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WI16: Bookstores Emphasize Community

By Claire Kirch, Midwest Correspondent, Publisher Weekly

Feb 5, 2021

Despite the Covid pandemic, entrepreneurs across the country continue to open bookstores, with the ABA reporting that 27 new bookstores opened since September 1. Each of these stores is unique, but all of the new store owners PW spoke with have a common goal: they are filling essential niches in their communities.

And though these stores have launched with caution due to the pandemic, all the owners expressed optimism that, in time, their bookselling visions will be fully realized.
The space that would eventually be occupied by Wordplay, an indie in Wardensville, W.Va., was in the midst of being built out when the pandemic erupted this past spring. “There was nothing we could do about it,” says Tom England, who co-owns the store with his wife, Marlene England; the two also own the Curious Iguana bookstore in Frederick, Md. “The construction was going forward, so we decided we would open and see what happened.”

The full-service general bookstore opened its doors on September 27 with an inventory of about 2,000 books. “The reception has been fantastic,” England says. “The town is so proud and excited to have a bookstore.” He anticipates that Wordplay will become a destination once it’s safe for the store to execute its plan of hosting games and educational activities intended to create empathy between people with different perspectives.

Canvasback Books in Klamath Falls, Ore., postponed its March opening to October and has temporarily held back on a café in its 1,000-sq.-ft. space. “We’re just selling books,” says owner Anne Marie Kessler. “A simpler way allows us to do it better from the get-go.”

Canvasback’s 3,500-book inventory, split equally between titles for adults and children, emphasizes “a diversity of voices,” Kessler says, in an area populated by Indigenous tribal members, Spanish speakers, and ranchers. “We want to create a safe and inclusive space where people can find common ground and strengthen connections,” she adds. “It’s especially important in a rural town.”

After a year of operating pop-ups around Fond du Lac, Wis., Margaux Mich opened Lunar & Lake Book Market’s doors in October. Mich says that she recently had to close for 10 days to expand the inventory in the 900-sq.-ft. space because, she explains, “more people want a bookstore than I had realized. It seems like every weekend, I’ve been adding another shelf and filling it. The community support really is why we’re going to be successful.” To further entice consumers away from big box stores, Lunar & Lake carries unique artisan-made gifts and other items that are difficult to obtain elsewhere, such as chocolate-covered sunflower seeds, a big hit with customers.

In Chicago, veteran bookseller Javier Ramirez and Elmhurst College professor Kristin Enola Gilbert opened Exile in Bookville in September. The store currently operates online, with a robust schedule of virtual events and transactions conducted through while the pair search for a physical location. To distinguish themselves from other indies in Chicago’s famously competitive market, Exile in Bookville will sell LPs and include music-related events in its programming. “I’ve always been a firm believer that books and music complement each other,” Ramirez says.

Gilbert says she and Ramirez are looking for a space under 1,500 sq. ft., because they want to create “a more intimate” ambiance at a neighborhood hub “where people will want to come and hang out and we get to know our customers.” At the same time, having built a highly visible digital presence, the store intends to nurture its customer base that extends beyond Chicago.

In Poulsbo, Wash., across Puget Sound from Seattle, Jenna DeTrapani launched BookIt Nook in early November. The 1,900-sq.-ft. space holds 40,000–50,000 books. There’s also a large back room for events, once they can be scheduled, which DeTrapani hopes book groups will also use.

Describing the full-service general bookstore as a neighborhood destination with an inventory reflecting the diversity of area residents, DeTrapani notes that the store boasts a drive-up window evoking “the little espresso shops in Seattle where you pull up, you order, you receive, you’re gone.” She is convinced that, even after the pandemic ends, drive-through bookstores will appeal to consumers.

Milwaukee’s Lion’s Tooth, which specializes in graphic novels and other titles from small presses, moved into a 600-sq.-ft. space in November but is not yet open to foot traffic. Curbside pickup is available while the store “waits on fixtures and Covid,” explains Cristina Siqueira, who owns Lion’s Tooth with Shelly McClone. Siqueira, who was born in Brazil and once owned a bookstore specializing in graphic novels in her native country, intends to provide food and adult beverages in a bar area and host special events in the large yard behind the building. “Our eye is on the future and while our space is small, there’s a lot of room to grow,” she says. “We’re creating a cultural hub for the community. It’s going to be a space where people can spend quality time with their kids.” In time, Lion’s Tooth will stock music, select nonfiction titles, and books by local authors.

Two Birds opened its doors in a 900-sq.-ft. space in Santa Cruz, Calif., in December with an inventory of 3,500 books—an equal mix of new and used. According to Gary Butler, who owns the store with Denise Silva, Two Birds fills a void: Capitola Book Café closed in 2014 after 34 years in operation, followed three years later by Logos, a beloved used bookstore. Though only four customers at a time can currently browse inside, the co-owners anticipate hosting author events and book clubs once capacity restrictions are lifted.

“We’re already having customers wanting us to move into a bigger space and open a café,” Butler reports. He adds that Two Birds will reach out to nearby coffee shops to form partnerships. “We’re going to give the community what they want out of a bookstore.”

Echoing Butler, DaRonn Washington, who opened the Book Nook in Papillion, Nebr., in October, says that he is “listening to the community and will bring in the books they are looking for.” While his 600-sq.-ft. storefront contains 3,000 new and used books, his warehouse contains 20,000 used books.

After selling books online and at flea markets, Washington opened a bricks-and-mortar store with the goal of becoming indispensable to an Omaha suburb where previous bookstores have failed. “We’re going to support the local community as much as we can,” he says. “We just want to give back.”

That attitude prompted Book Nook to buy “a huge amount” of copies of The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse and hand out them out free to local teachers. “Next,” Washington says, “we’re going to find a book that’s right for first responders. You don’t need a million books to open a bookstore. It doesn’t take a lot of books or square footage to start. It’s all about serving the needs of the community.”

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