Chapters in small business operations from local bookstores

Gainesville is home to a multitude of small businesses, and its intellectual background has given rise to a generation of local bookstores over the years. Wild Iris Books, on 22 SE 5th Ave., and Third House Books & Coffee, on 113 N Main St., are two unique examples.

Wild Iris Books, proud to call itself Florida’s only feminist bookstore, opened its doors in 1992. In addition to maintaining an inventory focused on social justice issues – with an emphasis on women’s rights – the bookstore often collaborates with many local businesses and organizations, such as The Civic Media Center, The PRIDE Center and Gainesville Area NOW.

When asked about the local business climate, co-owner Erica Merrell said that Gainesville is a great place to be a small business.

“You hear so much about the ‘shop local’ movement, but in Gainesville people really value local business, and you always feel the local love,” Merrell said. “There’s an amazing culture of local shops, food, music, and recreational spaces in this town, and it’s such a pleasure to be a part of that landscape.”

Because Gainesville is a relatively close-knit town, Merrell explained how she values the relationships she has built with her regular patrons. To attract new customers, including students, the store utilizes social media and makes occasional appearances on the University of Florida’s campus.

When it comes to tips for running a small business in Gainesville, Merrell recommends finding a way to get involved in the community.

“Support a non-profit, a kid’s sports team, or something else that matters to you,” Merrell said. “Gainesville has such a great culture, and whatever cause you support will be so appreciated and [will] also help grow your business.”

Third House Books & Coffee, which specializes in titles from small, independent presses, is newer to the area and opened in October of 2016. The bookstore only carries approximately 250 titles at a time to keep inventory fresh and to allow customers to browse everything offered in a half hour’s time. Third House Books & Coffee also offers both hot and iced coffee made with locally roasted beans for customers hoping to lounge in the store.

Kiren Valjee, owner of Third House Books & Coffee, agreed with Merrell that the Gainesville community and city administration is supportive of small businesses; however, he said finding an affordable space can still be a challenge.

“I got very lucky with my space,” Valjee said. “A lot of places are priced entirely too high considering Gainesville’s population size and spending potential. I’ve seen a lot of good startups disappear entirely too fast because of high overheads.”

Despite this, Valjee believes that Gainesville, being a cross between a small town and a college town, is probably easier for small businesses to operate in than many other areas.

“I think this is both a blessing and a curse for small business,” Valjee said. “Time seems to run a little slower here [so] you get to meet a lot of people and develop regulars pretty easily, but also it’s easy to get stagnant. Gainesville isn’t really a destination city yet, so you have to count on those regulars to keep your doors open.”

To attract new customers, Third House Books & Coffee relies on social media and word of mouth because of the high expenses tied to traditional advertising.

“Word of mouth has been really good to us and [has] helped create a loyal base,” Valjee said. “I have a few customers who have basically stopped using Amazon for books, which is really cool.”

Both Valjee and Merrell explained the difficulty of running their businesses during the summer months when there are fewer students in town and subsequently less traffic.

“Summers can be rough for us as the town slows down and it affects our bottom line,” Merrell said. “However, we get amazing support from the university both through customers and interns who come in and help the store thrive. Plus, I think the college town helps keep Gainesville itself open to new ideas and a freshness of ever evolving culture and knowledge.” Valjee also emphasized the importance of catering to customers who live in the city year-round.

“We have to stay on their radar [and] keep fresh and on top of things lest people forget we are here,” Valjee said.

His advice for future small business owners in the area: Create a comfortable space offering a consistent product or service.

“The standard advice is usually ‘location, location, location’, and that is true to a large extent, but even the best location doesn’t guarantee success,” Valjee said. “Creating a comfortable space and remaining consistent in the delivery of your product or service is essential. In the beginning this requires help. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, and don’t be afraid to delegate.”

By Haley Clement
Photo of Third House Books courtesy of Rafael Hernandez

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