A Life-Saving Literary Life

An infectious disease physician by trade, Roni Devlin knows a thing or two about making an impact. But many a reader in Grand Rapids has come to know Devlin not for the work her skills with pox, but her passion for pages. As owner of Literary Life Bookstore and More, Devlin is dedicated to making a mark of a different sort, helping to rebuild the Wealthy Street corridor while fulfilling her lifelong dream of opening a bookstore.

Literary Life conjures memories of small town living, or perhaps Grand Rapids bookstores of yesteryear. Housed in the former Old Kent Bank branch on the corner of Eastern Avenue at 758 Wealthy St. SE, the city’s book-o-philes revel in the cozy and comfortable quality of the 1,000-square-foot store. A fireplace, couches and a small children’s area provide a warm, relaxing environment for thoughtfully selecting  books.

Years of passionate, absorbed reading are Devlin’s guide when stocking the shelves. She chooses specific books because, she says, “I know they deserve to have an audience.” Her favorite author is American essayist and novelist, William Styron, famous for Sophie’s Choice but preferred by Devlin for his lesser known works. She is also fond of frontier novelist Willa Cather and, more recently, New Zealand’s Keri Hulme, author of The Bone People.

The store’s specialties include books on art and architecture, indiebound bestsellers, nonfiction, poetry, cooking and many others. And, of course, there is a corner appropriately set aside for literature and medicine.

Juggling Poxes and Pages
Devlin travels to Muskegon four days a week to work as an infectious disease physician at Mercy Health Partners. The rest of her waking moments are spent running a bookstore, a demanding dual life she takes in stride. “I knew I wanted to have a life that combined both interests,” she says with an eye toward the day when she can become a part-time physician and full-time storeowner.

Devlin grew up in the small town of Albion and later attended Northern Michigan University before heading to the University of Colorado for graduate school. She completed her infectious disease fellowship at Dartmouth University.As a resident physician at Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids, she originally discovered the former bank branch in the classifieds.

“I always thought that building had potential,” recalls Devlin. “I knew some lucky sould would restore it.”

With money set aside to purchase a home, Devlin instead bought the Wealthy Street building upon her return to Grand Rapids. Suddenly she had added a building renovation on top of her medical career. She spent three years restoring the building and now works just as hard to keep her small business turning pages.

“Keeping a bookstore open is a hard thing to do, it demands every ounce of effort,” Devlin says, her enthusiasm for books and writing shining brightly whenever she speaks of the store. “But there is a lot of value in having one of these on the corner.”

Devlin’s dream for Literary Life is more than owning a bookstore. Rather, it’s owning a bookstore that helps bring its community together over a shared love of books and a more accessible and inviting book-buying experience.

Making a Mark on the Community
Now four employees strong, Literary Life Bookstore and More celebrated its first anniversary last October and business is brisk. Devlin reports sales this past Christmas season were better than its first, and she has high hopes for the continuing development along the Wealthy Street corridor, where the store serves as “a place in which to celebrate all aspects of literary life.”

“It has been great fun to be a part of the revitalized Wealthy Street Business District,” Devlin says. “The business owners are very supportive of each other. And almost everyone on the street has chosen to renovate a building that was suffering—how nice for a historic district such as this.”

When asked about the challenges facing small business owners, Devlin believes “the biggest issues are the worrisome economy and the unfortunate changes that have happened in the world of bookselling.” As one of the few independent book stores in West Michigan and one of the few brick-and-mortar bookstores of any kind in a local urban neighborhood (excluding the handful of political and otherwise "specialty" bookstores), Devlin believes Literary Life is filling an all but spiritual niche. Every successful urban neighborhood needs a bookstore, she believes, and Wealthy Street is no exception.

“Small, independent bookstores like LitLife offer books, of course, and we hope that we can impart some of our knowledge about great reads to our customers,” she says. “But we also offer so much more that might not be readily apparent.”

Unlike, say, an e-commerce bookstore such as Amazon or a national big box, stores such as Literary Life hire local contractors and work almost exclusively with other local businesses for supplies, merchandise, signage, and web development, explains Devlin, who is an active member of Local First. The store provides meeting places for book groups, writers, and those needing a place to think. Maybe Barnes and Noble does that, too, but not on Wealthy Street.

The bookstore currently hosts “Third Thursdays at Literary Life,” a monthly event featuring readings, music, poetry and art, and “First Saturday for Kids” where authors and entertainers keep the kids laughing and happy for an hour straight. Devlin also has four children’s author readings lined up for 2009, as well as hopes for a regional author celebration and a writing contest. The first annual Lit Life Poetry Contest wrapped up last weekend. The winning poem will be included in the Literary Life Bookstore Poetry Anthology.

In addition to readables, she believes that “sidelines,” or everything that isn’t a book, make a difference in a store’s profitability. Knowing there are larger bookstores everywhere, Devlin asserts, “I don’t necessarily want to be known as a gift store, but a lot of people expect more than just books these days.” She focuses her sidelines on literary or seasonal themes, and without question, carries some of the most unique note cards, puppets and teas around.

Bona Van Dis is a freelance writer in Grand Rapids. When she isn't chasing her 4-year-old son, she's writing and editing for the Aquinas Magazine. This is her first story for Rapid Growth.


Interiors and exteriors of Literary Life

Owner Roni Devlin (left) and bookseller Jennifer Sorensen (courtesy photo)

Photographs by Brian Kelly - All Rights Reserved

Brian Kelly is a commercial photographer, filmmaker and managing photographer for Rapid Growth. He highly recommends the new book of historic Grand Rapids photos he purchased while shooting this assignment at Literary Life.

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