The community has quickly embraced Virginia Highland Books, located a stone’s throw from the Virginia Avenue and N. Highland Avenue intersection, even before its soft launch.
“The amount of interest is very reassuring,” owner Sandy Huff said. “Bookstores have to have neighborhood support to succeed. So far, people seem excited so that’s a step in the right direction!”
Huff, a long-time Intown resident with a background in event planning, public relations and marketing, first turned to the American Booksellers Association and other indie bookstore owners for guidance.
“They told me who to call. What to do. How to start. It’s a really cooperative industry,” Huff said.
Indie bookstores operate on thin margins due to set publisher prices and compete with juggernaut Amazon (willing to sell books at a loss) and e-books. On the bright side, print sales rose by 8 percent in 2020, as more readers seemed to prefer to a physical book to a screen.
Once word got out that an indie bookstore was coming to the neighborhood, volunteers, local artists, and college students looking for work began to contact Huff. Retired volunteer Ellen Kempner was ready to “do whatever Sandy needs help with” from stenciling to stocking shelves.
“As a lifelong reader, a bookstore is my happy place – especially one right around the corner!” Kempner said. “I see helping a local business succeed as helping the entire neighborhood.”
Enter this new happy place and you’ll find the fiction section on the right. Young adult and children’s books with a cozy nook for story time are on the left.
“I had cushions made for window seats so parents can sit there while children are on the rug,” Huff said.
Head down the central staircase decorated with author names stenciled by Kempner to browse nonfiction books and soon-to-be-stocked vinyl records.
“There’s also space downstairs for gatherings – book signings, book clubs, the skies the limit.” Huff said. She plans to start scheduling events and meetings in August.
As folks reconnect over a good read at Virginia Highland Books, Huff encourages the community to help curate her inventory.
“I want to have as much input from the neighborhood as possible on what they’re reading and giving reviews,” Huff said. Staff will also be providing book recommendations.
For added flexibility, order books online (vahibooks.com) to pick-up in store or ship direct. Huff is also selling other nonbook items, like readers, blue light glasses, and puzzles for starters.
Rather than selling used books, Virginia Highland Books will collect and donate used books to local nonprofits. The first recipient is Hillside, which provides mental health services to 700 families a year, including residential treatment for 70 children at its VaHi campus.
“A good young adult series, fun, quirky, diverse and perhaps aspirational would be a great suggestion [to donate],” said Alison Jarvis, Hillside Atlanta Development Director. “A child can enjoy a book and then can read others in the series. Having these things to enjoy when they are very anxious or depressed can help them cope and alleviate stress.”
The bookstore will also display local art on a rotating basis. First up is travel photographer, Jonathan McKown (jonathanmckown.com) whose images include landscapes, wildlife, people and historical sites. In addition to large, framed pictures, pre-matted smaller photos will also be for sale
With all of these community connections, Virginia Highland Books is helping the neighborhood get back to its roots. In the 1980s, there were five indie bookstores on less than a one mile stretch of N. Highland Avenue from the U.S. Post Office to Plaza Drugs. One of the shops, Bealer’s Books, was actually in the Virginia Highland Books footprint.
Mark Stevens, former co-owner of The Science Fiction and Mystery Bookshop located on corner of N. Highland and St. Charles Avenue in the 1980s, has some heartfelt advice for Huff.
“You’ve got to be dedicated,” Stevens said. “You’re not doing it to get rich, but you do it for all of the other reasons. It’s fun. It’s a labor of love. It’s a meeting place for minds. If it’s going to be done anywhere – it can be done there.”
Huff shares that passion. What excites her the most about this venture? You guessed it – the books!
“I probably read about 100 books a year,” Huff said. She’s hoping her neighbors will too after visiting her bookstore.
Virginia Highland Books is located at 1034 N. Highland Avenue. For more details, visit vahibooks.com and @vihibooks on Instagram. Be sure to pick up a print copy of Atlanta Intown when you’re in the store, too!