For Darby, 60, this bookstore tucked inside an old yellow house with a wraparound porch in Clarksburg was his opportunity to finally sell books the old-fashioned way. He had spent decades working for big chains, including Crown Books, once a staple of Washington.
“I’d been thinking about a store like this the whole time,” Darby said.
Clarksburg, just off Interstate 270 in upper Montgomery County, seemed like an ideal location. For one thing, the Darbys go back 250 years there. And when Darby opened Novel Books in 2011, the area was booming after years of housing development.
For a while, things went well. Novel Books struggled at first but eventually found its footing amid a resurgence of independent bookstores — after years of tumult brought on by chains such as Borders (now gone), then Amazon (founded by its CEO, Jeff Bezos, who owns The Washington Post).
Darby certainly wasn’t making Bezos cash — bookstore profit margins are novella thin. But he was happy, and his store bustled with events and young parents bringing their new readers to play in a well-stocked children’s section.
Then a series of personal disasters struck.
In the fall of 2018, the motor home that Darby drove and slept in to sell books at literary events broke down in Tennessee, leaving him stranded there for a month waiting for parts and an expensive repair to overhaul the engine. Earlier this year, the store’s van broke down. More expenses.
If bad news really does come in threes, Darby’s No. 3 was especially crushing: This past August, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
Darby has no insurance. He is single. His life is books.
“It was pretty dark,” Darby said. “I could either just give up on everything and call it quits. Or I could decide to try to fight this — that it’s worth fighting for. I might lose out, but at least I know I tried. It’s better than giving up.”
Darby decided to fight. He launched a GoFundMe campaign. The title is: “Do you want your community bookstore to fail?” He wrote, “Novel Books can grow again, just like the book industry has been doing over the last five years, but is asking for your help.”
Darby has raised more than $6,000, which doesn’t include the contents of an actual piggy bank belonging to a little girl named Elissa.
“She had a lemonade stand and made $31.75,” her mom, Jen Farlow, wrote on Facebook. “Elissa planned to buy a Jasmine costume with that money. But then we visited a bookstore owner whose business is in danger because of significant health and financial issues.”
Elissa told her mom she wanted to give some of her earnings to the store.
“I suggested $10,” Farlow wrote. “She said, ‘No. I want to give everything.’ ”
Elissa emptied the piggy bank onto Darby’s store counter.
“It was,” Darby said, “the best moment in my career.”
But it wasn’t enough. Darby is several months behind in rent. One of his book suppliers is suing him. He needs at least $50,000, if not more, to catch up financially and keep his doors open. He needs a hero. He has tried reaching out to Washington Nationals pitcher Sean Doolittle, a lover of independent bookstores. No reply yet.
The great irony of Darby’s predicament is that print book sales are up and he has the customers to prove it. On Black Friday, several stopped in before lunch.
Chuck Smith, a retired political scientist and longtime customer, picked up a copy of Hannah Arendt’s “The Life of the Mind.”
“I don’t want to use the word ‘sentimental,’ ” Smith said. “This is romantic in a certain sense. It’s just good to come in an old bookstore. You look around, you read some. It’s just a different cultural feel, you know?”
Carol Nelson, visiting from Asheville, N.C., for Thanksgiving, browsed for children’s books with her stepdaughter Katie Blackman. Nelson, a lover of indie bookstores, eavesdropped as Darby told the story of his store’s impending closure. Her brother had Parkinson’s.
“It’s a fight,” she told Darby. “You have to fight it.”
As they stood at the counter chatting, a pile of books and papers stacked up behind Darby tumbled over. There’s probably a metaphor lurking there — the crumbling of books, a man down on his luck.
But at that counter the night before, on Thanksgiving, there was something closer to hope.
As Darby prepared to spend Thanksgiving by himself eating macaroni and cheese in his empty store, a customer stopped by with a serving of turkey and all the fixings. He tweeted a picture of the plate hanging slightly off his counter, his computer keyboard in the background.
“Happy Thanksgiving,” Darby wrote, “to all.”
Without a miracle, he added, Novel Books will close.