By Cindy Hadish
CEDAR RAPIDS – A hand-written sign at the entrance to New Bo Books asks if customers have made their 2014 reading lists yet. If not, no problem.
A staff of four “bibliophiles” is on hand at New Bo Books, 1105 Third St. SE, to help create one.
You can hit up a resident poetry maven, fiction expert, or clerk Nick Wells, for his acumen in the classics. Owner Mary Ann Peters might point to one of her recent favorites, such as “Life After Life,” a novel set, in part, during the London Blitz in World War II.
In fact, that expertise and attention are among the drawing cards at the independent bookstore in the heart of Cedar Rapids’ New Bohemia neighborhood.
“I feel like I can trust their insight,” said customer Tammy Fox of Cedar Rapids, who stopped in last week to peruse and purchase books.
Besides the body of knowledge she finds in the staff, Ms. Fox said she appreciates the “smallness” of the store.
“I don’t feel overwhelmed here,” she said, standing next to one of the plush chairs where customers can sit and read. “It’s peaceful.”
That reaction is precisely what Ms. Peters hoped for when she opened the bookstore in July 2012.
She and her husband, Chuck Peters, CEO of The Gazette Co., had moved into the nearby Bottleworks Loft Condominiums and Ms. Peters, a former library director, thought the neighborhood could use an independent bookstore.
Attracted by the storefront in the historic CSPS building, a cultural venue extensively restored after the 2008 floods, she intended to persuade another bookstore to move into the space. That brought her to Prairie Lights, to see if the independent bookstore in Iowa City had any expansion plans. Prairie Lights did not, but the query led to a partnership between Prairie Lights and Ms. Peters, who was intent on seeing the idea come to fruition.
Pointing out her tiny office, with just enough room for a computer in a furnace closet next to the retail space, Ms. Peters said the much larger and seasoned Prairie Lights’ involvement is invaluable for New Bo Books.
Books are ordered through Prairie Lights, which has room to process the orders in its three floors of space in Iowa City. The books are then sent, ready to shelve in the 800-square-foot store in Cedar Rapids. Books not carried in New Bo Book’s limited space can be ordered from Prairie Lights and generally arrive within two days.
The partnership is unique, Ms. Peters said, citing a national seminar she attended, where the organizers said they had never heard of a similar relationship between two independent new book sellers.
While Cedar Rapids has independent used bookstores competing against chain bookstores that sell new books is among the challenges faced by New Bo Books.
Although they can’t offer the deep discounts that national chains can, Ms. Peters said New Bo Books offers a well-curated collection “where you can find good books, but not be overwhelmed by the quantity.”
Another challenge is the trend toward digital books, though Ms. Peters said before opening New Bo Books, she sensed a void in the district.
“I felt there was still a call for a shopping experience that’s very service-oriented,” she said.
The store has synergies with neighbor Brewed Cafe, also located on the ground level of CSPS, and other businesses in the district, along with the non-profit Legion Arts, which operates CSPS. For example, if a larger venue is needed for a book signing or reading, Ms. Peters has rented space elsewhere in CSPS.
Local authors Rob Cline, Dennis Green and Lennox Randon attracted a good-size audience last year, she noted, as did David Foster Wallace biographer, D.T. Max, in 2012.
Offering an outlet for local authors is one area in which an independent bookstore can eclipse chain stores, where approval comes from headquarters, rather than at the local level.
Ms. Peters said she reads books presented to her by the authors to see if they might be good sellers and decide whether or not to carry them.
“Christmas Trees Lit the Sky,” by Anneliese Heider Tisdale of Cedar Rapids and state Sen. Rob Hogg’s “America’s Climate Century” are among books by local authors that sell well at the store. New Bo Books has offered book readings at the NewBo City Market, just across Third Street, as well as children’s story time.
In general, children’s books are among the best sellers at the store. Ms. Peters is open to having book clubs meet at New Bo Books, which offers the perfect space for small groups. In fact, she is sometimes approached by photographers who would like to use the iconic looking bookshelves as background for photo sessions.
A volunteer board member of the Czech Village/New Bohemia Main Street District and SPT Theatre Co., Ms. Peters noted that customers receive more in return when they buy at locally-owned businesses, including volunteer support.
She saw a return in that support during a crisis last spring when New Bo Books and other businesses in the neighborhood were threatened by rising floodwaters from the Cedar River. David Chadima, whose family owns the nearby Cherry Building, advised Ms. Peters to evacuate.
Furniture, rugs, books and eventually, the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves were removed and either stored upstairs at CSPS or taken to a warehouse that a friend offered for use. Volunteers came out of nowhere to help, something Ms. Peters still finds touching.
“One hour I had no idea we’d be doing this, and the next hour we were getting everything out,” she said, adding that it was a relief when the buildings were not flooded. “It’s become something people would fight for, and I think that showed on that day.”
For more information:
New Bo Books, 1105 Third St. SE, is open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sundays and 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday through Saturday during winter hours and can be found on Facebook and at www.newbobooks.com. Call (319) 247-2665.