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Charleston Business

Author Events, Charleston Ties, and a Personal Touch Keep Independent Bookstores Thriving

Jan 29, 2018 10:50AM ● By Emily Stevenson
By Holly Fisher

“My soul found ease and rest in the companionship of books.” - Pat Conroy

Polly Buxton recalls her first date with now-husband Julian Buxton when he asked about her “work dream.” The answer? Opening a bookstore in downtown Charleston. It was something she’d dreamed of since she was a teenager. 

Polly and Julian married in 2013 and turned their attention to Julian’s business, Tour Charleston LLC, which offers a ghost tour based on his book, “The Ghosts of Charleston.” But when Julian discovered an available storefront on Cumberland Street, he knew it would be the perfect location for the tour company – and Polly’s bookstore dream. 

Polly resisted the idea at first – until she found inspiration in the words of Southern writer Pat Conroy. A few months after Conroy’s passing, Polly read the passage from “My Reading Life” in which Conroy describes heaven as a bookstore on the night of an author event. 

Polly was moved to tears by Conroy’s words. “We’re supposed to do this,” she thought. 

On April 1, 2016, the Buxtons opened Buxton Books in a small portion of their tour company space on Cumberland Street. Over 18 months, the bookstore has expanded beyond one room and become a go-to for readers seeking books by Charleston authors, novels set in the Lowcountry, or historical accounts of Charleston’s past.

Buxton Books is a regionally focused independent bookstore where you’ll find books by Mary Alice Monroe, Josephine Humphreys, and, of course, Pat Conroy. There are also books about writing, a collection of poetry books, and even a few books that don’t necessarily have a tie to the Lowcountry but are simply some of the Buxton’s favorite reads. 

They’ve developed a true synergy between Buxton Books and Tour Charleston LLC. The tours are rooted in storytelling and the characters that made Charleston what it is. The Buxtons knew having a standalone bookstore would be difficult, but marrying it to book-based walking tours has given the bookstore more financial security. 

Indy bookstores on the rise
Recent years have been hard on independent bookstores with competition from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and e-readers. Even big-box stores like Target and Walmart stock a few shelves with some of the best-selling books.

By all accounts, independent bookstores were fading out – soon to be in the retail graveyard with movie rental and music stores. But a shift back to buying local – along with some smart marketing and innovative business strategies – seems to be saving the independent bookstore. 

An April 2016 Wall Street Journal article reported statistics from the American Booksellers Association that the number of independent booksellers had grown to 1,712 bookstores in 2005 – up from 1,410 in 2010. 

In the Charleston area, Lowcountry Local First has been waving the “buy local” flag for years – especially during the holiday shopping season. The organization reminds consumers of the impact of supporting local businesses: for every $100 spent at a local business, an average of $45 is recirculated into the Lowcountry versus $15 when that money is spent with a national chain store or large corporation.

A risky business 
Despite all the proof that an independent bookstore is a viable business, Diane Barnett hasn’t been able to convince a local bank to fund her plans for a new bookstore in Mount Pleasant. She found space in Belle Hall Shopping Center and worked with the landlord to negotiate a reasonable lease rate. She even has a name: Title Wave Books. 

Independent bookstores are too big of a risk, the banks tell her. Yet Barnett remains committed. She’s shifted her focus from traditional bank funding to seeking private investors. 

“Opening any business is a risk,” said the mother of five and former family therapist. “But there’s a lot of research behind independent bookstores being successful.”

Barnett also believes Mount Pleasant would support her general interest bookstore. She doesn’t deny people will still shop for items online from the comfort of their home, but she also knows people want to support their friends and neighbors. 

“There’s something about knowing your customer base and recommending a good book,” she said. “Amazon won’t hand sell you a book, and they never will. They don’t know you. I live in Belle Hall – it’s my community, my neighbors. That truly does matter to people.” 

Books on wheels
To get around funding the overhead costs of a brick and mortar location, friends Julia Turner and Christen Thompson Lain went mobile with their bookstore, Itinerant Literate Books. They used crowd-funding platform Indiegogo to generate the money for a trailer-turned-bookstore. They go on the road to farmers markets, breweries, holiday pop-up events, and festivals around Charleston County. 

Open since April 2016, Turner and Thompson Lain are hopeful they can transition to a permanent storefront. They’ve applied for a space within the Lowcountry Local First “Community Storefront Project” on Reynolds Avenue in North Charleston and they are exploring a small business loan. 

“Customers who love books want to support a local bookstore,” Turner said. “We feel confident in independent bookstores, and we believe in them and the benefits they provide local communities.” 

Books + events = success 
For all the bookstores that have come and gone, one has been a mainstay on King Street since 1995. Founded as Boomer’s Books by Lee and Jim Breeden, the store became Blue Bicycle Books in 2007 when local writer and longtime employee Jonathan Sanchez bought the store.

Blue Bicycle Books has all the newest novels, works by local authors, and a selection of used books. Plus, Sanchez and his team host several author events and book signings throughout the year along with a summer writing camp for kids. Last November, Blue Bicycle Books organized its seventh annual YALLFest, a young adult book festival with dozens of YA authors and some 12,000 attendees. 

Sanchez knows the mix of events and YALLFest help keep the bookstore doors open. 

“We can’t just sit back and wait for people who like books to come in our store,” he said. “We have to be out and doing things that will work.”

He also knows people appreciate a good story – and not just on the pages of the books they buy. 

People are interested in the story surrounding their purchases and the experience, Sanchez said. Maybe people stumble upon Blue Bicycle Books while on vacation in Charleston and now they have a story and memory about where they bought that book and what it means to them. 

That sense of connection is exactly what Polly Buxton is creating at Buxton Books. Authors stop in and visit with customers. Polly asks visitors a few probing questions to determine just the right book for them. 

“There’s something very special about a bookstore,” she said. “It’s a very personal connection.”