Those singing the swan song of the printed word haven’t spent time at E. Shaver’s lately.
Now more than ever, the ground-level literary sanctuary on Madison Square is constantly buzzing with bibliophiles coming from near and far to seek out real, live books to feed their respective reading habits. Fiction, non-fiction, food, romance, mystery and history flies off the shelves, the latest offerings and old classics sensibly organized within the maze of charming little rooms.
Book-adoring Esther Shaver first opened its doors back in 1976, when no one could have dreamed of storing an entire library on a device smaller than a Harold Robbins paperback, and built up a steady business while raising her three children in grand Greek Revival manse upstairs. In 2013, at the age of 72, she announced she had put the building and its inventory up for sale, spurring a depressing downward spiral amongst Savannah’s loyal literati, including staff member Jessica Osborne.
“I was so sad because I’d finally found something that I loved,” says Osborne, who began working in the shop in 2010, after a decade of earning Masters in history and political philosophy and raising her own family.
“I didn’t want to see another independent bookstore go away.”
She had been considering enrolling in law school, but after a few exploratory meetings, the mother of three decided belletrist life suited her best. Osborne and Shaver came to an agreement kept the original owner on for a year, and the partnership evolved into a successful pivot, allowing the elder to retire peacefully knowing she’d handed the reins to someone as capable and passionate about the bookshop as she. (The mansion upstairs was sold separately, and the new residents reportedly adore living above the store—what better neighbors that a bunch of quiet bookworms?)
While Osborne readily admits the book business has “a steep learning curve,” she seems to have seamlessly bridged the best of E. Shaver’s traditions with progress to successful commerce: The website is now lightning fast with online ordering, and a small café run by the Savannah Tea Room offers refreshing reason to stay and browse. The back walls are being knocked out to make way for more space, and Osborne recently replaced every single flickering fluorescent light with energy-efficient, easy-on-the-eyes LED bulbs.
“It keeps it a lot cooler in here, plus it doesn’t look like a slasher movie is being filmed in here,” she laughs.
But E. Shaver is more than just a clean, well-lighted place to buy books; it’s a destination for the city’s reading community. A total of four (!) well-attended book clubs catering to various tastes including YA and graphic novels meet regularly amongst the nooks and crannies. Readings and events are attracting larger audiences, though some folks just drop by to rub the chins of the shop’s two resident cats, the regal Mr. Eliot (after T.S., natch) and Bartleby, a lazy orange lump named for Melville’s scrivener.
Osborne welcomes them all, delighted that the store remains a respite as the atmosphere stays bustling. Surrounded by her predecessor’s cozy aesthetic and the publishing world’s latest and greatest, the heir to Esther Shaver’s legacy is planning for an epic reign.
“This is it, I’ll be here for at least 17 to 20 years,” she says. “I figure the cats and I will retire at the same time.” —Jessica Leigh Lebos
Runner-up: The Book Lady