Twenty-Third Avenue Books: From Keeping the Books to Selling Them

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New bookseller Stephanie Griffin had spent the majority of her working life as the bookkeeper for a lumber company. This past April, she left her career of 25 years to become the new owner of Twenty-Third Avenue Books, a 2,500-square foot general bookstore in the Nob Hill neighborhood of Portland, Oregon, just four blocks from her home.

Griffin had shopped at Twenty-Third Avenue as long as she'd lived in Portland. Upset when she heard the store might be closing, she told a friend, "Somebody should save it. It's a great bookstore." The friend replied, "Why don't you do it?"

Griffin had some bookselling experience: In addition to bookkeeping, she'd worked nights and weekends at a Barnes & Noble, and although she had no intentions of going into bookselling full time, her decision was immediate. She said to her friend, "Hmmm ... I come packaged with a lot of courage. I think I'll do it." Within three weeks she created a business plan, got a loan, and officially assumed ownership of the store. She bought the store, which opened in 1980, from Bob Maull, who was moving to Cape Cod in Massachusetts.

Twenty-Third Avenue's neighborhood, Nob Hill, features pedestrian-heavy streets and Victorian houses, many of which have been turned into boutiques and galleries. Griffin's favorite store features are the transom window over the door and the large picture windows. The bookstore has strong sections of new fiction, selected classics and mysteries, history, politics, biographies, and also specializes in tracking down out-of-print books. Griffin highlights each month's Book Sense picks both in store and on her website.

"We use the Book Sense monthly Picks to create a display, and we always advertise that we have them on sale on a sign outside," Griffin said. Asked if she had a current personal favorite pick of the list, she said, "Oh, my God, yes! My favorite book of the entire year is The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox [Norton]," an October Pick. "It has revenge and love and betrayal and irony. It's a period book set in England."

She also uses the website, as well as a Constant Contact newsletter, to list upcoming events -- the store holds about three a month. Griffin told BTW about a recent visit by author Lucy Bledsoe, who talked about her YA book, How to Survive in Antarctica (Holiday House). "She gave a great presentation. She showed slides of ice caves and other things from her trips to the Antarctic. She talked about what it was like to be stuck in the snow without many people to help you. It was very informative."

After owning Twenty-Third Avenue for about seven months, Griffin sounded like she'd been running the store for years. The transition went fairly easily she said, in part because Maull stayed on a few weeks and because she had the help of experienced Twenty-Third Avenue bookstore staff members. Her biggest surprise so far was the large number of self-published authors approaching her to carry their books or hold readings. Griffin was considering taking the advice given during ABA's "Creating Killer Events" educational seminar held at the recent Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association trade show -- to hold two or three self-published author readings a year and enlist the authors to help publicize them.

Griffin, who plans on further honing her bookselling skills at educational seminars like those given at the PNBA show and the February ABA Winter Institute, said Twenty-Third Books won't change very much. At the moment, she's enjoying her new unanticipated career as a bookseller.

"When I first started working at Barnes & Noble, it was just a part-time thing I wanted to do for fun," she explained. "I never did imagine I would actually own a bookstore, but it's a dream come true. I love the people. Not just the customers, but also the publisher reps and the other booksellers. It's a great community." --Karen Schechner