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Laurel's Main Street book shop goes beyond the page

Laurel resident and shop proprietress Belinda Blair Young doesn't shake hands when introduced. She hugs.

"I want you to feel like you're in a friend's home while you're here," she said of her new store, Chosen Books and Gift Boutique, at 509-B Main St.

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Young nicknamed her store "Reading Road on Main" because she wants to get people to read on Main Street. The boutique will host discussions of Christian books like "Man Code," by Dr. Dennis Swanberg, as well as reading events for local singers, poets, artists, church groups, civic groups and private book clubs for people of all ages.

"We'll host anything other than erotica and graphic vulgarity," she said.

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Anyone who buys books at Chosen, Young said, is invited to return for discussion at the store, where a comfortable sofa encourages visitors to sit and talk.

Young's own story, "Truth Be Told," a faith-based book about domestic abuse and mental health issues that was published to "excellent reviews" last year, is in stock and on display near the front entrance.

Customers will find an array of Christian books, Bibles, handbags, jewelry and artisan gift items to choose from. Young said she is eager to fill requests to order almost anything one might be looking for.

Chosen Books And Gifts' business model focuses on delivering exceptional customer service by cultivating close relationships with clients and artisans, Young said. The family-owned boutique aims to offer unique and affordable merchandise that shoppers won't find in larger stores; most items cost less than $25 and the most expensive leather handbag costs $58.

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Young found inspiration for the venture when FOX 5 News Morning Tucker Barnes' presented live coverage of a preview of the Main Street Festival last spring.

Young said she came to Main Street the morning of May 9 to see Barnes. But there she met new Main Street business owners mother and daughter Vickie Bell, of Bellavive Jewelry Collection Boutique, and Alexis Streets ,of Basket Treats by Alexis Streets.

"I was blown away to learn that African American women's minority owned businesses had reached Main Street," she said.

Young had briefly operated her travel business out of an office on C Street some 15 years ago (today she works as an agent from home) and hadn't heard about the city's collaboration with the Laurel Board of Trade to reenergize the business community.

"I thought, 'I could do this,' " Young said.

Intrigued by her conversation with Bell and Streets, Young drove down Main Street during working hours the following week to take a closer look at what was happening in the business community and to talk more with Bell.

She stopped to read the signs at the closed Laurel Comedy Club and struck up a conversation with a bystander taking pictures. That bystander turned out to be Laurel resident and Laurel Municipal Center staffer Alicia Fields.

Fields handles business services for the city of Laurel with particular emphasis on designated revitalization areas. She said the city has developed window signs for storefronts to inform the community about what's happening.

The closed comedy club that had once been a dinner theater had drawn Young's attention because she envisioned opening a venue for writers, artists, comedians, poets, craftspeople and anyone who aspired to share their "God-given talents."

Young credits Fields with helping her narrow her focus and find a viable location in the intimate shop at the other end of Main Street. She said Fields told her that what Young was describing sounded more like a ministry (the revitalization effort targets eateries and retailers) than an entrepreneurship.

So Young shifted her focus and, with "much support from loved ones," in July she opened her retail shop based on Christian values, a development she believes came about "strictly by the grace of God."

October is National Domestic Awareness Month, and as a staunch supporter of domestic violence prevention, Young will step across the street on Sunday, Oct. 12 to speak at Laurel Mill Playhouse's evening performance of "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf."

After the show, Young will talk a little about "Truth Be Told" and sign copies.

Show producer Maureen Rogers. who also is an administrator for the Laurel Board of Trade, said Laurel Mill Playhouse is very happy to have Young involved and the little theater looks forward to future collaborations with her.

Fields said that the city's revitalization efforts are going well — viable vacancies are down to about four and buildings that appear closed may well be "in preparation for new openings."

"I think we're making tremendous strides," Fields said. "We've seen such a rebirth of energy in community support of local businesses, with a particular presence from the arts community."

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