WILMINGTON — Catastrophe caused Gwenyfar Rohler to move her business in 2010, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
In 2010, Old Books on Front Street was forced to move from its home of 28 years by what housing inspectors called “Catastrophic Building Failure.” Rohler’s new location came with an upstairs loft apartment. At first she barely had time to manage the new location’s downstairs; still, she had plans for the upstairs.
“It was totally consuming, keeping the bookstore running after the move. But I knew we wanted to do something with the upstairs. Something different, a really curated experience. We did a little here, a little there. Every time we could eek out $500, we’d do something,” she said.
Rohler’s goal was a loft apartment, decorated with – and dedicated to – North Carolina’s literary past and present. The theme is immediately recognizable from the stairs leading up to the apartment, bearing the names and works of Carolina authors.
“It took me a long time to paint it, without painting myself into a corner. But I also spent a long time thinking about which authors to feature,” she said. “As with the rest of the apartment, I tried for a good representation. Queer-identified writers, women writers, writers of color, Native American writers.”
Passing through the door to the apartment, the space is large and full of light. Stained glass windows allow light to pass from the large street-facing windows, through the bedroom and into the kitchen.
“The bedroom originally looked a little like a Cold War interrogation space,” Rohler said. “So a friend of mine suggested doing this to allow light to pass in here.”
The mural, by Wilmington artist Jill Webb, features a massive silhouette of North Carolina, dotted with the names of authors. Rohler said she is adding more all the time.
The bedroom and living room are both lined with books by North Carolina, all curated by Rohler. The range from the well-known – Orson Scott Card, Maya Angelou, Steve Martin and David Sedaris – to lesser known writers from the state’s long history.
The scope is wide, including Rohler’s favorites poets and local friends: everything from George Moses Horton – a slave who managed to publish his first book of poetry in 1828, four decades before being freed at the end of the Civil War – to Shawna Kenney – an author who wrote her memoir “I Was A Teenage Dominatrix” while earning her MFA at University of North Carolina Wilmington.
Rohler called the loft space The Top Shelf and began renting the apartment in October, unsure of what would happen.
“This has been a totally new experience, the hospitality industry, it is totally different than running a store. I had no idea what to expect. But everyone has been amazing.”
Rohler said the highest compliment she has received was when two of her employees at the downstairs bookstore booked the room for a night. She also said that having United States Marines officers – and their wives – stay with her during the Marine Ball downtown was a highlight.
“Being to give someone like that, who has really risked everything for the things we enjoy here, that was really something special,” she said.
Rohler has bigger plans on the horizon, as well. She plans on turning a family house on Market Street into a larger, more elaborate version of the Top Shelf apartment.
“I’ve negotiated a timeline with city to deal with the bed and breakfast license, and the goal is to really expand what we’ve done here,” she said.
Rohler described her plan:
“There’s a backyard on the property, so we’re going to do a Poet Laureate’s garden, with the names of poets and excerpts of their work. They’ll be a Maya Angelou room, and – a very different room – an Orson Scott Card room. And each room will have a typewriter and of course books. A lot of books.”
The Top Shelf is current available for online booking, with stays starting a $200 a night. The one bedroom, one bathroom apartment features a full sized Murphy bed and a fold-out couch, and can sleep five adults, or four adults and two children.
Rohler plans to keep the bookstore and the Top Shelf open. The bookstore was opened at its original in 1982 by Richard Daughtry. Rohler – who was two years old at the time – was one of the first customers, along with her family.
Two decades later, Daughtry sold the business to the Rohler family. (Daughtry still pays visits to the store to read to customers of all ages.) The store is now located at 249 N. Front St. between Chestnut and Grace.
Below: A unique feature, unlikely to be found in apartments anywhere else, is room-sized scrabble board including tiles and wooden holders.