If you’re an author or poet, there’s only one way to get even closer to words: Purchase a bookstore. Giant shopping malls and generic big-box stores have fallen out of favor, giving way to a renewed appreciation for unique, independently owned businesses. Many towns across the country offer corner bookshops filled to bursting with readers. And many of these bookstores have owners who write poetry, fiction, and nonfiction themselves.
We caught up with five such owners to offer insight into what makes for a successful reading event, how best to develop a relationship with your region’s own bookseller, and how to create a vibrant literary community.
Books and wine
In October of 2015, author Carol Hoenig and her business partner, Peggy Zieran, took their 35 years of combined past experience at Borders Bookstore and opened their own bookstore and wine shop in Rockville Center, New York. Called Turn of the Corkscrew – in a witty nod to the Henry James novel – the little brick building with a cozy reading nook by the fireplace hosts book groups, workshops, music recitals, and wine tastings.
“We knew we needed another revenue stream in order to be successful,” Hoenig says. “Customers love the fact that when they come into the store, they can grab a glass of wine or a craft beer or coffee, and walk around and peruse our shelves before an event.”
Hoenig is the author of two novels, as well as The Author’s Guide to Planning Book Events. She’s a firm believer in moving away from the traditional reading/Q&A/signing event in favor of creating a party. She emphasizes the importance of reaching out to community members and specialty groups, recalling two self-published authors who wanted to host events in her store.
“They explained that they had a strong following and would create excitement about their book events via social media,” she says. ““Both authors worked in law enforcement, and they’d written crime novels. They knew how to promote their events. Their books did very well.”
However, all the planning and outreach in the world can’t guarantee a large audience. If that’s the case, Hoenig says, a professional author proceeds as planned. “Even if you have two people show up, you give them exactly what you were going to give 50 people,” she says. “It’s rude not to.”
As an author and a long-time bookseller, she knows first-hand the importance of treating booksellers with respect. She advises authors to resist the temptation to walk into a store and expect to speak immediately to busy staff members about carrying the book or hosting an event. Rather, she suggests reaching out via email, then following up with a polite phone call.
Word-of-mouth is the No. 1 way she and her staff sell books. They get to know their customers personally, and they recommend books based on patrons’ previous purchases. “We’re extremely interested in what they want to read,” Hoenig says. “That personalization really does benefit the town.”
She notes that small, independently owned businesses such as Turn of the Corkscrew make each town unique, “as opposed to every town having the same big-box stores that are everywhere,” she says.
“Please know,” she states on Turn of the Corkscrew’s website, “that when you make a purchase from your local independent bookstore, you are investing in a town that offers diversity rather than domination.”
Her community has responded in kind. Last year, when construction closed the street outside the bookstore for eight months, customers contributed to a GoFundMe campaign to keep the store in business despite sluggish sales.
These days, the store is thriving. On Monday nights, Hoenig hosts a podcast featuring author interviews. Along with book events, customers can take workshops in writing, public speaking, cooking, parenting, and, of course, wine appreciation.
“There’s always something happening in the store,” she says. “We want patrons to ask, ‘What’s happening at Turn of the Corkscrew tonight?’”
Turn of the Corkscrew is located at 110 N Park Ave, Rockville Centre, NY 11570 and online at turnofthecorkscrew.com.
Books and sock puppets
“How can you live in a place where there’s not an indie bookstore?”
Steve Mitchell and business partner Brian Lampkin asked themselves this question when they realized no independent bookstore existed in Greensboro, North Carolina and the surrounding region. “It’s impossible to conceive,” Mitchell says, “not just for the books, but for all the other things that happen in an indie bookstore.”
He and Lampkin launched Scuppernong Books in 2013, with an attached café that serves food, wine, and beer. It’s a big, bright space with green walls and round café tables under star-shaped lamps. Where once downtown Greensboro suffered for lack of businesses and pedestrians who flocked to the malls on the outskirts of the city, it’s now a vibrant space in which the bookstore thrives. “People don’t necessarily want to go to the mall now,” Mitchell notes. “They want to go downtown to the park and the movie theater, to restaurants where they can eat outside.”
Since the launch, they’ve hosted 30 to 40 events each month – not just author readings but also weddings and receptions, baby showers, and class reunions. “People enjoy the space, and it means something to them,” Mitchell says. “A good bookstore generates lots of different kinds of traffic.”
The bookshop also provides a place for political discussions fueled by “Scup TV,” a series of short videos online featuring sock puppets. After last year’s controversial House Bill 2 in North Carolina, which stated that people must use the bathroom that corresponds to the gender on their birth certificate, Mitchell and the rest of the Scuppernong staff made sock puppets and shot a humorous video designed to let people know that the store offered a unisex bathroom. Last November, staff shot a post-presidential election video with the socks, suggesting relevant books to purchase and read in response.
