Bookends & Beginnings is a bookstore that’s both local and online

The table with book suggestions at the entrance of independent bookstore Bookends & Beginnings, in Evanston (Lucia Maffei/MEDILL)

By Lucia Maffei

Nina Barrett and Jeff Garrett decided to take a calculated risk.

“It was actually a low investment,” said Jeff, 66. The two Evanston residents, married for five years, had always dreamed of opening a bookstore. She’s a published author herself, and he was a librarian for more than 35 years. So when they had the opportunity, they jumped on it, taking over the downtown location of the former Bookman’s Alley.

The couple even took a couple of tables from a Borders store – the Michigan-based book retailer that liquidated its business in 2011 – and brought them inside their own independent bookstore.

Those two pieces of furniture are now part of Bookends & Beginnings, which opened in June 2014.

Some may think that opening an independent bookstore is a risky investment. Even giant competitors like Barnes & Noble suffer from drops in sales. However, competition doesn’t seem to dissuade potential owners, at least in Illinois. According to the American Booksellers Association, there are 101 independent bookstores in Illinois, and 38 of them are located in Chicago.

Number of Independent Bookstores by State

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Illinois ranks fifth in the 2016 national ranking of the number of independent bookstores. (Lucia Maffei/MEDILL)

“We still have to build our business,” said Jeff.  But their sales trend, he says, is positive. In their second year sales more than doubled, allowing them to enlarge their inventory.

It’s worth noting that during their first year over 20 percent of their revenue came from jewelry. The store still has a couple of tables showing necklaces, earrings and rings. But in 2015 jewelry contributed only 6 percent to revenue.

A series of business strategies allowed the owners to build their way to success.

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Bookends & Beginnings is located on Alley 1 at Sherman Avenue. (Lucia Maffei/MEDILL)

First, the store’s atmosphere. Part of the reason people came to Bookends & Beginnings is that they appreciate the personal connection with the owners. “There are very few bookstores left, as book dealers who write books, appreciate books and advise customers on books to read,” said Jacob Lassner, 81, a retired history professor at Northwestern University and a customer of the store “since the beginning.”

To strengthen the sense of community with their customers, the  owners decided to write book reviews on pieces of paper and post them on tables and shelves, near the book they refer to. Not every book deserves a review, Jeff explained. Nina and he, together with their four part-time employees, decide according to their tastes. And customers usually appreciate the effort. “I love that they take the time to pull up books that they find interesting and write reviews of,” said Sue Thompson, 53, executive director of a nonprofit association in Evanston.

Co-owner Nina Barrett is the author of the majority of the handwritten book reviews. (Lucia Maffei/MEDILL)
Co-owner Nina Barrett is the author of the majority of the handwritten book reviews. (Lucia Maffei/MEDILL)

Jeff and Nina take care of their online community as well. Their monthly newsletter, which informs readers about the store’s events and contains the latest book reviews, has 4.800 subscribers. “We usually spend two whole days to write it,” said Jeff. “Nina is the editor, and I put all together.”

Jeff also spends “a third of my time,” as he said, promoting the business on social media. He is aware that a huge number of online followers doesn’t necessarily mean anything concrete, but he added that Facebook is important for the low-level buzz about the store in the community and beyond. “You don’t even know who is going to see you.”

In the real world, the store specializes in two well-targeted niches: food-related books and international children’s books.

“I find their selection really well-curated,” said Ross Martins, 40, co-owner of small business near Bookends & Beginnings and a customer of the store. He mostly buys cookbooks. “I think they do a lot of work to find good stuff.”

Kristen Sanders, 36, went for the first time to Bookends & Beginnings to buy her 13-months-old daughter Hannah a book in a language different from English. “I want that she has a different perspective on the world,” she explained. She left the store with three books: one tale in Chinese, another one in Spanish, and a collection called First 100 words in French.

Gene Razdolsky, a 46-year-old currently unemployed father of two, decided to stop by Bookends & Beginnings on the way home because sons Robert, 10, and Liam, 7, asked him to. “They really like here,” said Razdolsky, referring to the children’s area, a 100-square-foot corner between two bookshelves. “There’s no rush in buying, and children can just browse pages.”

Sitting on his knees on the carpet, Liam added: “And they have scary stories!”.

Photo at top: The table with the staff’s book suggestions at the entrance of Bookends & Beginnings, the only independent bookstore in Evanston. (Lucia Maffei/MEDILL)