Chop Suey Books, the Carytown bookstore that has been written about by The New York Times and ranked the best bookstore in the state, is being sold by owner Ward Tefft. Tefft has owned the store for nearly 20 years.
“The new owners, Berkley and Chris McDaniel, are longtime customers who have been in the Richmond area since the ’80s, and we are all really excited about the new chapter for the store,” Tefft said.
The sale is expected to be completed by the end of this week. Terms of the sale were not disclosed.
The sale includes all the intellectual property and assets affiliated with Chop Suey Books, including its Instagram account and the beloved bookstore cat WonTon.
WonTon, a resident of Chop Suey Books since 2008, can be spotted around the book shop and in the bright murals that adorn its walls.
“Ward and his employees have created such a lovely space and community, we want to keep it like that and grow it,” Berkley McDaniel said. “We want to make as few changes as possible and keep the same vibe and the same kind of books.”
The only big change they’re planning is implementing a new inventory system, which the store doesn’t currently have.
The original Chop Suey Books opened in 2002 on West Cary Street near the Virginia Commonwealth University campus, in a building that used to house George’s Chop Suey restaurant, which inspired the name.
Originally from Maryland, Tefft attended VCU for English before moving to New York, where he attended graduate school and then worked in bookstores in Manhattan.
In 2001, he moved back to Richmond with a truck of 3,000 to 4,000 books he’d collected and the idea of opening his own bookshop. Chop Suey Books started as a shop selling new and used books near VCU and quickly became known as a literary hub for Richmond with a series of readings and literary events.
In 2006, Tefft opened a second Chop Suey Books in Carytown at 2913 W. Cary St. across from the Byrd Theatre. He maintained both before closing the first to focus on the Carytown location.
Over the years, Chop Suey Books maintained its reputation as a quirky and cool independent bookstore with a wide variety of books and a highly curated youth section. Chop Suey was a popular stop for authors on their book tours pre-pandemic and even made an appearance in a novel by New Yorker writer Gary Shteyngart.
“In his book ‘Lake Success,’ there was a scene of people making out in the upstairs space. That’s a true story. We’d come across that all the time,” Tefft said.
Chop Suey was named the best bookstore in Virginia in 2019 by MentalFloss and profiled in the New York Times that same year as “A Southern Bookstore Serving Up a Little Bit of Everything.”
But the pandemic has been challenging, Tefft said. The shop closed in March 2020 and didn’t reopen until October. When it reopened, it was appointment-only for safety reasons.
“With COVID, I had to work more, and it was like paying to go to work. I’m burned out. I got halfway through the pandemic and said, ‘I think I’m ready.’ I have a 4-year-old. I want to spend time with him,” Tefft said.
Tefft quietly began looking for new owners. After Christmas, he worried about the high transmission rate and closed the shop again until April. In July, the floors had to be redone, and the shop closed again.
“We just reopened about two weeks ago. We’re running on limited hours. But it’s awesome to be back, to see regulars and say goodbye and slowly let people know,” Tefft said.
McDaniel, the new owner, said that he’s always wanted to own a bookstore. He grew up in Richmond and graduated from Highland Springs High School. Although he spent the past 20 years in wireless technology, McDaniel retired a few years ago and has spent his time working and volunteering at the Fountain Bookstore in Shockoe Slip.
Now 51, he was ready for a new chapter along with his wife, Chris, who studied English literature at the University of Virginia and currently works in information technology.
Gift certificates and store credit will still be valid under the new owners. The Brew Ho Ho, an annual event featuring local authors who have published books over the past year, is planned at Hardywood Park Craft Brewery on Dec. 5.
As for the future, Tefft said he has a “few books in the hopper” with his imprint, Chop Suey Books Books, although he said he will have to change the name. In the past, he has published “Murals of Richmond” and “River City Secrets: Stories From Richmond” under the imprint.
“I spent half my life in books. It’s a strange thing to walk away from. It’s almost like being an empty-nester,” Tefft said. But he’s looking forward to handing over the keys to McDaniel later this week.
“It was really important to me that Chop Suey stayed in Richmond. I didn’t want it to close,” Tefft added.