Keeping the Ship Going

Keeping the Ship Going

Between having groceries shipped to your door, buying a whole new wardrobe with one click and having the latest New York Times bestseller downloaded straight to your phone, running errands no longer requires leaving the couch.

In a world moving online, how can local bookstores stay afloat? I sat down with owners Jonathan Robinson of Little Professor and Jim Reed of Jim Reed Books to find out.

By the time Robinson graduated from Samford University in 2007, Homewood had made such an impact on him and his wife that they decided to stay in the community. Enjoying the “rootedness” they found by entrenching themselves in the community, he and his wife made the leap to becoming business owners, taking over Little Professor in February 2020. With their revitalization of the 1973 bookstore, Little Professor became the oldest consistently operating indie bookstore in Alabama.

Needing an escape from his career, Reed decided that surrounding himself with books guaranteed loyal coworkers. After placing ads offering to find out-of-print books for people, he developed a network of about 400 book-lovers from England to India who helped him find those rare books. When his wife complained of needing her dining room back, Reed realized it was time for him to move to a permanent location, and Jim Reed Books was born. By 1985, it was a full-fledged bookstore.

In a world where so many people are buying things online — whether it’s groceries, or clothes, or books — why is it important for people to continue to visit their local bookstores? What are they missing by buying books online?

ROBINSON: I think that Amazon has sort of created a utilitarian experience with shopping and commerce. Initially, I think (Little Professor) was a place, as a parent, I thought would be really engaging and exciting to be able to take our kids and have them discover.

Details of Little Professor interior.

I grew up going to the library and just loving spending hours combing through shelves and picking out six or seven books. Building a cart in person is a completely different experience than the utilitarian approach of shopping online.

And so what is the experience for us? It’s getting to know your booksellers, offering personal recommendations, having events like story time; it’s going out for a walk on Saturday with your stroller and popping in and grabbing a coffee and a couple of books for your kids. It’s just a completely different kind of experience.

REED: All of my life, I watched how my mother experienced life, and she was a very smart, touchy-feely kind of person. The way she experienced things was to see them, observe them, walk around them, touch them, smell them, feel the texture, feel the heft of them, all that stuff. That was part of the experience of her, you know, living in the world.

In my store…I love for people to touch things; I allow them to examine them. That’s a real pleasure for me. A 500-year-old book, just let them hold it, let them see and feel the buzz from that book that you don’t get from any other book that’s printed just a mere hundred years ago or a year, a week ago.

That makes me feel really good, to see that people are…in my store seeing books as actual living beings.

Many small businesses were affected by the pandemic, but some personal interest stores ended up doing well as people searched for normalcy. Did business reflect that?

ROBINSON: We were closed (due to the) state-mandated closure by mid-March. And then people were certainly reading more.

We sell a lot of activity books for kids. We created these activity boxes, which were around specific themes, like a baseball box, a unicorn box, a gardening box….

I just think we tried to stay agile and nimble and keep coming up with ideas, but using technology to create new products and to let those be searchable and found by consumers was probably the most important piece.

REED: I was picturing myself as the captain of the ship. The ship is sailing across the seas and the crew is sick and they’re down below deck afraid to come out of the rooms. The passengers are hiding out, not wanting to get sick. But I’m still keeping the ship going. I’m keeping it on course.

With that metaphor in mind, I found that’s what I was doing. I kept the doors open… and slowly but surely, people started coming back.

Inside Little Professor

Do you think there is a pressure today to be “more than a bookstore” to bring people in?

ROBINSON: I think that it’s actually the combination of those channels that is important. I think that in terms of being “more than a bookstore,” we’ve rolled things out like coffee and kids’ activities and puzzles or games.

But people are attached to a bookstore. They don’t want their bookstore to necessarily become a toy store.

We’re just a bookstore, but I think that it is important for us to fight for local institutions that pull people out of their homes.

REED: You know, I feel the pressure. I don’t react… perhaps in the same way a lot of people do. I mean, that’s been going on for years when the internet started taking over and people buying their books (online). A lot of stores started to put coffee shops and all kinds of sidelines to get people to come in.

And I realized, I don’t think this is what I know how to do. I know how to sell books; how to write books. I just stuck to what I was doing.

I want everyone to experience, once in their lives, a room full of books, surrounded by things that people love.

I feel like it’s just wrong to interview a bookstore owner and not ask about your favorite book — so what do you recommend absolutely everyone reads?

ROBINSON: I immediately gravitate to something that I think every high school to mid-20-year-old should read, but really everybody should — and that is “The Alchemist.”

It was particularly impactful to me because it’s a narrative of someone awakening and discovering what the author calls “their own personal legend,” but it’s really your own personal story of what you bring to the world. And that’s something that never goes away. You could be 75 years old, but if you’re still vibrant and learning and discovering and meeting new people, there’s always this kind of undercurrent of what life is becoming and what our pursuits are. It’s powerful.

REED: My favorite book of my life is “Dandelion Wine” by Ray Bradbury. I discovered it when I was 13 — it’s Ray Bradbury’s life, but he’s led a magical life. It is kind of the ideal novel, because it’s true, but it’s a novel; you won’t know what I’m talking about until you try it, and then you will be hooked. You’ll be in a world of your own that you wish you could go back to.

For these books and more, visit the Little Professor at 2844 18th St S, Homewood and Jim Reed Book at 2021 3rd Ave N, Birmingham.