Small Business Taturday: Books Are Magic
As a small business we're always fascinated by how others are making it work. Welcome to Small Business Taturday, an interview series featuring fellow indie brands & businesses we admire.
The other day we visited our neighbors over at Books Are Magic, a funky, bright bookstore owned by designer Mike Fusco and Emma Straub, the New York Times-bestselling author of The Vacationers, Modern Lovers, and Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures.
The couple opened Books Are Magic three years ago, after the 2016 election spurred them on to create an inclusive neighborhood hub for books, gathering, and events. Their goal was to create a vibrant destination that would be completely free of any stereotypical bookshop pretense.
Scroll down to learn about their experience starting a business without any prior experience, learning how to manage a team, and the story behind their giant pink mural.
How did you first decide to open Books Are Magic?
Emma: It started when our local Bookstore, BookCourt, closed. I had worked there for years when I was in my twenties. When I started publishing books it became my home in a different way, where it was always where I had my book launches. It was where I felt the most supported and loved. And as a writer, it’s a really amazing to feel like you have this place you can go where the people care about you.
So the owners decided to retire because they’d run it for 35 years which is amazing. And Mike and I had always had a private fantasy of taking it over when they retired. We found out BookCourt was closing in October 2016, and then it was the election in November, and it suddenly seemed much, much more urgent that we not let this thing that we loved and cared about so much vanish.
Because BookCourt had already sold their building, it didn’t make sense for us to take over their business, but we knew we wanted to move forward with a bookstore. And we did it so fast. I mean, we were open in six months.
Mike: We rented this place on Valentine’s Day of 2017 and then we were opened April 27th, 2017. It was that quick. We had found one investor, an author named Eddie Joyce, and his wife Martine, and they helped us with funding.
"We had NO IDEA what we were doing. We literally made it up as we went."
The truth is we had no idea what we were doing. On some level it really kept us from checking ourselves. We were like a freight train; we plowed through everything to get it done and to get everything right. We had NO IDEA what we were doing. We literally made it up as we went.
Was there any catastrophe that came from not having that prior experience?
Mike: No, we were incredibly lucky. Our construction crew came from a friend of Emma’s from college. He heard about the store and approached Emma, sayin, “I want to help.” And he took care of all those constructions problems we had no idea about. We also asked our friend Christine, who owns the bookstore Word in Greenpoint, all kinds of questions.
Emma: And because we had been very much a part of the literary universe in Brooklyn for a decade, we knew all the people who owned all the bookstores, and we met with all of them. And asked everybody questions. That year Mike also went to Winter Institute, which is the annual booksellers conference, like a bookstore bootcamp.
Tell us a little bit about your awesome pink mural.
Mike: It was never a thing that was premeditated, like, we’ll do this and people will take a million pictures of it on Instagram, and Reese Witherspoon will be reposting this thing. My background was in design and it was a cool opportunity to try out a mural for the first time. I worked with a sign painter who is just the best guy, John Boxell.
Initially we had totally splurged on the neon sign. We thought, it this doesn’t work out, at least we'll have this neon sign to put in our dining room or something. But if this is a success, then we’ll do a mural.
So how long did that take?
Mike: It was around that next fall, around six months in. That's when we were like, alright, it’s all coming together. Things are gonna be ok.
Emma: It was our reward.
Custom Tattly for Books Are Magic!
Any tips for fellow business owners starting out on juggling personal work, kids, and owning a business at the same time?
Emma: It’s horrible. I mean, that is the one drawback I would say, to this whole beautiful, thriving business - that I have to split my time. So for the first many months that we were open, I was here every day and my book was just on pause.
And that was fine, but once we got on our feet and we have a big robust staff, it’s still hard and I try to be here only on certain days of the week. But even still, I’m always checking in and answering emails. I try to schedule all my meetings on just the days I’m supposed to be here. That’s a big one.
Have there been any benefits of the juggle?
Emma: In terms of for my (writing) work, no.
In terms of my life as a writer, for sure. The best part about this store is that I’m surrounded by books all day long and talking about books all day long. The second best part is that every writer I love walks in this place! I get to meet them and talk to them, sometimes for an hour, sometimes for five minutes, but that has been an incredible gift.
Mike: (To Emma) I disagree. Just to comment on that, the thing about Emma was that she had another novel deadline while we were doing all of this, and it was incredibly difficult on the store, on our home life, and on the book. But what was born of it was this incredible book that’s coming out in May. I don’t think it would have ever been as rich if she hadn’t labored over it as much as she did.
(To Emma) And I think you learned a lot because of how hard it was.
Emma: (sighing) Yeah
Mike: So hopefully if it’s successful and people like it, then you can look back on it and be excited - look at it fondly. And if it’s a bomb you can be like, "Well fuck, it’s because we opened a fucking store while you were writing it." (laughing)
Did it feel more disruptive to your guys’ creative lives when you had kids or when you started the business?
Mike: I think the business is worse.
Emma: The business is hard because it’s got so many parts.
Mike: It’s like a 15-armed baby.
Emma: We’ve got 15 employees, and we had never had any employees other than a nanny for our children before… it’s really hard. I’m just getting to the point where I understand why people go to business school. The hardest part is just sort of understanding how to be organized and how to be clear with others. You know, we’ve always just worked for ourselves in these artistic ventures.
"We made a real point to not bring in a ton of people with a lot of previous bookstore experience. We’re carving our own lane."
Mike: For me, the juggle is a little different. This is my 100%-of-the-time job now. I came from a background of doing music related things and working for friends’ punk rock bands, so when it came to trying to organize this place (it was a different story.)
Basically, after the second year of running this place, it was leaning towards anarchy. Everyone was doing whatever they wanted for the most part, and carving out their own positions for themselves.
For me it was about coming to the realization that I have to have meetings regularly. The other day someone was literally like, “we need to have a meeting about the meeting.” And I was like “OH MY GOD! OH MY GOD!”
But I understand now that it’s not just about me and it’s about what everyone else needs - giving them the support they need to do a good job here and remain committed. We have 15 enormously invested employees...
Emma: ... who are just so smart and so much better than we are at so many things, which is just great.
Mike: Yeah, at first I made a real point to not bring in a ton of people with a lot of previous bookstore experience. My whole feeling about it was: I don't want people to think of this as just another bookstore. We’re carving our own lane. This is our own thing. The attitude in here is gonna be different, and the feeling in here is gonna be different.
And once that culture got kind of solidified, the people we bring on with bookstore experience really understand that.
What were the main differences you were trying to draw from other bookstores?
Emma: We wanted it to feel open, clean, bright, and inclusive.
Mike: And cool. No fuddy-duddiness. Like I often say not bookshoppy - you know, where it’s like this old dusty place that you wander around and find some weird cob-webbed book or whatever. We love books, we want to give you some knowledge, but we’re not trying to school you in a pretentious way.
Thanks guys! We love Books Are Magic!