Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
A refurbished cargo container in downtown Battle Creek holds hundreds of tales waiting to be shared, among them a true one about a local couple and their efforts to re-write their own story.
On a recent Wednesday, the narrator of this story was found inside the metal cargo container, the seasonal location for New Story Community Books
, which also has a brick-and-mortar store in downtown Marshall. On June 24 a ribbon-cutting took place to officially welcome Tom Batterson and his wife, Kimberly, owners of the bookstore, as the newest members of the BC Cargo retail collective in downtown Battle Creek.
The couple eventually would like to have a second, more permanent, location for a store in downtown Battle Creek, but after making it through a pandemic and managing the economic uncertainty that came with that, Tom Batterson says they have decided to take a more thoughtful approach to branching out.
“Battle Creek has a need and a love of books. It’s finding that right niche. We want something that will be unique and different,” he says. “There’s a bookselling history here and we’re going to make it happen.”
While standing behind his smallish counter inside the cargo container, Batterson says, “When we first said that we wanted to open a bookstore, we started plotting and planning and dreaming and we always wanted to open it in downtown Battle Creek.”
When reality entered the couple’s planning and dreaming stage, they recognized that it would make more sense from an economic standpoint to begin their new careers as business owners in Marshall. From the structural and location standpoint, the hard part had already been taken care of for them because they would be buying an existing bookstore which gave them the freedom to work with what was already there and make it their own.
Tom Batterson is seen inside his cargo container store, New Story Community Books.
Over margaritas with Ginny and Jim Donahue, owners of that bookstore which was called the Mitten Word Bookshop, the Batterson’s discussed the possibility of purchasing it from the Donahues who were entertaining thoughts of retiring from the business they had owned for three years in Marshall. Before opening that location, the Donahue’s had operated Battle Creek Books
at 51 W. Michigan Ave. in downtown Battle Creek.
Three years after Battle Creek Books opened, the Donahues decided in 2017 not to renew their lease and the bookstore closed. But, they were not yet ready to entirely back away from book retail and found opportunities to continue in Marshall.
“They were ready to retire and they were going to go the clearance route to sell their existing inventory. My wife and I didn’t want to see that happen and we began negotiating the sale of the bookstore to us,” Batterson says. “It was important to Ginny and Jim that the bookstore stay in the community and that was important to us too, to have a bookstore there.”
Lawyers were brought in, contracts were drawn up and signed, and checks were written. Then, days after the Battersons opened the doors in April, the pandemic forced them to close those doors.
To say there was a lot at stake would be a gross understatement. Tom Batterson had given up a 20-year career in Business Development with Barnes & Noble. Although his wife continued her job as a preschool teacher with Lemon Tree Preschool located at the Battle Creek YMCA, the couple had three teenage children and bills to pay.
“It was such a blow. It makes it hard to breathe,” Batterson says in describing what it felt like to have the bookstore follow the state-mandated closures. “There are people who had been booksellers for 40 or 60 years and they have so much wisdom and all of the people in this field have so much anxiousness.”
Rewriting a Playbook for Success
Relying on the lessons he learned in his former career with Barnes & Noble, which included fixing issues at their retail locations, Batterson and his wife’s mantra became “flexibility” and they wasted no time in finding different ways to keep their doors opened virtually.
They found support through their memberships with the American Booksellers Association and the Great Lakes Booksellers Association, which offered virtual workshops and gatherings that enabled the majority of independent booksellers to weather the pandemic storm.
Tom Batterson and customer Laura Webb chat together inside his cargo container store, New Story Community Books.
“We knew we would be able to sell online and launched a website pretty quickly and we launched home delivery,” Batterson says. “It was great to see kids smiling and looking out the window when we left the books on their doorstep. We had one gentleman who would leave beer in exchange for his books. The community was great.”
The decision to embrace an online sales platform was a move being made by independent booksellers throughout the United States, according to an April 2020 article
in Time magazine.
The article says that independent booksellers feared the worst because their stores already were operating on slim margins and in the shadow of Amazon’s dominance. They feared that a prolonged period of closure might shift consumer habits toward online buying and erode the communities they serve.
“As these bookstores remain closed, however, an online movement has emerged to bolster their chances. One organization, in particular, Bookshop.org
, has become a unifying force, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for local stores desperate for an alternate source of revenue,” the article says.
Like many booksellers, Batterson says the online sales component for New Story Community Books
will continue. He says it’s a perfect complement to the in-store shopping experience and has made it possible for him to hire a staff of five part-time employees and cover the cost of the cargo container rental.
For those wondering if New Story can provide an experience similar to the immediate gratification Amazon promotes, Batterson says, “People can order online from us and we’ll deliver their books within a day or two depending on holidays and the store’s hours of operation.”
The store also stocks e-books, digital books, or audiobooks for those who prefer these reading formats and the Battersons spend a lot of time on the selection of what will stock their store’s shelves.
“You have to pick things that you know will appeal to people. We are making sure our books represent people in the community,” Batterson says. “We work a lot with publishers to help us determine what’s going to be successful. We celebrate book culture and anything that puts books in people’s hands.”
About 60 percent of New Book’s inventory represents used books that customers turn in for store credits or excess copies from publishers, which can be had for less than half of the original price when the books become outdated and require updated printing and new covers as a movie based on a book comes out.
Mastering these more conventional angles of the revenue side of the business gave the couple time to think creatively about what other opportunities they would have to differentiate their bookstore from behemoths like Barnes & Noble. Their ideas so far have resulted in several unique options including a vending machine containing books placed in various schools for a month at a time during the school year.
“The vending machine is kind of cool. Kids get tokens which the school pays for and kids put those tokens in the coin slot and select a book,” Batterson says. “They have this unique experience of getting a book from a vending machine. If you instill a love of books in them at a young age, they will become lifelong readers.”
They have also initiated pop-up book sales at area parks; a book swap at the BC Cargo location; and an upcoming “Book Fair for Grownups” on July 24 at Territorial Brewing in Springfield.
Creating these one-of-a-kind experiences has become the theme of the playbook Batterson and his wife use to increase an appreciation of the written word and drive sales.
The upcoming event for adults is in response to the drop Batterson has seen in the number of people reading when they reach their teens or 20s. Batterson says he will set up in the front area of Territorial with “fun, sassy books, and things that celebrate a culture of reading.”
“People can experience books in a different way that offers fun and excitement,” he says.
In addition to the community outreach already underway, the Battersons are looking at plans to retrofit a bus that will become a bookmobile.
“We’ve had shelves built and we’ve talked with people who own bookmobiles,” Batterson says. “We could load it up with books and show up at a park or a parent/teacher night or at festivals. With that mobility, we could create new opportunities for people to have access to books.”
That access is key to the couple’s underlying storyline.
“We are committed to working with others to build a more just and equitable community and I’m convinced that literacy is the engine to get us there,” Batterson says.