When patrons walk into Main Street Books, chances are, owner Adah Fitzgerald knows their faces. It’s highly likely she knows their names. Also likely, she knows the last books they read, their favorite authors, and the next books she will recommend for them.
How? She talks to people.
“Our days here are basically all conversations,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s really what we’re about.”
It’s been almost two years since Fitzgerald took over, and she and her team spent the last year finding new and creative ways to foster conversations – they expanded programming, redesigned spaces, and re-imagined traditional author events.
Fitzgerald purchased the business in March of 2015 from Barbara Freund and Betty Reinke, who opened the small, independent bookstore in the heart of downtown Davidson in 1987. A former biology teacher and a Davidson College graduate, Fitzgerald had long talked with her parents, Mary and Marcel Barone, about co-owning a small-town, community-centered business someday. And in Main Street Books, they found exactly that.
With the sale Fitzgerald inherited the store inventory, shelves and fixtures, the loyalty reward program (buy 11 books and get the 12th free), and the reputation. And, a steep learning curve. She had a long list of ideas and initiatives she wanted to implement–for programming, merchandising and partnerships–but being new to the business she was unclear as to which would materialize when.
“It still surprises me which ones we’ve accomplished and how many we’ve accomplished at this point, Fitzgerald said. “I figured that a lot of it would take a lot longer.”
Fitzgerald and Assistant Manager Catherine Hamilton-Genson, who came on board at the very beginning, spent much of the first year learning the business basics. By the end of that year, the women and their small team of dedicated staff members prepared to hit the ground running in 2016.
The first big accomplishment, one that precipitated many of the others, was a full interior renovation that started in January and took about eight weeks to complete. They created a flexible space for events and programming, added a fresh coat of paint to the original antique shelves, polished the original wood floors, and re-organized the moveable fixtures to draw more people in and around the 1,400 square foot space. Through all of it, they made sure to preserve the historical elements of the space, which served as a general store in the early 1900s.
“The idea was not to erase all of the old,” Fitzgerald said, and pointed out a spot on the wood floor where an old wood stove once stood. “People would gather around the stove and have conversations,” she said.
The renovated space, along with Fitzgerald’s growing relationships with publishers, allowed her and her team to host dozens author events during the year, and they discovered a new fan favorite: “Books and Bites,” which combine cookbook signings and food tastings.
They hosted the first “Book and Bites” in April 2016 with award-winning cookbook author Sarah Foster. More than 60 people turned out for the event.
“It was so much fun, and it was so well-attended,” Fitzgerald said, “and it just sort of clicked: Cookbooks. I know this town likes food, let’s explore this.”
After several successful “Book and Bite” events, in November Fitzgerald expanded the idea to a full author dinner–and tickets sold out. The store hosted more than 350 people for an evening with Chef Vivian Howard, owner of the acclaimed Chef and the Farmer restaurant in Kinston, N.C. and star of the PBS series, A Chef’s Life, for which she won a Peabody Award. At the event she signed copies of her cookbook, Deep Run Roots, and served dishes from her new food truck.
In addition to the inaugural author dinner, interior renovation, and dozens of author readings/signings/tastings, during the year Fitzgerald and her team continued to host story times for babies and children, added staff members, and fostered multiple community partnerships with organizations such as Circle de Luz, the Bailey middle and Hough high school PTSAs, the Read Davidson initiative, and Cannon School.
Whether through face-to-face interactions or hand-written “shelf talkers,” Fitzgerald and her staff members foster dialogue and encourage conversation, and in doing so they further their mission to embrace and celebrate diversity while enhancing the reader experience.
“We want you to come in and see yourself in the store, see yourself reflected in the stories that are on the shelves, but also see a ton of other people’s stories,” Fitzgerald said.
As she looks ahead to 2017, Fitzgerald plans to focus more on her bottom line, but her greatest measure of success will be less tangible, she says.
“Some success can be measured in book sales, sure, but really for me it’s about those individual experiences,” she said.
Published Originally in Lake Norman Magazine, January 2017