Dead All Over?

The Haunting of 307 William Street

Steve Watkins

Fredericksburg Free-Lance-Star, Sunday, Oct. 29, 2012

The noises at Read All Over Books in downtown Fredericksburg started a year ago. Two employees heard the same thing, though at different times and on different days.

Chloe Lafollette and Austin Echelberger both turned off the lights upstairs at the end of their shifts. They both returned downstairs at 307 William St. to continue switching off lights and shutting down the store.

And they both heard footsteps walking from the front left corner of the store–above their heads on the second floor—over to the top of the stairs. The footsteps were so distinct that Echelberger hurried back upstairs, assuming that he’d turned the lights off on a customer. But the room was empty.

Both shrugged it off at first. Maybe they’d imagined it. Maybe it was just the creaking, settling sounds of an old pre-Civil War-era building

But it happened again. And again.

Echelberger, who has since left Read All Over and moved to Charlottesville, finally told bookstore owner Paul Cymrot. Echelberger said he felt that he was being watched from the top of the stairs, and it became such a regular thing that he would simply say hello to whomever it was and go on with his business.

Lafollette got so freaked out that any time she had to close the store she would run upstairs, hit the light switches, then run back down.

She, too, finally told Cymrot.

“The odd thing was that neither of them had corroborated their stories first with one another,” Cymrot said. “They’d never discussed what they’d heard at all. Yet what they reported to me was almost exactly the same.”

Built in 1830, near the intersection of William and Princess Anne streets, 307 William St. has been a grocery, a tin shop, a high-end knick-knack emporium, a day spa, and now a used bookstore, among its many incarnations.

There have been so many unusual occurrences there since the noises began—and questions from patrons—that Cymrot finally hung up a sign which said, “KEEP CALM. THIS BOOKSTORE IS PROBABLY NOT HAUNTED.”

A first-time customer recently came into the store, and after walking around for awhile stopped in front of the sign. Lafollette was working at the time. “He said, ‘I guess that explains why I just saw a book flying off one of your shelves,’” she recalled.

The Ghost Upstairs

Skeptical at first, Cymrot eventually had to concede that there was something strange going on at Read All Over.

“We’re operating with the hypothesis that this is the ghost of a teenage boy,” he said, “We have no idea what era it might be from, but Chloe [Lafollette] did say that the day of the anniversary of the Battle of Fredericksburg, the store was especially active. We also had a customer one day who told us, without any excitement or surprise, that there was a ghost upstairs which he thought belonged to a teenage boy.”

Lafollette, who attends Germanna Community College and has worked at Read All Over since September, confirmed Cymrot’s account. “About four in the afternoon, on December 11—I didn’t know until later that it was the date the Battle of Fredericksburg started—I just had this weird feeling that the store was mad,” she said. “There was a weird noise in the back room, like when wind is whipping through somewhere but it sounds like howling. But there was no wind.”

Anna Lincoln, who started working at Read All Over in March, said she’s never seen or heard the ghost, but she’s pretty sure he’s there nonetheless. “I always feel like I’m being watched, especially in the back room and upstairs,” she said. “Upstairs there’s just this weird energy, and it feels creepy. Whenever I have to close by myself I run upstairs and run back down, the same as Chloe.”

Most disconcerting to Lincoln have been the flying books. She described one incident when a book fell or leapt off a shelf next to the cash register and landed ten feet away. “It’s happened several times,” she said. “Customers will say, ‘Did you see that?’ and we just laugh and tell them it’s the ghost, having some fun.”

A mother and daughter who came in the store not long ago got into an argument over the phenomenon—the daughter insisting she’d seen a book fly off a shelf, the mother equally insistent that it hadn’t happened.

Lafollette has seen flying books as well. She said she’s also found books in odd arrangements on the floor when she opened the store, mostly upstairs and mostly kids’ books, as if someone had been sitting on the floor reading them. Once she found a pile of 20 novels stacked in the middle of a rug on the second floor. The books hadn’t been there when she closed up the night before–they were on first-floor shelves–and no one had been in the store.

