The stack of white hardbacks caught my eye as they sat, all alone, on a still-empty shelf. The salty title was perfect, because I was hanging inside the region’s newest independent bookstore with two guys about to engage in an act of certifiable insanity in our Age of Amazon.
Calm the F*CK Down, the (understandably) bestseller demanded.
The former retail writer inside my snarky columnist skin couldn’t resist a jab; I looked up and found Reads & Co. co-owner Jason Hafer at the front counter painfully staring at a computer while volunteers inside a century-old building on Bridge Street in Phoenixville unpacked boxes of books ahead of Friday’s planned opening.
“Why do you have five copies of Calm the F*CK Down?" I asked.
“I keep losing my copy," Jason said without missing a beat. He chuckled just long enough to break the stalemate with his uncooperative machine.
Jason ran a bookstore in Phoenixville before closing it in 2011. He is back, but this time partnering with friend and former QVC executive Robb Cadigan. The two bibliophile buddies are determined to give their fast-gentrifying former steel town the bookstore they think it deserves — Amazon be damned.
Success will not be easy. But if anyone can figure it out, Jason and Robb say, it’s them.
Amazon, enemy of brick-and-mortar stores of all stripes, has transformed our lives. It has starved mom-and-pop retailers with internet shopping so alluring that we no longer spend billions of our dollars at malls, bookstores, or even supermarkets. Barely a month ago, Penn Book Center near the University of Pennsylvania announced it was going out of business. Barnes & Noble, where Jason once worked, continues to struggle.
What makes this 2,400-square-foot store, across from the adored and preserved Colonial Theater, think it can succeed where so many others have not?
For one, independents are making a bit of a comeback. But this duo — they’re an interesting pair with a pragmatic streak and a footprint in their hometown.
Robb, 54, used to be executive vice president of programming, broadcast, and marketing, and chief creative officer, at QVC, back when the West Chester home-shopping network was the world’s most profitable ($5 billion!) television channel. He became friends with Jason, 40, back when Jason ran Wolfgang Books across the street. Jason left his recent job in the book distribution world to give this new store a go.
Jason knows what keeps a bookstore busy, or not. Robb knows how to use retail theater to get people excited. (For a refresher, recall the long-ago TV-shopping phenomenon known as cubic zirconia “jewels.”) Both live in or near the borough.
Robb has been writing novels since leaving QVC eons ago. But his marketing savvy is all over the store’s young Facebook page. With each post, he shares either a nugget about himself or Jason or their families and children, or how the branded merchandise they sold a week ago has been popping up all over.
He is building a brand from scratch, one story thread at a time. Before even opening, the store has about 2,000 followers.
I asked the guys why they thought this was a good business idea. I may have called them “insane” at least two — possibly 10 — times.
“The stores that are thriving are the smaller ones that are opening,” Jason explained over a cup of coffee at Steel City, the destination coffee shop in the walkable downtown that has turned Phoenixville into a restaurant and craft-brew destination along the Schuylkill. “The downtown stores that are very community-minded.”
For Reads & Co., that may end up involving author visits across the street at the Colonial and having the mayor and the director of the Colonial pick a book of the month. It may mean after-school events in the children’s book nook toward the back of the store, which they gutted and renovated to showcase beautiful brick walls and a stunning center-of-the-store skylight.
“It’ll be a mixture of town leaders and readers who want to tell their neighbors what they’re reading,” Robb said. “If you’re standing in front of a bookshelf with 300 books on it and you see a sign that says, ‘The high school principal thinks this is a great book to read,’ that carries a lot of weight.”
The two words that best capture the story these two book merchants are most trying to sell: Hometown Heroes. Robb and Jason. The last chapter won’t be written for a while.
Until it is, I urge calm. Because, their dream store? It’s been built. Only time will tell if customers follow.