North Chattanooga independent book shop, The Book & Cover, continues to grow

Photography by Matt Hamilton /  From left, The Book & Cover owners Emily Lilley, Blaes Green and Sarah Jackson.
Photography by Matt Hamilton / From left, The Book & Cover owners Emily Lilley, Blaes Green and Sarah Jackson.

What happens when, deep into the screen-dominated 21st century and in the throes of a global pandemic during which everyone is staying home, three friends decide to launch an old-school bookstore?

For Blaes Green, Sarah Jackson and Emily Lilley, it's success. They say their store, Book & Cover, is "outperforming its business plan" -- by a factor of three.

"We know readers," Green says, "and readers are different. Some want the convenience of reading on their phones, and that's fine. But people want to come in and experience what we've built."

Contemporaries at Girls Preparatory School in the mid-to-late 2000s, Green, Jackson and Lilley say they reconnected years later on Bookstagram, "a niche part of the Instagram community," according to Lilley.

The trio initially used The Book & Cover as a Bookstagram account, where they shared titles and reviews with other book lovers on social media.

"We talked about opening a bookstore called Book & Cover," Lilley says, "never thinking it would be a 'thing.'"

The idea stayed afloat into 2020, when the pandemic forced most people to go home and stay put. In October, Jackson recalls, Green had a few Bookstagrammers over to her North Chattanooga home.

"Vaccines weren't on the horizon yet," Jackson says. "The world felt scary, so it was kind of an exercise in mental health to sit around a fire pit and wonder, 'Let's say the world becomes safer again -- what would you do?'"

Lilley doesn't recall who said it first, but she, Jackson and Green all wondered aloud about opening a bookstore in Chattanooga. Lilley adds that the three of them met a couple of weeks later and talked more.

"Sarah had been keeping a Google Doc list of everything we'd want in the store. And she said she knew a perfect space, right around the corner.

"Blaes had to go home," Lilley remembers, "But right there, in the dark of night, Sarah and I walked around the corner."

What they saw, Jackson says, was a 100-year-old bungalow in the heart of North Chattanooga. They decided to move forward, but the next question was -- how?

"You need money to start a business," she says. "This is such a low-margin business that, to be sustainable, able to do programming right off the bat, offer the inventory we wanted and pay employees well -- going into this venture with a bunch of debt service wouldn't work."

Green says their crowdfunding gambit, aided by a couple of initial investors, paid off. The shop owners say they were able to raise their $105,000 startup cost in 60 days.

"We covered our build-out," she says, "and what most surprised me was so many people giving just what they could — five bucks. Twenty bucks. We could see how excited, how hungry, people were for this."

Green, Jackson and Lilley say they announced -- on their Bookstagram account, of course -- that Book & Cover would open in November 2021.

"By the time we announced," Jackson says, "we had a pretty big community of people who already knew and trusted us with books, reviews and that kind of thing.

"After two years, when peoples' only sense of community was on a screen, they wanted to touch something -- hold a physical copy (of a book)."

Green says she, Lilley and Jackson choose what they stock based on feedback from their Instagram community, considerable independent research -- and books they like.

"(I like) sad books," Green says. "I want to read a book that makes me feel deeply." Lilley says she gravitates toward mysteries and general fiction. And Jackson has coined her own term to describe her favorite genre.

"Romantasy," she says. "Sometimes romance on its own and sometimes fantasy on its own, but often times those two combine."

"'Read books and stay curious' is our motto and kind of a guiding principle for us," Jackson says, "especially in choosing books."

Green says after having felt "so overwhelmed" a year ago, she, Lilley and Jackson have "gotten much more comfortable." Poetry readings are popular, they say, and the store hosts seven different book clubs each month -- for now.

"We're kind of figuring out what (2023) looks like," Green says, "but we've learned how much people enjoy convening and just being in this space."