University City has been criticized for lack of bookstores, particularly any bookstore worthy of a college community. Fortunately, things are looking up at bit.
The Last Word, a quirky, colorful, family-owned used bookstore is thriving, just a stone’s throw from the UNC Charlotte campus.
Located near the Walgreen’s in a shopping mall at the corner of Tryon and W.T. Harris Boulevard, The Last Word boasts a respectable assortment of titles and genres.
Liz Pope, the store’s manager, owner, and chief executive mom (sons Marshall and Matthew are her business partners), said customers drive all the way from South Carolina to prowl the shelves.
A compact, energetic woman sporting red-blond dreds, Pope is a transplanted New Yorker from Long Island who has lived in the Southeast for decades, long enough to soften the sharp edges of her Yankee accent.
After working in a bookstore in Winston-Salem and seeing the opportunity in University City, she opened The Last Word in late 2011. Her sons live in Charlotte, but she commutes from her rural home north of the city, where she raises a few chickens and goats for fun.
Her passion for The Last Word is obvious and infectious.
“We’re selling the right kinds of things for people,” she said. “I feel like this store does good. We serve a really good purpose by giving good stuff a new home. There’s already too much stuff in the world!”
Besides books, The Last Word sells video games (and even some game consoles), music CDs and vinyl records, and it has a very popular movie section.
One thing I have never seen before in a bookstore is The Last Word’s collection of discs and equipment for disc golf. Pope thinks it makes sense, given the excellent disc golf opportunities in the Charlotte region.
“We’re always evolving,” Pope said.
Leading a whirlwind tour around her store just before closing time, Pope proudly pointed out such innovations as brightly painted shelves, color-coded by section (fiction is red, children’s books yellow, and so on), and an espresso bar dubbed The Coffee Press.
She stops frequently to help customers answer questions, find books or simply discuss their latest bright idea.
Pope’s vision, however, expands far beyond used books and media. She wants The Last Word to become a community gathering place where everyone feels welcome.
“At least half our customers are regulars.” Pope said. “Nobody feels weird here.”
The clientele ranges widely in age. The children’s section – complete with a puppet stage open for free improv – is so popular that children ask to come here when Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools are out for holidays and summer vacation, Pope said. A few feet away is a section of large-print books, sought by senior adults and others with vision challenges.
Comfy old couches and chairs, game tables and local art on the walls give The Last Word a relaxed vibe, reminiscent of a old-fashioned college common room. And you find clever “bridges” to bring people together.
Beside The Coffee Press counter, for instance, a big blank flip chart displays the prompt “ ‘Three’ Name Rock Bands” at the top. Three people, two 20-somethings and a 60-something gather around, markers in hand. They make a good team, covering a half-century of rock ’n’ roll. First name on the list? Three Dog Night – of course.
In the evening, the store’s back section regularly transforms into another world as aficionados come to the store to play Magic, The Gathering. This popular fantasy card and strategy game has millions of players around the world and was featured on an episode of the TV show “The Big Bang Theory.” The store has a full selection of MTG cards and other game-related items.
Pope said she wants to ensure that local artists, writers and musicians have a place in The Last Word. A special section features books by local artists, the store sells professionally made CDs from local bands, and the bookshop’s walls serve as a gallery for local artists. Pope has hosted poetry readings and concerts by acoustic groups.
The store also works with local high school students and nonprofits on such efforts as food security drives, Habitat for Humanity houses and pet rescues.
The Last Word has an unusual relationship with customers. The books, CDs and media that people bring to the store determine what ends up on the shelves. Pope sets high standards and sticks to them. An intimidatingly long list of conditions for selling books hangs beside the buy-back window.
“We are not a pawn shop,” Pope emphasized.
The Last Word gives a wide range of discounts to everyone from students with ID to those older than 60. Teachers and school librarians in particular can receive credit for book and media donations in their name, so their classes or schools can obtain discounted books off the shelves. Pope encourages exchange credit instead of cash. (It is always a better deal in terms of what you get, she said.)
In a quietly subversive way, an exchange such as The Last Word changes our relationship to books and other possessions. By passing along our old books and media, along with the ideas and stories they bear, we create a vital river flowing through our lives, not “stuff” that eddies into depressing swamps of old cardboard boxes moldering in the shed.
Though passionate about avoiding “too much stuff,” Pope is more down to earth about her family’s small business. As the store’s website puts it:
“Because we stock our shelves daily, you’ll find something different on every visit. … Whether you are looking for a favorite classic movie, a store that your kids will enjoy visiting, a place to have a cup of coffee while you read that newly purchased treasured book, or just love the thrill of the hunt, you can do all that and more at The Last Word...”