Romance queen Nora Roberts has remade Boonsboro with books, businesses

The mayor of Boonsboro calls it Noraville — a small-town empire created by big-time romance author Nora Roberts.

On Main Street, there is Inn BoonsBoro, the quaint stone bed-and-breakfast that Roberts restored, the star of her newly completed trilogy. Across the street: Turn the Page Bookstore, owned by her husband, where 350 women from as far away as Ohio lined up recently for Roberts to add her looping signature to her books.

There are her son’s restaurants: Vesta, a pizza shop, and Dan’s Restaurant & Tap House. Residents work out around the corner at Fit in BoonsBoro, the gym Roberts built last year.

Roberts and her family own eight properties with an assessed value of $3.2 million in this Western Maryland town of 3,400. Their businesses employ about 100 people, and the enterprises have done so well that other businesses have blossomed around them. The bookstore begat gift shops. The inn boosts a spa.

Sometimes, best-selling books put their settings on the map the way “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” did for Savannah, Ga., and the “Twilight” series did for tiny Forks, Wash. But rarely do authors become their town’s major economic development engine. With 400 million books in print, and a Forbes-estimated income of $23 million in 2011, that is what Roberts has become for Boonsboro.

“Without Nora, our town square would be like a blight on our town,” says Mayor Charles “Skip” Kauffman Jr. “With her, it’s the focal point. Her interest in our town is immeasurable. She could be doing this anywhere, but she chose Boonsboro.”

Roberts, standing in Turn the Page before her book signing, offers a simple explanation.

“This is my home,” she says. “I’m fond of home.”

‘We want to see stuff’

Boonsboro is a 90-minute drive from Washington, a speck of a town near Hagerstown where residents decorate their porches with American flags and watch high school football on chilly Friday nights.

Roberts has deep roots in this place. She moved to nearby Keedysville with her first husband in 1972 and raised her sons here. In 1985, she married Bruce Wilder, a carpenter who came to her home one day to build bookshelves. He opened the bookstore 17 years ago, and the other businesses followed.

“All of our businesses have just kind of happened,” says Wilder, who oversees many of the family’s interests. “In our position monetarily, you can invest whatever with your financial adviser, and you really never see it. That’s all good. But we want to see stuff.”

Their economic development plans usually start with Roberts. She is self-taught. She writes at home five days a week, eight hours a day, publishing at least a half-dozen books a year, either under her name or her pen name, J.D. Robb. Roberts writes romances. Robb writes mysteries. Both names show up on bestseller lists. Roberts’s publisher estimates that Roberts sells 27 books a minute.


A map locating Boonsboro, Maryland (Laris Karklis/The Washington Post/na)

Roberts tries not to let her businesses interfere with her prose, although recently, as her workday was starting, Wilder yelled upstairs to inform her that Vesta’s ice machine was broken.

The inn, before she got her hands on it in 2007, was a dilapidated hotel.

“I’d come into town to take the kids to school,” Roberts says. “It was so sad — that beautiful building just dying and falling apart. I used to look at it and think, ‘I could save that. It should be what it used to be — an inn again.’ ”

And so it became Inn BoonsBoro, with $285-a-night rooms decorated by a local furniture company and named after romantic literary couples, including Nick and Nora from “The Thin Man” and Jane and Rochester from “Jane Eyre.” Roberts rehabbed the building twice — on her first try, it burned down.

The gym was a seedy tanning salon behind the inn. Janeen Solberg, the bookstore’s manager, remembers its genesis.

“This town could really use a gym,” Roberts told Solberg. “Where do people go to work out?”

Solberg told her that people had to drive to Hagerstown or Frederick.

“But that’s at least 20 miles away,” Roberts said.

Last year, she opened Fit in BoonsBoro, a high-end gym with 500 members. Manager Heidi Bodenheimer says Roberts kept the price down to about $30 a month so everyone in town could afford to work out there.

On the one-year anniversary, Roberts took every class.

“I don’t think you can beat the price anywhere,” says Laura Schnackenberg, who moved to Boonsboro 10 years ago and used to drive to Hagerstown to work out.

Schnackenberg has watched the town bloom with Roberts’s cash.

“When I first got here, the inn was crumbling, the downtown didn’t look good,” Schnackenberg says. “The whole place looks 10 times better now.”

Crediting the trilogy

In addition to her family’s businesses, Roberts spreads smaller amounts of money around town through her foundation, whose yearly tax filings contain dozens of pages of donations. Last year, she gave $8,000 to the Boonsboro High School band, $5,000 to the drama club and $50,000 for a Shakespeare festival nearby.

But Roberts’s most important gift to the town came when she published “The Next Always,” the first in her Inn BoonsBoro Trilogy, which chronicles the rebirth of the inn. The trilogy was Roberts’s editor’s idea. Inside the cover flap of all three books is a map of downtown Boonsboro. The inn, the bookstore, her son’s restaurants, even Dick the Barber, who has been cutting hair next door to the bookstore for years, all turn up in its pages.

Boonsboro has always been a destination for Roberts’s fans. But the Boonsboro trilogy, according to business owners and town officials, has dramatically amped up the interest. The inn reports that bookings have quadrupled since the first book appeared, and businesses around town report frequent phone calls from as far away as England from people who say, “Oh, my God. You’re real!”

The day of the signing for Roberts’s latest release, “The Perfect Hope,” at Turn the Page, women began lining up for tickets before 9 a.m. even though the event didn’t start until noon. Local artists were busy painting images of Main Street to sell later at a party being held in a gift shop Roberts’s family owns.

Tom Mallion sat on a bench sipping coffee. His wife, Sara, was in line. They had driven up from North Carolina for their 10-year anniversary and were spending the night at the inn.

“My wife has all of her books,” he said. “She won’t even let me take them and sell them.”

Roberts sold more than 500 books that day, sitting alongside up-and-coming romance authors who had been invited to sell their work. She chatted with fans, asking whether they were from out of town and where they were staying. If they said the inn, she asked which room and then added, “Oh, I love that bed” or “Oh, I love that room.”

Norma Arnold had driven in from West Virginia with her friend Ravenna Redman. The two swap Roberts books. Before the signing, they stood in front of the store, bags full of books, looking around town — the inn, the pizza shop, the bakery, the painters painting.

“I know the places now,” Arnold said. “Look at the bakery, the inn — it’s all so beautiful. It brings more life to the books.”

And the books bring more life to the town.

Michael Rosenwald is a reporter on the Post's local enterprise team. He writes about the intersection of technology, business and culture.
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