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SunLit

The SunLit interview: Coronavirus pushed BookBar founder Nicole Sullivan to reimagine her business

When the shutdown hit, she went into survival mode. But gradually, she began to work toward a more meaningful, purposeful model.

BookBar founder Nicole Sullivan

All kinds of businesses struggled with redefining themselves — or just surviving — in the wake of the 2020 coronavirus restrictions. Colorado’s independent bookstores certainly fall into that category.

So SunLit sat down — virtually — with Nicole Sullivan, owner of BookBar at 4280 Tennyson Street in Denver’s Berkeley neighborhood, to talk about the challenges brought on by the past year’s events, and how her 8-year-old venture has weathered adversity and charted a somewhat different course as hopes for the pandemic’s end gain momentum. (Full disclosure: The Colorado Sun and BookBar have had an informal, collaborative relationship since the launch of the SunLit feature.)

Sullivan forged ahead with BookGive, a related nonprofit venture aimed at distributing free books to individuals and organizations. But she also ventured into the publishing arena as well, while still embracing the idea of the neighborhood bookstore as a critical social enterprise. The social part of the equation hasn’t returned in full, but there are hopeful signs — including one that appeared on March 15.

SunLit caught up to Sullivan just a day after BookBar’s first in-person event in the year since the pandemic closed things down. A drive-thru experience put together by Jeff Kinney, creator of the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” franchise, was scheduled for last Monday. Naturally, an epic snowstorm blanketed the Denver area just a day before. 

Still, the show went on.

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Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.

SunLit: After all that time with only virtual events, to see a blizzard threaten this first in-person appearance — how did you pull it off?

Nicole Sullivan: It was kind of touch and go for a while. When they first proposed this event, of course, it was Jeff Kinney, so we say yes immediately and then figure out everything else from there. And then when they described an in-person event, it made me very anxious and very nervous, because this is the very first in-person live event that we’ve done in over a year. We haven’t even attempted to do anything, not even book signings.

But they had a whole plan where it was drive-thru and families weren’t even allowed to leave their cars, everybody is required to wear a mask so it’s very COVID safe, and of course it’s outdoors. And we were the very first event on this tour, so we were all kind of feeling it out and figuring it out and feeling a little rusty. 

But given that and given the fact that we had a snow storm, it was a very smooth event from where I sat. The venue was able to plow the parking lot, and we got a nice beautiful sunny day, with just piles of snow. And I think that the families were really happy. The kids were all so excited. I was directing traffic, and waving at all the families as they were leaving. And the kids were just so thrilled because they’ve missed out on so much this past year, too. So that might have been the most exciting thing that’s happened in the last year for them. It certainly was for us.

SunLit: For those who may not be familiar with BookBar, fill us in on the origin story.

Sullivan: The short answer is I wanted to open a bookstore and wine bar for selfish reasons — because I wanted to have a place where I could just read a book and enjoy a glass of wine, and a place that made sense for my book club to meet. And nothing like that really existed. So, there was actually a bookstore that was in the current BookBar location. I knew the owners because I shopped there and I had done some literary events with them, so I said, is there any way that we can possibly save our community bookstore?

I just got sucked in from that moment. I approached them and said, “Can you add a wine bar?” That led to a conversation about a possible partnership and then a possible purchase. None of that panned out. So, unfortunately, they ended up closing at the end of 2012. And I was so far down the road in my head with the planning at that point that I couldn’t let it go. So we opened in 2013.

SunLit: How much of your business model was the books and how much was the bar — and how do you balance that?

Sullivan: From a revenue perspective, my goal was to always do 50% bar, 50% books, and the reason for that is because my main priority is to own a bookstore. But I’m adding a bar to it and integrating the bar in with the book store as much as possible. It just creates an experience for customers. And that’s one thing that they can’t get on Amazon. They can get cheaper prices and maybe a little bit more convenience on Amazon but the experience can’t ever be replicated.

So, when we first opened, our revenue was 60% bar, 40% books, and over the years we got that up to 50-50. The reason for that is because I want, when people walk into the store, for them to be very well aware immediately that this is a bookstore that serves wine. But I wanted the bar revenue to be up to 50% because, honestly, the margins are higher, so it makes financial sense. 

SunLit: That neighborhood, and that particularly that stretch of Tennyson Street, is just a really interesting place.

Sullivan: It really is, and it’s been through huge changes. We live in the neighborhood, and have been here for 17 years, and we moved here to buy a house and start a family. I fell in love with Tennyson right away because it has that sort of old, small-town downtown kind of feel to it. And when we first moved here, it was nothing but mom-and-pop small business, all up and down Tennyson. And since we’ve been here, the development that’s taken place on Tennyson is literally out of control. Some of it is very well done, some of it not as much. It’s been a real point of contention, I think, with the whole neighborhood. Because a lot of bungalow residences have gotten scraped and are still getting scraped for slot homes.

So, I love Tennyson a whole lot, but all the development is a little bit of a thorn in my side, and a lot of other residents as well. But that being said, it’s still an incredibly unique street because it’s nearly a mile long from north to south, and most of the businesses on the street are still small businesses. 

