© 2024 Ideastream Public Media

1375 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio 44115
(216) 916-6100 | (877) 399-3307

WKSU is a public media service licensed to Kent State University and operated by Ideastream Public Media.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Northeast Ohioans can hit the books at a growing number of independent new and used bookshops

The Bookshop in Lakewood is a queer-owned bookshop, and owners Becky and Courtney Brown focus on new queer titles.
John C. Kuehner
Ideastream Public Media
The Bookshop in Lakewood is a queer-owned bookshop, and owners Becky and Courtney Brown focus on new queer titles.

Readers who thought the book was closed on independent book shops because of the dominance of Amazon need to put on their reading glasses.

Four new independent book shops have opened in the past two years in Northeast Ohio. Existing ones are expanding and doing good business.

“I’m finding that book lovers still love the actual book itself,” said Dave Monroe, who along with his wife, Michelle, opened Mythical Bookworm in Munroe Falls in December 2022. The used book shop, which offers a range of titles, was chosen by Akron Life Magazine in July as one of the Best New Independent Stores to open in the past year.

Just a few miles away, Danielle Sawat tapped into a demand for used books. A book lover, she bought a 1,300-book collection in late 2020 as a birthday present to herself. After keeping what she wanted, she offered the remainder online for $1 a book. She connected with so many book lovers, who donated, bought and traded books with her, that within two months the inventory outgrew her home. So, a few months later, she opened Shelf Life on Front Street in Cuyahoga Falls.

Meanwhile, Black Cat Books & Oddities has been drawing crowds since it opened in mid-August in a 96-year-old, two-story brick house just south of the Medina city square. The owners, Max Frazier, 34, and his wife Alicia, 36, spent more than $20,000 on renovations and decorated the shop’s six rooms in dark, Victorian themes. One is Sherlock’s Study, which holds mysteries; another is The Raven’s Roost, where visitors will see a full-size figure of Edgar Allen Poe and find shelves filled with thrillers and classics; and another is The Cabinet of Curiosities that has fantasy, true crime and related titles.

Business has been so strong and the parking so limited, that the couple got permission for customers to park at AutoZone, which is across the street. Black Cat, originally open six days a week, went to seven days in October, Frazier said.

“I did not think it would be as popular as it has been, which has been a great surprise,” Frazier said. “It’s been very steady. The community has shown a lot of support for us.”

Frazier, a former software engineer at Hyland Software in Westlake and Medical Mutual of Ohio in Downtown Cleveland, said he wanted to get out of the corporate rat race and do something he enjoyed. He said as an entrepreneur he has learned that you can’t do too much research to figure out your niche that will attract people to your business.

“I said to myself, ‘What can I do that Amazon can’t?’” the 34-year-old Lakewood native recalled. “We can provide a cool experience. That’s one of the things we set out to do, was to make it not just a bookstore, but an experience.”

Dave Monroe, of Mythical Bookworm in Munroe Falls, lost his job in Information Technology during the Covid-19 pandemic. Monroe said he learns something new every day, which he loves about the job. His wife was the book lover, not him, so he has found the book world interesting. The hardest lesson he said he’s learned as a newbie entrepreneur is patience. For example, they signed the store lease in September 2022, but were unable to open until mid-December because of work that needed to be done.

“That has been hardest for me,” he said. “I’m a type A-A personality.”

A town that “needs a bookstore”

What surprised Lorraine Wilburn as a rookie entrepreneur was the amount and complexity of work involved with owning a bookstore. Before she opened Little Sparrow Bookshop in November 2022 – which features new and used books in North Canton, she had worked in public health and the non-profit sector for several decades. She re-evaluated her life during the pandemic and wanted a change. She decided to open a new and used bookshop, which she named after her favorite Dolly Parton song.

“You sort of romanticize it,” she said of owning a bookstore. “You’ll be surrounded by books, and you can read all the time. I haven’t read at all. I’m way busier than I imagined. It’s been a big learning curve, understanding the book industry. It’s a lot more complex than people realize. It’s not just ordering things and selling things. From a business standpoint, I knew taxes and bookkeeping would be a lot of work, but wow, it’s a lot of work.”

“That’s the thing about independent bookstores, they are curated for that community and area, and you will find something different in all of them.”
Kate Schlademan, owner of The Learned Owl Bookshop and The Thrifty Owl Bookshop

The 51-year-old North Canton resident called herself a “a bookstore junkie.” She would visit every bookstore she could find, often driving up to Loganberry Books in Shaker Heights, which she called her favorite bookstore in Ohio. Going to bookstores is a routine she started in her teens growing up in a Washington, D.C. suburb.

Wilburn had shopped her business plan around and couldn’t get any funding. She said several people laughed at her and told her that “people don’t read” and “a bookstore won’t work in North Canton.”

She was not deterred.

“I thought, this town needs a bookstore,” she said.

She and her husband dug into their savings, and she sought crowdsource funding, landing about $4,000 in the summer of 2022. She sought out a location and ended up renting a 2,700-square foot building on Main Street owned by the city of North Canton.

“It’s been good,” she said. “I did not know what to expect. I did my research. I knew demographics were there, but not the interest.”

She is breaking even, “which is the best-case scenario for a bookstore in the first year,” she said.

A common story

One of the common threads among all the shops is that most have no hired staff. The owners run it themselves, putting in long hours. Also, most don’t pay for their used books. They either take them as donations or give store credit in return for the books.

None of the growth in independent bookshops surprises Kate Schlademan, who is celebrating her 10th year as the fourth owner of The Learned Owl Bookshop in Hudson, which since 1968 has offered new books and is one of the oldest independent stores in Northeast Ohio.

