Wednesday, February 25, 2015

7/52 :: shopping locally.


Last Saturday, a young 20-something came into the shop looking for a particular title. The book was one I wasn't familiar with, one we wouldn't typically carry on our shelves, and sure enough, a quick search informed me we didn't have it in stock. As usual, I offered the customer the option to special order, which with us takes about two to three days (depending on the snow our northern distributors are experiencing). It's a turnaround that's fairly quick -- Barnes and Noble normally takes about a week -- and our prices are comparable to the bigger chain stores, though not, of course, to... well, you know. 

"No, thanks," the customer said. "I'll just find it online for cheaper, probably from Amazon or something."

"Oh, okay," I found myself replying. "Thanks for shopping locally!" (Southern passive-aggression is a real thing, y'all.) 

The story Nora Ephron told in You've Got Mail is true, only now, the Fox Books of the world no longer exist. The independent bookstores are thriving, but our competition isn't Barnes and Noble or Books A Million, not really, not anymore. Our competition is this online business we don't know too much about, a business we can't research or challenge.

I try not to judge Amazon shoppers. The Internet is full of people who talk about supporting the local businesses in their towns, but they consistently link back to products on Amazon, and I understand why. Bloggers get a small kick-back from Amazon, and I know what it's like to want to get even the tiniest bit of compensation for the work and writing we do. So again: I try not to pass judgment on Amazon shoppers and supporters. 

The truth is, though, that Amazon hurts the business I chose to buy and run. And there is perhaps nothing quite as hurtful as a customer telling you -- to your face -- that they'd rather shop quickly and easily and cheaply than enjoy the overall experience of the store you have curated and loved. 

It's not personal, it's business. So says Joe Fox, and honestly? I agree. I don't take those customers' comments personally. But I do wonder if they know what they're saying. If you need a book more quickly and less expensively than I can get it to you, I understand. But you do have choice. We don't have to have our packages delivered by drones on a Sunday morning. We could wait and shop with the people who live and work in our communities. We could support the people we call our neighbors. We could choose to exercise our patience and order from businesses we know and trust because ultimately, it's better for our neighborhoods and better for us. 

The Bookshelf has been a part of my life for nearly three years now. I've spent the last one and a half years in Thomasville, working alongside people I now call my friends and neighbors. And maybe it's a small town thing, but most of them understand the "shop local" movement. They understand why it's better to support a locally-owned business than it is to support a franchise or an online shop. They frequently choose my store over a cheaper option, and I'm grateful for it. 

But there are still folks who don't understand why my books are more expensive or why the collection I offer doesn't compare to the one they can find at Barnes and Noble. 

So let me explain. Let me offer just a few ways you can make your local shopping experience even better. 

- Let us help you. My selection is never going to compare to a larger chain store. The books we stock are chosen entirely by me and my two staff members. We order books based on our personal tastes, national bestseller lists, fellow independent bookstore owners and leaders, and customer recommendations. Our shelves are highly curated; what you find here, you won't necessarily find anywhere else. It's why I love shopping independently when I travel; I always find something new I wouldn't find in my own town. When you shop at a local, independently-run bookstore, do the staff favor: Don't limit yourself to that one book you're just dying to read. The fact is, we might not have it. The title you're looking for may be obscure or out-of-date or just not on that particular shop's shelves. Ask us for it, by all means! But if we don't have it, consider ordering it from us. Better yet, ask us for a comparable title. We can probably help you find something similar we think you might love. We are great at personal recommendations. It's what sets us apart, and it's why we're still in business. 

- Feign interest. Locally-owned shops are frequented by all kinds of folks. We love the wanderers, the ones who poke their heads in the door just to see what we're about. We find it hard to believe, but we know: Not everyone's a book lover. That's fine. But do us a favor, and if you're poking around, or if you're entering the premises with the sole purpose of finding a clean restroom, please do the proprietor a favor, and look around. Explore the shop. Make an effort to at least feign interest. You never know what treasures you might find, and more and more bookstores are offering a wider selection of gift product. Those products help us stay in business, so we love for you to buy those, too. If you're not a book lover, the book buying experience can still be for you.

