-level space into a meeting room for book clubs. She’s made back her initial financial investment. But clearly that isn’t Bartnett’s greatest pride:
“I feel like I’m giving back to the community.”