By Laura Oles
Have you ever dreamed of leaving your current life behind, moving to a new city, and opening up a bookstore?
I had the good fortune of meeting someone who did just that. In a chance encounter while attending the Malice Domestic Agatha Tea and Closing Ceremonies, I ended up sitting next to Sam Droke-Dickinson (she/her), owner (with husband Todd Dickinson) of Aaron’s Books. The store is named for their son, Aaron, who was two and a half years old when they opened their business. The bookstore’s tagline is Family Owned. Fiercely Independent. Community Minded. We had a wonderful conversation about her journey from working in Washington D.C. to moving to Lititz, Pennsylvania. I was so intrigued by her story that I asked her if she would share it with our readers.
LO: Tell me a bit about your previous life—the one before you chose to open a bookstore.
SDD: Our store is in a small town in Central PA, but we’re not from the area (more on that later). Before opening the store, we lived and worked in the DC area. I was a middle school social studies teacher, and before that various arts administration jobs. My husband was a lobbyist and government programs analyst for several science and medical non-profits.
LO: What was the catalyst in your decision to move and open a bookstore?
SDD: The commute and need to constantly be on the go in DC was not fun. Add into the mix a young child and we needed to find something else to be doing. At the time my husband was a stay-at-home dad and was really enjoying his time away from office politics and such. I was teaching and commuting early in the morning every day and staying up late planning and grading. We decided, with the house prices soaring, that was the time for us to make a move. So, we sold our house and moved up to Pennsylvania. We picked it for several reasons, one being that it was exactly the half-way point between the grandparents. Once we found a place here, we decided to be our own bosses and open a used bookstore. We both loved books, and I had an administration background, and he was a “people person”.
LO: I would love to learn more about your town and your community. How do they factor into your daily life as a small business owner?
SDD: Lititz is your quintessential small town. It really is the scene for so many cozy mysteries. A main street with small shops, a town park, lots of festivals. No murders though (phew!). Our store is right in the middle of the downtown area, and we’ve lived a mile or less from the store for the last 15 years. At one point we lived in an apartment above the bakery next door. Our town has 73 indie businesses and only 1 chain (a Subway). The town has worked hard to keep it that way, so the feeling of community is very important. We have always felt that we should be active and supportive participants of the community, as citizens and business owners. We were part of the core group that started a “Second Friday”, which is one Friday a month all the shops stay open late and there is music and events around town. About 12 years ago the town council tried to take away all the open flags so we worked to get them to allow a standard flag that all the businesses would fly and then I designed that flag. My husband has served on the board of our local Main Street Program non-profit for 10 years. And last year I ran for school board (I didn’t win). For us, community is not just living and working in the town but helping to make it better.
LO: : So many people dream of opening a bookstore. What was the process like for you?
SDD: We tell people not to do what we did. We went in completely blind to any and everything. We just got books and put them on the shelves. It was about three months in that we started joining industry organizations and spent a good seven years learning from workshops and conferences. We STILL are learning. The great thing about the indie bookstore world is that we help each other. We share things that work and don’t work. We have meetings and conferences every few months. And just last year the Professional Bookselling Certification Program was launched by our regional trade association (New Atlantic Booksellers Association). My husband was president of the association when they first started planning the program. Right now, it is six modules from inventory management to event planning. It’s run like a real school with lectures, round table discussion and homework. I’m finishing up the Store Operations module right now and have learned all sorts of things relating to personnel and financial management. For anyone that is interested in the dream, I highly recommend they seek out their regional trade association. The resources there are bountiful. And bookstore people really are the best people!
LO: What advice would you give to someone who is considering opening their own bookstore (or purchasing an existing one)?
SDD: The love of reading is great, but it’s not going to pay the bills. Take some basic marketing and accounting classes. And realistically, kiss your free reading time goodbye. People have this vision of opening a shop and then just sitting at the counter reading all day. Those are the rare days… and you don’t want to have them because that means you don’t have any customers, and customers are what pay the bills. That being said, after 17 years I can’t imagine doing anything else. It took us time to grow, and there were a lot of pains. But it is so worth it when we see books and people connect. In fact, a teen that used to shop in our store a decade ago, just opened her own shop in the next city. It feels good to know that we’ve been around long enough to inspire the next generation of booksellers.
LO: What do you love the most about running your own bookstore? What are the challenges? Any misconceptions?
SDD: Is it cheesy to say the books? Unpacking the boxes each day is like a birthday and Christmas rolled into one. I have to tell myself that I can’t take every book home. It’s a struggle. I’m a Type-A personality so I just love the day-to-day operations of the shop. The administrative things, the planning, the handling of issues. And the absolute best thing is when someone finds their “perfect” book on our shelves, especially the kids. Having a robust selection for young readers is core to our mission. The challenges are the same as most businesses- the work/life balance and money. No one has ever gotten rich owning a bookstore, but no one goes into bookselling for the money. It’s for the love of sharing books. At least I hope that is why we all got into this business. The biggest misconception is that bookstores are dying. That may have been true in the late 90’s early 2000’s, but right now there is a huge growth in indie bookstores. New ones are opening every week. Indie bookstores outnumber chain stores in this country. Most offer online shopping, e-books, and audiobooks too. So, the idea of the struggling little “shop around the corner” that can’t offer what the big guys do is very outdated. The other misconception, which is born out of a stereotype, is that indies don’t carry genre books. So many of us do and are run by genre readers. Lots of people think that indie bookstores are snobby… and there are some that are, but they are the rarity these days.
LO: Anything else you’d like to add?
SDD: I encourage all authors to check out their local bookselling regional trade association. They usually offer author level memberships. That is truly the best way to see what is going on in your area in bookselling and to make connections with booksellers and publishers. Be active in the book community at all stages of your writing and publishing process.
You can learn more about Aaron’s books here:https://www.aaronsbooks.com