Writers, partners and book-lovers Crystal Wilkinson and Ronald Davis struggled to run Wild Fig Books in the Meadowthorpe Shopping Center for nearly four years before they shut the doors for good in February.
“There was such an outpouring when we closed,” said Wilkinson, who also is Appalachian Writer in Residence at Berea College. “People were so upset.”
But those people were thrilled when they heard Wild Fig Books & Coffee was opening this week in a renovated turn-of-the-century cottage at 726 North Limestone.
Still, some friends wonder if Wilkinson and Davis have lost their minds. In a retail landscape dominated by Amazon.com, e-readers and chain stores, few business niches are tougher these days than the independent bookstore.
“We get these earnest looks,” Wilkinson said. “People cup our hands and say, ‘You are so brave!’ We just roll our eyes.”
Wilkinson and Davis hope things will be different this time, thanks to a new business format and location.
The first Wild Fig was a reincarnation of Morgan Adams Books, a used bookstore Mary Morgan ran for more than 20 years on Leestown Road. The couple bought her store in June 2011 as other shops and websites were becoming competitors. The big blow came when the chain Half-Price Books opened a second Lexington location.
The old Wild Fig had a stock of about 20,000 mostly used books, which it bought from customers. Davis said the new store, a much smaller space, will have maybe 4,000 books, most of them new literary titles.
The new store also will have a coffee bar run by their daughter, Delainia Wilkinson, who has worked four years for Pat Gerhard at Third Street Stuff & Coffee.
“We’re going to be a very niche market here,” Wilkinson said, more along the lines of the successful Morris Book Shop in Chevy Chase. “We’re going to have what I call a literary boutique — books, clothing items or bags that have literary themes. We’re not going to try to compete with the big-box stores.”
Davis said that while the Leestown Road location was convenient to their home in Meadowthorpe, many customers told them they lived in the redeveloping neighborhoods along North Limestone.
“So, after about three years of that, we said, apparently we need to be somewhere near Limestone,” he said.
Soon after the first Wild Fig closed, they began talking with entrepreneur and marketing executive Griffin VanMeter about an old house he had just bought to renovate and lease at the corner of North Limestone and Eddie Street.
The couple thinks the neighborhood is a good fit for their ambitions. For the past seven years, Al’s Bar down the street has been home to Holler Poets, a popular monthly series of readings organized by poet Eric Sutherland.
“There’s already sort of a literary community,” Wilkinson said. “So many of our art and literary friends are either over here or clamoring to get over here. There’s a happening.”
Wilkinson is already planning readings, literary classes and public discussions that could be held at various places in the neighborhood. “We know we won’t necessarily have the space, so we’ll have to collaborate, which is also exciting,” she said.
Davis just published a book of poetry and art, Caul & Response (Argus House Press, $18). Wilkinson is a widely published poet and short-story writer who was among the founders of the Affrilachian Poets group. In March, the University Press of Kentucky will publish her first novel, The Birds of Opulence.
One decision the couple faced when resurrecting Wild Fig was whether to change the name, which is taken from a 1983 poem, “Wild Figs and Secret Places,” by the reclusive Lexington writer Gayl Jones, one of Wilkinson’s favorites.
Because the old store and new one will be so different, they considered other names. Playing off the North Limestone area’s new moniker, NoLi, Davis suggested calling it NoLiBrary. But, after much debate, they stuck with Wild Fig.
“We’re artists who own a business, and we’re trying to figure out how to make that work,” Wilkinson said, noting that writers have a natural affection for bookstores. “We couldn’t imagine ourselves, as much as we like ice cream, having the same passion for owning an ice cream parlor or a tire-changing place or a laundromat, although we probably would make more money.”