Open books, open doors
by Katie Martinez
Ain’t no mountain high enough, ain’t no valley low enough.
That’s the tune several bookstore owners in the area are singing coming from a recently shaky economy.
“The stores that have opened up in the last five years are at an advantage because we know what we’re up against,” said Flyleaf Books Owner Jamie Fiocco, who opened the bookstore in 2009.
Flyleaf has since grown as an independent bookstore, pulling in about $1 million in annual revenue.
“The more I think about it, the more I realize we’re pretty solidly a medium-sized store, which is great because there aren’t that many of those around,” Fiocco said.
Ninety-five percent of the store’s revenue comes from new books, but the store also has a section dedicated entirely to local authors. Fiocco said a lot of the store’s success comes from its location in Chapel Hill and the community itself.
“We have a lot of universities in the area with robust English and creative writing undergraduate and (Masters of Fine Arts) programs,” Fiocco said. “There are some great authors who are still teaching and publishing here, too. They’re still in the game with us.”
Fiocco, who lives in Chapel Hill, was transitioning from a career in publishing when she opened the store and has been able to use her connections to help her store grow as a location for authors to feature their material.
“The definition of a traditional bookstore has changed. Independent bookstores that are thriving today are open and willing to change,” Fiocco said. “They consider publishers very much a partner now.”
The store also runs two kinds of author events, publishing partner tours, which bring mainstream authors to the store, and self-published author events, which are mostly locally published authors.
Fiocco works daily with publishers to get authors to hold events, but said there can be some complications when many publishers are located in New York City.
“Publishers don’t always understand the geography,” Fiocco said. “An author can have an event at Quail Ridge in Raleigh and then another one with us, and the two events won’t pull from each other.”
While Fiocco is spending most mornings working at Flyleaf, another Chapel Hill bookstore staple is owned and run by someone 5,000 miles away from Franklin Street.
Eric Johnson bought The Bookshop in 2003 and has been running the store, as well as three other book stores he owns, from San Jose, California.
“You don’t open a business across the country without someone who is on track with your plan and sees your vision for what you want to create,” Johnson said. “And, thankfully, I have that in Betty and Lee.”
Betty Shumacher and Lee Johnson have been partnering to run the store on the ground and on Johnson’s behalf since he purchased it.
Although The Bookshop is located directly on Franklin Street, Johnson said most of the store’s sales happen in the summer months when the majority of students are gone.
“People come downtown year-round, but they don’t necessarily own downtown as their own,” Johnson said. “Our best months are when the students are gone and the locals take the town.”
Johnson said he has found the bookstore community to have a collaborative energy.
“Our relationship with the other bookstores is a partnership,” Johnson said. “We keep up with each other, but, if we don’t have something in stock, we also point customers to each other so they can get what they need.”
Johnson said his goal for The Bookshop is to create a more interconnected relationship with the store’s customers.
“What we’re trying to create is a symbiotic relationship between us and our customers,” Johnson said.
“Sometimes it happens organically, which is great, but we haven’t quite gotten to where we want to get with the community yet.”
Richard Woodard and his daughter Elle Woodard, both from Charlotte, stumbled into The Bookshop during Elle’s UNC campus visit.
“I’m excited that she’s going to a school so close to so many bookstores,” Richard said. “She’s a reader.”
Elle has committed to attend UNC in the fall and has been to other book shops in Chapel Hill during her visits.
“I’ve tried to explore the area so I know what’s around, and one day we had lunch at The Root Cellar, so we bumped into Flyleaf,” Elle said. “I also went there for an author event a few months ago.”
Fiocco said she and other bookstore owners are constantly working together to bring authors to the area to connect people to the books they’re reading.
She said she has no plans of slowing the store’s momentum, and that she has very specific goals for what she wants to create between Flyleaf and the community.
“There’s this concept in sociology about how people spend their time. There’s the home and work, but then there’s a third place — a third place when people of different walks of life would come together,” Fiocco said.
“That place can be a church or a coffee house, but it can also be a bookstore too, and that’s what we strive to be.”