To say Birmingham was excited for the opening of Thank You Books would be quite the understatement. On December 14, 2019, the bookstore’s grand opening attracted more than 1,000 people with folks lined up outside before the doors opened at 10 a.m. “We had about the dreamiest grand opening that you could hope for,” says Elizabeth Goodrich, who co-owns the shop with Kristen Iskandrian and Laura Lilly Cotten. “We knew that there were readers in Birmingham, and we knew our friends were readers in Birmingham, but we didn’t know the volume of book lovers,” Laura says.
Located in Crestwood, Thank You Books is Birmingham’s newest bookstore, but Elizabeth, Kristen and Laura want the place to be so much more. “We’re not trying to compete with Amazon,” Laura says. “We are trying to provide a place where you meet your neighbors in a different way, where you get to know your neighbors and your neighbors’ tastes, and you discover things you might not have otherwise.”
But independent bookstores are competing with Amazon – finally. From 2000 to 2009, the number of independent bookstores in America steadily declined, with only 1,651 operating in 2009, according to Forbes magazine. But last year, the American Booksellers Association reported a membership of more than 2,500, a 49 percent increase from that 2009 slump.
In a study called “Reinventing Retail: The Novel Resurgence of Independent Bookstores,” Harvard professor Ryan Raffaelli says the keys to an independent bookstore’s success are “community, curation and convening.” But the women of Thank You Books didn’t need a Harvard study to tell them that. “I know that there are so many readers and writers and creative people in this city, and we wanted to be a hub for those people,” Kristen says. “You can get books at any number of places and that’s great – the more books the better, in my view – but I think we also wanted to provide a vibe and an energy and a sense of welcome.”
While the inventory at Thank You Books is carefully curated, Elizabeth, Kristen and Laura try to have something for everyone, offering new and popular releases along with the classics, as well as books by local authors and titles from small presses that might be hard to find elsewhere. Throughout the store, you’ll even find book suggestions from the Thank You Books staff to help you pick out your next read. The store also has a reading nook that’s bathed in natural light on a sunny day. There’s a kids’ section, a Young Adult section and great gifts like notebooks, journals, tote bags and more.
Elizabeth, Kristen and Laura want their store to be more than a place to buy books. They want it to build a sense of community, a place where book lovers can convene. Thank You Books regularly hosts author events. Each Saturday at 10:30 a.m., the store hosts family storytime for children. It also has two book clubs: Paperback Book Club for those who want to read and discuss books that have been on shelves for a while, and New & Notable Book Club for those who want to read and discuss newer works. Elizabeth, Kristen and Laura want to host more events in the future, including panels, discussion groups and more book clubs. Thank You Books will also be a venue for some Magic City Poetry Festival events in April.
“All of us have chosen Birmingham,” Laura says, explaining that neither she nor her business partners are natives of the Magic City. Laura, a former English teacher, hails from Thomasville, GA, but moved to Birmingham with her husband who is from the area. Elizabeth, who has served as a Presbyterian minister, grew up in Memphis and moved here with her husband 22 years ago. Kristen, a writer and Philadelphia native, moved here to be closer to family.
Birmingham seems to have chosen Thank You Books, too. Business has continued to be steady since the booming grand opening. Months before Thank You Books opened its doors, the store had a healthy social media following. “That not only buoyed us, but it showed us that we had a market for what we were doing,” Laura says. Nonetheless, Kristen says, “I think social media is a vital tool but could never replace word of mouth.” The store’s sign, designed by Creighton Tynes of Tynes Signs, also attracts people driving down Crestwood Boulevard.
“A community based on books and mutually encouraging each other to explore new ideas and creativity is huge, and Crestwood is so ripe for that,” Elizabeth says. “A lot of people choose to live in Crestwood because they want a more diverse community, and they want to be around other people who are engaged in their community and who care about a better world, and that’s why this just felt like such a natural home.”
Years ago at a dinner party, Laura and Kristen mused over the idea of opening a bookstore in Crestwood. But Laura soon moved away to Michigan. Eventually, Kristen got to work on the idea and posted about it on social media. The same day that Laura sent Kristen a message asking how she could get involved, Kristen sent her a message asking how she could get her back to Birmingham. Then, Chip Brantley, co-founder of Desert Island Supply Co. (DISCO), introduced Elizabeth to Kristen after learning she was looking to start something similar to Thank You Books.
“Then Laura came back to town, and before we knew it, we were in business,” Elizabeth says. Initially, Laura and Kristen wanted to call the store At Last Books. “We really loved the idea,” Kristen says. “At last, there is this bookstore of the sort that we have always longed for. At last, here are the books that you’ve always wanted to read.” But they realized the name was easily garbled when talking about it to others, and the URL for the store’s website would look like “atlas,” which could be confusing. So, they scrapped the idea.
Then one day, Laura sent Kristen a lengthy text message and ended it with “Thank you for reading.” A lightbulb went off – Thank You Books! “I nearly threw my phone out of the window,” Kristen says with a laugh, expressing her excitement over the idea. “I’ve never been so sure of anything. People say when you know, you know.” Kristen says she felt this way about both the name – Thank You Books – and her partnership with Laura and Elizabeth. “There’s been this rightness to it, and I think our name represents that,” she says. “It can mean whatever somebody thinks it should mean, but to us, it means all of this – thank you to books, thank you to Birmingham, thank you to each other, thank you to this community.”
Thank You Books is located at 5502B Crestwood Blvd, Birmingham, AL 35212. Store hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sunday, 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. To learn more visit thankyoubookshop.com.
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