BUCKHANNON – Fans of fiction and residents wowed by the written word now have a golden opportunity to purchase their next new read locally, thanks to the founding of an online bookstore owned and operated entirely by two of Upshur County’s own.
In May, Buckhannon residents Ethan Butler and Justin Dynes unveiled their vision for Gaslight Books, an online bookseller with the eventual goal of opening a combined brick-and-mortar bookstore and loose-leaf tea shop. They hope Gaslight Books will one day blossom into a welcoming community space in the heart of downtown Buckhannon.
In fact, purchasing your next page-turner through Gaslight Books’s online bookstore and audiobook store will aid them in realizing their immediate goal – raising enough money to open a storefront, preferably on Main Street.
After all, Gaslight Books might be a small, internet-based business, but it’s also a larger vision, as Dynes and Butler recently explained.
“This is a business, but this is more of us wanting to create a space that’s for community – a community hub,” Dynes said. “We want it to be a space where we can have poetry readings or have authors come in or host game nights or just a space where people can come in and think, ‘I’m welcome here, and this is a place where I can do what I need to do.’”
Butler, who has worked for Orion Strategies on web design, videography and more since graduating from West Virginia Wesleyan College eight years ago, designed Gaslight Books’s online site from the ground up. He’s a perpetual list-maker, a detailed-oriented planner and a proponent of mapping everything out in Excel spreadsheets.
He pulls up Gaslight Books’s mission statement and reads it aloud: “Our mission is to cultivate our community by providing our customers with new books and idea, quality tea and a welcoming space for social growth and education.”
Dynes, a former elementary school teacher, is an extrovert who genuinely enjoys conversing with anyone who wanders into his current workplace, Stone Tower Brews, for a cup of a coffee or a carefully crafted latte. He’s always wanted to work with young people and do his part to improve youth literacy. Interacting with kids was his favorite part of his former job, and now he sees Gaslight Books as a medium through which to continue that vocation via youth programming.
“Working with the kids – that was my favorite part of the job,” he said. “They’re so much fun, but I wanted to work with kids in a different aspect.”
Butler, a self-described introvert, and Dynes, an eager conversationalist, both attended West Virginia Wesleyan but were separated by several years. They really got to know one another and forged a friendship through church and game nights at the home of Butler, and his wife, Ashley.
“I’ve always kind of been a business boy at heart,” Butler said. “I’ve done some tabletop game design and photography and other things in the past, but I’ve always been curious about starting up a retail business, and if I did that, I knew that books were what I would want to sell. So, we just kind of started talking about it and turned it into a real thing.”
Even prior to the pandemic, Butler had been drafting a list of books that spanned a slew of genres and working on a business plan, Dynes said.
“He brought [the idea of Gaslight Books] to me over the pandemic, and he’s like, ‘What do you think of this?’ and I said, ‘Yeah,’” Dynes recalled. “And then he’s like, ‘Look at this spreadsheet I have,’ and he sends me this huge document, and I said, ‘Yes. Yes.’”
On their website, Butler and Dynes describe their rotating collection of books – which will vary from 600 up to 3,000 – as carefully “curated,” meaning one goal is to allow their personal tastes and literacy preferences to shine through.
“It’s about allowing our individual taste to show through, and the reason ‘curated’ is a buzzword with independent bookstores now is none of them can compete with the selection you can find on Amazon,” Butler said. “So, instead of having a huge selection, you have a smaller collection of items that are important to us as well as some books you might not have heard of before that you wouldn’t stumble upon while browsing Amazon. But they’re something that we found that we really liked – something that we think other people should find, too.”
They chose to serve loose-leaf tea because hot drinks and books pair well, and they wanted another avenue through which to attract customers without competing with any local coffee shops.
“We wanted to do hot drinks because I think a bookstore needs to have some sort of café – another thing to drive business,” Butler said. “A bookstore on its own will drive business, but you’ll get more people if you have a little something else right there.”
Both owners have been avid readers for some time now – Butler as long as he can remember and Dynes since his 11th-grade English teacher, Mrs. Martin, assigned his class to read the French adventure novel, “The Count of Monte Cristo.”
“She gave us that book and I was thinking, ‘Are you kidding me? This thing is so big,’ but I got about a quarter of the way through it, and I was hooked,” Dynes said, “and then I just started reading a lot after that – Lee Child books, the Jack Reacher series, really caught my eye when I was in high school.”
After college, when he first moved to Buckhannon, Dynes, whose favorite genre is historical fiction, would read in Stone Tower for hours at a time.
“I would just sit down in the shop, and I would just read all day long,” he said. “It’s kind of an escape. I’ve dealt with a lot of anxiety and just sometimes all I need is to open a book and get away from all my anxious thoughts, you know? I like how it really gives you that deeper dive that you can’t get from watching something on TV.”
Butler says fantasy is probably his favorite overall genre, but he also likes nonfiction and history books a lot, too. He counts on reading as a sure-fire method for recharging and uses it to cope with anxiety, too.
“I have room for a bookshelf and an old chair where I can sit down and actually read and relax,” he said. “I’m an introverted person so I enjoy being around people, but I also need some time to myself to recharge and that’s what reading does for me. I love storytelling, I love stories, and I love learning new things.”
“One of my favorite things about books is you can really understand the characters more than you could in a movie or a TV show,” Butler added. “You can really get inside of their heads, and that’s a big part of it for me.”
If you want to support the mission of Gaslight Books – named for a gaslight in Butlers’ parents’ front yard that he could see from his bedroom when growing up – the best way to do that is participate in the Gaslight Books online book club, which kicked off June 1. “Daisy Jones and the Six” by Taylor Jenkins Reid is the first featured pick from the historical fiction genre.
The two said the club is an open forum, and Dynes, who moderates, will every month share an introduction and pose several questions to get the conversation going.
“If people want to get involved, that’s the best way to do it,” Butler said. “They can get online, meet new people, talk about books and support us at the same time.”
Gaslight Books is able to order selections they might not have in their collection, and they’re able to place orders in bulk for educators and other institutions like libraries, Dynes emphasized.
You can browse their selection now through their online store hosted by Bookshop.org, an online bookseller whose mission is to provide financial support and stability for local, independent bookstores. However, if audiobooks are more up your alley, Gaslight Books also sells those through a partnership with Libro.fm, a small-business-friendly alternative to Amazon’s Audible that splits any profit from purchases with local bookstores who utilize its platform.