The following is Part One of an essay wrote for a book coming out this year about local bookstores in West Virginia. I hope you enjoy it.
“So, why did you want to buy a bookstore?” I have heard that on more than one occasion. The person would be looking around my shop, and I would wonder exactly what it was they were thinking. Were they sizing up our progress? Were they looking for the answer to the question somewhere on the walls? Sometimes the tone was smug. Sometimes it was disbelief. I bet what they were really thinking, “Isn’t this woman brave?”
I admit I took a leap of faith when I signed on the dotted line. My life had recently been filled with unwelcome changes. Divorce, early retirement for health reasons and empty nest syndrome hit me all at once. The middle age trifecta of pain. I felt as though I was floundering – searching for where my purpose could be fulfilled. “Hey, why NOT buy a bookstore?”
Thanks to my father I was an early reader. Every evening he and I would do our Atticus and Scout routine where I sat on his lap and we’d read together. Books became extensions of me. I knew we belonged together from the very beginning. To this day, when I hold a book I feel connected to not only my father but to whatever story lies within its pages. I carried on the parent/child experience of reading with my sons from their infancy. They are all avid readers. In fact, my oldest son is my partner. He chose The Hatter’s Bookshop for our name. His profession as a real life superhero only allows him limited time to actively participate in the day to day operations, but many times he has said he would love nothing more than to work here full time.
I grew up in the small town of Iaeger in McDowell County. My first experiences of buying a book came not from a large chain or department store but from Whitley’s Grocery Store. Mr. Whitley’s son was the town doctor. His clinic was adjoined to the store. After checkups (sometimes including the dreaded shots) I was allowed to get a treat from the store. I don’t ever remember choosing candy. I’m sure I did, but all I ever remember getting was a Golden Book from a rotating wire rack at the front of the store. I loved the shiny gold spines and the colorful covers. They made the sting from the shot in my bottom hurt a little less.
So there I was in my early fifties and I needed something to lessen the aforementioned “trifecta sting.” I had been a customer of the store and its predecessor for years. It originated as The Book Exchange and evolved into Dayfly Books & Collectibles. The owner posted its availability on Facebook. I remember sitting there thinking I wanted it, but could I possibly do it? I spoke with my sons. I talked to friends. What should I do? Finally, a friend cleared the way for my decision. She asked, “Do you want to own a bookstore?” Heck yeah, I wanted to own a bookstore!
,I did a good bit of research about where bookstores stand in the Age of Amazon and eReaders. Here’s what I found: There is a shift back in the direction of physical books. Turns out that people prefer to hold a book in their hands, to flip its pages, to smell the paper and, yes, even a little dust. They enjoy the serendipitous social interaction that occurs in a bookstore when they run across friends in the aisles. They enjoy discussing books with strangers who may have read them or have a common interest in a subject. Personal interaction fills a need we all have. Amazon does not and cannot meet that need. I engage in and witness those one-on-one interactions every day and feel so blessed by them. When a customer tells me they have looked everywhere for a certain book and they found it here, I am filled with joy. The blessings are reciprocal. You can’t get that from a glass screen. However, I will add that in our own small way we capitalize on Amazon’s presence. Our online sales via the internet giant provide a healthy supplement to our bottom line. Our book descriptions always begin with “Fast shipping from a small, family-owned business on this book.” Our goal is to make connections regardless of venue.
The financial investment for us was not large. We only bought the inventory and fixtures and rented the building, so I wasn’t risking my financial future. I visited Haslam’s Bookstore in St. Petersburg, FL while on vacation when I was contemplating this leap. It’s Florida’s largest bookstore, and it is impressive. I met the owner and told him my plans. His first words were that I should not risk my retirement on such an investment. When I told him the financial risk was small, his demeanor totally changed. “By all means go for it but don’t expect to make a living from it.” I left Haslam’s more determined than ever that I would make my bookstore successful in the age of technology.
In July of 2016 I jumped in with both feet and little clue where owning a business is concerned, but I did know that downtown Princeton was on the upswing. The Princeton Renaissance Project was well underway by that time. A rebuilding of the theater, new businesses, beautification and word on the street had everyone excited about the future. We wanted to be a part of the upcoming growth of The Mercer Street Grassroots District. Here’s something you need to know about me: I am a woman full of determination. I sat down and waded through all of the red tape and paperwork required for starting a business and set about getting the store more organized. There was a lot of physical and mental work involved. I loved it. Thankfully, I had plenty of help. I could never have done it on my own. My son’s girlfriend and a couple of friends were a huge help. His girlfriend was pregnant with my granddaughter at the time but was by my side up until the baby was born in November.
There came the first of many challenges in my personal life from the very beginning. I was thrilled to be a grandmother, but I temporarily no longer had the help I needed. It was up to me to run the store six days a week on my own. Little did I know that was only a tiny bump compared to what was to come. Within a week of my granddaughter’s birth, I injured my hip. The pain was intense. Still, I opened the store all but a couple of days because the holiday season was upon us.
My determination and love of what I was doing continued to be tested for the next eighteen months. If someone had told me what lay ahead I may have decided to just stay in bed with the covers over my head. By March 2017 I had moved in with my parents when my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. I was their only child. There was never a question when making that decision. Family members and I worked out a schedule so that the store could remain open most days.
Over the course of the next four months I watched my robust 91 year-old father slowly waste away. My mentor in life. My rock. I was exactly where I needed to be, but in the back of my mind I worried about the effect the irregular store hours was having on my new business. Once he was gone in July, my 96 year-old mother began to lose her will to live and again I watched a beloved parent waste away. She followed him two days after Christmas. As fate would have it, my home, which had been on the market for two years, sold. In the two days between her death and her services I had to move. Friends and family were godsends. Without them I would never have made it let alone the store. By the end of the year I was never so glad to have a period of my life behind me. Little did I know that a larger storm was to come.
So, we will pause here as to not draw this out, but keep in mind that like the picture above says, “Life happens in the flicker.”