Thursday, March 21, 2013

Can Small Town America Support Bookstores? An Owner’s Tale

The commonly accepted narrative about bookstores is that they’re doomed. People simply won’t go to bricks-and-mortar spaces to buy hardbacks and softcovers when they can pull up a web browser, click or tap a couple of times, and boom! Either an e-book is on their screen or that supposedly archaic bundle of paper is on its way.

But while certain undeniable facts—the closing of Borders and the rise of Amazon as the alpha dog in the bookselling industry among them—prove this impression to be true-ish, there are other signs that cast doubt on it. Some of these are factual and some anecdotal. In the case of the latter, Half Price Books is always jam packed when I go into one of the four Kansas City locations to buy more books I probably don’t need. Also, I recently read The Atlantic’s feature on Ann Patchett, who is not only bankrolling a bookstore in Nashville but also got a spot on the Colbert Report because of it. (I’m not jealous, honest. OK, yeah I am.) Third, I have spoken in four independent bookstores in the past few months and at all but one of my other events (libraries, community groups, etc.) indies provided the books.

The most recent of my bookstore talks was at Well Read in Fulton, Missouri, a two-story brick building on the very parade route that Winston Churchill took hours before he introduced the world to the terms “iron curtain” (he didn’t invent but popularized it) and “special relationship” in March 1946. Until last year, the store was somewhat disorganized, did little to no marketing and didn’t offer a space for reading or book events. All that has changed since Brian and Danielle Warren took over. I grabbed a few minutes with Brian to talk about book curating, the joy of sifting through boxes of old history books, and why two young, intelligent people took over a used bookshop in a small Midwestern town. 

What is your background?

Danielle and I met in San Francisco and were both in the technology business for many years. She’s from Jefferson City [Missouri] and we moved back in May 2012 to change our lifestyle.

How did you find out about the bookstore opportunity?

The Fulton Sun ran a clever story in July last year, in which the first line read, “Kathryn Wade is selling a cat for $25,000.” My wife loves cats, so that got her hooked right away. We were looking to start or take over a business and as we both love books, it just seemed perfect.

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