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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Blaes Green, Sarah Jackson, Emily Lilley, and her dog Bertie (middle) pose for a portrait on Monday, June 28, 2021 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

CORRECTION: This story was updated at 5:51 p.m. on Saturday, July 3, 2021, to reflect that the Winder Binder sells more new books than used ones.

The difficulties of running an independent bookstore aren't lost on avid readers Blaes Green, Sarah Jackson and Emily Lilley. From upfront costs to the dominance of Amazon and other large chain booksellers, local business owners across the nation have taken a hit in recent years.

But the possibility of building community and giving locals a place to love and buy new books inspires the former classmates as they work to open a bookshop in North Chattanooga called The Book & Cover.

"We spent the first nine months of this planning process just on learning finances, talking to bookshops in the Southeast who have similar geographical and community like we do and seeing what they do to work," said Green, who works in customer service and project management.

As native Chattanoogans who grew up in the city and went to Girls Preparatory School together, the women want to bring the transformational power of stories and their love of reading fostered as kids to their home community.

"We're hoping to create a ... place that is welcoming, that people walk in and feel comfortable and excited to be there," said Lilley, the vice president of external affairs with the Tennessee Charter School Center.

"[A place where] they want to spend time, they have access to beverages and snacks, and also great books and booksellers who know them, and are excited to order books with them in mind, excited to create space for conversations about books in the community, and you know just kind of be a special place for Chattanooga."

The Book & Cover is slated for a spot on Hanover Street in North Chattanooga. In addition to selling books and refreshments, the founders hope to feature book clubs, programming for kids and a children's area sponsored by the Goddard School, a local play-based learning pre-K. During the search for a location, the owners also kept inclusivity and access in mind such as distance from a bus stop and being accessible to those with disabilities.

"There's a story for everyone," said Jackson, who will run the day-to-day operations of the shop and is a stay-at-home mom with a background in education. "We're not interested in only catering to or curating an experience for a certain type of reader."

To open the doors and encourage people of various backgrounds to "read books and stay curious," Green, Jackson and Lilley believe they've found a recipe for a sustainable business model and are reaching out to their community for help. While none of them have significant experience with starting a business, they have worked with the American Bookstore Association and sought the advice of other business owners.

"It can be really easy to become kind of enamored [with] the feeling the romantic part of opening a bookstore, which is, you know, very real and very sustaining and important, but then there's also the dryer, just very necessary pragmatic argument, which is in our current capitalistic economy you need money to buy goods and services," Lilley said.

If the store opens as planned, The Book & Cover would be the only independent bookstore in Chattanooga to focus only on selling new books. There are other independent shops in the area like Winder Binder, which sells a combination of new and used books, and McKay's, which has a large used book inventory.

Chattanooga bookshop Starline Books closed in early 2020 after opening in 2015. Rock Point Books closed in 2010 after four years of operation. According to a report by the New York Times, the American Bookstore Association had around 2,400 independent bookstore members in 2002, a figure that dropped to around 1,900 by 2011. The trade organization's website now puts that number at 1,800.

"In contrast to Amazon's record profits this past year, more than one independent bookstore a week has closed during the pandemic," reads a statement from the American Bookstore Association. The book association also noted that "others were able to survive and, in some cases, thrive through resilience, innovation, and community support."

 

Crowdfunding

Green, Jackson and Lilley's research of other bookstores suggested early loans could lead to later financial problems, so the women turned to crowdfunding to get started.

"We've talked to a lot of people who were kind of like 'Yeah, so we took out a giant loan to open our store, and 30 years later we're still paying down that debt, while also trying to compensate our employees fairly and order all the books that people want to have on the shelves and pay for big events with authors that people want to come to,'" Lilley said.

"[If we can avoid large amounts of debt] it's just going to be so much more sustainable of a venture, and we'll be able to build the kind of long-term institution for the community that we intend to be."

They launched an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign, and have raised more than $73,000 of their $200,000 goal.

"We would so much rather build our shop out of that community and have everyone who walks in feel like 'I was a part of this, I was a part of starting this and this means something to me,'" Lilley said.

"The question of financial sustainability for the business is a big piece of why we're doing the crowdfund, but that element, that community element is just as important."

While they have gathered inspiration from other bookstores, Jackson said that uniqueness and a strong connection to the community are built into the fabric of the industry.

"You have like these bookstore crushes, but the whole sort of function and operation of an independent bookstore is that it's somewhat unique to the community that it serves and supports," she said. "I think a lot of our vision comes from Chattanooga, from the people that we know, the people we want to know, the people we want to convene together."

Contact Tierra Hayes at thayes@timesfreepress.com.

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