Book Bin Celebrates 40th Anniversary; Open House Saturday, Dec. 5

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Three sets of owners of the Book Bin in Onley pose in this undated photograph. From left, E. A. McMath, Susan Tyler, Mary Smolinski, and Philip Wilson. The store is celebrating its 40th year in business. Submitted photo.

By Carol Vaughn —

The Book Bin in Onley is celebrating its 40th year in business.
The store’s annual open house Saturday, Dec. 5, this year will double as a 40th anniversary celebration.
Philip Wilson, a retired professor, is the third owner of the independent bookstore, which he purchased in January 2016 from Susan Tyler and Mary Smolinski.
The store was founded by E. A. McMath and Joanna Snyder. It opened its doors in October 1980 in Four Corner Plaza, where it remains today.
McMath and Snyder, who at the time was Broadwater Academy’s librarian, started out working together on Broadwater’s annual book fairs.
Snyder died in 2012.
They would travel to Charlottesville to pick out books for the fairs from the bookstore Snyder’s uncle owned there.
Soon, the idea of opening a bookstore together blossomed.
McMath’s husband, George, was somewhat skeptical of the venture’s success, according to E. A., but his newspaper office in Four Corner Plaza had some extra space, which he offered for the new business.
In 1980 on the Eastern Shore, women-owned businesses were still somewhat of a rarity, E. A. McMath noted in an interview about the upcoming anniversary.
The pair started out with wholesale bookseller Ingram’s inventory prepared especially for opening bookstores.
“The challenge was convincing people that you could buy a book here — it would be just fine,” McMath said.
Customers soon became comfortable with the idea and returned frequently.
People who had moved to the Shore from elsewhere especially like having a local bookstore, according to McMath.
“They were the first people who started coming,” she said.
At some point, the owners added other items, including toys and greeting cards, to their inventory, traveling to trade shows in New York City and other cities to pick out books and toys for the shop.
“Joanna’s forte really was children’s books — she liked picking them out and she was really good at it,” McMath said. McMath took care of the adult book selections.
They also carried books by local authors — which the Book Bin continues to do.
“One of the first was Arthur King Fisher,” McMath said.
Early employees including Anne Nock, Shannon Gordon, and Dawn Byrd, among many others, helped make the business successful.
“We used to take Dawn with us to every show we went to,” McMath said.
Among the changes they experienced over the years was a transition to using computers, something Snyder was against. McMath pushed to take the leap, which they eventually did.
The two women owned the store 24 years, until 2004, when they sold it to employees Smolinski and Tyler.
“I was hoping we could have a 25-year celebration,” but Snyder’s health was failing by then, McMath said.
They did make a scrapbook at the 10-year mark, which Wilson still has in the store.
It includes photographs and newspaper clippings of memorable moments, such as doll and decoy appraisals, book signings, and the time a possum somehow got inside the store and hid out in the children’s section.
Smolinski and Tyler added a coffee bar, which proved popular and continues today with Wi-Fi and specialty coffee drinks.
A monthly book club, which still meets, was another addition during their tenure.
Wilson fulfilled a lifelong dream of owning a bookstore when he purchased the Book Bin after a 30-year career in college teaching and administration.
He had never visited the Eastern Shore of Virginia before he started exploring the possibility of purchasing the Book Bin.
Among standout events in his mind since owning the store are poetry nights, a Harry Potter and other themed trivia evenings, book signings, and annual celebrations of National Independent Bookstore Day and Banned Books Week.
Among longstanding traditions in the store is the wooden gingerbread house, which has been in the store from the beginning and where generations of children have come to play while their elders browse.
“Apart from the bookshelves, that’s the single longest-standing structure in here,” Wilson said.

The Gingerbread House has been a favorite of generations of children who visit the Book Bin in Onley. The store is celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2020. Carol Vaughn photo.

More recently, Wilson added artwork to the inventory, featuring mainly artists who do not show in other galleries.
“They are all local folks,” he said.
Reflecting his own professional background in science and history, Wilson said he has added to the nature books section and to the nonfiction offerings in general.
And, despite the digital revolution, the Book Bin still sells scores of greeting cards each week.
“I’m just thrilled that there are a lot of people out there still who write a card,” Wilson said.
Wilson echoed McMath’s sentiment that it is the employees who make the Book Bin special.
“It is the staff — they are the gold of this institution. It is their collective backgrounds and wisdom and insights that I lean on very heavily,” he said, adding, “…To build what this store is, the vision that people see — it’s the ideas of everyone who works here.”
The Book Bin’s annual open house and 40th anniversary celebration is Saturday, Dec. 5. There will be holiday drinks and treats, special sales, and author signings between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m.
Authors who will be available to sign their books include Devlin Barrett, author of “October Surprise”; Karen Foley, author of “Santa’s Sleigh is Stuck”; Karen Gravelle, author of “Dancing on Uncle Roy’s Grave”; and Metty Vargas Pellicer, author of “Invisible History.”
Additionally, Reader the Reindeer will be on hand.
The Book Bin is at 25304 Lankford Highway, Onley. Call 757-787-7866. Email bookbinva@gmail.com