After one store folds, Indiana group finds a way to build a thriving “community” venture
By Marshall King
Goshen, Indiana — Fables Books arose like a phoenix from the news that another independent bookstore was closing. In 2008, Better World Books, an online book retailer, opened a brick-and-mortar store along Washington Street in Goshen. Brad Weirich, who worked for the company, convinced the owners that such a store was viable. A few years later, it moved to a larger location at 215 S. Main St.
That store continued operating until March 2019, five years after Weirich quit working there. The same day the closing was announced, Weirich conversed with other former employees about establishing a new bookstore.
Even as customers lined the store for the going-out-of-business sale, Weirich and a collective of others started dreaming. “For me, it was kind of unthinkable not to have a bookstore in Goshen,” he said.
“There was a fairly large group of people talking about opening a bookstore in town,” said Veronica Berkey, Weirich’s sister.
Dreaming soon gave way to actual planning. Weirich, Berkey, Kristin Saner and another couple were having serious conversations in June. Landlord Dave Pottinger was excited to have another bookstore fill the space. When word got out that a new bookstore was in the works, community members started dropping off books at nearby businesses to help with the opening.
An Indiegogo campaign helped fund the startup. Some people loan- ed money at a reasonable interest rate. Others simply gave cash. “The goal was a community bookstore that reflected the values of a community: welcoming, curated new and used books,” said Berkey.
Fables Books opened in July 2019 and was well-received. The ownership team includes Weirich, who curates the books. Berkey and her husband, Gary, handle the finances and she also works on the floor of the store. Kristin Saner works the floor and oversees marketing and events, and her husband, Mark, handles the computer and IT functions. All of them work other jobs, either part-time or full-time. “It’s working,” said Veronica Berkey. “It’s hard. We do it because we believe in bookstores.” Their children ask their mothers where they’ll be working on a given day.
The spring after the store opened, the global COVID-19 pandemic presented challenges for every business, including the new bookstore. Their newly established sense of normal and hopefulness was replaced with a focus on staying solvent. “That was never a problem,” said Berkey. “There was never a time I was worried we weren’t going to make it.”
Downtown Goshen Inc., a nonprofit that markets downtown and plans events, helped spearhead sales of gift cards for businesses. Kristin Saner said that customers turned to their local bookstore to order new books they heard about while they were sheltering in place. That’s how Fables began to offer more new books than the owners originally intended. During the pandemic, publishers marketed differently, which helped booksellers.
Customers also wanted more than books, so Fables began curating and offering literary gifts, including socks for readers, bookmarks with snark, and stickers. Pens, notebooks, and stationery are on the shelves, as well as items from local artisans. Fables started selling used games and found vendors who could help them offer games that aren’t available at a big-box store.
The owners also didn’t plan to offer books online, which has become a key part of the business. Weirich had started making a little money for the business by dipping his toe into online sales. After losing his full-time job because of pandemic-related downsizing at the company he worked for, he had more time to figure out systems and how to overcome problems. Fables’ owners encourage customers to bring in used books and give a $5 store credit for every box of them. Sometimes Weirich will buy books from bookstores or other places that get them donated, such as The Depot, a Mennonite Central Committee thrift store in Goshen. He assesses the books and knows that esoteric and academic topics may not appeal to customers in Goshen but are of interest to customers looking online.
Weirich has built a stable and successful business wing by offering books online and shipping directly. He’s enjoying that success. “It’s a pleasure,” he said. “It’s a pleasure to do.” They survived 2020. Business in 2021 was fantastic. In 2022, the vibe was different as customers were more careful than they had been about purchases, said Berkey.
They can offer customer service and connection that isn’t possible with online transactions. Saner operates four book clubs that attract fans of various genres to gather around drinks at nearby businesses. A silent book club for introverts who wish to gather and read together without discussing the book happens at the store on the first Saturday of every month.
Saner loves how people gather in and around Fables. “I enjoy it. I enjoy getting to be around books and talking with people about books and helping them find that thing they want. It feels like giving back to and being part of the community by being here,” she said.
Most of the owners attended Mennonite high schools or colleges, and several are part of local Mennonite churches. Their faith informs how they operate Fables, which happens to have large religious sections, including Anabaptist-related material, because of their clientele. With several part-time employees who share their values, they operate a store where everyone is welcome. “Faith informs who we are as people,” said Berkey. “We talk about wanting to be honest, wise, and fair.”
The Black Lives Matter sign they have in the front windows doesn’t thrill every customer. That leads to conversations about wrestling with faith and hard questions. Saner said her wrestling with white privilege is done with a faith perspective, particularly Anabaptist. The owners work to support the community by giving books to Little Free Libraries, hosting field trips, and sponsoring a local high school musical. They hope they can do even more of that as they continue to grow.
In 2019, the closing of one independent bookstore in Goshen made residents realize how much they wanted one in their community. Like the mythical phoenix, Fables Books rose from the remains and continues to fly.
Marshall V. King is a writer and journalist based in Goshen, Indiana. You can read more of his writing at hungrymarshall.substack.com.