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Announcing Our Summer Partner Bookseller: Browseabout Books, Rehoboth Beach
by Ann Kjellberg, editor
Image of Browseabout Books by Susan Thornburg featured on a bookstore puzzle.
In 1975 Steve and Barbara Crane, who were teachers in Wilmington, Delaware, started a summertime bookstore in the vacation town of Rehoboth Beach. Rehoboth was founded in 1873 as a site for Methodist camp meetings. Its mile-long boardwalk is among the classics of the form, built around the time of the first American boardwalks in Atlantic City and Virginia Beach. The current site of the shop they founded, on Rehoboth Avenue, was on the route of the first train that brought vacationers seeking relief from summer heat to Rehoboth from Pennsylviania and northern Delaware. When the shop moved from the first block off the boardwalk to the second, where it now occupies what used to be a small open-air mall, “People said, ‘You’re never going to make it down there,’” Steve recalled. ‘Nobody is going to walk off that first block.’” They were wrong.
A paved highway in 1925 started bringing travelers from Baltimore and Washington, DC. Rehoboth Beach still only occupies one square mile up along the beach, mostly made up of 100 x 50-foot lots meant for the town’s traditionally modest beach cottages, shaded, unusually for a beach town, by trees. It has a permanent population of only 1,392—which expands to 25,000 in season (or 150,000?).
The Crane’s store was originally a single storefront, with no phone or heat, selling only paperbacks. Steve, whose father and grandfather had worked at Woolworth’s and who began helping out in the Dover, Delaware, Woolworth’s basement when he was five, was looking for way to help support his parents, who had moved to Rehoboth when his father, who had developed health problems, took a job as a manager at the boardwalk five and dime. Barbara had always wanted to run a bookstore. “Nobody loves books more than my wife,” Steve told Delaware Online. “Nobody likes to read or just touch books, smell them and feel them, look at pictures, everything." In the early years Steve would work all day, they would swap the kids at 4:30, and Barbara would stay for as long as people were out on the boardwalk. In their many interviews in the local paper, particularly with the gregarious Steve, who would hang out with regulars by the store’s coffee pot, or grill local chicken and pass out strawberries and watermelon, they emphasize hard work, “staying under the radar,” and keeping it simple: “be friendly; be welcoming; entertain people; and be open,” as the keys to the store’s longevity.
When Steve and Barbara fully retired themselves in 2020, they sold the business to veteran staffer and managing partner Susan Kehoe, who had come on board sixteen years before as a regional publishers’ sales rep who’d become enchanted by the store on her rounds. Although Susan had come to Browseabout with the idea she would someday take over, she blanched at the challenge (in the midst of a pandemic!), and yet she could not let such a special thing disappear. The efforts of Susan and her team helped make Browseabout (named after a pair of Steve’s mother’s shoes) one of the most substantial independent bookstores of the mid-Atlantic, among a very few businesses to have lasted across the decades on Rehoboth Beach and maintained a year-round presence (open every day but Christmas and Thanksgiving). Their tenacity helped to make the sprawling “emporium of good times,” as Steve dubbed it, a thriving modern business, continuing to serve generations of beach-goers in the old-world spirit of its origins. Susan describes coming upon a customer gazing about one recent rainy day, when the store was filled with vacationers taking refuge, and asking him if he was looking for anything, to which he answered, “No, this place is just magical.”
I’ve written a few times about how vacation towns offer special powers to bookselling (see our posts on past partners Gibson’s in New Hampshire and Print in Maine). Readers are ready to take it easy and be adventurous; proprietors often have a more-than-usual affection for the place. Also the publishing industry is keenly focus on juicing vacation reading. Now such places are often wrestling with the social changes of remote work, even as they benefit from a new recognition for the value of community businesses brought on by the pandemic.
That Browseabout stayed open year-round fueled an important dynamic, one that often emerges in the bookstores of vacation towns. The store certainly thrives on the infusion of sales and clientele from tourism, but it is fundamentally a creature of its local community, and creates a vital nexus between the two. Browseabout began with one or two local authors, now it has several shelves. The local writers’ guild started out at Browseabout and outgrew it. (Member Thomas Hoyer called Browseabout “the intellectual pulse of Rehoboth.”) It has donation drives for a bookmobile that gives away books in high-need neighborhoods and stocks a little laundromat library. (The Outer Banks bookstore Island opened a branch in Kitty Hawk with the specific goal of serving year-round residents. They told the ABA’s Bookweb, “We are, essentially, a mom-and-pop community that supports one another. The goal is to maintain that sense of community. We are hoping to become a true locals' destination, and to encourage reading as well.” Browseabout and Island both express a strong commitment to personalized bookselling and interacting with customers as fundamental to their business.)
