Opening a new retail bookstore might seem like a risky venture in the era of Amazon, ebooks and online shopping, but Vancouver resident Kari Ferguson thinks she has a strategy to succeed: make the store a destination.
Her bookstore, Dickens Children’s Books and Publishing Lab, is scheduled to open Friday on Main Street in Vancouver’s Uptown neighborhood.
The shelves on the walls are lined with classic and contemporary childrens books, but visitors will also find a publishing lab where kids can create and assemble their own projects and a stage area for puppet shows, musical performances and, of course, regular book readings.
Ferguson, 34, says she’s had a lifelong enthusiasm for childrens literature and was inspired to open a bookstore in Vancouver after realizing that the downtown area didn’t have a kid-friendly place like Powell’s Books in Portland.
She and her husband Jamund have two elementary school-aged kids and have lived in Vancouver’s Hough neighborhood for about three years. They saw the vacant storefront at 1911 Main St. while out walking their dog, she says, and contacted the landlord in November to ask about renting it.
The 1,600-square-foot space is a former upholstery shop and shares a storefront design with the next-door antique shop.
“I think it’ll be a good little walkable space,” she says. “It’s kind of at the corner of three different family neighborhoods.”
The interior had been recently remodeled with hardwood floors and a fresh coat of paint, Ferguson says, so the biggest challenge was setting up the shelves and equipment, along with the books themselves. The books are all supplied by distributor Baker & Taylor, which buys the books wholesale from a catalog of publishers.
The windows are still covered with brown paper until the opening day, but on the inside, the windowsill is already filled with books and decorations for a St. Patrick’s Day display, and most of the bookshelves have already been filled with classic titles.
“It’s like Christmas, unpacking the books,” she says. “They’re like old friends to me, a lot of them.”
The name Dickens is a reference to English author Charles Dickens, she says, and was chosen in order to give the business a short and memorable name that fit with a bookstore. The word can also be used in expressions to convey frustration or emphasis, which she says makes it a good fit for childrens literature.
The store’s selection ranges from very early childrens illustrated books up to young adult novel book series like “The Hunger Games,” “The Hardy Boys” and “Nancy Drew,” and the collection places an emphasis on Pacific Northwest authors, Ferguson says. A table at the center also includes a collection of vintage childrens stories on vinyl.
Ferguson says she wanted to create an inviting space for kids that didn’t feel cramped, so the majority of the store’s shelves are located near the front window or along the southern wall, leaving a large open area in the center for childrens tables and chairs.
Nearly all of the books are set up facing outward so their cover art can be seen. Ferguson says her goal was to make the shelves more inviting to children rather than fitting in as many books as possible.
“Part of what makes childrens books so lasting is they’re also artwork,” she says. “I wanted a space that kids could feel was really inspiring.”
Two tables on the northern wall form the publishing lab – a creative space with typewriters, art supplies and a booklet stapler and comb binding machine for kids to put together their own literary creations. The wall above has been turned into a mural featuring classic characters.
“It took us a good week or so to do that, working nights and Saturdays,” Ferguson says. “It would have taken way longer without support from the community and friends.”
A curtain near the back of the store hides a storage and workroom area, and the outer side serves as the backdrop for the performance stage, which includes a few rows of floor cushions for the audience. There’s also a couch for parents.
A few other details hint at the store’s intended purpose as an after-school hangout space. The cash register area includes a supply of snacks for sale, and Ferguson says she plans to host a story time event at 3:30 p.m. on weekdays.
There are also plans for a Kids Club program to provide regular access to the publishing lab, with an annual fee to cover the cost of restocking supplies.
Ferguson says she hopes the store can be a frequent host for workshops, holiday events and visiting authors and bands. She plans to kick things off with a St. Patrick’s Day opening night party on Thursday featuring music, treats and Scottish highland dancing.
The total setup cost was about $30,000, Ferguson said, about half of which went to the books. The Fergusons have a three-year lease on the storefront and hope to pay off the startup costs in two years. Ferguson says she intends to run the store full time, with some help from volunteers.
“For now it’s going to be me,” she says. “We’re waiting to see how successful we are to see if we can hire people.”
Erica Thompson, communications manager at Visit Vancouver USA, said she thought Dickens would be a good fit for the area, and noted that the store has already been receiving a strong response on Instagram.
“I think they’re really filling a unique niche that’s not there yet,” she said. “Uptown Village kind of has an eclectic vibe on its own, so I think Dickens will only add to that feeling when you’re walking up the street.”
There are a few other book retailers in Clark County, such as the Barnes & Noble near the Vancouver Mall and independent retailer Vintage Books on Mill Plain Boulevard in east Vancouver, but none in the downtown area apart from vintage comic store I Like Comics and the Christian Science Reading room near Esther Short Park. The downtown coffee shop and re-sale store Boomerang used to sell books, but scaled back to just a coffee shop last year.
Dickens is opening at a time when large brick-and-mortar bookstore chains have been in decline for years, with online shopping often blamed as a the culprit. A December 2017 New York Times story chronicled the demise of the chain Book World, and noted the Barnes & Noble had closed 10 percent of its stores since 2011 – the same year that its biggest rival, Borders, shut its doors.
But that doesn’t necessarily spell doom for the Vancouver bookstore. In fact, independent bookstores are getting along surprisingly well in the internet age, and research suggests that many of them have thrived by taking the kind of personalized approach that Ferguson plans to employ for Dickens.
In 2017, the American Booksellers Association and a group of other trade associations released the results of a survey which found that the number of independent bookstores in the United States had increased by 35 percent from 2009 to 2015.
Ryan Raffaelli, an assistant professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, conducted a study to examine the resurgence. In a preliminary abstract released in November 2017, he explained that independent bookstores were initially hurt by the arrival of Amazon, and their numbers dropped by 43 percent from 1995 to 2000.
But the big box retailers suffered too, and Raffaelli’s study highlighted several factors that allowed smaller stores to recover and ultimately expand again. In the mid-2000s, he found, many independent bookstores began to put a greater emphasis on unique and personalized shopping experiences, as well as frequent events that turned the stores into local convening spaces.
In a 2018 interview with NPR, Raffaelli said that independent bookstores have come to be viewed as a “mark of authenticity,” and are now sought after by developers in city center and community growth areas.
“It’s clear that consumers have discovered that independent bookstores, along with our other Main Street businesses, offer incomparable value,” American Booksellers Association CEO Oren Teicher said when the 2017 survey was released. “The continued strength of independent bookselling reflects the critical importance of localism and community to consumers.”