- Shop smart. The books you find in any indie store are going to be more expensive than the very same titles at Target or Sam's or Amazon. Those big box stores have worked out deals -- some fair, some not-so-fair -- with publishing companies, and by buying and stocking in bulk, they receive better discounts than we do. It's a part of the business I'm still coming to terms with, but please know: The prices on the back of the book are the prices we have to charge, both to run our business and to maintain relationships with our publishers. For reference, adult paperback books typically run anywhere between $15 and $18; hardbacks are more expensive and run from $22 to $28, depending on their size. Those prices have been set by publishing companies, and they ensure authors and sales reps and printers and marketing personnel get paid fairly. There's not much I can do about the prices of the books I sell. Please shop knowing those prices are entirely comparable to the books you'll find at Barnes and Noble or Books a Million, but they're never going to be comparable to what you can find on Amazon. Please don't be surprised when I tell you the price of a book, and above all, refrain from telling me where you can find it for less. I already know. (The same rule, by the way, applies to shopping at local boutiques and clothing stores. Don't roll your eyes at the prices, or say you can find the same thing for less at TJ Maxx. An independently-run shop can't even begin to compare to a discount clothing store.)

- Take pictures. I love when customers pull out their phones to snap pictures of the store. Our staff works diligently to ensure we've created a colorful, lively atmosphere in our shop, and customers photographing those details makes me one happy girl. The customers who go above and beyond, though, ask our permission. It's such a small gesture, but it's kind, and it shows they understand what we're up against. I can't tell you how many times I've noticed a customer not-so-discreetly snapping a picture of a book title they can buy online -- for less money -- later. Please: Don't be that person. Instead, take pictures of our displays. Share them on social media. Be a voice for us! Advertising is expensive, and it's far more effective for you to tell your friends where we are and how they can support us. Word of mouth is our best friend, and a lot of it now happens online. 

- Talk to us. The only way we can beat Amazon is by offering what they can't: Customer service and a place to hang out. We are desperate to become your community gathering place. It's why our store has an event at least once a week. It's why we read stories to your kids and invite local authors and give you stamps when you need to mail a letter. We want you to spend your time with us; local businesses are dying to be your Cheers. I love customers who come in and want to chat about the book they just read. I want to know what they thought and if they told their book club about it and how many copies I should order for their friends. I want to tell you what I just finished reading, and I want us to be respectful of each other's tastes. I want my bookstore to be a safe place for you to gather to think and debate and visit and read. I am trying to learn your name, and I'd love for you to learn mine. Grab a book off of a staff recommendation shelf and tell me if you loved it too. These are the things Amazon can't take from us -- they're trying, with Good Reads, and I understand why people love it. But nothing beats interacting with an actual human being. It's messy and it's funny and it's where good stories come from.

Attend events. Follow small businesses on social media. Spread the word. Put your money where your mouth is. We're all on a budget, and the Internet has spoiled us: We want it cheap, and we want it now. Shopping locally reminds us there's a better way, a way you can spend money right in the heart of your community and see it reap the rewards. Small businesses employ your neighbors and offer gathering places; their store selections are probably hand chosen with your community in mind. (I can't tell you how many books I stock not because I love them, but because I know Thomasville will love them. I choose books and gifts I believe my community will love. I shop with them in mind, and in turn, I hope they do the same for me.) 

Owning your own business is a labor of love. I imagine it's a lot like caring for a baby, and like a new mom, I've had to grow accustomed to ill-fitting advice or well-intentioned opinions. But like a new mom, I can stand up for myself and let a customer know when they've crossed the line. Telling me you'd rather shop for a cheap book on Amazon than wait two days for me to get it to you at an average price is where the line falls. Those words aren't just hurtful, they're bad for my business. I want you to know where you're money goes. I want you to know how much it means when you choose to do your business locally.

Most of my readers here aren't in my neck of the woods. That's okay. Shop locally right where you are. I guarantee there are shops in your neighborhood who could use and would love your support. I know it's faster and easier to shop online. But faster and easier isn't always better. Slow and steady, remember, wins the race. 

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

6/52 :: on work as work.


I spent last week in Asheville, soaking in my first-ever booksellers conference. Jordan and I went together; the event had been on my calendar for months, and I was desperate not only to be surrounded by fellow "book people," but to spend some alone time with Jordan, to talk and dream and think together.

Wouldn't you know, then, that I woke up Sunday morning with a head so congested and heavy I thought it might fall right off? I spent the entire conference sneezing like a madwoman, soggy Kleenex stuffed in my pockets, fellow booksellers avoiding me as if I had the plague.

