Roanoke will soon have a new independent bookstore. Doors will open at Book No Further on October 17 at 10 AM in the 16 West Marketplace (16 West Church Street, Roanoke). In anticipation, owner Doloris Vest filled us in on what she’s learned planning and preparing for the business.
BOOK CITY ★ Roanoke: Folks are excited about the prospect of a new independent bookstore in Roanoke. What inspired your decision to open a bookstore?
Doloris Vest: Really, it was a combination of timing and research. I became interested a couple of years ago when a friend from high school purchased a store in Florida. I attended a conference in Atlanta in March 2016 and learned some basics talking to many bookstore owners, including those in business for years and several not yet opened. My husband and I did traditional business research and created a business plan. We looked at demographics, consumer trends, industry trends and any other piece of information we could find. We also visited 20 or more bookstores up and down the East Coast: NY, PA, MD, WV, VA, NC, SC, GA, FL and (on a spring break trip) Denver and Boulder CO.
Key points we learned:
- Big boxes Barnes & Noble and Borders killed off a lot of indie stores and then Amazon killed off a lot of big boxes so that now the community book store as a “space” is coming back.
- E-readers stole book business but have now leveled off; more and more people are reading in more than one format. This held true in our survey.
- The “shop local” phenomenon is helping all kinds of small retail, especially if you cater to the specifics of your market.
The real question became “Why does Roanoke not have an independent bookstore?” Someone was going to do it sooner or later and I wanted it to be me. Offering new and used books together and becoming an involved member of the community appears to be the best recipe.
Originally we were looking at opening sometime in 2018. By chance, I had coffee at Little Green Hive at 16 West Marketplace and noticed an empty retail space. By the time we met with the building manage, Aaron Garland, a larger, better-positioned space was available by the front door. It offered many of the things I’d learned from store visits that make a store successful including coffee(!), event space, and foot traffic. It is also is an opportunity to start with less opening capital and risk, a good way to test the market.
BCR: You’re really doing your homework. Are there one or two start-up bookstore that you’re taking a lead from through their lessons learned and successes.
DV: I took a lot of notes from my discussions with storeowners. Those include Carrie Wolfgang at A Novel Destination in Jamestown, NY. She has a low-tech set up based primarily on trading paperback fiction. Her store had probably the highest-density inventory I saw anywhere and she knew where to find everything. She is co-located with a barber in a ranch-style house on a main drag. Lots of people waiting for a hair cut like to pick up a book. On the far end of the spectrum is the brand new Amazon store on Columbus Circle in New York. Something like 3,000 books in 4,000 square feet – a ratio that would never pay off for an independent store. The attraction is the welcoming, open atmosphere. Every book faced out and had a personal recommendation from staff or from their online comments. The selection was tiny in any one category, but so well presented you wanted to look at everything.
Most bookstores fall in between. Fiction Addiction in Greenville, SC, had incredible shelving and shared the plans to build them. She also has many author events that bring in crowds. Scuppernong Books in Greensboro, NC, lures in students by having beer and wine. The Winchester (VA) Book Gallery has a great combination of books for local residents and visitors. Owner Christine Patrick gave me great tips on how to understand your customers and keep fine-tuning the inventory.
My friend, Kerry Johnson, who owns The Family Book Shop in Deland, FL, has been a great mentor, answering hundreds of emails and offering great advice on what works and why. Understanding that every store is different and has to be tweaked to the community.
DV: I have a notebook full of advice I wrote down from that week, so one big piece is hard to pull out. I learned a lot of book-business lessons, such as ways to engage with the public and how to organize author events so that everyone benefits. Talking to publishers and distributors opened up a bunch of contacts.
Everyone I have met has been so encouraging. There’s a camaraderie among bookstore owners that springs from knowing we all have a part in keeping the industry healthy. Probably the best advice is to stop over thinking the planning and “go home and sell some books.”
BCR: You have a varied background: marketing, workforce development, and business association management. How do you see that experience contributing to the running of your own business?
DV: The most important benefit of my background turns out to be the many, many contacts I have made in the Roanoke Valley since I moved here in 1993. I’ve worked directly with business owners who understood the real purpose of marketing is to drive business and that there are many, many ways to do that. Workforce development introduced me to the various challenges facing businesses of all sizes and how having the right employees are key to business success. Running a chamber of commerce, I worked directly with small businesses to identify what they most needed to stay profitable and then offering programs, contacts and advice on how to solve the problems. As it turns out, coming back to my communication origins, people not knowing about a business is a very common issue leading to closing. I feel like I’ve benefited greatly from seeing business people successfully running business, most often because they were willing to face challenges head on and finding the right resources to address them.
My marketing career taught me how interesting it can be to learn a new industry and carry good practices from one to another. And my bachelor’s from Radford University is in journalism so I am a writer at heart!
BCR: Is there a fictional character or a biography subject who you look to for inspiration as an entrepreneur?
From a practical sense, I just discovered through a bookstore owner, Paco Underhill’s book, Why We Buy. His insights into how the retail public shops and reacts to even relatively small environmental cues has already helped.
For inspirstion and sanity I love Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace by Gordon MacKenzie. Anyone who’s ever felt their creativity is eeking away in a big, lumbering organization should read this to laugh and to learn how to survive
BCR: Those are both on my shelves at home! There are general practices that can benefit businesses anywhere, and there may be aspects unique to Roanoke. What are you learning about our community as you prepare to open?
DV: The process has confirmed what wonderful people are in Roanoke. The number of people who have contacted me, not to see how I can help them, hire them or promote their book, but to offer to help me. Professionals offering free services. Writers (Beth Macy) sending out our announcements to their audiences. Publicity! I have always worked hard to get media and marketing attention for companies and organizations; the attention we’re getting is phenomenal and confirms that Roanoke should have an indie bookstore.
Another example of things falling into place, I wrote a feature on entrepreneurship for the September Valley Business Front. I was able to plumb the minds of some of the most successful business people in the Roanoke/New River Valleys. There is such an abundance of knowledge and advice available for the asking.
BCR: Not that you have time, but what are you reading now?
DV: I came home from New Orleans with tons of new-release books and advance reader copies of great stuff coming out through next spring. I am reading a book I bought at Garden District Book Store in New Orleans: Empire of Sin by Gary Krist. My preferred souvenir on any trip is a book about the local area or by a local author, especially history or historical fiction. (Read: Murder at the Brown Palace: A True Story of Seduction by Dick Kreck and set in Denver.) I read Michener’s Alaska before trip there, a book about Virginia Woolfe during a trip to London and this little obscure book—The Legend of Nance Dude by Maurice Stanley—while I was in Asheville. It’s a really sad story about a grandmother with a horrible choice to make.
- The book I go back to over and over: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
- Biggest challenge that was so worth plowing through: Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace.
- Last one that made cry: Lilly and the Octopus by Steven Rowley.
- Biggest surprise book recently: I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh
- Favorite Dr. Seuss book: Fox in Sox
BCR: And I’m guessing those will be available soon, hand sold locally, at Books No Further!
Book No Further’s grand opening event will be on Saturday, October 28, at 2 PM, featuring Beth Macy, who’s Truevine is being released this month in paperback.
BOOK CITY ★ Roanoke will continue celebrating independent businesses and space for community at 16 West on December 11, 2017 with the Finding Roanoke dinner featuring Dar Williams and Beth Macy. Tickets are only available with a purchase of Dar Williams’ What I Found in a Thousand Towns, available soon at Book No Further. ★