Becky Brown and Hobbes, the head of marketing for The Bookshop in Lakewood.
John C Kuhner
Ideastream Public Media
Becky Brown and Hobbes, the head of marketing for The Bookshop in Lakewood.

“Amazon has algorithms, but that will never take the place of a human talking to you and recommending a book, or putting one in your hand, or even going into a store and browsing,” she said. “That’s the thing about independent bookstores, they are curated for that community and area, and you will find something different in all of them.”

Just over a year ago she opened The Thrifty Owl Bookshop in Northfield, a used bookstore formerly called The Book Shelf. The owner could not find a buyer and planned to close. Schlademan said she had been considering expanding for a while, so she bought it.

“It seemed like a good complement,” she said. “It was a good opportunity, and I hated to see a bookstore like that close that had been around for a few decades and had a loyal following.”

Lakewood’s tale of two bookstores

Lakewood boasts two used bookshops, and both have added inventory and floor space since they opened. Courtney and Becky Brown, owners of The Bookshop in Lakewood, have moved three times since opening in 2014, each time to a larger shop on Madison Avenue. They now occupy two storefronts filled with at least 10,000 books.

The couple jokes that they opened the shop on a boot strap and have run it on a boot strap since. But they are hanging on, making enough to cover rent. They subsist primarily on Becky Brown’s auxiliary income from a part-time job at Target. Whatever the bookshop adds is “icing,” Becky said.

Both have decades of experience in the bookstore retail business. Courtney, 47, worked for most of the bookshops on Cleveland’s West Side for 20 years before opening The Bookshop, the first bookstore in Lakewood since Turn of the Page closed in 1994. Becky, 42, a Lakewood native, left Half Price Books in 2019 just shy of her 16th anniversary. One of the shop’s attractions is Hobbes, a stray cat they took in soon after they opened. Hobbes is the shop’s head of marketing.

Courtney Brown
Courtney Brown, co-owner of the Book Shop in Lakewood
Ideastream Public Media
Courtney Brown

She accepts that books have lost their place among the public.

Their shelves are full of what they term the “meat and potato” general subjects: a little bit of art, a little bit of science, and history, fiction and non-fiction. A few customers come in regularly and buy the more obscure science titles.

The Bookshop in Lakewood is a queer-owned bookshop, and Becky and Courtney Brown focus on new queer titles.

Just a half-block away on the same side of the street, separated by the Mars Cafe and three storefronts, is Book Brothers, which Chris Elfers, 33, opened in 2019. Elfers finally finished renovating the other side of the store in August, which doubled his space. An estimated 10,000 books now fill floor-to-ceiling, stained-wood bookshelves that Elfers built using about 100 sheets of plywood. He also has 2,000 records, DVDs, and CDs.

The Sandusky native delivered pizzas, worked in construction, record shops and bookstores, but said he found he was best at selling pop culture. He is particular about what books he buys and what’s on his shelves, something he and his brother learned from working for Tim Barry, who owns Tim’s Used Books in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Barry’s store can pull in thousands of dollars a night, Elfers said.

Chris Elfters, owner of Book Brothers in Lakewood, has enjoyed success as a one-man operation since he opened in 2019.
John C. Kuehner
Ideastream Public Media
Chris Elfters, owner of Book Brothers in Lakewood, has enjoyed success as a one-man operation since he opened in 2019.

He consults daily with his older brother, Greg, who runs Greg’s Used Books in Orleans, Massachusetts. They trade secrets and discuss what’s being sold.

“There’s a lot of used bookstores where you’ll go in, and you just see the same stuff over and over again,” he said. “And that I don’t think is going to work. Your stock has to have as much character as the shop itself.”

He said he can’t keep “Crime and Punishment” by Fyodor Dostoevsky in stock. He said CD sales have been strong the past few months. Like books, he also finely selects CDs, vinyl LP’s and video games he stocks.

Elfers said he had a successful first year, coming out in the black. One of the reasons for his success, he said, is the fact that he is surrounded by bars, restaurants and coffee shops, which draw browsers. He said he knew his shop needed to be in a walking district.

Book Brothers and The Bookshop in Lakewood are different enough that neither of the owners feels they are in competition, despite being close neighbors.

“He’s a different type of bookstore,” Becky Brown said. “He runs his business differently. So, I don't really think of him as competition.”

Brown said customers have come in because Book Brothers didn’t have a title, and the Browns said they have referred customers to Book Brothers when they don’t have a title a customer wanted. Their business model includes holding author events, book signings and live music, which Book Brothers does not do. One of their biggest events was hosting Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown for an event after his book, “Desk 88: Eight Progressive Senators Who Changed America,” was published in 2019.

Elfers said he’s too busy to view his neighbors as competition.

“They don't even enter my mind, to be honest,” he said. “I'm so focused on my own thing that it's hard for me to think about something like that. I don't go to a lot of other bookstores because I don't have the time. But when I do, what I notice is, because there's just an infinite number of books, and everybody's means of curation is so different, that it's kind of hard to be in competition.”

The Bookshop in Lakewood did well during the pandemic, when #ShopLocall became a trend to keep local stores in business, Becky Brown said. They shipped books across the country and offered free delivery in Lakewood.

“I had a lady who was just shocked because we delivered on a Sunday within an hour or two of her ordering it,” Becky Brown said. “She was like, ‘Take that Amazon!’ I was like, ‘Yeah!’”

John C. Kuehner has lived in Northeast Ohio his whole life and has worked as a journalist nearly as long.