There’s a scene in You’ve Got Mail, about halfway through the film, where Meg Ryan’s Kathleen Kelly begins to realize that it’s just not working.
The day is coming to an end. The last customers file out. She flips the sign from “Open” to “Closed” in the storefront window, retreats to table — a children’s table — to get an update from Birdie, a character played so wonderfully by Mary Stapleton.
You see, in the film she and her small-yet-merry band of staffers have taken their fight with Fox Books — F … O … X — to the airwaves and streets and everywhere else in between. Yet, despite the crush of attention, the humble bookstore’s foot traffic continues to fall and its sales trend downward.
It’s a sobering blow to Kelly as she starts to wrestle with the reality that this store, this charming Shop Around The Corner, just might not make it through after all. Birdie kisses her on the cheek, leaving Kelly to do what she feels is best.
Now, in the movie, of course, Kelly wins. She realizes Tom Hanks’s Joe Fox is her longtime AOL admirer, and they presumably live happily ever after after a revelatory rendezvous in a nearby park. But the shop itself loses, another small business victim.
That story element, that notion of loss, parallels what many locally-owned bookstores are enduring today. The economic challenges of 2020 are familiar, and yet they different in their own ways. Big box retail still looms over the vitality of independent bookstores, but those big boxes themselves are threatened by the power of online commerce, represented by Amazon and fueled by the shifting habits of consumers gripped by a global pandemic.
This environment tests the mettle of entrepreneurs and proprietors of all stripes. Congregating in charming, local bookstores to sift through new titles and discuss the latest releases is pleasing in normal times but ill-advised in a world dominated by distancing, masks and proper airflow.
There’s no mistake that Kathleen Kelly functions as a patron saint of sorts for the owners of independent bookstores across the country. Nowhere is that more true than in Thomasville, Georgia at The Bookshelf.
Inspired by the movie she loved, Annie Jones has taken a page directly from Kelly by fighting back against the myriad of challenges that hang over her head. She’s the host of From The Front Porch, a weekly podcast focusing on new titles and best reads. She’s cultivating an active online shop, steadily working to expand her reach outside the boundaries of the small town. She’s shifting book clubs and reader retreats online to ensure that sense of community she values so much can remain. She’s adjusting hours and setting up appointment-only gatherings to accommodate those jittery about the risks associated with the pandemic.
It’s all a fight she’s waging every day.
But this is not the plot of her favorite movie. As perilous and difficult business might be right now, Jones is winning.
‘A dream come true’
Jones’ path to book store ownership seems at the same time both perfectly reasonable and completely unforeseen. A journalism major in college, Jones treasured writing, reporting and storytelling, and she found a job in her hometown of Tallahassee, Florida as a reporter for a legal publication.
By her own admission, she enjoyed the writing gig, and she was good at it. Still, as she progressed in her career, she wondered if there was something else.
“I certainly had the stereotypical millennial moment of ‘How long am I going to do this for, what comes next, is there meaning and purpose in this work I’m doing?’” Jones said with a laugh. “In the middle of all that, The Bookshelf, which had been in Thomasville for, gosh, well over 30 years, opened a location in Tallahassee right down the street from where my husband and I lived.”
Avid readers themselves, Jones and her husband, Jordan, were excited about the newest edition to their community. They had shopped in the original store in Thomasville and enjoyed the small town feel and relishing in the offerings at the shop.
Eager to try something new, Jones reached out to Katie Chastain, one of the owners of The Bookshelf, to see if she could volunteer at the store, perhaps leading a story time for children or something. It could break up some monotony in her routine, she figured.
As it turned out, The Bookshelf was looking for a manager for its Tallahassee location. After a few emails and a meeting over coffee, Jones turned in her two-week notice — “to my very surprised boss,” she noted — and embarked on a new career.
“It was a complete career departure,” Jones said. “I had no retail experience even growing up in Tallahassee because I did a lot of state government, part-time work in high school and college. This was very new and very different, but it was kind of a dream come true. I loved You’ve Got Mail as a kid, and I thought as a 13-year-old that would just be a dream job.”
