Today I am so excited to bring you my interview with Annie B. Jones, owner of a beautiful independent bookstore in Georgia called The Bookshelf Thomasville. In addition to running The Bookshelf, Annie also has a fantastic bookish podcast called From the Front Porch, which is one of my favorite shows to listen to each week. I’m sure you all know how obsessed I am with independent bookstores, so it was fascinating to talk to Annie and hear about the ins and outs of running one! I hope you enjoy the interview and will consider ordering your next book from Annie’s lovely shop!
How Annie Became a Bookshop Owner (Or: All Our You’ve Got Mail Dreams Come to Life):
I was a journalism major in undergrad and had worked for a few years as a writer and editor for a couple of corporate workplaces before taking a leap of faith into retail. I’ve loved bookstores since I was a kid, and when I was 13, I was inspired by Meg Ryan’s portrayal of the incomparable Kathleen Kelly and her Shop Around the Corner. When a small independent bookstore opened up near my home in Tallahassee, Florida, I volunteered to be the shop’s story lady; instead, I was hired to become the store’s manager — something completely out of the realm of my previous career experiences. Thinking back to 13-year-old me, I took the chance, and when the owner of the store decided a year later to close that branch of her business, she offered me the chance to buy her flagship store instead. My husband and I moved to Thomasville, Georgia, and for five years, I earned the store through sweat equity, ultimately buying out the previous owner in 2018.
A Day in the Life:
It admittedly feels somewhat impossible to describe a “day in the life,” because every day is so different. It’s one of the perks of the job; I’m never bored! I typically arrive to the shop an hour or so before we open and quietly work on behind-the-scenes stuff: emails, bill pay, marketing, event planning, etc. We have a hard-working, supportive staff who run the store’s day-to-day floor operations, but I still often find myself drawn to that work — it’s what I first fell in love with. As a result, I try to spend an hour or two of my day on the floor, helping customers, stocking shelves, and receiving inventory (my favorite!). I also put out a lot of metaphorical fires each day, as is the case, I’m sure, for any entrepreneur or small business owner — you know, leaky roofs, human resources issues, etc.
What it Takes to Run a Successful Bookshop:
I’m grateful my previous jobs gave me experience in marketing and event planning, and running the business side of things definitely requires a certain level of business savvy or basic accounting. Being willing to learn is crucial. I’m always asking for help. Basically, I never expected to be a “jack of all trades, master of none,” but I’m finding it’s what the job requires. My liberal arts degree is constantly being put to good use!
What are the Biggest Misconceptions People Have About Running an Independent Bookshop?
Certainly my own ideas of bookstore ownership were far more romantic and idealized than the real thing (isn’t that always the way?). I don’t sit around reading all day, as much as I’d like to. I read on my downtime like everyone else, though I’m trying to adjust parts of my day to make more room for it in my “working” hours, too.
What has surprised you the most?
I think I thought it would get easier, maybe, the longer I owned the shop? Instead, each day brings its own unique challenges and issues; sometimes, that’s really daunting, but other days, I’m thrilled by the challenge, the opportunity to problem solve and to learn something new. Nearly 8 years in, and I think The Bookshelf constantly surprises me — and delights me — in a myriad of ways.
How Covid Has Affected Things:
I feel like I could write a dissertation here. COVID-19 has permanently changed our business model; March 2020 forced us to immediately pivot to online sales and virtual experiences. Of course, serving our local community is always at the forefront of our minds, but we’re no longer a bookstore just for our local Thomasville, Georgia, community. Instead, we serve customers all over the country (and sometimes the world!) through our podcast, through shipping, and through virtual events. These things were part of our business model pre-pandemic, but they’ve increased in importance and in profitability in the last 12 months. We’re so very lucky, but make no mistake: this is a vastly harder — and more expensive — way to operate.
Get Your TBRs Ready – These Books are Flying off the Shelves:
Our store’s bestsellers are largely influenced by the reading tastes of our staff. What Kind of Woman by Kate Baer was one of our bestselling titles of 2020, as were Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half and Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom, some of my favorites of the year. Our manager adored The House in the Cerulean Sea, so we sold it in droves, and it felt like we couldn’t keep The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse in stock, particularly during the holidays. Glennon Doyle was great about promoting indie bookstores during her release of Untamed, so we sold a lot of those, and gained some new customers as a result. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention Where the Crawdads Sing, which continues to sell for us nearly four years after its initial release; author Delia Owens is from Thomasville, so there’s lots of hometown love for that title here.
Bookshelf Thomasville’s Subscription Box:
Our monthly Shelf Subscription service is designed for the adventurous, avid reader. Each month, we send out first edition, hardback, new release books beloved by our staff; you select the staffer whose tastes most align with yours. My selections are often literary, female-driven fiction; Olivia — our manager — leans toward cozy mysteries and thrilling suspense titles; Lucy — our online sales coordinator — reads nonfiction and historical fiction; and Susie and Nancy read PG, feel-good fiction. Can’t decide your preferred staffer? We offer a “surprise me!” selection that rotates through the different staffer’s choices.
The previous owner of The Bookshelf suggested starting a podcast as way to introduce myself to the Thomasville community (it’s a small town, and I’m originally from here, so to some extent I needed to convince people I would take good care of their hometown bookstore.) I took the idea and ran with it, and although From the Front Porch never really met its original goal — I’m pretty sure only my mom listened at first — it grew into this beautiful way to market The Bookshelf to faraway readers and friends.
What are your favorite and least favorite things about doing the podcast?
I love talking about books. I’m highly introverted, but episodes of From the Front Porch are specifically designed to sound like conversations we’re having in-store; I love that part of the job so much, and the people who come alongside as guests and co-hosts share in the magic of that. My least favorite might just be the regularity of it and the fact that sometimes it feels like another business entirely; between the store itself, our Shelf Subscriptions, and the podcast, it can feel like I’m running far more than a bookstore.
Dream podcast guest or event guest for the bookstore?
Is it weird to say Michelle Obama or Jenna Bush Hager? Is that dreaming too big? Both women are champions of literature, and I’d love to talk with them about that specifically. Locally, we held a book club conversation for Becoming, and it would feel full circle (and almost entirely out of the realm of possibility) for Michelle Obama to come to our small town.
Let’s chat books! What are your top 3-5 recommendations?
This feels like it changes all the time — so many new books, so little time — but my current go-to recommendations are Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason; Long Bright River by Liz Moore; Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam; Musical Chairs by Amy Poeppel; Memorial Drive by Natasha Trethewey; and I Have Been Assigned the Single Bird by Sue Cerulean.
How We Can All Support The Bookshelf and Other Indies:
Certainly the easiest, most obvious way to support The Bookshelf — and stores like it! — is to shop with us. So many indie bookstores have pivoted to online sales and shipping, so even if you live far away, you can still purchase through a small business (and we’d love if you shopped with us!) We also know money is tight for so many right now, so following your favorite stores on Instagram, listening to our podcast, and sharing about us with the people you love is a low-to-no cost way to support our work. If you’re an audiobook listener, you can also support indies by using Libro.fm rather than Audible or a comparable service; percentages of the sales from your membership/audiobook purchases go directly to indie stores.
Thank you so much Annie, for being a guest on Behind the Books! Be sure to follow @bookshelftville and @anniebjones on Instagram for book reviews and recs, listen to Annie’s podcast, From the Front Porch (it’s so soothing, honestly!), shop online (or in person, if you’re local to Thomasville) at The Bookshelf Thomasville, and consider a Shelf Subscription – it would make a great gift or treat for yourself!
headshot by Telltale Designs, additional photos by SociallyLoved