The Start of a New Chapter in Their Favorite Bookstore

If Stephanie Williams didn’t know she was going to marry LaMarr Coles III after their first phone call, she sensed she might after their first date. And she definitely knew it two weeks in, at the end of date No. 3.

“I was already in love with him,” she said, on the September 2019 evening she invited him for a home-cooked dinner at her parents’ house in Upper Marlboro, Md. “But the way he reassured me that night — he was so calm — made me realize how special he was.” Not everyone would have displayed the composure Mr. Coles did when she set the kitchen on fire while heating tortillas, she said.

Ms. Williams and Mr. Coles matched on Tinder on Aug. 22, 2019. The next day, they spent eight hours on the phone. “I was doing my laundry when he called at maybe 11:30 or 12, and we didn’t get off until probably 8 o’clock,” Ms. Williams said. They had a lot to talk about. Mr. Coles, 28, had just moved to Suitland, Md., from Suffolk, Va., for a job in corporate development at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington. Ms. Williams, 29, was a case manager at Community of Hope, a Washington organization that helps prevent homelessness. Her roots in the area gave her plenty of suggestions for a newcomer.

By the end of their marathon phone call, she knew she wanted to explore some of the museums and restaurants she had recommended with him. But he wasn’t convinced when they met for a first date a week later. “I was going to take her to a wine tasting at the National Harbor in Maryland, and it was supposed to be like 8 o’clock, and she’s texting me at 7:50 like, I’m running a little late,” Mr. Coles said. “I said, ‘OK, take your time.’ But to me, ‘take your time’ means 10 or 15 minutes.”

Ms. Williams, who lived with her parents in Upper Marlboro, needed more like an hour — she had nearly glued her eyes shut while applying false lashes — and she took it. By the time she arrived at the National Harbor, he was frustrated and thinking of bagging the date. “But then I saw her pull up, and she looked at me with that smile,” he said. “I couldn’t be mad anymore. I experienced love right then.”

Sometime during dinner at the restaurant Rosa Mexicana followed by a Ferris wheel ride, she experienced it, too. She still has the text to prove it. “Omg, it was perfecttttt,” she messaged her friend Winnola Chesney at 12:56 a.m. on Aug. 31, 2019. “Girl, we’re getting married!,” she wrote. “When you do, I want to sit in the front row with your mom,” Ms. Chesney replied.

No one who knows Ms. Williams doubts her devotion to her mother, Patricia Williams, who at 13 came to Washington from El Salvador in 1977. Her mother, Teresa Salinas, had left her as an infant with family in San Miguel. “My mother worked cleaning Washington, D.C., Hilton hotel rooms at night and houses during the day until she had enough money to bring me,” Patricia Williams said. Ms. Salinas worked at the Hilton more than 40 years before returning to El Salvador.

Patricia Williams, in her teens, went to work cleaning homes and offices in Washington, too. After she married Ms. Williams’s father, Gene Williams, an appliance repairman, she felt a pull to help poor Salvadoran children. “So when Steph was little, I’d take her to the thrift shop to buy toys and shoes for the children who live in the jungle, who have no electricity,” she said. “She’d help me pick clothes and then we’d box them up and send them.” The younger Ms. Williams loved the feeling of giving. Before and after finishing college at Bowie State University in 2019, she gravitated toward nonprofit work.

That tendency spoke to Mr. Coles, whose life has been shaped by a nonprofit group. “I was a club kid,” he said. “Starting in fifth grade, the Boys & Girls Clubs were a refuge to me.” The Boys & Girls Clubs of America provide after-school programs to children who might otherwise have nowhere to go. Mr. Coles, who graduated from Old Dominion University in 2014 after a peripatetic upbringing in a military family, benefited from the clubs’ structure and mentorship. His parents, LaMarr Coles Jr., a retired Navy officer who works for the Department of Defense, and his mother, Vickie Coles, a child-care business owner, liked the organization, too. When Mr. Coles was 16 and wanted to apply for a first job at a Chick-fil-A restaurant, his mother drove him instead to the Boys & Girls Club. “She was like, I think you should work here.” He has ever since.

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In October, Mr. Coles was promoted to director of Clubhouse @ Your House, an offshoot of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington that started during the pandemic. He learned to put out a few fires, so to speak, in his training for the new position, which involves helping underserved children facing hurdles brought on by months of staying home, often with stressed caregivers.

And then he encountered that actual fire. Ms. Williams accidentally set her parents’ kitchen ablaze while cooking tostadas on their third date. “Orange flames started shooting out of the toaster oven,” she said. Her mother was away. Her father, watching television two floors up, didn’t smell the smoke. “It was 911 in there,” she said. “I had never used a fire extinguisher, but LaMarr knew exactly what to do.” By the time the fire was under control, the kitchen was covered, floor to ceiling, with extinguisher residue. “I was throwing chicken away,” she said, “and he started rinsing it under the sink saying, ‘It’s still good. We can still eat it.’ I felt so embarrassed — I had almost killed this boy — but the way he handled it, he didn’t make me feel bad. It showed me how he deals with conflict, how sweet he is.”

