This month, Avid Bookshop opened its doors in Athens, Georgia, three years after proprietor Janet Geddis was struck with the desire to own a bookstore. Geddis started with no bookselling experience nor any financial backing, but since 2008 she has sought wisdom from the best in the business and raised enough money to get her charming brick-and-mortar store up and running. Along the way I admired her (Twittered) enthusiasm and tenacity, as well as her unwavering connection to her local community. I even ordered a few books from her online store. I looked forward to conducting this interview; I knew the day would come soon. Now I have another reason to go to Athens (the first one being my sincere hope of running into the B52s).
The Millions: What made you want to open a bookstore–especially at this juncture in the world of reading?
Janet Geddis: I love books. I will refrain from discussing how much I love touching them and smelling them and that whole true but perhaps overdone monologue. I opened Avid Bookshop for so many reasons, but one that comes to mind at the moment involves the sheer number of books that are out there. There’s more out there to read than at any other time in the world, and the number of options is growing exponentially. Readers can use help from us to discover which of those books should be their next read.
For me, owning a bookstore is the perfect way to combine several things I am passionate about: my city, reading, bringing people together, and talking about books.
TM: Can you talk a little bit about how you got to this moment — with opening weekend just behind you? That is, what went into learning how to run a bookstore, raising funds, getting support, and so on?
JG: I went to my first Book Expo America event in 2008, just a few months after deciding I wanted to open a bookstore. Most people I talked to at BEA immediately asked me, “So, have you worked in a bookstore before?” They were always surprised (and perhaps a bit disapproving) when they learned that, at that point, I had zero bookstore cred. (I wonder now why they asked a yes or no question like that if they were so sure I had had bookselling experience.) I admit that I felt dismissed by some publishing folks I met, and that’s okay. It took a lot of convincing to show people — myself included — that I was serious about this as a career move and that, despite my lack of bookselling experience, I actually did have what it took to start and run my own store.
Much of what I learned I encountered in the lulls, the times when I had unexpected delays in my opening process. When I began this journey, I had a business partner. After the first year of research, she changed her mind (for very good reasons, I might add), and I had to take some time off to decide whether or not I wanted to pursue our dream on my own. I didn’t have the best timing for this dream, financially speaking. Though I had no personal debt, I did decide to open a small, independent book business right as the country’s economy crashed and small business funding got even more difficult to come across. Over the last few years, I’ve met so many kind and thoughtful bankers who loved my bookstore business plan but simply couldn’t take the risk on a brand-new business like mine.
So among the loan proposals and failed angel investment plans and some personal health issues, I went to every single bookselling conference I could get to. I visited every bookstore I could and made sure to set aside time to talk with some veteran booksellers about my idea. I also talked about my dream of opening Avid Bookshop with many folks in my community and realized I was hitting a nerve. My city is artsy and creative and has really vibrant culture, yet we had no bookstore that sold new books and hosted events. It’s the ideal town for an independent bookstore, so when people heard about my plans, they did all they could to rally behind me as I continued to put the plan together and raise funds to open.
TM: Was there any specific advice you got from veteran book people that helped you in this process? And was there a specific bookstore in the country that particularly inspired you?
JG: This question makes me extremely nervous, as I’m continually afraid I’m going to hurt someone’s feelings by accidentally neglecting to mention a certain person or bookstore that really helped me out. That said, I would love to say that WORD Brooklyn showed me that a really small store can have a really big impact, and Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn showed me that, when a community supports you, you can exceed even your own expectations for your business. Little Shop of Stories in Decatur, GA demonstrated to me how invigorating it can be to sell books to kids. Over the Moon Bookstore & Artisan Gallery (Virginia), Books & Books (Miami), Bound to Be Read Books (Atlanta), and many, many more highlighted how loyal customers will be to owners and booksellers who are genuine in their love of people and books. And now I’m getting nervous, ’cause I know I missed some obvious people here.
TM: What’s the hardest part about being a bookstore owner in 2011?
JG: One of the most frustrating parts about being a bookstore owner in 2011 is probably what was hardest at any other point in bookselling time: there is so much to do I feel I can never, ever keep up. Already it’s hard to keep my head above water (and I don’t mean this to complain: I’m having an amazing time so far — but this is so incredibly hard). I knew going into this that I would not be sitting at the front counter for hours on end, feet propped up, cup of tea on the desk with a book in my hand. But no amount of preparation could have readied me for the volume of work. And the better I get at it, even more work follows.
TM: What makes Avid special?
JG: It’s difficult to pinpoint what makes this store special, but I’ll risk it with the following claim: I think it’s the amount of love that went into creating this shop that has made it even more magical than what I dreamt. Many people I’ve never met have walked in and said that they’ve been following our story over the last few years and are thrilled that we’re finally open. And then there are some friends and family who have been by my side this entire time, and they’ve been proud to come into the store and see the wall they painted or the shelf they installed or the shelf talker they wrote. All along I said I wanted a community-focused bookstore, and that has really come to fruition so much sooner than I’d expected. I think the bonds with the community are going to just get stronger the longer we’re here.
TM: What has been the most surprising aspect of getting into the bookstore business?
JG: This is something I probably shouldn’t admit, but I’m shocked at the number of serious readers out there! For so many years I thought I was one of a small crowd, that there existed very few people who read as voraciously as I. Boy, was I wrong. It’s a great surprise, though my happiness at this discovery is certainly tempered by my frustration that, all of a sudden, I have no time to read. I have gotten about 80 pages into The Night Circus over the last ten days, whereas before I would’ve had it read in two days. I miss reading and am soon going to start taking regular days off (gasp!) in order to keep up with my book addiction.
TM: What’s the first book you will hand-sell with a vengeance?
JG: This reminds me of that impossible question, “What’s your favorite book?” Oh my. I can feel my heart rate increasing as I try to come up with an answer for you. I can say that I have spoken passionately about Tayari Jones’s Silver Sparrow, Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me, and Laurel Snyder’s Bigger Than a Bread Box enough to convince several people in the last couple of weeks to take a chance on these works they’d not heard of before. I keep telling people that I am on a mission to get people to read books that are not marketed to their age bracket or gender.
Image credit: imanavidreader.blogspot.com