A refurbished freight container in downtown Battle Creek has hundreds of stories waiting to be shared, including a true one about a local couple and their efforts to rewrite their own history.
On a recent Wednesday, the narrator of this story was found inside the metal freight container, the seasonal location of New Story Community Books, which also has a physical store in downtown Marshall. On June 24, a ribbon cut was held to officially welcome bookstore owner Tom Batterson and his wife Kimberly as new members of the BC Cargo retail collective in downtown Battle Creek.
The couple would ultimately like to have a second, more permanent location for a store in downtown Battle Creek, but after going through a pandemic and dealing with the resulting economic uncertainty, Tom Batterson says they’ve decided to make a decision. more thoughtful approach to diversification.
âBattle Creek has a need and a love for books. It’s about finding the right niche. We want something that will be unique and different, âhe says. “There is a story of the bookstore here and we are going to make it happen.”
As he stood behind his small counter inside the freight container, Batterson said, âWhen we first said we wanted to open a bookstore, we started planning, planning and dreaming. and we always wanted to open it in downtown Battle Creek. ”
When reality entered the couple’s planning and dreaming phase, they recognized that it would make more economic sense to start their new careers as business owners in Marshall. From a structural and location perspective, the hardest part was already settled for them as they were going to buy an existing bookstore, which gave them the freedom to work with what was already there and make it their own.
Tom Batterson is seen inside his freight container store, New Story Community Books. During margaritas with Ginny and Jim Donahue, owners of this bookstore called Mitten Word Bookshop, the Battersons discussed the possibility of buying it from the Donahues who were considering exiting the business they had owned for three. years in Marshall. Before opening this location, Donahue’s had operated Battle Creek Books at 51 W. Michigan Ave. in downtown Battle Creek.
Three years after the opening of Battle Creek Books, the Donahues decided in 2017 not to renew their lease and the bookstore closed. But, they weren’t quite ready to retire from book retail altogether and found opportunities to continue at Marshall.
âThey were ready to retire and they were going to go down the customs clearance route to sell their existing inventory. My wife and I didn’t want that to happen and we started negotiating the sale of the bookstore to us, âBatterson says. “It was important to Ginny and Jim that the bookstore stayed in the community and it was important for us too, to have a bookstore there.”
Lawyers were called, contracts were drawn up and signed, and checks were written. Then, days after the Battersons opened the doors in April, the pandemic forced them to close those doors.
To say there was a lot at stake would be an understatement. Tom Batterson had abandoned a 20-year career in business development at Barnes & Noble. Although his wife continued her work as a preschool teacher at the Lemon Tree Preschool located at the Battle Creek YMCA, the couple had three teenage children and bills to pay.
âIt was such a blow. It’s hard to breathe, âBatterson said, describing what it was like to see the bookstore follow state-imposed shutdowns. “There are people who have been booksellers for 40 or 60 years and they have so much wisdom and all the people in this field have so much anxiety.”
Rewrite a playbook for success
Building on the lessons he learned during his former career at Barnes & Noble, which included solving problems in their stores, Batterson and his wife’s mantra became “flexibility” and they didn’t. no time wasted finding different ways to keep their doors open virtually.
They found support through their membership in the American Booksellers Association and the Great Lakes Booksellers Association, which offered virtual workshops and gatherings that helped the majority of independent booksellers weather the pandemic storm.
Tom Batterson and his client Laura Webb chat together in his freight container store, New Story Community Books. âWe knew we would be able to sell online and launched a website pretty quickly and we started door-to-door delivery,â says Batterson. âIt was great to see children smiling and looking out the window when we left the books on their doorsteps. We had a gentleman who would leave beer in exchange for his books. The community was great.
The decision to adopt an online sales platform was made by independent booksellers across the United States, according to a April 2020 Article in Time magazine.
The article says independent booksellers feared the worst because their stores were already operating at low margins and in the shadow of Amazon’s dominance. They feared that an extended shutdown would change consumers’ habits towards online shopping and erode the communities they serve.
âHowever, as these bookstores remain closed, an online movement has emerged to strengthen their chances. One organization, in particular, Librairie.org, has become a unifying force, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for local stores desperate for another source of income, âthe article said.
Like many booksellers, Batterson says the online sales component of New Story community books will continue. He says it’s a perfect addition to the in-store shopping experience and allowed him to hire a team of five part-time employees and cover the cost of renting the freight container.
For those wondering if New Story can deliver an experience similar to the instant gratification promoted by Amazon, Batterson says, âPeople can order online from us and we will deliver their books within a day or two depending on the day. holidays and store opening hours. “
The store also offers eBooks, eBooks, or audiobooks for those who prefer these reading formats and the Battersons spend a lot of time selecting what will fill their store’s shelves.
âYou have to choose things that you know will appeal to people. We make sure our books represent the people of the community, âBatterson said. âWe work a lot with publishers to help us determine what is going to be successful. We celebrate book culture and all that puts books in people’s hands.
About 60% of New Book’s inventory is used books that customers turn in for store credit or surplus copies from publishers, which can be obtained for less than half the original price when the books become obsolete and require updated printing and new covers as a film. based on a book comes out.
Mastering these more conventional angles on the income side of the business gave the couple time to think creatively about other opportunities they would have to differentiate their bookstore from behemoths like Barnes & Noble. Their ideas so far have resulted in several unique options, including a vending machine with books placed in various schools for one month at a time during the school year.
âThe distributor is pretty cool. The kids get tokens that the school pays and the kids put those tokens into the coin slot and select a book, âBatterson explains. âThey have this unique experience of getting a book from a vending machine. If you instill a love for books in them at a young age, they will become lifelong readers.
They also started sales of pop-up books in area parks; a book exchange at the BC Cargo location; and an upcoming âAdult Book Fairâ July 24 at Territorial Brewing in Springfield.
Creating these unique experiences became the theme of the playbook Batterson and his wife use to increase appreciation of the written word and drive sales.
The upcoming event for adults is in response to the drop Batterson saw in the number of people reading as they hit their teens and twenties. Batterson says he will be moving to the front zone of Territorial with “fun and sassy books and things that celebrate a culture of reading.”
âPeople can experience books in a different way that provides fun and excitement,â he says.
In addition to the community outreach already underway, the Battersons are exploring plans to modernize a bus that will become a bookmobile.
âWe had shelves built and talked to bookmobile owners,â Batterson says. âWe could load it up with books and show up in a park or at a parent / teacher night or festivals. With this mobility, we could create new opportunities for people to have access to books. “
This access is the key to the couple’s underlying story.
âWe are committed to working with others to build a fairer and more equitable community and I believe literacy is the engine to get us there,â says Batterson.