It was less than ideal. 

The week was supposed to be, in my estimation, magical. (I am what you would call a "high expectations" person.) I was surrounded by mountains and experienced booksellers. I came home with 40 new advanced reader copies to tackle. John Green gave us all a pep talk! But with chills and a runny nose, work becomes just work, and the conference just another conference.

My life as a bookseller and entrepreneur is complicated. I am living my dream, but most days, I just feel tired. It's a shame, because if I ever take a moment to think about it, what I'm doing is pretty cool. Unfortunately, those moments for reflection are few and far between when bills need to be paid and a fraudster uses stolen credit cards to spend $5,000 at your tiny bookstore. 

Last week, I entered a hotel ballroom filled with 500 other bookstore owners and booksellers, and I was just as intimidated by these fellow "book people" as I was by the attorneys I met at the legal conferences I used to attend. At first glance, I was the youngest person in the room by decades. In some classes, I was the most conservative; in others, the newest. Independent bookstores, I am pleased to tell you, run the gamut, and because each store has its own unique personality, so do the people who own them.

I am learning, then, that life is mostly about figuring out who you are and then being that person. The "good for you, not for me," mantra Amy Poehler gave us all last fall resonates in the business world, too. What's good for someone else's store might not be good for mine. (Or it might be, who knows?) I might fit in with the other booksellers I meet; I might not. What's important, I think, is to keep my head down and do the work.

Winter Institute wasn't a waste. I came home with new books to read and new tricks to try. I'm armed with knowledge I didn't have before, and I've got some fun events up my sleeve after being inspired by other bookstores across the country. I learned a great deal about how to run my business, and in a world that can feel small, I was reminded I'm one of many trying desperately to bring books to the masses.

Life is what we make it, and it doesn't always feel very magical in the moment. My work conference was like a lot of other work conferences I've been to, but on the other hand? It wasn't dull. And I took notes I knew I'd actually use. I met a couple of people who -- given time -- I think I could really connect with over this whole bookselling thing. I visited a new city, and I was reminded I'm really pretty lucky, even when the bank account is low and snot is running down my nose. 

Work, it is always important to note, feels like work. It is work. But if I could just keep loving this thing I do 60 hours a week? Maybe it will be magical after all. 

Friday, February 6, 2015

reading recap: january 2015.



What a lovely month for getting back into my reading groove! January was full of excellent stories and up-all-night page-turning, and my reading choices covered a variety of genres. One of my new year's reading resolutions was to read more diversely, and by thoughtfully planning out my book queue for the month, I believe I accomplished that. Here's what was on my nightstand in January: 

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. This historical fiction novel -- a finalist for the National Book Award -- earned much-deserved praise at the end of 2014, but I delayed my own reading of the novel. It seemed like the kind of book you'd need to get lost in, and I was right. For the first two weeks of last month, I was completely mesmerized by Anthony Doerr's poetic, character-driven novel set in 1940s France. I couldn't put the book down, and yet each night, I made myself set it aside. This was a book meant to be read slowly; I chewed instead of devoured, and I'm so glad I did. I haven't read a lot of historical fiction since high school -- it's not a genre I'm often drawn to -- but this one really captured the intensity and sadness of a time in our world's history, while also telling a beautiful, bittersweet story. It's a book less about war and more about the people affected by it, and it needs to be on your nightstand, immediately. 

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. The publisher's description of this new novel reads a bit like a suspense-filled thriller, but instead it's a sad, thought-provoking look at how one mixed-race family deals with immense tragedy: the loss of their child and sibling. Author Celeste Ng will have you hooked from the first sentence, and if you're like me, you'll follow along, mesmerized by her depiction of grief and overwhelmed by its consequences. Everything I Never Told You was a local book club pick last month, and their discussion was proof of the novel's power; if you're looking for your own book club selection, add this one to your list. 

Scary Close by Donald Miller. I have been a Donald Miller fan for years; I read Blue Like Jazz in college, and A Million Miles in a Thousand Years gave me the push I needed to quit my corporate job and eventually own The Bookshelf. His new book, Scary Close, released this week (happy birthday to me!), and I can't recommend it enough, particularly for readers of Brene Brown's Daring Greatly or Henry Cloud's Boundaries. The book -- told in his characteristically conversational style -- covers Miller's own struggles with vulnerability and insecurity; I found myself frequently highlighting and underlining passages before reading segments aloud to Jordan. In fact, Scary Close would be a good book for spouses to read together (co-reading is good for you; haven't you heard?), and it's got great discussion potential for church small groups or business leadership workshops. 