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In 2021 novelist Ethan Joella wrote for LitHub about the importance of Browseabout Books in his life. His parents bought a little beach house in Rehoboth when he was six years old, in 1983.
In the winter, my two brothers and sister and I would have to wait hours for the heat to come on, the baseboards slowly clicking to life. … We rode our bikes everywhere. We bought T-shirts and ate caramel corn and played Q*bert and Donkey Kong at the arcade. We sat at Grotto Pizza with a pitcher of birch beer and a steaming large pie, and at night we would shake Yahtzee dice and rent VHS movies like Dirty Dancing or The Money Pit from a pop-up place in town.
Browseabout books was a “constant that always awaited us.”
We were a nerdy and not very athletic family, so we went to Browseabout more than we went to the beach or the playground. The store always felt happy inside, with its bright lights, colorful signs, big displays with the newest books. If we finished the book we selected, our parents would take us back to the store for another.
They were not rich, and had few toys in their Rehoboth house, but their parents did not stint on books. As he grew, and went from reading Ramona the Pest to White Noise, and developed an aspiration to be a writer,
Browseabout grew and changed but never lost its original charm. From the old men buying their newspapers there and conversing by the front benches every morning, to the big green awning that welcomed you to a book signing, it was an authentic, important place … They were the heart of our town; firmly planted, always active, sweeping the snow off the sidewalk, calling customers by name.
Ethan brought his own kids to Browseabout, “they saved their green Browseabout bookmarks the way I used to do,” and eventually he had readings there for his own books and saw at first his small-press chapbook among the local authors and then his novel from Scribner on a front table. Steve has said, “The people who visit here are coming from Washington, Philadelphia and Baltimore—they’ve lost what we have here.” Reflecting on their long run, Barbara said, “I hope that Browseabout is always here.”
In a way, a bookstore is like a vacation town, a place to step away, to be freshly yourself, to find congenial company and to be alone, to make discoveries and to be at ease. Browseabout has had a sign: Read, Relax, Rehoboth. The door to what Steve and Barbara and Susan and others created in Browseabout Books is as open for the kid who picks up a book in the laundromat as for the president and his family. We talk about a bookstore “creating a space” for books and sharing ideas, for people and thoughts who might otherwise not connect to connect, but sometimes we don’t recognize that when space itself is fungible, it is easy, without the vision and perseverance of one or two or three people, for the spaces sheltering the things we care about most to collapse.
A bookstore comes into being because specific individual people are committed to it, and are also committed to the reality of their town; they sell books to those people; they also know in what ways those people might be ready to grow. Way back in 2014, Rehoboth’s school board withdrew a book that had lesbian characters from the high school’s summer reading list. Browseabout found out about it and raised money to offer the book for free to any teenager who asked for it; among the contributors were school board members and local teachers. A former student spoke to the blog After Ellen about her own experience being bullied at the school and how the book might have helped her; one teen who got the book from Browseabout said it had “changed her life. ‘The book made her feel less alone, and her only wish was that she had read it sooner,’” the store’s managers told ABA’s Bookweb. The managers told Bookweb that the store “strives not to alienate any customers, but they are committed to providing a wide range of reading options.” “Honestly, we have been shocked at the response to this entire situation. It never even occurred to us that we were doing anything out of the ordinary,” they said of the wave of publicity greeting their gesture, adding, “We are extremely proud (but not surprised) that our customers have supported us 100 percent.” The president of the ABA’s Fund for Free Expression congratulated them, said what they did took guts, and noted that when a bookstore takes a stand a community can follow.
We are proud and grateful to announce that Browseabout Books is our Summer Bookselling Partner. Book Post links to independent bookstores in order to advocate for their work and share the news of book cultures across the land.
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Wall of annual bestsellers, Browseabout Books, Rehoboth Beach
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