An Early Library for Lynchburg

Working at the Lynchburg Museum can be a lot like Christmas. When the Curator and staff are tracking down items for exhibits, they may open a box and become distracted by other artifacts. This is exactly how January’s Awesome Artifact was discovered.

January’s artifact is the 1883 novel Jenifer by Annie Thomas, enclosed in a book cover that proclaims: “The Lynchburg Circulating Library, owned and conducted by J. D. Suter & Co., Booksellers and Stationers, No. 1017 Main Street.” Investigating the origin of a single item easily becomes a history lesson. In this case, a single glance into an archival folder yielded an item which can be traced back to the beginning of an institution which today is taken for granted: the public library. Early libraries were not free. In the late 1800s many of the well-educated and wealthy had personal libraries or the money to borrow books from circulating libraries such as Suter’s. There was not a true public library for all Lynchburg residents to patronize until 1966.

For a small fee, one could borrow and read a book like JeniferSelected Poems of Matthew Arnold, or a Dickens Reader. These books were available through subscriptions offered to businesses ($10/year). Harper & Brothers (the future HarperCollins) published 52 books a year especially for this purpose under the Harper Franklin Square Library imprint. 

For several years J. D. Suter owned a prominent bookselling and library business on Main Street. His letterhead boasts a variety of items available, from school books, sheet music, and gold pens to imported stationery. It also states “Rare Books, and Books that are Out of Print, Obtained at Short Notice.” The credit account for Mrs. I. S. Moore in July of 1886 lists purchased items such as N. Y. Fashion B’zarMaurice Mystery, and the service of “Repairing Gold Pen.” Other receipts in the Museum’s collection include items like ink holders, pencils and blank books, 3 volumes of Scott’s HistorySwinton’s Complete GeographyBingham’s Latin Grammar, valentines, toothpicks, games of Cock Robin, and a vase. 

In the Trade Notes section of an 1884 issue of The American Bookseller, Suter announced: “…that his business has been enlarged by the taking-in of a partner, and that a job office will be added to their other business.” Suter & Co. also placed an ad in an 1884 Publisher’s Weekly which may have been to fulfill requests from customers, either for purchase or for the circulating library: Books Wanted John D. Suter & Co., Lynchburg, Va. Philostratus’s Life of Apollonius of Tyana, tr. By Rev. Ed. Berwick The Jesus of History, by Sir R. D. Hanson The New Virginians, Blackwood, 1879. Wolfenbuttel, Fragments, tr. By C. Voysey. Lyle’s Collection of Poems and Ballads, 1827.

Suter’s eventually closed and the Museum could not locate any images of the actual store, but for a time, it seemed to offer Lynchburg a little bit of everything. J. D. Suter died sometime before 1900, leaving a widow, Fannie. 

As the past intersects with the present, it leaves many thinking about the fate of libraries and bookstores because of the digitization of printed matter. With so much information available on the internet (but unfortunately, much of it inaccurate), libraries are not the public institutions they used to be. Neither are the brick and mortar bookstores, though books continue to sell through online vendors. Some wonder if all physical books will become relics or artifacts, but time will tell.

Business Card of John D. Suter & Company's First Location