“It’s a lot of work, but we try to have fun,” Mitchell says. “At the same time, we’re very serious about being involved in the community and giving people a space to have difficult conversations.”
Mitchell, who writes poetry and essays as well as short stories, will publish his first novel in 2018. He readily acknowledges the vital role an author plays in ensuring the success of a bookstore event. Authors have to do a great deal of publicity and build an audience for a reading, he notes. “One of the mistakes people make is that they believe the bookstore’s own clientele will come out to their event,” Mitchell says. “But if we’re doing 30 or 40 events a month, that’s impossible. An author must engage a support network – neighbors, friends, other authors, professors.”
He promotes the store’s events on social media and explains that the more resources authors offer for publicity, the more he can help them. “If I can find a post with a selection of your work or a really cool review or a YouTube video, I’ll use that on our Facebook page to promote your event,” he explains. “Obviously, that’s a little more engaging than just posting a photo and saying, ‘Joe is coming in three days to talk about this.’”
Authors and community members committed to keeping Scuppernong a viable meeting place for book lovers can adopt a shelf for $125, which gets them a store membership with discounts plus their name on a hand-lettered sign on the shelf of their choice, along with one of their favorite books added to the store’s inventory.
“There was a community already here that knew it was something they were missing,” Mitchell says. “The initial excitement about the bookstore has continued; it’s been amazing.”
Scuppernong Books is located at 304 S Elm St, Greensboro, NC 27401 and online at scuppernongbooks.com.
Books and poets
Poet Billie Swift had been a patron of Seattle’s Open Books: A Poem Emporium for six years before she purchased the little red-painted shop with antique typewriters in the window. “Our family trips generally involved dusty used bookstores, and I’ve had books around me for as long as I can remember,” she says. “The physical book is such a remarkable, magical object, and where one gets them is equally magical and important.”
A successful store event, to Swift, means the poets feel they were given the opportunity to stand up and feel appreciated for their work. Often, two or three poets read together at her store, and they bring with them a strong community of both poets and nonpoets. She loves to see crowds of people in the audience who aren’t necessarily “into” poetry. “They’ll say, ‘Oh my god, I didn’t even know I loved poetry that much; that was amazing,’” she says. “This store has a way of surrounding poets so they feel respected and appreciated and heard.”
The number one thing anyone can do to support independent bookstores, Swift says, is to buy their books. But she also believes in the value of simply showing up as a reader, whether or not there’s an exchange of money. “Having people in the store, having books taken off the shelves and thumbed through and either loved and hated and discussed in some way, there is an energy that gets created,” she says. “The next person who walks into the store feels it; the person standing next to you feels it. People can inhabit those spaces physically, even if they’re not necessarily buying books.”
She notes that some people ask to put their book on the shelf but don’t buy poetry themselves. “There’s a large number of people who say, ‘I don’t read poetry; I only write poetry,’” she says. “Come in as a reader. That way, the bookstore gets to know you and build a relationship with you.”
She admires those readers who refer friends and family members to independent bookstores, including shops specializing in mysteries, cookbooks, and of course, poetry. “One of my favorite moments is when someone walks through the door and they have 45 minutes to kill, so they decide to come into the store, even though they don’t read much poetry,” she says. “They start asking questions, and they find a book that means something to them.”
She acknowledges that feeling that emerging authors and poets sometimes get when walking into a bookstore – the overwhelming sense that so many books have already been written, so why write their own? “The flip side is that it’s also an opportunity to commune with an impulse which is expansive across the globe, across cultures and languages and histories,” she says. “This urge to write, to create that moment and hand it to somebody else and let them take that moment is beautiful. Standing around a bookstore thinking there’s so many books here, what is the point of writing another, or how can I possibly say something new, is the overwhelming side, but it’s also abundant and really grounding.”
Open Books: A Poem Emporium is located at 2414 N 45th St, Seattle, WA 98103 and online at openpoetrybooks.com.
Books and music
Chuck Beard, freelance editor and author, opened East Side Story in Nashville five years ago with a commitment to stock only local authors on the shelves. Prints by regional artists and posters for Nashville’s indie musicals line the bookstore’s bright blue walls. “Make the most of your space,” he advises booksellers, “and go into the community and do different things.”
In 2015, he invited local poets and authors to submit original short stories with Nashville in the setting, then asked artists to produce a piece inspired by those stories. Musicians wrote original songs, also inspired by the stories. Beard published Based On: Words, Notes, and Art from Nashville as a book of text and artwork, including a CD.