She referred to her time leading the Tallahassee shop as a “special season” in her life, but seasons change, and Chastain approached Jones seven years ago with a painful revelation. The Tallahassee store was closing.
But there was also a proposal: Jones would have the opportunity to purchase the Thomasville location.
Clearly, there was risk involved. Not only was there the financial obligations of owning and operating a bookstore in a small town — though Chastain promised her a pathway to ownership through earned sweat equity — but there were the dynamics of moving to said small town.
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While Thomasville can easily be deemed a classic Southern town, complete with a quaint downtown and close-knit community, it did constitute the smallest place Jones or her husband had ever lived. Additionally, The Bookshelf was well known and well liked, and Jones feared that outside ownership might not be viewed favorably in a town that takes pride in its roots.
“I think Thomasville does such a beautiful job of taking care of its own,” she said. “When you’re the new person in town, I think you really have to earn their trust, particularly when you’re taking over one of their beloved institutions.”
Jones bought a house in Thomasville in January 2014, signaling to the community that her family didn’t desire to be outsiders, but rather residents. What mattered to them would matter to her.
It didn’t happen overnight. Jones admitted it was probably five years before she really felt she was truly home. Now, that beloved institution is hers, and she belongs to Thomasville.
“I think that’s just the nature of moving and starting over, and starting over while being really busy running a business because that is its own kind of beast,” she said.
A resurgent and resilient industry
There’s no mistaking that the COVID-19 pandemic has hammered the retail industry.
Restaurants have shuttered, bars are closed and clothing shops transitioned to appointment-only shopping sessions. The independent bookstore community was not immune to this trauma, dealing with closures and lockdowns in the early days of the pandemic and adjusting to that now-tired phrase, the “new normal.”
It wasn’t like business was easy before the coronavirus crossed the country. Perhaps unlike any other industry, locally owned, independent bookstores faced obstacles that many others didn’t. For starters, there are the large, national chains — not unlike Fox Books in You’ve Got Mail — that first put the squeeze on those beloved mom and pop stores that so many people grew up with.
Then there’s the digital disruption that followed from Amazon. Not only could this massive conglomerate ship actual books cheaper to so many customers, but they also were pioneers in the ability to offer downloadable books through the Kindle. The ease of clicking a button and having practically any book one could think of in your possession within seconds revolutionized the bookselling world.
Still, despite these strong headwinds — some new and some old — independent bookstores persevered in countless communities and even enjoyed a resurgence in popularity across pockets of the South. While The Bookshelf is more than 30 years old, it’s seen a steady increase in loyal customers during the past few years.
It doesn’t hurt that, collectively, independent bookstores used the challenges confronting their livelihoods as a rallying cry to band together where possible. Going beyond the simplicity of member associations or trade organizations, countless independent bookstores have come together with one singular, communal mission — stay alive.
“I do think there is a sense of collaboration and creativity,” Jones said. “You certainly sense it at book conferences. We just did our Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance conference virtually, and it was a free flow of ideas. Obviously, we’re still businesses so we are in competition to some extent with one another, but there’s a graciousness to it that really embraces idea sharing.”
That notion of partnership is even more important because of the pandemic. The things that make places like The Bookshelf so endearing are rooted in community, and it’s difficult to foster that community when you’re running appointment-only shopping sessions, wearing masks and serving a customer base a bit unsure about setting foot in a store, any store.
As such, independent bookstores like The Bookshelf are finding new ways to engage and inspire readers, and then sharing those ideas with others dealing with the same challenges.
“It’s easy to be collegial, collaborative and on the same team when you have a common enemy, and I think that Amazon certainly serves as that to a certain extent,” Jones said with a laugh. “I also think in 2020, there is perhaps more of a sense of camaraderie and togetherness because we have to be. So many of our stores are having to think outside of their geographical boundaries. I’m having to think outside the boundaries of Thomasville and really promote the store to a wider audience, and I don’t think I’m alone in that experience.”