Malevolent or Just Bored?

Despite all that and more—Lafollete and her mother are certain the ghost followed her home on at least one occasion; she had to ask it to stop revving her car engine—she and Lincoln say they don’t believe the ghost means any harm. Lincoln said she thinks he’s just bored at times, and perhaps looking for some excitement.

“There’s kind of a bad energy when there are more formal things going on in the store,” she said. “But the ghost seems to especially like children, and there’s a really positive vibe or energy or whatever when we have things like the FAA [Fredericksburg All Ages] concerts.”

Cymrot agreed. “It doesn’t scare people or drag chains or smoke cigars,” he said. “But it gets bored and antsy. It’s happier when there’s some entertainment for it.”

Still, not everyone is comfortable with the ghost.

“We did have one customer,” Cymrot said, “a woman with Down’s Syndrome or perhaps another developmental abnormality, who despite having been all over the store on several previous occasions wouldn’t enter the back room under any circumstances. She was visibly distressed and said ‘It’s in there! It’s in there!’ before leaving the store.

“She has not been back.”

Cymrot, who also owns Riverby Books on Caroline Street, said he had a premonition that there might be something odd about 307 William St. when he first opened the store in 2010. As he built shelves and painted walls, especially on the second floor in the front corner, things kept happening: Materials fell. Drinks spilled. And he found himself getting easily exhausted and annoyed.

In the first year of operation he renovated the upstairs three times, but it still never “felt right.” Light bulbs burned out quickly, especially on the second floor. And the wireless speakers—the same ones that had worked fine for years at Riverby–developed static and quit working after a short time.

And there was the strange effect the building seems to have on some of his employees.

“Somehow the space just eats them up,” he said. “They get lethargic; they stop taking out the trash or counting the change.”

Erin Comerford, a rising sophomore at the University of Virginia who has worked at both Riverby and Read All Over, called it a “general energy suck.”

“When I’m over at Riverby I’m motivated, I get things done, I’m in a good mood afterwards,” she said. “But at Read All Over people try to get work done and it never seems to go anywhere.”

Cymrot said he’s had to let half a dozen employees go at 307 William, a marked contrast to Riverby where virtually all his employees have stayed on happily for years.

“With most of them [at Read All Over], they just gradually did less and less work until I had to call them on it,” he said.

Smudge Pots and D&D

Since the ghost first made its presence known to bookstore employees, Cymrot has learned other stories about previous tenants in 307 William St. who were convinced the building was haunted, and who tried various means of driving out the unwanted guest.

The owner of Echelon Day Spa, who rented the building from Cymrot’s family before Read All Over moved in, once went through the store with burning sage in a smudge pot, a supposedly effective means of sending away uninvited spirits. Massage therapist Pam Gallant, who worked at Echelon, confirmed that story.

Gallant also said the owners of Gold Star Emporium, who set up shop at 307 William back in the 1990s, brought in a paranormal adviser to coach them on the best way to handle the troublesome ghost. The Gold Star owners have both since died.

Cymrot has taken a different approach, hanging bright posters and pictures throughout the store, and scheduling as much lively entertainment as he can for customers–and for the ghost: Fredericksburg All-Ages concerts, poetry readings, story-telling events, film screenings, live acoustic music.

And he’s recently added another activity—though this one is down in the basement, a particularly claustrophobic part of the store with its low ceilings, deep shadows, natural outcroppings of rock, and posts made out of original cedar tree trunks. The old coal chutes down there have been cemented up. A brick arch which once led into the basement of Bistro Bethem has been cinder-blocked over, reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.” A “creepy crawl space” that Cymrot has yet to explore juts out through a broken brick back wall.

Undaunted by the forbidding ambience—or perhaps partly inspired by it–Cymrot and several friends have been meeting once a month there for late-night sessions of the old fantasy game Dungeons and Dragons, which all played years ago in high school and college, and which they’ve now resurrected locally.

Cymrot says participants haven’t noticed anyone extra showing up. No phantom footsteps or howling winds or flying books.

So far.