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven. All the Bright Places was my young adult book of the month; its realistic prose is popular right now -- thank you, John Green, for saving us from the vampires -- but novelist Jennifer Niven takes things even deeper by tackling some tough issues with her new novel. All the Bright Places addresses bipolar disorder and manic depression, suicide and grief, but Niven handles the content deftly, and I never found myself bogged down by sadness. Instead, I read with my eyes opened to the challenges facing those with depression; my own dear friend in high school struggled with undiagnosed bipolar disorder, and Niven's book -- more than any other I've read, I think -- brought his struggles to life for me. Because of its content, I would recommend this one for older high school students, but don't be alarmed: Niven weaves in some truly beautiful, funny moments, too. (After all, life -- especially life in high school -- is a mix of every emotion under the sun. All the Bright Places covers all of these well.) 

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson. While I'd recommend All the Bright Places to a primarily YA audience, Brown Girl Dreaming -- a middle reader book and National Book Award winner -- should be required reading for all of us, old and young alike. In Brown Girl Dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson tells the story of her childhood entirely in free verse; the story is made even more powerful through this unique telling, and in the book's pages, children and adults are introduced to worlds familiar and unfamiliar. Here's what I mean: I'm younger -- and whiter -- than Woodson, so many of her stories I needed to hear, but they weren't stories we necessarily shared. But her descriptions of life in the South, of sweltering heat and overwhelming religion and close-knit family? I found myself in those. You will find yourself in these pages, too; I'm sure of it. 

See How Small by Scott Blackwood. I'm not even sure how to describe Scott Blackwood's newly released novel, set in the heart of Texas and -- like a lot of books I read this month -- in the middle of tragedy. The book is loosely based on a real, unsolved murder of three girls in Austin, Texas, but its focus is never on the crime itself. Instead, like Celeste Ng's Everything I Never Told You, the novel covers the reactions of the girls' community, the impact of grief on a family and a town. It's a beautifully-written work; the three girls hover like specters throughout the novel, speaking in one unified voice when they appear at all, and the chapters read more like poetry than prose. See How Small is reminiscent of Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones, but it's also entirely its own. 

The Localist by Carrie Rollwagen. This book came across my Instagram feed last month -- thanks, Birmingham friends! -- and I'm so glad it did. Writer and blogger Carrie Rollwagen spent a year shopping locally, but this isn't another book tracking the 365 days of her adventure; instead, it's a thoughtful, engaging look at the economics and consequences of shopping small. Rollwagen is never preachy, but she is convicting, and her book inspired me to take a look at my own purchasing habits. Full disclosure: Rollwagen also spent three years as an independent bookstore owner, and her stories were often similar to my own, which validated some of the thoughts and struggles I have as a new entrepreneur. At the very least, The Localist will encourage you to second guess your purchases, to shop responsibly, and -- perhaps most importantly -- to engage with your community more kindly.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

5/52 :: friendship.


Thank you for the most loving, encouraging comments on my last essay. It was a difficult piece to publish, as Jordan and I are still very much in the middle of our faith story, but I have always found comfort in putting pen to paper, and publishing the essay provided me with a great deal of relief. "I write because I don't know what I think until I read what I say." So said Flannery O'Connor, and so I believe. Thanks for allowing me to do that safely here.

--

When we moved to Thomasville a year ago, I thought friends would happen not only eventually, but quickly. We visited church after church, and I poured myself into work, and thanks to those avenues, we met some of the most lovely people. But because of time and energy and yes, I suppose, introversion, it's taken longer than I thought to really cement my place outside the store's walls. And I had begun to think of friendship in terms of my old life versus my new one, which -- when I think about it -- wasn't fair to either.

I think when we leave one life behind for the next, the past life -- the one we're done with, the one we're trying to get over -- grabs hold of us, like bubble gum on the bottom of a shoe. It's sticky and messy and memorable, and it's hard to let go. Our years in Tallahassee were precious and good. They were hard, but the past always looks a bit rosier than reality, and moving beyond those friendships and those memories has been more difficult than I imagined it would be. 

