Book lover spurs revitalization of picturesque Ohio town

Storefronts overlooking the Maumee River in Grand Rapids, Ohio. Image by J.D. Zollars. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license.

Storefronts overlooking the Maumee River in Grand Rapids, Ohio. Image by J.D. Zollars. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license.

GRAND RAPIDS, Ohio (AP) – Just before the turn of the 20th century, Azor Thurston opened a pharmacy in a distinctive Romanesque-style building. It was there he sold his Thurston’s Pills, a concoction supposedly designed to rejuvenate the patient. They cost 25 cents a bottle.

“It’s not clear to me what was in it, except that it was like a purge. It gave you energy and cleaned you out,” said Dorinda Shelley, a retired dermatologist who lives just east of town. “It was probably just herbs and stuff, but it made him pretty famous.”

Thurston died in 1922, and like most quirky tonics from the late 1800s, his pills fell from favor. But there’s a new promise of rejuvenation in Grand Rapids, this time an attempt to restore vitality and vigor to one of the most picturesque towns on the Maumee River.

Over the last two years, Dr. Shelley has purchased or rented six buildings on Front Street, the town’s main drag. Among them is the 115-year-old Thurston Building, which reopened in March as Antiques on Front.

“This is what this kind of town needed,” said Stephen Tolson, an art and antiques dealer who recently opened his own shop in Grand Rapids. “I don’t know if she considers herself a developer or not, but in my mind she developed this town.”

Dr. Shelley also has a general interest bookstore, a children’s bookstore, and a second antiques store paired with an art gallery up and running.

A history-themed bookstore, called the Happy Historian, is expected to open this month, and a record shop may come later. She also hopes to start a literacy center.

On a recent sunny day, workers were painting trim outside Antiques on Front in preparation of a small expansion. As she passed, Dr. Shelley, 71, said hello and recounted a news story she recently heard about a town in which one shopkeeper painting his storefront inspired an army of volunteers to spruce up the entire village.

“If we could do that here and get flowers, it would be cool. It really would be a destination town worth coming to,” she said. “I think a year from now there’ll be a big difference.”

Dr. Shelley’s excitement for Grand Rapids may only be exceeded by the unusual path she took to becoming a business owner.

She and her husband and fellow dermatologist Dr. Walter B. Shelley moved to northwest Ohio in 1983. The pair worked together for 14 years before retiring from their posts in 1997 to write and continue raising their family.

They were serious bibliophiles, building a book collection that nearly overtook their home. At every book sale and in every bookstore, they could find something interesting.

“My husband pointed out to me, you don’t have to read a book from cover to cover,” Dr. Shelley said. “If you just get one fact out of a book, it makes it worthwhile.”

When her husband died in 2009, they had thousands of volumes. Though work and raising children had largely kept Dr. Shelley out of Grand Rapids, her book collection drew her in. She sought the advice of Dave LaRoe, a longtime restaurateur in Grand Rapids, who told her he thought the town could support a bookstore.

In early 2011, Dr. Shelley bought a gift-shop business that was up for sale and started renovating the building. She refinished the original hardwood floors, put in white bookshelves six levels high, and decorated the space with animals and paintings of old scenes in Grand Rapids. It’s comfortable, bright, and a bit eclectic – a green-and-yellow tiger statue stout enough for a rider stands prominently in the center of the room.

The store, called Library House Books and Art, is also open and airy. Dr. Shelley shudders at the mausoleum feel many bookshops take on with their narrow aisles and ceiling-high shelves.

“They kind of close in on you,” she said. “I wanted a nice place with the idea that maybe people could be persuaded that yeah, books are kind of cool.”

Library House Books and Art opened last September. Two months later, Tolson opened his store, Muddy River Fine Art and Antiques, directly across the street.

Previously all sales were done out of his home. He’d come to know Dr. Shelley from estate sales and auctions, and it was her bookshop that gave him the push to open his own gallery.

“I’ve been looking at this town for a little while. Honestly, the main reason was Dr. Shelley,” he said. “She came in, started buying buildings, and starting filling them up.”

The majority of his sales still are made online, but he’s pleased with his 1,000-square-foot shop – and with the prospects of Grand Rapids.

“It’s a nice town, and it’s starting to get built up. We’re seeing a lot of foot traffic moving in now. When we first started it was another story,” he said.

Like the river that borders it, the health of Grand Rapids ebbs and flows. Sometimes the economy is strong, sometimes it sputters.

But in the past few years, the village lost more than it gained, including its grocery store, hardware, and pharmacy – the latter of which had operated out of Thurston’s building for more than 100 years. They were replaced by craft stores, gift shops, or in many cases, nothing.

“Last year there was like seven, eight, nine empty store fronts,” said Don Williams, who along with his wife, Teresa Marie, operates the Housley House Bed and Breakfast in Grand Rapids.

Two weeks ago, the couple opened a restaurant called Miss Lily’s on Front Street where the grocery used to be. They serve breakfast, lunch and made-from-scratch pies.

“The economy’s starting to come back, there’s more storefronts open,” Williams said.

After 35 years in Grand Rapids running LaRoe’s Restaurant, LaRoe has seen plenty of change. Three of the four gas stations that were here when he started are gone, and he’s not shy about his frustrations over a national drug-store chain buying the pharmacy to close it. But he sees the village moving in the right direction, especially with its embracing of the river.

Just as blight can be contagious, so can beautification.

When LaRoe planted a perennial garden behind his restaurant, other store owners followed suit.

Now there are flower beds up and down the alley that separates the town from the riverside park. He sees the same effect in what Dr. Shelley is doing.

But no developer can bring the town what nature provided.

“People sit back on our patio, and they say they feel like they’re on vacation when they have lunch,” he said. “It’s all because of the beauty of it. We’re going to go through ups and downs, but I don’t think we’re ever going to stay down with the natural beauty of that river and setting.”

That setting inherently leads to a tourist town, but LaRoe hopes someday a pharmacy or hardware will come back. For potential businessmen, seeing a thriving downtown void of boarded up windows and crumbling buildings has to help, he said.

Though Dr. Shelley may not have started her great experiment out of much more than a passion for books and a good opportunity, much of what she’s doing now is because she wants to revive the town. Plus, she’s having fun.

“What I’m finding is I like to get things started,” she said. “If I can help people live their dreams that’s great, plus we’re employing a lot of people.”

She’s created about 15 jobs, and hopes a few more are to come.

Already, Dr. Shelley said she’s noticing more people in town. She figures the shops will start turning a profit in a couple of years and hopes eventually to find new people to take over everything but the book shops. But she quickly adds she’s not going to desert anything.

“I know she has a lot of passion to give,” Mrs. Williams said. “She just wants to bring life back to Grand Rapids any way she can.”

Copyright 2012 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

AP-WF-09-15-12 1551GMT


Storefronts overlooking the Maumee River in Grand Rapids, Ohio. Image by J.D. Zollars. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license.

Storefronts overlooking the Maumee River in Grand Rapids, Ohio. Image by J.D. Zollars. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license.