Arts & Entertainment, Retail, and Small Business & Startups

City’s culture begins a new chapter

Duo returns to Grand Rapids to open indie bookstore.

September 9, 2016
| By Pat Evans |
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Books & Mortar
Chris Roe, left, and Jonathan Shotwell are opening Books & Mortar, an independent bookstore, on Cherry Street SE. Photo by Pat Evans

Jonathan Shotwell and Chris Roe felt a pull back to Grand Rapids.

They left the city six years ago to attend graduate school in Chicago, unsure if they would return to Grand Rapids. The pair has wanted to open a retail storefront and, for Roe, a bookstore for several years, but at the time they left, they weren’t sure the culture in Grand Rapids was right for an independent book store.

As the time has passed, the culture in Grand Rapids has shifted, Shotwell said.

“We liked Chicago well enough but felt called to Grand Rapids, because it has this energy to it,” he said. “In a lot of ways, it’s the same Grand Rapids as when we left six years ago, but in some ways, it’s an entirely different place. With the city growing, there’s this cultural dialysis going on, and with that comes the ability to sustain a bookstore.”

Shotwell and Roe opened Books & Mortar, 955 Cherry St. SE, last week to start three weeks of a soft opening period, prior to the official grand opening Oct. 1. The soft opening period will help fill the shelves with what the neighborhood readers want to see in a local bookstore.

Since the closure of Schuler’s Books and Music in downtown Grand Rapids, there’s been a void of a new book-focused retailer within the city limits, Shotwell said. He believes with the local-first movement and the refocus on urban living, there’s an expectation for a community to have an indie bookstore, especially for those moving to Grand Rapids.

Bookstores are in the midst of a rebound, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Bookstore sales reached $5.44 billion during the first half of 2016, which is a 6.1 percent increase during the same time last year. The increase is after six straight years of decline following a high of more than $7 billion in sales in 2009. Independent bookstores also are growing, with the American Booksellers Association reporting an increase of 25 percent of independent bookstores since 2009.

Roe believes Books & Mortar — a store that sells new books — helps make the neighborhood feel more complete. He’s always been an avid reader and was a huge proponent of books as an elementary school teacher.

“My background has really helped, I’ve horded thousands of books; our apartment in Chicago was packed with books,” Roe said. “We have a lot of friends who own businesses in Grand Rapids, and they all said one of the most common questions was, ‘Where’s the bookstore?’

“We have a natural draw to books, and it was an area we were interested in helping complete.”

Initially, the store was going to stock only used books, but the plan changed to sell new books midway through the planning process after collecting nearly 5,000 used books, Roe said. The used books will be for sale and remain on the shelf for a year before moving to a sale cart. Currently, most of the new product is new releases that appear on New York Times Best Sellers lists.

Once the community helps fully shape the store, it likely will continually evolve with consumer behavior and the changing catalog of books offered by publishers.

“People will notice that between now and October 1, it will fill in quickly and between October 1 and the end of the year, they’ll really notice it will fill in with new titles,” Roe said. “We want to hear what people are looking for and filling the shelves with those things. To curate a bookstore, it takes a partnership with the community to build it.”

Shotwell said one of the major draws to opening an independent bookstore is its ability to help share ideas and shape the way the community thinks. He has only worked in ministry prior to this entrepreneurial endeavor, so he wants to bring his values to the new shop.

“We can curate a store that is social-minded and justice-minded,” Shotwell said. “We have literature that we want to expose the community to, and that’s the great thing about indie book stores is each store is unique to its owners.”

A shelf of “Community Leader” suggestions will be near the front entrance with books highlighted by members of the community.

The exterior of the shop is lined with shelves, labeled in typical bookstore fashion: “memoirs, biographies, history, classics” and other genres. There also is a large food and beverage section, which is “robust, because there is so much going on” in terms of food and beverage on Cherry Street.

In the center of the store are the best-seller shelves and four tables with fiction new releases, nonfiction new releases, a curated table with justice literature of all kinds and a fourth yet-to-be determined theme.

In the back of the store is a children’s and young adult section.

Books & Mortar will hold events in the future, including book clubs, author talks and signings, poetry readings and children’s story times. Shotwell said the store also might experiment with adult storytelling times, such as “awkward sex stories and bad first dates.”

A basement section will be finished in the future, which will allow for expansion.

“It’s smaller than we planned on, but it feels safe,” Roe said. “There’s still lots of room to pack it with what Grand Rapids is hungry for.”

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