Preservation advocates worry a historic Peachtree Road building — a former bookbinding factory now home to an antique store — could be demolished. But only touched on in the discussion is the building’s whole other history as part of the iconic Oxford bookstore chain, whose visitors included former President Jimmy Carter, an astronaut and a diverse community of readers. Former employees say that history shouldn’t be lost to demolition.
The building at 2395 Peachtree Road, dating to 1929, was formerly the home of Oxford, Too, a branch of Oxford that sold rare and used books.
“I know every creak and every dip in the wooden floor. It would be a shame to lose it,” said Patty Nelson, who managed the book trade-in desk at the store.
The developer of a planned apartment tower behind the former Oxford, Too store says it will save the building’s historic façade, but the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation said that isn’t certain, which landed the building on the preservation advocacy group’s “Places in Peril” list of threatened historic sites.
Tom Payton is a former manager for Oxford, Too, and said, since it is one of the few old buildings left on Peachtree Road, that he would be sad to see the building demolished.
“It shouldn’t be just pictures in the Atlanta History Center,” he said.
The building still holds memories for several people who worked at the prolific local bookstore chain, which began when Rupert LeCraw opened the first Oxford Books in the nearby Peachtree Battle Shopping Center. He later opened Oxford, Too to sell rare and used books. Other locations included a massive second location on Pharr Road; Oxford Comics, which is still open on Piedmont Road; and short-lived locations on West Paces Ferry and in Sandy Springs. LeCraw couldn’t be reached for comment.
Loan issues and competition with chain bookstores led to the closure of all but Oxford Comics in 1997. The store is often missed by Atlanta natives and longtime residents, which former employees said is due to the welcoming environment as being a place to go to anytime, any day of the year.
“We had a genuine sense of community,” Payton said. “It was just a really cool place with an eclectic mix of people.”
Customers were loyal to the stores because they represented local success when national chains were rapidly expanding in Atlanta, said Payton, who now works in book publishing in Texas.
“They clung to it because they felt Atlanta changing,” Payton said. “It represented a changing time in Atlanta where mom-and-pop stores were dying really fast.”
Payton recalled several big events held there, including visits by former President Carter and Don Henley, the drummer of the Eagles, who was promoting a book he edited.
“Hundreds of people lined up at 5 a.m.,” Payton recalled. “People had to be escorted in to see [Henley] one by one. It turned into kind of a legendary event.”
Payton also recalled an art exhibit displaying work by folk artist R.A. Miller before he was well known. Every piece of art, which was hung by twine from the ceiling, was sold, and spurred more art shows in the store, Payton said.
Jenny Bell remembered several other notable events, including a visit by astronaut Alan Shephard; the late poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou; and “Gilligan’s Island” actress Dawn Wells.
The Oxford stores put Atlanta on the map for artists and authors to visit, Nelson said.
“Oxford Books made Atlanta the place where the book tours and authors came,” said Nelson, who now lives in the North Briarcliff neighborhood.
Bell said working at Oxford, Too was one of the best jobs she’s ever had, largely because of the people who worked there, including her husband, who she met while working there. They recently celebrated their 21st anniversary.
“People were unconventional. They were artists and all very quirky,” she said. “You could meet all types of people. There were goth people, preppy people, and diversity in race and religion.”
The store, which was open until midnight 365 days the year, including Christmas, also became a gathering place for those types of quirky people, said Bell, who now works in the commercial art business.
“It was just a great place to go at any time,” she said. “There’s a lot of people who don’t have anywhere to go on Christmas Day.”
Payton tried to nurture that feeling that Oxford, Too was a welcoming place to come anytime by creating a gathering space that could be separated from the rest of the store by closing a curtain.
LeCraw wouldn’t sign off on a coffee shop in the store, similar to one called The Cup and Chaucer at the Peachtree Battle location, so Payton implemented an “honor system” coffee bar where patrons could leave a dollar for a cup.
Bell and Brian Cox, who managed the used music department, said the store also carried literature for niche groups, such as women’s studies and the LGBT community, which was important for people in the pre-internet age.
Cox, who works in video production in Sandy Springs, said the stores should have stayed focused on catering to niche groups, including diverse books on Southern culture, instead of trying to compete with the chain stores.
“Management wanted to compete with big stores instead of focusing on strengths,” he said.