"That idea of creative placemaking, the idea that when you can get a book anywhere, a bookstore has to be an experience, that happened by accident at Underground Books," said Josh Niesse, who owns Underground Books in Carrollton, Ga., and Hills & Hamlets Bookshop in Palmetto, Ga., with his wife, Megan Bell. "For Hills & Hamlets, it was at the forefront of our thinking."
|The staff at Underground Books: Megan Bell, Joe Niesse, Miranda McMillan, Maria Grant and Nicole Bettis
Underground Books is an approximately 1,800-square-foot, predominantly used bookstore in a basement-level space on Carrollton's historic town square. Niesse opened the store in March 2011, after an online used-book business he started a few years earlier had grown into a full-time job. He hadn't planned to open a bricks-and-mortar store, he recalled, but after seeing the space and the foot traffic around it, he couldn't pass it up. At the time, Bell was majoring in English at the University of West Georgia in Carrollton.
"A friend told me a new bookstore had opened," Bell said. "We went to take a look, and I basically never left."
A couple of years after the store opened, the building came up for sale, and Niesse and Bell used a crowdfunding campaign to raise $10,000 to purchase their space, along with the adjacent unit, which doubled the store's square footage, from 900 to 1,800. Despite the increase in size, the store's focus remained firmly on used, rare and antiquarian books. One of the store's primary fixtures is an archway made of books, and Niesse and Ball frequently use old books that are too damaged to sell to create things like journals, buttons, magnets and other sidelines. About 10% of the store's inventory now consists of new books, mostly either scholarly titles or unconventional things such as surrealist cookbooks.
"There's a new bookstore in town nearby that we have made efforts to not compete with directly," explained Niesse. "We don't have a lot of frontlist bestsellers."
|Bell and Niesse at Hills and Hamlets
In October 2016, Bell and Niesse opened Hills & Hamlets Bookshop in a small, planned community called Serenbe, in Palmetto, Ga., about 40 minutes from Underground Books and 20 minutes from Atlanta's international airport. The Serenbe community is centered on and planned by the Serenbe Institute, a nonprofit focusing on sustainable urban living, environmentalism and the arts. At the center of the community is a 25-acre organic farm, as well as an outdoor theater called the Serenbe Playhouse. There is also an Artist in Residence program that brings a new artist to Serenbe roughly every four weeks. Currently the community has about 400 full-time residents and is projected to grow to more than 1,000; it is a frequent day-trip destination for people in the Atlanta area.
In much the same way that Niesse had never planned on opening the first store, Niesse and Bell hadn't planned on opening a second store. But after visiting the Serenbe community and spending time there, they felt that they couldn't pass up the opportunity. Underground Books was five years old at the time and a stable business so he and Bell could afford to experiment with something new.
"It felt like it needed a bookstore," said Niesse, of the community. "Things just kind of fell into place."
"It's a small community, but a very dedicated one," added Bell.
Though it is owned and operated by the same two people, Hills & Hamlets has a very different identity from its older sister store. The inventory is predominantly new, with a good deal of frontlist fiction. There are also sections devoted to each of Serenbe's core principles, including arts, agriculture, developmental health and wellness, and education. There are lots of families in the Serenbe community, and children's has been one of the store's strongest sections. Sales in the store's poetry section are also particularly robust. Most of the community's artists-in-residence also have books of their own, which Bell and Niesse frequently stock. At 600 square feet, there isn't much space to spare, so most of Hills & Hamlets events are off-site. And while Underground Books has its archway of old books to wow visitors, Hills & Hamlets has "gorgeous" custom-built shelves.
Niesse and Bell reported that despite having five years of experience operating a bookstore, going from used books to new has had a steeper learning curve than they expected. They've gone to Paz & Associates workshops and training sessions and worked to get the hang of Edelweiss. Staying on top of new releases has taken some getting used to, and the amount of special order business that they've been getting has been "wonderful but a little overwhelming." Their current major project is getting an IndieCommerce site up and running. As for future projects, Niesse and Bell are mulling offering their customers subscription services.
Despite the sometimes very different details of running a used bookstore and a new bookstore, the core of both businesses is largely the same, and Niesse and Bell understand the importance of cultivating community and creating a compelling third place.
"A box store could be anywhere in the world, and the Internet is absolutely placeless," said Bell. "The greatest asset small businesses have is their space." --Alex Mutter