“We did a big event at a local theater – readings of original prose, and the artists and musicians talked about their process,” he says. “It was a culmination of a lot of creative people and communities.”
One of Beard’s ongoing projects is Book Me!, a program that asks kids of any age to buy and read five books written by Nashville authors, then write each author a letter. Beard gives the letters to the authors and gives readers a certificate for an area restaurant. “Everyone wins!” the bookstore’s website notes. “Restaurants get great PR, authors get great feedback from readers, and kids of all ages support local writing and enjoy the passion of reading good stories!”
Having recently finished a novel as his MFA thesis, Beard is well aware of how daunting publishing can be for authors. To showcase their shorter work, he invites writers to respond to prompts on East Side Story’s website – prompts like “Best Gift I Ever Got” and “Spooky Story Campfire.” He refers to East Side Story as a blank canvas for local literary ideas.
“Most bookstores can’t necessarily take every book,” he explains. “They’re thinking of making money and paying bills, as are agents and people in the publishing business. It can be more about the money and less about the story. Our bookstore, and several other bookstores in the area, aren’t concerned with just mainstream books. We’re interested in those stories that might be self-published or unique and random – stories that deserve to be read and are as good or better than the New York Times best-sellers out there.”
Beard is equally supportive of independent musicians. “Just like writers, these musicians are some of the most talented people, and you won’t see them on billboards or in honky-tonks,” he says. “They’re in the same frustrated pool, trying to get their artwork across and connect with an audience.”
To that end, Beard hosts twice-monthly performances at a local restaurant for writers and musicians, and records and edits each event into an hour-long podcast. “I love that cross-promotion where an author’s fans will get to know a musician’s fans, and then there’s fandom between the artists,” he says. “Take away the writers, artists, and musicians in this city, and Nashville wouldn’t function.”
East Side Story is located at 1108 Woodland St., Unit B, Nashville, TN 37206. (615) 915-1808. eastsidestorytn.com.
Books and storytelling
“Sometimes, being a bookseller almost feels like being a bartender,” Laura Kendall of Second Flight Books in Lafayette, Indiana, explains. “People tell you all sorts of interesting stories about themselves. So many people want to talk with someone about what they’ve been reading.”
In the fall of 2016, Kendall left her government job to purchase the inventory of a store that was closing and open up her bright, spacious shop full of new and used books. She writes about the decision on her store’s blog:
“I’m a millenial – part of the generation that people assume live on screens – and I want a solid book in my hands. I want the smell of paper, of dust, even. I want a tactile thing to curl up with. I want dog-eared pages and the ability to scribble inside them if the words merit scribbling about.”
Author Roxane Gay read about Kendall’s new business and reached out, offering to do a reading. The event attracted a sizeable crowd and brought new customers to the store. “Word of mouth is the best way we advertise,” Kendall says. “Regular customers get super excited about our store, and they’re constantly telling people about it. It’s been really awesome to have that support.”
A recent MFA graduate busy revising a collection of essays, Kendall has learned about how important booksellers are to an author’s success. A conference in January offered insight into the enormous influence wielded by booksellers. “We’re the ones recommending books to people,” she says. “If you can get one bookseller to love your book, they’re going to tell other customers about it. Creating a relationship with a bookseller is an A-plus idea.”
She suggests that authors come into the store to talk with her about their new book. “There are so many presses and so many books out there,” she says. “It’s hard to support people and books you don’t know about.”
She notes the importance of book covers and back cover blurbs when deciding which books to stock on her shelves. “When I get a stack of ARCs every month, I can’t read them all, so blurbs matter a lot,” she says.
She works with the library and the local university to put on events, and Second Flight Books will sponsor Lafayette’s One Great Read event in the fall. She’s also collaborated with the owner of another independent bookstore in town. “She’s been great about referring people to us if she doesn’t have a particular book,” Kendall says. “We teamed up for Small Business Saturday, too; if you went to both stores, you got a discount.”
To help grow the bookstore, Kendall has been networking with community members, learning all about this business that has been – for decades – her dream job. Locals seek her out as well, in the bright, airy space she’s created for book-lovers. “Stories connect people,” she says. “When you read a good story, you want to tell people about it.”
Second Flight Books is located at 2200 Elmwood Avenue Suite D7, Lafayette, IN 47904 and online at facebook.com/SecondFlightBooks.
Contributing editor Melissa Hart is the author of two adult memoirs and a middle-grade novel, Avenging the Owl. She’s an independent editor and consultant for Creator & Collector Services. Web: creatorcollector.com.
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