WILMINGTON, De. — When Ellen Cappard has a bad day, she goes to the library.
It's a practice she started as a child, growing up around the corner from the library in her South Jersey neighborhood, and one that's followed her into adulthood.
"You know when you're someplace and you just feel, 'These are my people, this is where I belong?'" Cappard said. "That's how I feel when I go to the library."
It's that same feeling of belonging and love of reading that Cappard hopes to spark in Wilmington, with the opening of Books & Bagels, the first bookstore to open within city limits since the closure of Ninth Street Book Shop in 2018.
There are a handful of bookstores still in New Castle County – The Hockessin Book Shelf, two Barnes and Nobles, and a scattering of niche comic book stores.
But after moving to Wilmington from Washington, D.C. in 2017, Cappard was shocked by the lack of neighborhood bookstores in the city.
"Every neighborhood (in D.C.) had its own bookstore, with its unique character and quality," Cappard said. "I didn't realize how much of a treasure that was until I moved."
So, she opened her own.
Housed in Cornerstone West Community Development Corporation's small business incubator space at the corner of 7th and Harrison streets, Books & Bagels features shelves full of colorful books, with an array of diverse and up-and-coming authors.
In one corner, tiny leather chairs make up a reading nook for children. Leafy green plants fill in the spaces between stacks of books, and a countertop filled with tea, snacks and pastries greets customers when they enter.
She wants it to be a place where everyone can feel like they belong. Warm and welcoming, "where you can let your hair down and relax."
It's also a space dedicated to propping up other small businesses and community groups from Wilmington neighborhoods – the extensive plant collection comes from local business Silver Stem Plants. Desserts are made by Charlie Rose Sweets on Wilmington's West Side.
"I want the products to be a reflection of the talent here in Wilmington," Cappard said. "And to get some local authors in here. So people know, this is a premier place for Wilmington to experience some small business products that they may not have had the opportunity to get out and explore."
Books and reading have been a constant presence in Cappard's life. She became an educator after volunteering with a school reading program. In her spare time, she writes and illustrates children's books she hopes to one day publish. If she isn't reading from her own To Be Read list, she's reading with her 12-year-old daughter Sophia.
The thought of one day opening a bookstore "was like a tiny little song in my heart," she said.
She just never expected it to happen so quickly.
Cappard and her daughter moved from Washington to Wilmington in 2017, so Sophia, who has cerebral palsy and epilepsy, could get care from Nemours.
Cappard continued working in schools, until the pandemic turned everything on its head.
The same nursing shortage that has ravaged Delaware hospitals also drained the team of nurses and physical therapists that helped care for Sophia on a daily basis – and that had helped make it impossible for Cappard, a single mother, to work full time.
With schools suddenly thrown online, Cappard was forced to leave her job as an educator to care for her daughter around the clock.
The time at home took a mental toll, she said. But it also gave her the opportunity to think about her life.
"I want to live a life without limits," Cappard said. "But for a long time, my focus had just been Sophia's care and making sure she's alive and thriving."
When are you going to work on your dream? she said she asked herself.
Cappard started writing more. She toyed with the idea of opening a bookstore just for kids.
In the fall of 2020, she participated in Cornerstone West's Launcher Entrepreneurship Program. That's where she put together a full business plan.
At the time, she imagined a three- to five-year plan of getting her bookstore up and running. She'd save money here and there to one day make her dream a reality.
Then the business coaches with the Launcher program came to her with a proposition earlier this year: We have a space. Would you be interested?
It was Cappard's passion for books and the store that caught the group's eye, said Jacqueline Castañeda, a small business coordinator with Cornerstone West.
Her ideas to create a sense of community within the bookstore – whether it was by curating a diverse collection of books, hosting book signings and workshops highlighting local authors, or running events that merge reading and writing with conversations about mental health – would add to a neighborhood that had in the past used the building as an event space, Castañeda said.
As a Black woman entering the primarily white bookselling industry, Cappard is breaking a barrier as well, Castañeda said. In a majority-Black city like Wilmington, that kind of representation is important.
"Just a couple of blocks away there is someone who looks like yourself who is being able to succeed in the neighborhood," Castañeda said, in a way that can help encourage children to be more avid readers.
Books & Bagels is located at 1139 W 7th St. and is open from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, and 12 p.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.