Lauren Zimmerman didn’t need much in the way of market research before opening Writer’s Block Bookstore in fall 2014. Hardly a stranger in town—the attorney and interior architect has called the Orlando area home for more than forty years now—she had a pretty good idea that her Winter Park community would eagerly welcome a bookstore.
“I know the customers,” she says as a matter of fact. “I was one of them.”
Zimmerman seems to have found a formula: between satisfying appetites for top-shelf authors while introducing independent voices and publishers; between reading and buying and the hours needed for retail management.
Having survived the critical first year, the store represents a success story for the modern age, and we asked its founder and owner to narrate the tale.
Please provide the main message in a book called Starting an Independent Bookstore.
The main thing is that you have to know your community before going into the community. Independent bookstores are different from checking in with Amazon; you’re there for the community and the audience. I’ve lived in Winter Park for forty years, and I know the customers largely because I was one of them.
What prompted the career switch from a legal practice to store ownership at that time and place in your life?
I heard an NPR segment about Ann Patchett’s Pamassus Books in Nashville and thought, ‘I want to open a bookstore.’ I’ve always loved bookstores. When I go on vacations I visit the bookstores in all the big cities.
What do you know now that you wish you’d thought of two years ago?
I’m not sure I’d do anything different. It’s a learning experience and there haven’t been any real negatives that happened. As a do-over, it’s all about time: I had to learn to divide my time.
How did you go about stocking your initial inventory, and how has that changed?
This is a very academic, literary, intellectual community that looks to the Times reviews to introduce them to publishers. I’ve showcased [independent publisher] collections on a shelf. I have a new idea for a shelf with prize winners. I try to make the selection interesting. We still have a majority of books from major publishers because people want to read them.
Does success rely on being “more than a bookstore,” with events or community outreach?
At the end of the day, you want them to keep coming back. I work really hard at moving inventory, moving shelves around or genres to different locations. We don’t keep books on the shelves longer than three months. People come in and say, “Every time I come here it’s different.” I appreciate that because it’s on purpose. Community outreach and events are 50 percent of the formula; the other 50 percent is bringing them back.
Is there a difference hosting local writers compared to top authors from major publishers?
We don’t do anything different. We have a partnership with the Winter Park Library and Rollins College English Department to produce events. We put it on our web site, send out newsletters and a press release, and put it on Facebook and Instagram. We don’t discriminate; we have a system in place. Working with independent authors and publishers is a challenge. You have to match your customers with the authors, and authors need to do more to promote themselves. We’ll work as hard as we can to bring people in, but they need to promote their books as well.
Were you surprised that young people still read?
I disagree with the whole thing of being surprised that people still read. That’s a stereotype. The majority of people who buy books are young. Older readers go to a library or buy more on Kindle: They don’t like collecting things, or they need to make the font larger. I was at the airport and saw college students coming back from vacation, and 50 percent of them had a book in hand. I’m not worried about going out of business because people aren’t reading.
What have you learned about retail customers that you hadn’t known?
They’re all about convenience, so having a great location is important. It’s about changing buying habits. My competition is Amazon: it’s too easy to go online and order everything. I was surprised that older people were the demographics for Kindle, but it makes sense.
Was there a moment when you knew you were right to launch a book store?
Several moments. Winter Park used to have a book store, the Little Professor, which closed in the 1980s. I was the first to open since then, and not a day went by that someone didn’t say how they mourned when the Little Professor closed. Well, I missed Little Professor too. Now people come in, I see them sitting down, reading, browsing a bookstore, and I think, ‘What if this was gone?’ I know the community wants a book store there.
What books left an impact on you? Any recent titles have similar effects?
I was—still am—an attorney, and I liked books written by lawyers: John Grisham, Scott Turrow. I like fiction that’s easy to read and you can finish quickly. Recently I enjoyed Ann Packer’s The Children’s Crusade. The sad thing when you own a store is it’s hard to read as much as you want. I’m looking at how to recommend a book, sort of like the shoemaker can’t look at a pair of shoes without being critical. I don’t just go into bookstores and relax any more.
Other than settling down with a good book, what’s your definition of “quality downtime?”
My dream is to go back to my downtime of reading books. If you asked me what I’d like to do? Read a book. One thing I learned was that [for work] I had to be more online. I’m more old-fashioned, but now my downtime has turned into my work life, and when I have downtime, I’m on the computer putting an event together.
James A. Mitchell