I doubt you’ll be surprised to hear that I’m a tad obsessed with independent bookstores. In every city we visit I seek them out and drag my family along for the ride. Today’s post marks the first in a blog feature meant to highlight independent bookstores that I’m calling Undercover Indie Lover. I’ll visit stores, read books, take pictures, partake in events, all the while discreetly cataloging the place so I can come back home, do a little research on the backstory, and share it all with you. It’s done “undercover” because I try not to draw attention to myself…instead I just act like a normal paying customer, which I am.
The Indie Bookstore
Independent bookstores are community treasures. They’re different from online book retailers like Amazon and even chains like Barnes & Noble. Usually located in a downtown setting or other location with lots of foot traffic, the stores are smaller, inventory is typically specialized, events are integral to sales, and success is due to a focus on experiential shopping. The American Booksellers Association describes this as a successful time for indie bookstores with year-end sales for 2017 up 2.6% over 2016. From 2009 to 2015, independent bookstores grew from 1,651 to 2,337, which is an increase of 35%.
Today’s undercover indie lover visit takes place in Lexington, Kentucky at Joseph-Beth Booksellers. The company considers itself an independent bookseller, yet it operates multiple large stores, typical of a chain. While I see it as a hybrid indie chain, its evolution as a company is important to understand for anyone fond of the bookselling industry.
Founded in 1986 by married couple Neil and Mary Beth Van Uum, Joseph-Beth derives its name from their middle names. At its height, the brand operated seven stores under Joseph-Beth and two under the name Davis-Kidd (after absorbing four Davis-Kidd stores in a 1997 selloff). After declaring Chapter 11 Bankruptcy in 2011 and changing ownership to Robert Langley, the original landlord of the Lexington store, four stores remain. Those four stores are in Lexington, Cincinnati, Crestview Hills (KY), and Cleveland (inside the Cleveland Clinic). Neil Van Uum, one of the founding co-owner’s of Joseph-Beth, retained ownership of a Joseph-Beth store in Memphis. That store was renamed The Booksellers at Laurelwood. It recently closed its doors in February 2017, but opened anew as Novel, a significantly smaller and freshly redesigned store. It’s no longer owned by Van Uum, but by a group of 20 local Memphis investors.
Joseph-Beth is a household name in bookselling and it’s fitting to start at the first and flagship Joseph-Beth store located in Lexington for this new blog series.
Renovated in 2012, the Lexington store’s footprint is 40,000 square feet. It’s pretty darn big.
At the front doors, under the cupola, sits Tilly the Trolley. She’s here during the fall and winter months, but transports shopping mall customers from the front parking lot to the back parking lot for free from May to September. (There’s a music venue back there by the lake.)
After walking through a corridor, there’s another set of doors, this time to the actual Joseph-Beth store. Two floors of books and a full service restaurant welcome us, all overlooking a small lake.
Let’s find the kids’ books, shall we?
Looking down the escalator reveals the children’s section with a big red barn at the center. Inside that barn are John Deere and Calico Critter toys. My kids spent some major time here, so I know they have a pretty large inventory of those items.
At the bottom of the escalator, to the right, are the middle grade and young adult bookshelves, complete with tree bench (hey! turn that tree into a wishtree, Joseph-Beth!).
To the left, we spy the children’s section with bargain books, early readers, board books, and picture books. There’s also a story and gathering area toward the back.
Select picture books are displayed cover-out which a lot of book folks believe increases interest or even the odds that the book will be picked up.
Perusing picture books turns up quite a few that are autographed by the author and/or illustrator. Bonus! This is Patrick McDonnell’s The Little Red Cat Who Ran Away and learned his ABC’s (the hard way).
Besides books and toys, I spot some very cool boutique-ish items related to books. In particular, I fell in love with the children’s pajamas inspired by books from Books to Bed.
My kids participate in the story time event which includes a book about airplanes (my spouse had story time duties while I trolled around the bookstore and he did not, if you can believe this, get the title of the book read…apologies) and paper airplane-making. They threw the the planes off the second floor onto the children’s floor, which allowed me to capture the framed artwork on the wall celebrating independent bookstores across the country.
Painted horses, Kentucky wreaths, and Kentucky state wood block crayon holders can also be found upstairs.
Perks of Patronage
I notice that teachers receive 20% off any purchase for their classroom, which includes homeschooling families making purchases. Also, a rewards program allows customers to earn points on purchases while taking 30% off bestsellers and 20% off staff picks and book club picks at every purchase. Readers can also earn $10 off every $200 purchase and there’s free direct home shipping. That should make the brick-and-mortar store here pretty competitive with online retailers, I would think.
I am glad we finally made it to Joseph-Beth in Lexington and I came to better understand the company’s background and brand after the visit.
Consider them the next time you need a book or gift if you’re lucky enough to have one near you.
Until next time, readers!