A Long Time Coming

December 2, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — Downtown retail will turn the page on a new chapter when River Bank Books & Music begins doing business at 10 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 10.

The independent bookstore and café owned by Debra Lambers will open on the ground floor of the former Steketee’s Department Store at 86 Monroe Center — and will fill a void downtown that city officials have been looking to plug for more than a decade.

Downtown leaders see River Bank Books as an anchor store, one that will bring more retail, residents and customers to the sector. To underscore the bookstore’s economic importance to them, members of the Downtown Development Authority awarded Lambers a $50,000 grant in August to help with the build-out. Normally these grants are only given to building owners. But the board made an exception, and possibly set a precedent, when they gave one to Lambers — a business, and not a building, owner.

Lambers used the funds to create barrier-free access to her 8,000-square-foot store, to install a fire-suppression system, and to upgrade utilities. Lambers, who also owns the Book Nook & Java Shop in Montague, is investing about $980,000 into River Bank Books.

“We’ve had a tremendous amount of enthusiasm and support, which is really exciting,” said Lambers.

In addition to shelves and racks of books, magazines and compact discs, River Bank Books will also have a café that offers soups, salads, sandwiches and bakery items, along with a gift and card shop.

“We also have the Steketee’s Stage and will feature live music on Friday and Saturday evenings. It will also be home to many New York Times best-selling authors,” said Lambers.

Having writers meet with their readers is something Lambers has done in her Montague store, where the likes of Garrison Keillor, Judith Guest and Sue Ellen Cooper made their only recent appearances in the area.

“We intend to have many, many authors in addition to children’s authors,” said Lambers.

River Bank Books will be open from 10 a.m. until 9 p.m., Mondays through Saturdays, and from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. on Sundays. The store will employ 34, seat 60 around the café’s fireplace, and have a second entrance on the north end of the building at 44 Fountain St.

For all practical purposes, the seven-story building will be filled when River Bank Books opens. Blue Cross Blue Shield of West Michigan and Independent Bank have for more than a year been in the building that sat vacant for years. Monroe Center JV, an LLC organized by Rockford Development, owns the Steketee’s building, which is in the nearly tax-free Renaissance Zone

Some space, though, is available on the lower level below the bookstore, and Lambers told the development authority last summer that she would like to open a student bookstore there someday.

For city officials, the store’s opening seemingly ends a journey that began longer ago than many can remember. And like most good reads, the voyage concludes with the promise of a happy ending. The journey hasn’t been as long for Lambers, less than two years. But the trip has held for her much of the drama found on the written page, and has been guided almost every step of the way by prominent downtowners.

“I was actually approached by Commerce Realty’s Ray Kisor. He asked if I would be interested in opening a store in downtown Grand Rapids. At that time, I was going full throttle with the new business that I had, which was just a couple of years old, in the White Lake area,” said Lambers of her Montague store.

“Since we were awarded the grant, that is when we really started to go full blast.”    

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