Editor’s Note: The Rebound is a weekly series on how businesses in Northeast Florida are navigating change, including during the pandemic.
Signs on building columns touting coffee, books, and wine prompted me to stop by to visit a charming neighborhood bookstore bistro on a recent visit to Fernandina Beach.
A front door panel directs you to the entrance to a spacious patio with an iron fence with a serene setting. As you walk on the stone patio and observe the flowers on the tables and the murals on the walls, you can’t help but feel like there is something different about Story & Song. Neighborhood Bookstore Bistro.
I wasn’t planning on writing about this retailer until I quickly learned that a big secret to their success lies in the way they cater to visitors. Whether it’s a meal, a freshly released book, a craft or unusual gift, it’s available. Even the upstairs space for a community event is available to the public.
I’m new to the area so I was just trying to figure out the basics like how Fernandina Beach is actually a town on Amelia Island.
But most visitors to Story & Song are residents of Nassau County. More importantly, it was customers who made this three-year-old company successful amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
âWe typically know just about everyone who walks through doors by name,â said Connor Fasel, who leads social media marketing and buying efforts at the store. âThey want us to be successful.
Story & Song co-owner Donna Paz Kaufman said the biggest challenge for her is managing her cash flow and worrying about her ability to keep going. She and her husband, Mark, started the business in February 2018 and had just hit breakeven when Covid-19 hit. They only closed the business for six weeks during the mandatory shutdown issued by the governor.
Respond to COVID-19
Immediately after the start of the pandemic, the store promoted its curbside delivery and pickup service.
âWhen it was clear that people were going to be staying at home for a while, we recommended books and bought lots and lots of puzzle cases, which turned out to be a huge hit,â she said.
Customers would visit the open-air courtyard to view the puzzle selections.
âBetween the books, the puzzles and the take out, we brought fun, love, support and escape,â she said.
Now, even though our community is seeing fewer cases of COVID-19, consumption patterns are changing.
The challenge, however, is that while book sales across the country have been strong during the pandemic, much of the sales are at big box retailers like Target and Walmart, and of course, Amazon. , which now accounts for about half of all book sales nationwide.
Independent businesses provide a sense of community, character, diversity and humanity. They need our support.
The biggest changes were the start of local deliveries. It wasn’t exactly planned. Kaufman said they were trying to survive during Covid, so when they started getting phone calls asking if they could deliver, the answer was always yes. And due to an older demographic, for about a year many orders started with a phone call and a staff member would go through books and gifts with the caller on the phone. Then a staff member made the delivery personally, whether it was food, a book, or a gift.
“We were grateful that they called us rather than going to Amazon. They showed us that we were all in the same boat and that they wanted to support a local business. Plus, we made it easy for them,” she declared. âEverything took twice as long for the same sale. We were in tatters. But one thing that came out was that we learned that we can survive tough times. Our perspective has changed. proven that we know what we’re doing. In terms of customer support, we’ve introduced ourselves and so have they. “
They also launched a weekly subscription service allowing customers to pick up a 26-ounce carton of the bistro’s signature soup every Monday.
For those who weren’t ready to jump into the business, the business has radically changed the business, including live events on Facebook and the creation of a new Youtube channel where it posts readings, author lectures and storytelling hours for children. They even did live Instagram interviews with the authors. A month ago, the retailer launched Storycast, which is a podcast-like audio series on both channels, and a culmination of everything they’ve learned from the pandemic so far.
âWe have a predominantly older clientele, so we had to work to meet people where they are. We were trying to figure out how to move more content online, and as we learned about lighting and sound while dealing with the internet which is not great on the island, our audience was learning to engage with it, â Fasel said.
There was a lot to learn, but their clients were patient.
âFortunately, what they were really interested in wasn’t the perfect lighting and sound, but this story and this song was trying to send out positive energy. I think that’s why people responded.”
Barbara Gingher, a retired nurse practitioner, said she enjoys engaging with Story & Songbook online, including when there is a discussion of cooking recipes with an author or chef. But she’s more excited to visit the bookstore in person, enjoy the food, live events, and meetings upstairs.
âThis is my home away from home. Itâs so welcoming and they have so many diverse optionsâ¦ I cannot stress enough how good their staff are. This is the best small business on the island. “said Gingher.
Giving back to the Amelia Island community
Getting people to support the bookstore was only a concern for the store. They wanted to know how they could help the community get through COVID-19, Kaufman said.
“We served meals to the emergency room staff at our local hospital, coordinated a book drive for the local women’s shelter, coordinated another book drive to collect at least one book for each child in the county who received daily meals.” , she said.
The Kaufman team spend a lot of time thinking about how they can play a role in community service. Why? Its biggest goal is to be the kind of dynamic business that people want to support because they are trying to contribute to the quality of life in the community.
It pays off because the company is now profitable and they are convinced that they have gone through the most difficult times. Sales have continued to increase each year, even with the pandemic.
Now they are looking to the future. They plan to launch their own line of books with the publication of “HAPPY PLACES from Amelia Island: The Insiders’ Guide”. The books will be written by staff members with photos of community members. And they plan to introduce local holiday greeting cards, featuring artwork from local photographers.
âWe are entrepreneurs and cultural creatives, so we can’t stop creating and inviting others to join us. We are not driven by numbers, however, improving ourselves and connecting people in a positive way is what motivates us. “
As the pandemic abates and the general public begins to feel more comfortable returning to social spaces, it’s time to support local businesses that treat you as an individual, rather than a commodity.
Marcia Pledger is the Opinion and Engagement Writer for the Florida Times-Union. She can be reached at [email protected]