Building a bigger community
If you don’t live in Thomasville but The Bookshelf sounds familiar or Jones’s name rings a bell, you might know them through their popular podcast, From The Front Porch. A weekly conversation hosted by Jones, the show has more than 400 Patreon supporters and thousands of subscribers through various platforms like Apple Podcasts.
The premise is simple — some people getting together to talk about life and literature — and it’s grounded in Jones’s neverending desire to bring people together to have meaningful conversations about what they read and how it makes them feel.
“The kinds of conversations I love having in-store are the kinds of conversations I hope we’re having on the podcast,” said Jones.
It was born in 2013 after Chastain asked Jones if she had ever heard of podcasts. The previous owner felt it might be a great way to introduce Jones to the Thomasville community, signaling the coming passing of the torch from one female entrepreneur to another.
Jones, who by her own admission loves to take an idea and run with it — no matter how far into the weeds that run takes her — latched on to the concept. She studiously researched how to start a podcast, watching YouTube videos and sifting through countless “how to” articles.
Growing up in Tallahassee, Jones said she was drawn to her front porch. It’s where her family gathered to have tough conversations or discuss the events of the day or just unwind on a lovely fall evening. If this podcast was going to be something which not only inspired conversations, but honored the value that comes with meaningful dialogue, there was only one logical name to consider.
“If you grew up in the South, you just know what the porch means,” Jones said. “I’m a super introverted person, but what I love is the friendliness — the waving, and it sounds so silly, but the head nod or the acknowledgement that we’re neighbors and we live in community with one another.”
Each Thursday, Jones releases a new episode of Front The Front Porch, diving into books she and her guests have read, books they plan to read and more. A recent episode focused on pairing Netflix shows with relevant books to read as accompanying pieces.
Her co-hosts have rotated, ranging from Chastain during the program’s early days to Chris Jensen, a longtime staffer who was pursuing a Ph.D. at Florida State University. This year, she’s bringing in several guests to share the microphone with her, from longtime customers to her husband.
The podcast has steadily grown in its popularity, moving beyond those initial days of recording mostly for her mother to its rightful place in modern Southern culture today, earning her a spot in Southern Living’s listing of Top 50 Innovators.
It’s also offered the ability for people outside of Thomasville to participate in those types of conversations Jones and her staff cherish.
“Porches are very special to me,” she said matter of factly. “I want the podcast to be that for people who may not have porches of their own or who are looking for places where conversations like that exist.”
“I still really love what I do”
The endearing charm of You’ve Got Mail isn’t necessarily the romance between Joe Fox and Kathleen Kelly. Shoot, the origins of such a relationship might even be viewed as problematic by today’s standards given Fox’s elaborate ruse to win her over.
Rather, it’s the beauty, kindness and community that is represented by this tiny little Shop Around The Corner, standing firm and true to its own principles against the crushing, relentless waves of the larger bookstore chain that keep washing in.
Today, that tide hasn’t yet retreated and, if anything, the waters rise even higher now. This is a year that no one was prepared for. The pandemic threatens the future of your favorite restaurant, your neighborhood watering hole and, yes, your favorite bookstore.
Jones, who said she has pivoted her business until she’s dizzy, is doing her part to stay afloat for her community, for her loyal customers, for her staff and for herself.
“In my moments of overwhelm, I have certainly looked at my husband and said this is not what I signed up for because it’s just not,” Jones said. “It’s so vastly different from what I began doing in 2013. It’s a bigger animal. When you grow your store you want it to attract a wider audience, and you need to attract a wider audience, especially right now where in-store stuff is so up-and-down. This is a very different business than I ever set out to run.
“That being said, I still really love what I do. I think that can be hard to remember, but I love getting to tell people what good books are out. I love finding the right book for the right person. I love interacting with our customers — I’m an introverted person but I love interacting with the peopel who love books and The Bookshelf. Getting to interact with them online or in the store is life-giving to me.
“I think I keep going because, at this moment in time, I can’t imagine doing anything else.”