Those friendships from my Tallahassee years? I don't have any intention of moving beyond them; they are still a big part of my life, even from afar. But I think I'd be making a mistake if all of my community was located away, out of my physical reach. We all do this, with the Internet and with the ghosts of our old lives, and although it's comforting, it's also a little less real. There's no mess, no real risk. No vulnerability is required to cling to the things we already know.

Last month, I worked up the courage to email some women in Thomasville about starting a book club. It should have been a no-brainer: I run a bookshop, and I love to read, and my Tallahassee book club was a huge success (and is still going strong, if I'm not mistaken). But for some reason, it took me months to become brave enough just to ask if there was any interest. When I'd finally dared to compose a draft email, I complained to Jordan I didn't know anyone to invite. 

He came up with a list of ten. 

Too often, we get in the way of our own successes. Fear stops us in our tracks and prevents us from moving forward. I thought I could come up with, at the most, five names. Jordan named 10, and I eventually invited 14. Twelve RSVP'd yes. 

My success rate won't always be that high, I know. The book club hasn't even had its first meeting yet, so I have no idea who will come and who won't. But just the responses were reminders that life isn't nearly as hard as I make it. Neither is community. 

A year after moving to Thomasville, I'm seeing signs of new life. I'm watching the seeds of friendship I planted in 2014 sprout up and grow. And the truth is, I'm not sure what kindred spirits will rise up out of this town. But I didn't know what kindred spirits would come from Tallahassee, either. I forget those relationships took time and effort; it was months, years, before I developed the friendships I now treasure so much.

I celebrated my 29th birthday this week. Monday, some girls came over to eat cake and ice cream and watch The Bachelor. They're all a little younger than I am -- one even made a joke about women in their 30s, the nerve! -- but it's fun. It's silly and ridiculous, and it's community.

Wednesday morning, I got up early to meet a girl for coffee and Scripture reading. And we don't go to the same church, and I'm far behind on the reading, but that's community. 

Tonight, I'll get together with a few business women in town, women who I met through the bookstore but who have become -- dare I say it? -- friends. Some of them are older than me, and they all have children, and life is so crazy we can't get together on a regular basis, but that's okay. It's community. 

This week, I've received cards and gifts and texts from all over this country, and I was reminded that the effort we put into friendship matters. It's worth the time and the vulnerability and the discomfort and the frustration. True friendships reap infinite rewards, and I'm so grateful I've got these little pockets of community in Boulder, in Jacksonville, in Kansas City, in Birmingham, in Chicago, in Nashville, in Montgomery. 

But I'm grateful today, too, for the community I've started to build here. I'm grateful for Bachelor nights and business meetings, for book club emails and dinners out. I'm grateful for friends of all ages and life stages, for all the people I've met thanks to a little bookstore in downtown Thomasville I now call mine. 

Tuesday, a friend stopped by the store to bring me a gift for my birthday. And I couldn't believe how much a small thing could mean. I couldn't believe I'd spent a year in Thomasville thinking I didn't have community, when -- wouldn't you know it? -- I'd been building it all along.

Friday, January 30, 2015

spoken in the shop, vol. 20.



On New York Times bestsellers
Customer: "I couldn't get into Gone Girl. I just like bestsellers."
Me: "Well, Gone Girl was on the bestseller list for about two and a half years, so..."

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On day drinking
"If I seem a little drunk, I'm not. I just have vertigo right now."

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On trash TV
Customer commenting on my reading habits: "A book a week? Do you ever just watch Jerry Springer or something?"

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On our special Cheers-like atmosphere
Customer: "I just love that you guys know my name."

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On Unbroken
"You haven't read Unbroken yet? Oh, you must! I didn't like the movie though. Well, really [whispers], I don't like that woman director."

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On living the dream
Former coworker to me: "I just had to come see you. It's rare to know someone who vocalizes their dream and then makes it happen... in record time! And you were so right about Gone Girl; you were an early adopter!"

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On that generic vibe we're definitely not aiming for
"It's like a little Books-A-Million. You know what? We need a Books-A-Million in Thomasville."

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On what not to do at a free letter writing event
Customer: "Oh, I thought this was a letter writing club. These are all just notecards."
Manager: "We have some paper on the table as well, if you'd prefer that."
Customer: "I'm used to writing 12-page letters to my friends, so that won't work either."

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On why sometimes, you should shop Amazon
"Do you guys have cereal here?"