(or: How to Own an Old Building)
Have you ever dreamed of opening a bookshop in a historic building? We have. When we launched Blackwater Press in 2020 in the digital world, we were also busily searching for a good historic property to go with it. We looked in cities, large and small, and didn’t find what we wanted. We looked in towns across the country and still couldn’t find a place. Finally, in the village-sized tiny city of Thomas, on the top of a beautiful mountain, above an idyllic flowing river, we found it: the perfect building. It was 110 years old, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, with hardwood floors and high ceilings and two bay windows, with exposed brick and lath and plaster walls. And to crown it all off: it was for sale!
Despite a raging pandemic, economic meltdowns, quarantines and lockdowns, we decided to buy our perfect building. The Schilansky Building was built around 1906 by Russian Jewish immigrants, who had headed to the booming railroad-and-coal town of Thomas, WV, hard by the banks of the Blackwater River. During the last century, the building has been everything from a general store to a saloon to an antique store. By summer 2021, it will the home of Blackwater Bookshop and Press.
At first, owning an old building seems easy. You get all the bills switched over, and then you’re ready to pick out paint colors, right? Wrong. First, you have to fix all the things that probably should have been fixed before purchase. The broken lock on the shop. The leaky toilet. The furnace on the fritz. Next, you have to start paying attention to boring things like drainage. The old apple tree (with wonderfully delicious apples) out back suddenly looks less picturesque when you’re shoveling rotted apples out of a storm drain after the first winter snow. Then, you have to figure out how to move furniture up a non-handicap-accessible 110-year-old staircase. You have to start shoveling all the snow in front of your building, not realising that a village-sized tiny city on a mountaintop in West Virginia gets so much more snow than you’re used to. (You also discover that your dog loves loves loves the snow)
But none of this prepares you for discovering the (cue gasp) Hole in the Floor of your beloved new building. The Hole in the Floor is the real adventure.
One day, you’re minding your own business, removing old shelving that you no longer need, when you notice that the hardwood floors seem a bit squishy. You squat down to investigate, and find that the floorboard is actually soaked with water and disintegrates in your hand. Troubling. You start pulling up more floorboards, only to find a rotten subfloor. You pull up the rotted subfloor, and what do you find? You guessed it: rotten floor joists. It turns out that some of the floorboards are resting directly on Appalachian bedrock, which has rivulets of snowmelt coursing down the face of it.
You only have to pull up more flooring to find how far the water damage extends. It becomes The Hole, a proper name for the thing that wakes you up at night. You worry about saving the gorgeous hardwood floor. Everything in your business timeline is suspended until The Hole can be fixed. Dinner conversations with spouses and partners become endless discussions of The Hole. The Hole, found in the darkest parts of winter, metastasizes into a nightmare. What if The Hole means the entire building is unstable? How will you fix whatever part leaked water into The Hole in the first place? The Hole becomes the dark place dreams go to die.
Then, like the bright return of the sun and the coming of spring, hope returns: a contractor looks at the Hole and says he can fix it! He can even save the hardwood floors! And most miraculous of all, he can fix it immediately. Within mere weeks of the discovery of the Hole, the contractor has found a way to keep the water away from the wood, replace the joists, patch the subfloor, and re-lay the hardwood planks. The Hole in the Floor is no more. Our shop dreams can grow again!
Until the next obstacle, at least ...