M. Judson learns to thrive in the digital age by breaking bookstore tradition

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On Valentine’s Day morning, 17 giggling preschoolers sat for cellphone pictures on the grand marble staircase leading into Greenville’s only public Beaux Arts-style building, the old Greenville County Courthouse, today the home of M. Judson Booksellers and Storytellers. The children are at the end of a field trip that included a tour of The Chocolate Moose’s kitchen, eating cupcakes, and listening to an apropos rendition of “How Do Dinosaurs Say I Love You?”

M. Judson, which opened in June 2015, has built not just one niche as the only bookstore featuring new titles downtown, but maybe a half dozen niches. The field trip is just one example.

Debi Horton
Debi Horton

Every one of its business and revenue-building sources points to one goal: “We find different ways to bring people in — not necessarily just to buy books, but to bring them in so we could become a community hub,” says Debi Horton, M. Judson’s “event goddess,” who manages the store and its 30-plus public and private events per month.

And while the fledgling local business still is finding its wings on a competitive retail street, Horton and the store’s four partners have hit on something new. Even for book lovers, it’s no longer just about finding the right book or right product. Online booksellers like Amazon have a greater than 40 percent share of the overall book market. Within seconds, their search engines can help someone find about any obscure title.

Ashley WarlickSo for local bookstores to thrive, they need to focus attention on specific book genres and think creatively. M. Judson does this by narrowing its focus to three main literary categories: food books, Southern literature, and children’s and adolescent novels. They also share space with The Chocolate Moose, which serves confections and coffee.

“If you limit your focus, it’s much easier to highlight what’s unique,” says Ashley Warlick, a novelist, co-partner, and buyer for M. Judson.

For instance, Warlick, who also is an editor at large for Edible Upcountry magazine, is particularly fond of “Southern Provisions” by Clemson professor David Shields.

“He has been instrumental in bringing back lost foodstuffs, plants, and vegetables that have gone extinct and are part of our Southern heritage,” Warlick says.

June WilcoxM. Judson approaches non-book selections the same way, looking for local artisans, including vendors, woodworkers, jewelry, and candle makers, who might appear at the downtown farmers market.

“We highlight local vendors who come into the store and have some weekends with new local producers,” says June Wilcox, a partner. “We have a quarterly authors market where we can highlight the talent that’s here in Greenville.”

The retail experience

Another key to revenue growth is to create a unique retail encounter.

“What is happening with this generation of shoppers is we’re becoming more and more interested in the experience,” Warlick says. “If you’re shopping online, you can have the experience of shopping at 2 in the morning in your pajamas, and that’s a great thing. But to come to a physical store like this one, in a beautiful historic building, with knowledgeable staff, and items beyond books for sale that are carefully curated and paired with the books themselves — well, that creates an experience.”

She has a point. Just walking up the steps of M. Judson is an experience in and of itself. The bookstore is located in the former home of the Greenville County Courthouse, built with brick, concrete, and terra cotta in 1918. It later was used for the Family Court until 1991. In 1994, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Philip Thornton Marye, the Atlanta architect of the 130 S. Main St. building, also designed the Atlanta Terminal Station in 1903.

M. Judson hosts Sunday Sit-Down Suppers once a month. In February, attendees enjoyed a four-course Italian meal from Chef Michael Kramer of Jianna. Photo by Jack Robert Photography.
M. Judson hosts Sunday Sit-Down Suppers once a month. In February, attendees enjoyed a four-course Italian meal from Chef Michael Kramer of Jianna. Photo by Jack Robert Photography.

The building’s elegance has helped the bookstore attract private events, such as weddings, adult birthday parties, rehearsal dinners, baby and wedding showers, graduation parties, and Sweet 16 parties. One of the newest celebratory occasions is the gender reveal party, in which expecting parents invite close friends and family to join them for a reception where everyone – including the soon-to-be-parents – learn the gender of the baby. The couple cuts into a cake that Horton creates after receiving a sealed envelope from their obstetrician. “I make a white or chocolate frosting with a pink or blue cake,” Horton says. “We’ve had eight gender reveal parties in the past year.”

