For the second installment of our interview series “Independent Booksellers That Rock Our World,” we had the great luck to get the story behind Sundial Books, the quaint and culture-rich creation of indie booksellers Jon and Jane Richstein. Nestled in the beautiful, literary-rich island of Chincoteague, Virginia, the shop functions as a haven for local readers, musicians, film mavens, vacationers and collectors searching for that elusive out-of-print volume. Jon, a co-owner, music aficionado, radio host, Chincoteague lover and avid reader shares the storybook chain of events that led to Sundial’s success and the satisfaction that comes with providing customers the kind of experience only possible in an indie bookstore.
Atticus Books: How did you end up with this apparent dream life, living and selling books with your wife on one of the most beautiful vacation spots in the country? Is there a “jump ship and follow your dreams” story somewhere behind this? Or was owning and running a bookstore something you’ve always thought about pursuing?
Sundial Books: My wife, Jane, and I came to Chincoteague for vacation in 2004 and fell in love with the Island. We ended up buying an old fisherman’s cottage a year later, thinking it would be a vacation rental for about 15 years until we were ready to retire. However, every time we came down to Chincoteague, it got harder to leave. We kept saying that if we could find a way to make a living here, we would move in a heartbeat.
As it turned out, I knew the owner of what was then a used/antiquarian bookstore on the Island. She had owned stores in northern Virginia in the past and I had been a customer of hers there. We reconnected when Jane and I started spending time in Chincoteague. Just before Thanksgiving in 2006, she called us, said she was ready to retire and wanted to know if we wanted to buy the bookstore. Jane and I started talking about it and decided it was worth considering. We talked to a lot of people, crunched some numbers, thought hard about whether we were ready to completely change our lives and decided to do it.
We are both avid readers and liked the idea of being entrepreneurs. Earlier in her career, Jane had been a school librarian and I had owned and managed music stores. A few months later, we packed up, moved, put our house in Alexandria, VA on the market and have never looked back.
AB: You and your wife are blessed as far as location goes, given the beauty, character and history of Chincoteague. How does the culture and lifestyle of Chincoteague help shape the character of the bookshop?
SB: Chincoteague is a very unique place. It’s a working town as well as a beautiful vacation spot. There is an active arts community. Visitors are often attracted to the old time charm of the town and the natural beauty of Assateague Island – and are generally the type of people who appreciate books and music. In addition, much of Chincoteague’s fame came as a result of the publication of a book – Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry – in 1947. Needless to say, Misty is our biggest selling title! We also have a large inventory of local and regional books that are popular with visitors to the Island. But we also maintain a varied collection to meet the needs of the readers who live here year round.
AB: To flip that question around, in what ways do you, as a bookseller, strive to shape the culture and character of the community? Is there a certain kind of community outreach or involvement that you find most entertaining or effective?
SB: We have always viewed the book store as a gathering place for people to browse books, listen to new music, talk about current events and just relax. We have a fairly busy schedule of book signings and live music to help connect authors, readers, and musicians together. We have hosted book signings for quite a number of local and regional authors and have many live music events with local artists. We believe that promoting local authors, artists and musicians is an important component of our shop.
AB: Sundial Books has been called “one of the cornerstones of activity” in Chincoteague’s “very active cultural and social scene.” Any particular events or traditions that you find draw a crowd time and time again?
SB: Live music always brings people in. We have started sponsoring a monthly ‘back porch music jam’ with both local folks and visitors bringing instruments and singing along. Our book signings and poetry readings are also popular. Jane and I are also active in the local Chincoteague Cultural Alliance and help promote many of their events through our shop.
AB: Are there any specific challenges that arise as a result of the area being such a vacation spot? Or perhaps, any special perks that come with the territory?
SB: Our busy times are different than those of many other bookstores. Our peak sales are June through August, whereas many stores have their biggest sales in November and December. Vendors often offer pre-holiday specials to encourage stores to stock up for the holiday sales but most won’t work for us. There are also some distinct differences in the reading tastes of visitors at different times of the year. For example, we have many more sales of children’s books during the summer and more sales of ‘collectible’ books for fall visitors.
AB: We love the idea of you and your wife working together in this book business. Any tips for other entrepreneurs whose business partner also happens to be their spouse?
SB: We’re together pretty much 24/7 so we have to like each other for it to work. We each have our areas of expertise in that I’m more the salesperson and marketer and Jane keeps us organized and handles the financial and technical ends of the business. We also have the same vision for the store and for our lives as small business owners. That’s a really critical component of a successful partnership.
AB: On your website, you say that you offer “old-fashioned customer service.” What does this mean for the customers who frequent Sundial Books? Perhaps another way to put this would be: what do you provide as an indie bookseller that the bigger guys can’t?
SB: We get to know most of our customers and suggest books that we think they might like. It’s not at all unusual for us to set aside some new acquisition with a particular customer in mind. We hand pick all of our books. Either Jane or I have made a decision about every item that comes into the shop and we choose a variety of items that we think our customers will enjoy. We also get great suggestions from our customers and add them to the shelves. When someone comes into our shop, they are greeted by an owner and fellow book lover.
A great story happened while I was answering these questions. A young girl came in with her parents. They had been to our shop during other annual vacations and were browsing around the store and talking with us. The girl stopped in front of one of our glass display cases and was mesmerized by something inside. She gave a little whoop and called to her Dad that her book was in the case. Apparently, she had collected all kinds of books and replicas of Misty and her descendents. The book in the case was written by a protégé of Marguerite Henry about one of Misty’s grandchildren and has been out of print for several years. The author left the one remaining hardback copy here for us to sell when she was here this summer. The young customer was so excited about finding the book that we called the author in California so she could have a short conversation with her. We develop relationships with authors and with customers and it’s always fun when we can connect them together. This is the kind of thing that happens in an Indie store.
AB: Recently, you’ve been able to expand your store into a new, larger building on Main Street. Clearly, your endeavor has grown and matured over the years. What events or achievements do you look back on as landmarks of your store’s success?
SB: We feel very fortunate to have had the chance to move into our current space. We started out in two adjacent buildings and now have everything in one space, which makes it much easier – both for us and for our customers. The ‘new’ building is 100 years old and has great light, a good feel and lots of different spaces – stair landings, an enclosed back porch, a reading alcove with comfy wicker chairs – to house the books. Customers can wander around and browse – or check out the view of the Chincoteague Channel out the back windows. It’s a wonderful space for a bookstore.
We’ve worked very hard at making the business successful. Many of the shops on Chincoteague are seasonal but we’re open all year. We’ve gotten involved in local organizations and understand that we have a responsibility as business owners to the town and to the visitors who come here for vacation.
AB: Word on the street is you co-host a fabulous radio show called “The Bucket List: Songs You Have to Hear Before You Kick the Bucket.” If you had a “bucket list” of, say, five books to read to before you die, what would they be, and why?
SB: I’ve always hated lists like these. The answer changes from day to day. But here are five that come to mind at the moment because of the timeless stories they tell.
Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
Kim – Rudyard Kipling
The Little Prince –Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle
AB: Last but not least, any tips for the other indie booksellers out there, or the would-be literary entrepreneur?
SB: Be prepared for a 24/7 job. We love what we do but it’s about far more than reading books and listening to music. Owning a small business in this economy is hard. You need creativity and some financial reserves to see you through the slow patches. In addition to online and big box booksellers, we’re now dealing with e-books. There’s a constant learning curve. If you’re up for a challenge, it’s a great way to make a living.