Written by Laticia Headings | Photos by Shannon Ayres
Many readers are drawn to local bookstores for their nuanced charm and sense of community. Whether it’s scouting for the latest bestselling novel or searching through a treasure trove of literary gems, there’s the feeling that it’s a place about more than just books.
Owner Mary Beth Morell wanted visitors of all ages to not only have that feeling when they crossed the threshold of Middleburg Books; she wanted to magnify it. “There are many of these little touches we have layered on with pops of details that make it a magical place. We really want it to be a destination that people go out of their way to visit,” she says.
When Morell and co-owner Christina Duffy conceptualized the design of the bookstore, they took cues from many of their favorite books for everything from the constellation wallpaper on the ceiling to the statement bathroom. “The idea for our logo, the key, came from ‘The Secret Garden,’” says Morell.
“It’s a very enchanting environment. It almost feels like you should be searching for secret passageways,” says Middleburg local Linda Huntington, who attended the bookstore’s ribbon cutting ceremony on September 28.
During their opening weekend, a flood of locals and tourists stopped in to chat about staff picks and browse the carefully curated collections of books. “The choice of books is very diverse, [so] there’s something for everybody,” Huntington shares.
“The diversity of books is no accident,” Duffy explains. “Mary Beth and I wholeheartedly agree that it’s more important than ever that everyone has access to stories from all walks of life.”
The two women became fast friends when they met in 2019 while working at the Holy Trinity School library in Georgetown. “We share a lot of the same philosophies. We believe books are mirrors that help us see ourselves, that reflect back our own experiences. This is especially important for children,” says Duffy, who was the assistant librarian at the private elementary school.
Morell worked at Holy Trinity for 17 years, serving as both the head librarian and a technology teacher. “My primary goal was to create a culture of reading,” she says. “If a child doesn’t like to read, I firmly believe we haven’t found them the right book yet. It’s so rewarding when you have a reluctant reader come back and ask for another book.”
The idea for Middleburg Books was sparked last summer when Morell and her husband, Michael, were visiting Middleburg. “We were in the process of building a house here and came out for lunch. We saw that Second Chapter Books was for sale, and this light bulb went off,” Morell remembers. “It’s exactly what I was looking to do at this stage of my life.”
Morell proposed the idea of opening a bookstore to Duffy, who was immediately on board. “Books have always been a part of who I am and been such a priority to me. Anyone who knows me wasn’t shocked that I was opening a bookstore,” she says.
The former librarians did copious amounts of research and took a weekend “booksellers bootcamp” in Florida where they learned about the hard truths of owning a bookstore. “It gave us a reality check that there’s a lot more to running a bookstore than loving books! It’s actually quite a complicated business endeavor,” Morell says.
In 2021, Morell started an online bookstore called Lion and Dragonfly that she ran for two years. “It was a great experience. I took the skills I learned from that and applied them to this,” she says.
With the support of their husbands and families, they started to scout for a brick-and-mortar location in town.
Both Morell and Duffy have been avid readers and lovers of books from a very young age. “I really approach the world through stories. Books were always a way for me to connect with people,” says Morell. “You grow to love people that are completely different than you and see the world through their eyes by reading.”
As a child, Morell and her family moved frequently for her father’s job with Ford Motor Company, including a four-year relocation to Brazil when she was 10. No matter where they were, a constant in her life was going to the library with her mother and brother. “I discovered all of these British books in Brazil and read them all. We ran out of books so my brother and I would read encyclopedias!” she laughs.
Duffy’s family also moved a lot when she was young. “My dad was in the military, so books became a friend and escape for me, especially when transitioning.” She credits her father for her love of reading. “If we got good grades, my parents would take us to the bookstore as a reward,” says Duffy.
During her fourth grade year, Duffy had a difficult transition to a new school. She bonded with the school librarian, who recognized she was struggling. “I was happy to be a library aid during recess. She provided a safe space for me, and the library was my happy place,” Duffy shares. “Because of my experience in the library as a kid, being a librarian [at Trinity] was a full circle moment. I loved it and it was easy to identify kids like me who I could see needed help.”
Both women are mothers — Duffy has a 9-year-old daughter and Morell has three grown children — so creating a distinctive children’s space in the bookstore was a priority. “I love reading kids’ books as much as I love reading adult books,” Morell notes.
The business partners and their design team, led by Gretchen Yahn of Castlerock Enterprises, Inc., had the goal of creating a store with a sophisticated, yet welcoming, atmosphere. “Words cannot describe my gratitude for what they have done to take my vision and turn it into this jewel box of space,” says Morell.
There were several unforeseen challenges while renovating 17 South Madison Street, a historic building dating back to the 1750s. Over 2,000 pounds of bricks had to be taken out of a crumbling chimney when it was opened, causing a two-week delay. “It was literally raining dust from the bricks,” Morell laughs. “We have a saying that two things happen in life — good things and good stories. This is [one] hundred percent a good story!”
The bookstore owners plan to have special events with schools and other local businesses. Duffy says, “It’s so impressive how the community is connected. We are so grateful to be part of that and work with other owners who are already established.”
With plans for book clubs, author talks, and cookbook potlucks, Morell and Duffy are keen to foster their love of books while building a bridge to the community. “I want Middleburg Books to be the key to community reading and a place where people love to come and gather,” Morell says.
“It’s not just a bookstore, it’s not just a business,” explains Duffy. “We want it to be a place where people feel welcome, where everyone feels included and seen.” ML
Published in the November 2023 issue of Middleburg Life.