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Wordsmith Bookshoppe rides the waves of the economy, book industry

From left, owner Teri Parks and employee Leah Unger, at Wordsmith Bookshoppe, 235 W. Main St., Galesburg.
Jane Carlson
Tri States Public Radio
From left, owner Teri Parks and employee Leah Unger, at Wordsmith Bookshoppe, 235 E. Main St., Galesburg.

The full-service bookstore in Galesburg is asking for community support.

Bookstores selling new books are few and far between in rural areas.

Locally owned full-service shops selling both children’s and adult titles as well as magazines are even more rare.

But you can find that when you walk into Wordsmith Bookshoppe, 235 E. Main St., in Galesburg.

“Between I-80 and I-72, which is the Quad Cities down to Quincy, and from the Mississippi River to the Illinois River, we are basically the only full-service new bookstore,” said owner Teri Parks.

She grew up in Galesburg and remembers the bookstores of Galesburg's past.

As a teenager, she loved thumbing through the inventory at Dave’s Books and Cards in downtown Galesburg.

She also remembers Waldenbooks, which closed in 2009, at the now shuttered Sandburg Mall.

Parks said there are ups and downs in the book industry, what she calls riding the wave.

“One of the things with Waldenbooks, was when the e-books came out in 2009, that hit them very hard,” she said. “Everybody thought that was the way things were going to go.”

A love of print

But Park said e-books never took off as much as the industry predicted, at least not to the extent of replacing books in print.

“It had a strong presence for a couple of years,” Park said. “But then, all of a sudden, books in print are becoming more popular again. People are finding out they’re on computers all day long. They don’t want to be on devices to read as well.”

She hears the same thing from her customers at Wordsmith Bookshoppe.

“People walk in the door and they inhale deeply, and they say, oh I love the smell of books,” Parks said.

Parks has had a love of books from the time she was three or four years old, reading on her own.

“I would stay up late reading with a flashlight under the covers,” she said.

Though that love of books and bookstores started early, working in the industry came later in life.

So in 2018, when Book World Inc. closed all 45 of its bookstores in the Midwest – including the one at the West Burlington mall where Parks was the manager – she wasn’t quite done with bookselling.

“It took me 30 years to find my dream job,” Parks said. “Once I found that, then I was totally heartbroken when I learned that Book World was going to close.”

‘Let’s do this’

At the time of Book World’s closure, Stone Alley Books in Galesburg recently closed its doors and the Christian bookstore Brighter Life changed its business model to focus more on gifts.

Parks’ husband started looking into opening a bookstore in Galesburg. He went to banks and started figuring out the logistics.

At first, Parks was hesitant, because she didn’t feel confident enough in the bookstore industry, which she points out is the only industry that can’t set their own prices.

Book publishers set prices, and smaller bookstores can’t offer the same discounts as big box stores and massive online retailers.

“Being a manager is a lot different than being an owner,” Parks said. “So I thought about it for three days. I couldn’t sleep and was making a bunch of notes. And finally I said, okay. Let’s do this.”

Wordsmith Bookshoppe opened in August 2019, with a vision not just to sell books but host programs and events to serve the community, such as regular local author book signings.

After the first holiday season that year, Parks was regrouping and trying to figure out what the shop would focus on when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

The bookstore had to shut down, but Parks said the pandemic was actually a blessing in disguise.

“Because it allowed us to really step back and focus on our website,” Parks said.

And when the store reopened, something else happened.

“We really became a necessity in the community because you had kids who were not in school that needed books,” she said.

From necessity to luxury

Four years after the start of the pandemic, things are trending in a different direction for Wordsmith Bookshoppe -- another way that the bookstore is riding the waves.

In a letter to the community posted on the store’s Facebook page last week, Parks said the bookstore’s place in the community has changed as the economy has changed.

“We’re now more of a luxury item than a necessity. So that has thrown us over the wave and on the downside of that wave for right now,” Parks said.

In fact, Parks said Wordsmith Bookshoppe is almost at the bottom of that wave, in part because of rising expenses.

“We have made a lot of adjustments to our business model over the past six months to help offset those expenses, but we are not climbing to the top of that wave just yet,” Parks wrote in the letter. “And, unfortunately, we have had to stop almost all our donations back to our community. We can only support you if you support us.”

In addition, sales have been down dramatically since August, as others deal with rising costs. Plus, the holiday season, which helps many retailers power through the slower winter months, wasn’t enough.

“We expect that. We don’t expect things to let us ride high on those waves forever,” Parks said. “Knowing that we can recognize that early and take action against, and that’s what our plea was out to the community.”

That plea is to buy local. Wordsmith needs to sell 1,650 books a month to maintain its current hours and staffing. In March, they sold 1,025 books.

Parks said even if people cannot afford to shop, they can help by spreading the word.

“Amazingly, we still have people every week, probably 40 to 50 people a week, who walk in the door and say, I didn’t even know you were here,” she said.

Parks tears up when she talks about the community response to her plea. The Facebook post asking for support has been shared nearly 800 times.

"We’ve had other small businesses in the community who are pillars in the community help us get the word out,” Parks said. “Then they have stopped in and given us verbal and moral support.”

In addition to books and magazines, Wordsmith Bookshoppe carries toys, puzzles, and book-related gifts from local artisans and companies such as Lux Blox in Galesburg and Sunface Puzzles in Monmouth.

The store also can special order books that aren’t already on the shelves.

 Tri States Public Radio produced this story.  TSPR relies on financial support from our readers and listeners in order to provide coverage of the issues that matter to west central Illinois, southeast Iowa, and northeast Missouri. As someone who values the content created by TSPR's news department please consider making a financial contribution.

Jane Carlson is TSPR's regional reporter.