Only about seven or eight people know this secret: UNCW art professor Donald Furst is the Salt Shaker man.
His wife, artist Ellis Furst, used his profile to draw a lamp-carrying man as the logo for the Kerr Avenue Salt Shaker Bookstore and Café 14 years ago when the local Christian store was just getting started.
“That’s been a point of personal pride for me, being the Salt Shaker man,” he said this week, after learning the store is going out of business, possibly by the end of February.
Furst feels the community’s loss.
“I was very fond of the café. It was a nice place for meetings and close to campus,” he said. “In these economic times, you can’t fault people for going for the deepest discount, but I certainly like the option of going to a place where someone who’s informed can talk you through the purchase.”
For owners Claire Efird and her sister Katharine Sullivan, it’s been a hard fight to keep the store open these last two years. As online books and e-readers became more and more household items, and online booksellers cut prices, they cut corners where they could.
“We really didn’t give up,” Efird said, tears welling behind her glasses. “From the community, we’re hearing sadness and shock. And we feel that because we’re sad.”
In August last year, they closed the café.
“I think people loved to come and eat, but there’s so much involved in food preparation, higher labor costs and food costs,” Sullivan added.
They hired fewer employees, going from 25 to 10-15, depending on the season.
“Churches are ordering more online, and the bigger churches in town all have their own book stores,” Efird added. “When we opened the store, online books were all new. And now people will come in, do their research and go online, where it’s cheaper.”
The Salt Shaker, like many businesses, was a dream born in Efird’s garage “just from a great love of books.” She sold books at the book nook at Myrtle Grove Evangelical Presbyterian Church before building her store on Kerr Avenue in 1999. She's painfully aware and worried that there are few Christian or independent book stores left in town. Even Barnes and Noble announced recently it was closing 20 stores a year for the next 10 years nationwide.
But a new Christian book store may be on the horizon for Wilmington. Efird said before she decided to close the store, LifeWay Christian Stores contacted her about the chain opening a store here.
A LifeWay representative said store openings were proprietary information the company does not disclose because the book seller is a nonprofit. But the chain, which has 14 stores in the state, moved its Charlotte store to a 5,328-square-foot facility in September 2012. (Its closest store to the Cape Fear region is in Fayetteville.) Before that, the last store the chain opened was in Tustin, Ca., in August 2011.
More than just books
But the Salt Shaker was about more than just books and Christian gifts. It brought extra doses of culture to the town.
The store attracted major figures and sponsored movie premieres and bands to speak and sign books at the store and play gigs at area churches.
The people who’ve visited there are a who’s who of popular Christian authors and artists: George Beverly Shea, Anne Graham Lotz, N.C. fresco artist Ben Long, Beverly Lewis, Darwin on Trial author Phillip Johnson and The Devil In Pew Number 7 author Rebecca Alonzo as well as bands Jars of Clay and Building 429.
Bible study regular Lorna Farruggio said it also was a convening place for Christians of all denominations. In the Tabletalk Café where she and six other women meet for their weekly Reaching Hearts Bible Study, murals of children of all races line the walls ringed with scripture. (Efird hopes to save the murals that were modeled after local children.)
“To me, it’s always been a landmark, somewhere I could go to meet other Christians,” Farruggio said, “and it will be missed.”