It’s been 53 years since classes dismissed for the final time at the old Buckeye School in Pocahontas County.
But although students and teachers passed through the building for more than 70 years during its time as a school, never has it housed more books than it does in its current incarnation.
“I don’t know,” owner Gerald Burnett says, “there’s probably 35,000 or 40,000 books in here.”
Fittingly enough, Burnett — whose passion is evidenced by floor-to-ceiling shelves throughout — is a retired teacher.
“Once you’re a teacher, you kind of can’t give it up,” he says of his affinity toward books. “I just really love books.”
Burnett, a native of Albemarle County, Va., began collecting books on a small scale in high school, but says his collection really took off while he was a student at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va.
“A friend of mine’s grandfather had run an old corner bookstore in Boston, and he came down to a nursing home in Fairfax because he wasn’t in good shape,” he recalls. “My friend said his mom said I could have any of his books because she was going to donate the rest to the library.
“I got like 400 or 500.”
Burnett says he walked away with first edition copies of pretty much all the fiction books that came out between the 1920s and the late 1950s.
“That sort of laid the foundation and I guess it was also part of my literary education because I probably read a book or two a day,” he says.
Burnett continued to collect books through the years, stopping at yard sales, flea markets, second-hand stores, auctions and estate sales.
He filled the barn at his Greene County, Va., farm with books.
“That’s one of the reasons I have a bookstore,” he says. “Things were overflowing and I couldn’t get tractors in anymore.”
Burnett, 74, retired from teaching in 1998 and says he began looking for places to store his books and open a store.
Real estate prices near his home in Greene County, close to Charlottesville, were steep, he says, so he began extending the search.
“Finally, I drove by here one day and I saw this building,” he recalls. “I didn’t pay much attention to it, but I drove by about six months later and it was still for sale. I said, ‘I might look into it. It’s got a lot of space and I can store a lot of books.’”
Burnett quickly struck a deal and slowly converted the former schoolhouse turned community center turned storage building into his own used bookstore.
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“I’m pretty proud of my cookbook section,” Burnett says, pointing to a wide variety of more than 2,000 cookbooks on the shelves by the cash register. “I really like that.”
The cookbooks are just a small piece of the collection in the bookstore as Burnett offers customers everything from children’s books to early American history, more recent history, travel, science fiction, religious books, philosophy, theater, classics, thrillers and more.
He has newer books in addition to books dating back to the early 1800s.
Burnett says he’s read many of the books, although he says it’s difficult to say how many.
He’s always open to discuss books though. In fact, that’s what he says he enjoys the most.
“Sometimes someone is looking for a particular book,” he says. “I have a guy who has come in here two or three weeks in a row, interested in psychology but he didn’t know where to start.”
The customer, Burnett says, first mentioned he was interested in Ayn Rand.
“I told him she wasn’t my cup of tea, but it was a start,” he says. “He liked it and came back in and we had an interesting discussion about materialism, altruism and that type of thing. He was interested in rational thought so I had a book of Nathaniel Bacon essays.”
Burnett says the customer took the book and returned for more discussion.
“It was like teaching school,” he says. “He’ll probably keep coming back and we’ll have some really neat discussions. I really enjoy that.”
Margaret Fisher of Hillsboro, who stopped in for a birthday present for her boyfriend, is one of those customers who enjoys conversation with Burnett. She says she shops at the bookstore often and never leaves empty-handed.
“It’s hard to leave without taking something with you,” she says, “whether it be knowledge from talking to him (Burnett) or a book.”
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Buckeye Bend Books is located on U.S. 219 in Buckeye in Pocahontas County and is open Thursday through Saturday — or “by chance” — seasonally from April through October.
Burnett maintains a home in Buckeye and in Greene County, Va., and although he continues to add to the bookstore, he says he still has 10,000 or 15,000 books at his home in Virginia.
He continues to add to the collection, as well.
“During the off time I like to travel along to different places,” he says. “I load the camper with books and my son gets frustrated with me. I get so many boxes in the back of the camper you can’t cook.”
But it’s his passion and he says he feels a sense of duty to share it with others.
“Books are important,” he says. “They’ll be here if people take care of them. There are an awful lot of people that value books, and I do.
“I really enjoy them.”