Neil Gaiman once said, “a town isn’t a town without a bookstore. It may call itself a town, but unless it’s got a bookstore it knows it’s not fooling a soul.” Book enthusiast and dream-driven entrepreneur Janet Geddis couldn’t agree more. Arriving in Athens, Georgia in 2004, Janet found a vibrant, intellectual, artsy town that lacked the seemingly obvious: an independent, community-focused bookstore that sold both old and new books. Six years after setting out to remedy the situation and open Avid Bookshop, Janet’s dreams are finally coming true. With her shop set to open this winter, Janet lets us in on the long, winding, but ultimately inspiring road to becoming an indie bookseller that rocks our (and Athens’) world.
Atticus Books: First, congrats on doing the unthinkably courageous and inspired thing: opening an indie bookstore. What was the road like that led you to opening a bookshop? What did you do before and how do you think those experiences motivated/inspired you to be an indie bookseller?
Janet Geddis: I’ve been a bookworm my whole life, something that almost every bookseller would say. Since starting college in the late 90s, I‘ve had a seemingly endless stream of book-related jobs—I’ve worked as an editor, a writer, a literacy advocate, a tutor, a teacher, and a storyteller (among other things). I was consistently attracted to jobs that connected me to books and community, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that I realized that my joke answer to that Big Question (“What do you want to do with your life?”) was not actually a joke: I wanted to own a bookstore. This job allows me to do all the things I’m passionate about: I can help people find the joy in reading, I can help people find the right books for them, I can participate in community initiatives, I can contribute to the betterment of my city, I can plan events, I can be a social butterfly, and I can incorporate something new and creative into my work every day.
AB: Why Athens, Georgia? What about this town just screamed to you “GIVE US AN INDIE BOOKSTORE PLEASE!!!”?
JG: I moved here for graduate school in 2004 a few months after the last indie selling new books closed. We have a good used bookstore downtown but, in my mind, the Athens community was missing a bookstore that played a more active role in the community and sold new books. During the Paz & Associates Opening a Bookstore Workshop last year, our class learned about what type of place would best support an independent bookstore. Does the city/town have a strong library system? A university? Small business support? The list went on and on, and the answer to every question about Athens was a resounding yes. Since that workshop, I’ve conducted several market research surveys and have found that our community is counting down the days ’til Avid Bookshop opens—people have missed having a bookstore culture that accurately reflects the literary, artsy vibe of this town.
AB: Obviously (and we’re quite sure you’re already well aware of this fact) opening a brand new independent bookstore requires a ton of work and requires you to send out your attention in about a million different directions. Is there any part of this endeavor that you’ve found surprisingly difficult or daunting?
JG: The pre-opening timeline is driving me bonkers! Starting out, I had no earthly idea it would take this long! Since the fall of 2007 (when I decided to open a store), I’ve had my business partner back out of our plans and have watched the economy fall apart. Both of these factors affected my funding situation (and therefore my timeline), but I kept my game face on and, with the support of family and friends, have saved more money in the last couple of years than in the 28 years that came before.
AB: On a happier note, what were you warned about that you were pleased to find has come easily?
JG: I was daunted by all the paperwork involved—how to make a business plan and financial projections? How to open accounts, acquire business licenses, file sales tax reports and keep up with bills? So far all the nitpicky paperwork has been fairly easy, and I wonder why exactly it freaked me out and had me dragging my feet for awhile.
AB: Not only does opening a bookshop take time, effort and enthusiasm (which we’re happy to see you’ve got in abundance!), but it ain’t exactly free. How are you reaching out to raise funds and how has the response been?
JG: I sell books online, at special events, at occasional gift fairs, and via consignment agreements at a couple of local shops—this brings in a little bit of cash and gets my bookstore name out there. I’ve been contributing a certain portion of my editing salary to the bookstore each month, and that has really added up.
A significant chunk of my funding has come from people who believe in my dream and want to see it happen. My two main fundraisers were a photography show earlier this year (to raise funds for a website—I’m happy to report that I made my goal within three hours!) and an IndieGoGo.com crowdfunding campaign (which brought me nearly $2,000).
It’s impossible to describe how supportive people have been—I received new books from publishers, significant donations from authors whom I’ve never met, positive press from people who wanted to share my story, furniture from friends, piles upon piles of books from Athenians whom I barely know, and many more tangible and intangible things. My method was certainly atypical—I started spreading the word about my store long before I even knew where all my funding would come from—but it was effective in creating buzz and fostering a sense of bookstore community.
AB: As part of your effort to ready yourself for the joy of bookselling, you offered your services as an intern at other bookshops. Could you tell us which bookshops you got the inside scoop on? Were there any particular aspects to these shops that made you stop and think “That is something I want for Avid”?