On their second date, a few days after the National Harbor outing, he drove her to Solid State Books in Washington. “I love bookstores,” Ms. Williams said. “He told me to pick any book I wanted. That’s my love language.” She walked out with a copy of Tayari Jones’s “An American Marriage” and a full heart.

The two made their relationship official a few months later at another bookstore, Greedy Reads in Baltimore. While Ms. Williams browsed, Mr. Coles paced the aisles. By the time they left the store he had asked her to be his girlfriend, and she had accepted. Then she made a proposition of her own. “I told him, ‘OK, now that I’m your girlfriend, you have a year to marry me.’” She was joking, sort of. “He was like, ‘Dang! We’ve only been dating 30 minutes!’ But I told him, ‘I’m that girl! What’s wrong with you?’”

Ms. Williams was not really on a mission to secure a quick engagement. “But I didn’t want to do that thing where you date four years and you don’t know where it’s going,” she said. “I think LaMarr knew that.”

By December, he was typing the word “marriage” into his phone to see where it would lead him. Before he had the chance to engineer the kind of proposal he felt Ms. Williams was worthy of, though, the world was hit with the coronavirus. While they figured out ways to get together during quarantine, hiking and meeting for spins around the grocery store, they started talking about ground rules for a marriage. “We agreed we had a responsibility to help other human beings,” Mr. Coles said. “Like, if one of my homeless clients needed a tent and we could buy it, we would both be like, OK, let’s do it!,” Ms. Williams said.

In March or April, they sat down with a premarital workbook, “Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts.” “We were having these great conversations every week over that book,” Mr. Coles said. One night when they were “really vibing,” he said, he went home and picked out online a James Allen engagement ring. On July 25, after it arrived, he proposed at Greedy Reads.

Greedy Reads was closed to the public because of the pandemic. “So I kind of did a little plea to the owner,” Mr. Coles said. “All women love to talk about marriage.” Julia Fleischaker, the owner of Greedy Reads, was no exception.

Once the bookstore was secured, Mr. Coles enlisted his mother’s help. “I sent her a diagram of the store and told her exactly where I want the rose petals to be, where I want to take pictures.” Instead of driving Ms. Williams to the bookstore for the proposal, he took her to the National Aquarium. She suspected that a proposal could be forthcoming, but by the time they reached the shark tank, she figured she had miscalculated. “Everybody knows the sharks are the end,” she said. “My hope was depleted.”

As they walked to the parking lot, though, Mr. Coles pointed out a black Cadillac Escalade and driver. First it drove her to a florist, where she was handed a bouquet of roses and a note reading “por siempre mi amor” (Spanish for “forever, my love”). Then it continued to Greedy Reads, where Mr. Coles and their parents, plus Ms. Williams’s younger sister, Ashley, and Mr. Coles’s older sister, Christine, were waiting.

“There were balloons and pictures of us up on the bookshelves, and then LaMarr was on one knee telling me he wanted to spend the rest of his life with me,” Ms. Williams said. “I was shocked.” And happy to say yes.

On Dec. 6, Ms. Williams and Mr. Coles were married in a outdoor microwedding for 25 guests on the patio of the Viceroy Washington, D.C., by Mr. Coles’s godfather, the Rev. Dr. Kevin Jackson, a licensed officiant through the Commonwealth of Virginia. Ms. Williams, accompanied down the aisle by her father, wore a lace off-the-shoulder dress and veil; Mr. Coles donned a tuxedo.

In handwritten vows, Mr. Coles called Ms. Williams his heart and soul. “You’re someone who would give their last to help a stranger,” he said, choking back tears. “I plan to master your love language.” Ms. Williams, also struggling with emotions, thanked Mr. Coles for being her best friend. “You keep me brave when I let fear get the best of me,” she said. “You came to my rescue before I even called you for help.” After rings were exchanged and the couple’s parents laid a lasso over them to symbolize their intention to be bound together forever, the Rev. Dr. Jackson pronounced them married. With a kiss and a nod to the 75 guests who had watched via livestream, they left the altar hand in hand.

When Dec. 6, 2020

Where The Viceroy, Washington.

Sensibly Small The wedding was followed by a reception with Champagne and light bites. Mr. Coles said the small, Covid-conscious wedding was more his style than a lavish event. “As long as my parents are there and Steph is standing by my side, that’s all that matters to me,” he said.

Favorite Child Ms. Williams said her mother and Mr. Coles get along so well that Mr. Coles is now Patricia Williams’s favorite child. Patricia Williams has a hard time denying it. “Every time I say his name I cry because I am so grateful to God for him,” she said. “He’s a beautiful person.”

On the Move The day after the wedding, the couple moved into an apartment in Arlington, Va. “We wanted to wait to move in together until after we were married to show respect to our parents,” Ms. Williams said.