As we cross the one-year mark, we wanted to ‘pull back the curtain’ via an extended owners’ note on the origin, lessons, and future of our little shop, which we remain incredibly excited to build. We’ve learned so much, and consider it a real joy to have a small, but beautiful, local business.
Our musings began in late 2019 with a vague notion that every community, and ours in particular, needs a hub — a third place to visit, learn, cherish, meet new friends, and explore. We had our own attraction to books, something we ourselves treasure and teach our kids to, and felt we saw some opportunity where others may not. That was the spark of attachment: our love for the printed word, a form of “portable magic”, that so perfectly greets and steers you along a “path to possible futures”. And yet we felt that something we love and champion was being forgotten in a culture obsessed with screens and hearsay.
Perhaps more importantly, we sensed that there was a growing sub-culture of consumers circling around two trends: first, more of us are intentionally desiring analog activities — things to do off a screen — and sure enough, there were early signs in 2019 of a rebound in print; and second, that a new wave of commerce was emerging, one where we’re all growing a bit skeptical of Amazon’s dominance and simply wish it were easier to keep our dollars local.
By February 2020, we had reached an agreement with the previous owners, who started Little Professor and led it for over 40 years. I remember the day we signed the purchase agreement and switched over the point-of-sale to begin depositing sales into our own bank account. How little we knew what the next few months would hold. We quickly established goals to refresh the brand, interior, inventory, and digital presence. That first month was a whirlwind in renewing our stock, merchandising, and adding new products. We also implemented a membership program, which you likely know about (or have joined!), that intended to create some extra stickiness and highly competitive pricing.
And then, in March, the pandemic… We’d been owners less than a month (yikes) when everything began unfolding. Immediately, we expedited our digital transformation and launched an e-commerce site with curbside and local delivery. It took hundreds of hours to manually add products — we never actually finished, but we did get about 70% of our inventory online (roughly 4,000 titles). You responded, our sales kept growing, and we delivered hundreds of packages across the city from the back of our 4Runner, including a timely launch of kids’ activity boxes. We’ll never forget driving all across town with balloons and boxes overflowing into the front passenger seat…
Over the next few months, we kept trying new things, adapting to an ever-changing reality of protocols and new normals. We stayed closed to the public through mid-May, but made the decision to safely reopen as we noticed foot traffic resuming. That has since been our operating state — masked, distanced, etc., but working hard to find ways to invite vibrancy and community. On this side, some may wonder, “What’s the biggest thing you guys did?” Yet it was simple: a lot of little changes summed up to create a fresh picture, and proving our initial theses to be mostly true.
Out of the months of rearranging, cleaning, building, and redesigning has emerged, (though still a work in progress), a welcome place to so many in the neighborhood: a place to drop in, grab a coffee, explore new reads, create and share reading lists, and swing by for a story time. You, our customers, are owed such an enormous amount of thanks and gratitude. You have shown up and have helped us thrive. Nearly 700 of you are members, the anchors of the shop, and we plan to continue to make membership even more valuable to you. And, our team has been such a bedrock in this whole transformation—adaptive to change, staying positive, ever eager to help our in-store (and online) customers.
We really believe this new wave of localism is gaining ground quickly. More of us desire the convenience that technology has brought, but have come to question the costs it required. A convergence of intensely human, but connected, commerce could be the sweet spot. We’ll continue to invest in both the physical and the digital, and let customers choose the type of experience they want most. For many of you, that can vary wildly. You may need a specific title on a whim, use our iOS app to reserve it, then drop in and pick it up immediately. Or, if you’re out of time, order via our website and request next-day local delivery. Or better yet, on a sunny Saturday, load up the kids for a walk or drive, come to story time, see your neighbors, buy a book, and grab a coffee. It’s the combination of channels that gives you the most accessibility and choice.
In closing, we’re reminded of a favorite line from NYT’s David Brooks: “Localism is truly a revolution… a renewal of old forms, more intimate and personalistic than the technocratic structures. People are happiest when their lives are enmeshed in caring face-to-face relationships, building their communities together.”
Our community is full of overtly ambitious people — the kind that want to change the world in some specific way — yet, I’d love to see more of that entrepreneurial spirit directed toward stabilizing culture and renewing relationship. Yes, we’re just a bookstore. But, we all play our own part in shaping culture, bending it toward or away from good. A shared pursuit of tighter, neighborly bonds may just be the new foundation of stable communities and therefore, a country. Let’s pull each other in, highlight what unites us, hold difference in empathy, and collectively build something great.
It’s our pleasure to serve you, and we’re so very thankful.
Jonathan and Meredith