JG: Now that I understand how bookstores operate, I’m even more grateful to my friends who let me spend time in their stores—it’s hard to have an extra person getting in the way, especially when you have to explain everything to her as you go. Jeff McCord and Jef Blocker at Bound to Be Read Books in Atlanta have been incredibly generous with their time and talents; I spent a few days working there in late 2009. Anne and Laura DeVault at Over the Moon Bookstore & Artisan Gallery invited me into their homes so that I could help them open their business in late spring 2010—seeing it go from the ground up was immensely helpful and inspiring. Of course there are the scores of other booksellers who invited me to their stores for tours and encouraged me to ask questions—Mitchell Kaplan (Books & Books, Miami), Stephanie Anderson and Christine Onorati (WORD, Brooklyn), Dave Shallenberger (Little Shop of Stories, Decatur, GA), Kelly Justice (Fountain Bookstore, Richmond), Rich Rennicks (Malaprop’s, Asheville) and Jon Tonge (Dog Ear Books, formerly in Madison, GA but now in Athens) come to mind, though if I took more time I could probably go on for pages.
Over the last few years I’ve learned that successful booksellers often borrow ideas from each other, molding those ideas to fit their particular stores and customers. I could probably tell you a million things I’ve seen at other stores that made me think either, “What a fabulous idea! I never thought of that!” or “How cool! I already have that on my list of things to do at Avid!” Mostly I’m attracted to how great booksellers interact with their customers and how they are constantly thinking of ways to improve their selection, store layout, and events schedule.
AB: So, a huge part of Avid’s existence (and its success) is going to be community events. Can you let us in on the kinds of things you have planned? Any events already in the works?
JG: I have a couple of upcoming events in the near future and a handful of successful events under my belt. Last month, the Unchained Tour of Georgia stopped in Athens for a day, and I was the Athens coordinator. In addition to the evening show (featuring fire-throwers, a donation-only bar, a book sale, musicians, and award-winning storytellers from The Moth), I put together an afternoon storytelling event at the Jittery Joe’s Coffee Roaster. We had a fiddler, a juggler, hula hoopers, two local storytellers/writers, and a Moth storyteller. The crowd was standing room only. It was such a blast, and I keep hearing that people want me to put together something like that again soon.
My friends keep telling me not to show all my cards (though it’s hard not to, as I am so enthusiastic about what I have planned for Avid), so I’ll take their advice for once and not spend the next hour giving you an overview of the events I have planned. Suffice it to say I’m feeling pretty good about what we have lined up and am eager to see what other ideas pop up along the way.
AB: Last year, you were awarded a scholarship to the American Booksellers Association Winter Institute 5. For those who don’t know, what is the ABA Winter Institute? What did you get out of this experience? How important is it for booksellers to constantly educate themselves via these kinds of institutes and conferences?
JG: Winter Institute is a three-day educational conference for independent booksellers. Before flying to San Jose for Wi5, I couldn’t imagine that it would hold a candle to SIBA (Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance trade show) or BEA (Book Expo America), two events I adore. Boy, was I ever wrong. Winter Institute was made up of the most invigorating, empowering workshops and discussions. Connecting with other booksellers (especially those that are so very interested in continually updating their stores in order to adapt to a changing marketplace and changing customer) is the highlight of the event. I can’t imagine jumping into this business without having a network of book industry contacts to rely on for advice and conversation. Traveling to conferences can be expensive, of course, and there’s no way I would have been able to go to Wi5 were I not awarded the AMA Emerging Leaders scholarship. Despite the cost, I hope that bookstores continue to send booksellers to these conferences—the strength of the friendships and connections made will more than offset the cost of travel.
AB: It seems safe to bet that as word has spread about the opening of Avid Bookshop, truckloads of advice (both solicited and not) have been coming to you from other booksellers, business people, friends, family, etc. Out of this plethora of well-intentioned nuggets of wisdom, is there one that’s served you better than the rest?
JG: I’m not sure if the following story contains the best advice I’ve gotten, but it certainly is the advice I think of nearly every day. I was upset one day last year and complained that it seemed as if some of my loved ones weren’t taking my dream seriously, that they weren’t supporting me in this as much as they support my other endeavors. My cousin told me (in so many words): “Janet, you’ve got to remember that this is your baby. This is your dream, not theirs. Just keep working at it without worrying about what they think. I bet they’ll come around.”
It’s hard to dedicate so many hours a day to this only to find out that relatives and friends are buying off of Amazon instead of off my store’s website. It’s hard to realize that my good friends aren’t going to be able to make it to most events I host. But it’s important to remember what my cousin said: this is my dream, not theirs. I hope that the longer I work at it, the better I’ll be at educating people as to why shopping at my store is different from shopping at Amazon. I’ll be able to give my doubtful friends a tour of the store and let them see this labor of love—I can only hope they’ll come around.