Tucked neatly next to a three-story building made of the same tannish brick, you can’t be blamed for not noticing Books & Mortar immediately. However, despite it’s humble one-story shell, Books & Mortar is a living, breathing, fiercely independent bookstore that I had no qualms perusing around while waiting to interview its founders.
Christopher Roe and Jonathan Shotwell are native Michiganders who went to Chicago for grad school. There, they found an admiration for independent bookstores, and the genesis of Books & Mortar came when they realized Grand Rapids was lacking indies like that. To give back to the community and fulfill their dream in one fell swoop, the duo laid the groundwork for what would eventually become Books & Mortar.
I spoke with Roe about the origins of Books & Mortar, the strategy he and John employ in curating artists, and his thoughts on genre.
Dzanc: What prompted your decision to open your own local bookstore?
Books & Mortar: We have a lot of friends who own local business in town, and we asked them where the local bookstore was, and they’d be like, “Uh, we don’t have one.” So a lot of it was seeing a need.
D: When did your interest in books start, particularly independent books?
B&M: My mom was a librarian. I studied elementary education, so I was really into literacy reading. It’s just always kind of been a part of my DNA.
D: When you guys are choosing stock for books, obviously it’s a very tiny bookstore. What balance do you try to strike?
B&M: Whatever’s new release and whatever’s popular. Frontlisted books, as well as books that probably won’t be found at Barnes & Noble or Schuler’s per se. Books that you could easily get on Amazon but ones you wouldn’t find on your own. Socially progressive things and just things that aren’t typically mainstreamed.
D: I was going to say, from looking at the website and looking around the store selection, I can tell you guys are about being progressive.
B&M: Yeah, it’s worked out well!
D: What’s the importance of having independent bookstores? Why is it such a big deal?
B&M: We have a lot more autonomy in how we address issues in the community. At the largest level, corporations can’t easily respond to the needs of people in the area. Like Barnes & Noble, they’re still very top-down. When you’re small, you can kind of get the pulse of the area. You can reflect back the community stuff.
D: What is your favorite that you’ve recently put in the store? Or at least one that’s been very interesting that you haven’t seen anywhere before?
B&M: Um, oh gosh. [Laughs]
The hard thing is that I’ve always done a lot of reading of nonfiction books in general and so has Jonathan, so we already have an awareness of what’s out there, or at least who’s out there having conversations. Ironically, the things that are more fun to us are design books that we don’t know as much about. Children’s books, those are exciting because there is much newer stuff being written now. Sometimes we can’t believe that we found a book that we carry now.
D: What do you think of the literary emphasis among smaller publishers? As opposed to genre fiction like, say, Stephen King? Do you think there has to be a clash between those two?
B&M: I personally don’t think there has to, and I think we’re probably a hybrid of the two. Though I can see how the two competing paradigms have come together before.
Like I said, being the only thing in the city, we have to appeal to both audiences. We want to be that surface-level pedestrian bookstore with genre-based curating, but we also want people who are like, “Let’s celebrate the arts of Grand Rapids!” We really do have to be both.
D:How do you go about finding local artists? Do you showcase them here?
B&M: Yeah, both writing-wise and other types of art, including performing art like plays. Sometimes we’ll see something somewhere or we’ll be at an art festival or indie flea market thing and be like, “Oh my god, we have to carry this artist.” And a lot of the times, people will come to us. Especially the poetry and writing community. They’ll come and say, “Four of us want to do something,” and that’s a lot better than just working on one person. It’s kind of a dance of everyone owning the promoting.
We have readings on Fridays. Unless it’s huge—we have one at the end of the month where we are expecting hundreds of people to come. Usually a press has to pitch one-author events to us. If they’re super local, we’ll do a round table of authors, which is nice because they don’t all draw huge audiences, they each draw twenty, which adds up to sixty.
D: And then those people find out about the other authors too!
B&M: Yeah, it’s awesome. It’s all a mutually beneficial thing. Poetry, especially in intimate environments, works really well.
D: Who is the biggest author that you’ve hosted?
B&M: Typically, it’s that they’re more locally well-known, so often we’ll have a professor or visiting faculty from Grand Valley or Calvin, and that will draw a huge crowd. A lot of those events happen around women in gender studies, social sciences…
D: A lot of progressive stuff.
B&M: Exactly. We’ve also had events when well-known authors come to visit local universities.
D: What’s the lasting impression you want to leave on your customers?
B&M: Obviously a positive one. But we don’t follow people around hounding them. A place where people can make a connection of some kind. A positive experience of inquiry, or maybe even enlightenment.
Of course, also just to know we’re here.
Books & Mortar hosts events most Fridays. They partner with established Grand Rapids businesses and organizations, such organizations as the Creative Youth Center, which helps bring children authors’ work to Books & Mortar’s shelves; and Brewery Vivant, a vibrant bar built inside an old church where Books & Mortar currently hosts some of their larger reading and round-table events.
955 Cherry Street SE Grand Rapids, MI 49506 - 616.214.8233 - firstname.lastname@example.org