Staying nimble, finding opportunities

Event planning wasn’t part of the store’s first six months, and it wasn’t something the store’s owners anticipated initially.

bookstore making it work sidebar“It wasn’t part of our original plans to have so many events,” Wilcox says. “One lesson we’ve learned in the last year and a half is how to be nimble and change with new opportunities.”

The store’s space lends itself to events, she notes.

Inside the bookstore, shelves and tables are moved around to seat as many as 80 to 100 guests for private events or the monthly literary dinners, in which an author and chef pair up to recreate food that has ties to the book participants have read. For example, in fall 2015, there was a dinner with novelist Pat Conroy, who died March 4, 2016, and chef Cassandra King. King created a Sea Island red pea salad and Charleston shrimp and crab-stuffed trout, both inspired by Conroy’s bestseller “Beach Music.”

“It’s such a wonderful space,” Wilcox says. “We can use the space in a lot of different ways.”

The public events have become increasingly creative, including the recent Book and a Beer monthly gathering. The first one, held in February, featured beer by 13 Stripes Brewery, which is opening in Taylors Mill. The accompanying book was “Fallen Land,” a Revolutionary War story by Taylor Brown. The free event included beer samples and the sale of beer cheese balls.

“It was a very hip, guy-focused crowd, and they did buy books,” Horton says. “It was a really interesting group, a new crowd for me.”

Events like that are held more to create awareness of the bookstore and to build toward its mission of becoming a community hub, Horton says.

bookstore retail chartAnother community event is the weekly Wednesday Pop-Up Suppers. At 6 p.m., anyone can walk in and take a seat at a table by the Chocolate Moose to sample a $10 dinner prepared by a local chef. Menus have included Moroccan-inspired chicken and cumin-steamed Chinese dumplings, a Brazilian feijoada (black bean stew with pork sausage), and Spanish canelones de carne — pork, beef, and chicken-filled pasta rolls, topped with bechamel and manchego cheese.

“We find different chefs to give them exposure downtown,” Horton says. “There are no reservations and it’s first come, first serve.”

The chefs keep 80 percent of the dinner price, so it’s not a revenue generator, but the suppers often bring in new book customers, she says.

Kids as core customers

The business also focuses on a core customer base of children and their parents or grandparents. Teenage events include trivia nights, Harry Potter celebrations, a Friday 4 p.m. Minecraft club, birthday “cupcake wars” parties for younger children, and Sunday brunches for mothers and daughters to read and discuss a young adult novel.

“I’m trying to figure out ways parents could do something special with their kids, getting to know them and relate to them,” Horton says.

Horton also has plans to introduce a “Night in the Bookstore,” in which a youth council selects a book to read and has an overnight with pizza in the store.

While downtown rents are costly, the bookstore’s bottom line is helped by having the Chocolate Moose share its space and having a landlord, Bob Hughes, who is “a wonderful advocate,” Wilcox says.

“Greenville embraces its local business community,” she says. “We’re still learning, but we’re very optimistic, and it’s a good time to be in a business on Main Street.”


Foot Traffic

Here’s how other local bookstores are branching out to bring in customers:

Hub City Bookshop (downtown Spartanburg)

Hubcity.org

“The Writing Show” (Seminars on writing/publishing topics)

  • Book Design for Novices
  • Do I Need an Agent?
  • A Conversation with Robert Beatty

 

Joe’s Place (Greenville’s West End, moving to Pettigru in May)

joesplacellc.com

  • Live music
  • Tarot readings
  • Reflexology massages
  • Wine tastings
  • Trivia nights
  • Coloring and Conversation
  • Board game nights
  • Book clubs

 

Fiction Addiction (Shops by the Mall behind Haywood Mall and Woodruff Road)

fiction-addiction.com

  • Children’s weekday story times
  • Cookbook club
  • Upstate Writers’ Networking Event
  • Girls’ Night Out
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