Workers prepare for a rare in-person author visit during the pandemic — and event that proceeded on Monday despite an epic snowstorm a day earlier. Jeff Kinney, author of the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” franchise, came to Colorado on a western tour to promote his new book. (Provided by BookBar)

SunLit: It takes a while for any business to find its footing. At seven years in business, where were you in terms of your growth when things went south with the pandemic?

Sullivan: We were starting to kind of plateau in our growth because the first few years that we were open our growth was just shooting straight up. And then it was still growing, but not quite at the rate that we had seen in the first few years, which is totally normal for a small business. So, yeah, we were definitely getting our footing, hosting more and more events, getting bigger and bigger name authors to come visit. And then everything shut down, and we overnight became largely an online business. 

We switched from being very much a community space, and having people gather all day long. In the morning, people would come in for meetings or studying and have coffee. And then it would transition throughout the day into the evening, where people would come in on dates or for book clubs and have wine. And that’s what we loved to do, is to open our doors for the community.

And once that was gone, literally overnight, then you know there was a lot of soul searching. Like, OK, if we’re not going to be a community space anymore and be able to interact with customers and talk about books one on one, face to face, then what are we doing? And the answer, I think, is surviving — just doing what we’d have to do to get through. 

SunLit: You were at a booksellers conference in Dallas right before the shutdown. Was there widespread panic among booksellers in general?

Sullivan: People were really nervous — you know, everybody was. Nobody was wearing masks yet or practicing social distancing. But I remember being in this conference room at a hotel, and anytime anybody sneezed or coughed, everything just stopped and we all looked at each other. So people were very much on edge because we had no idea what was coming. And while I was at that conference, the night before we left, my husband called and said, well, school is canceled for the kids. So I was like, well, this is it. This is when life really begins to change, knowing that I was going to be coming home to suddenly homeschooling the kids. 

SunLit: In the meantime, you’d already branched out with the nonprofit organization called BookGive. How does that fit into the larger BookBar picture?

Sullivan: I used to host these community book exchanges. The first one was 10 years ago last summer. And it was just a really simple annual event where we’d invite the community to come and bring books that they’ve read or didn’t want to read, and then just exchange them within the community. Then we’d donate all the books that were left over. And so I kind of continued that into BookBar, where we had this informal program set up where we would allow people to donate their books, and then we would facilitate donating them to other organizations.

And it grew, and we ran out of space for the book donations. We ran out of staffing that could organize this and then I realized that it was getting to be too much, and that I either needed to just shut it down, or to grow it within its own organization. So that’s what we decided to do.

So we bought the old Regis 66 building. That property had been a gas station since the 1920s, and it had been a service station for 40 years, when we bought it — one of the last full-service gas stations in the United States. And I think that the community was happy to see it not go to developers. So that’s been our headquarters where we currently receive books, and we sort them according to genre and just get them ready for redistribution to other nonprofit organizations. 

SunLit: In the midst of all this pandemic chaos, you also announced that you were going to start publishing books. Tell me about that decision.

Sullivan: When everything shut down, I had already been so overworked and so burned out on working so much and not spending enough time with my family, not spending enough time with my friends, not taking care of myself. So even without the pandemic I had gotten to the point where I was like, I can’t continue in this way.

And then all of a sudden I was home all the time. I had a lot more time on my hands for a couple of weeks while everybody was figuring out what’s next. And I realized how much I really enjoyed that. I started exercising more and spending so much more time with my family — cooking a whole lot more, reading more, all the things that I wanted to make time for but just couldn’t. And so it just made me realize that I did not want to go back to the way things were. And I didn’t want to go back to normal. I realized that there needed to be a new normal. 

And so I started just reimagining what I wanted the business to be — and I didn’t want it to be like it was before. I mean, I do want it to be like it was before, but I wanted it to have more meaning and more purpose. (Book publishing) has been an idea that’s been in the works for a long time. I’ve been talking about dabbling in publishing for a few years. So I hired a publishing director, Heather Garbo, and she was able to take this idea of publishing our own material, and she really grew it and expanded it. And we ended up creating a new, separate business called BookBar Press.

There were a couple of ideas that I’d had kicking around in my head. She was able to take those and bring them to life and actually get them published. So now we’ve published two books so far: We published “Bite Size,” which is an anthology of plays that were performed in the store in partnership with the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. Then we published, in January of this year, a book of poetry.

We’ve got three more books lined up that we’re going to publish, over the next couple of years. So we’re just going to do a handful of titles under BookBar Press each year, but we’re also going to be offering various author service packages to help authors who want to do some self publishing.

SunLit: A year into this pandemic, when hopefully we can see the light at the end, how do you think BookBar has changed? Do you feel like you’re positioned to thrive once the worst is behind us?

Sullivan: I’m just thinking about how I want this business to be meaningful, and I want it to give back to the community. I want it to be meaningful for our staff, and I want it to be a good workplace. And I think these really resulted from, honestly, the sheer terror of things, of the whole world being turned upside down overnight, and not really knowing if I was going to have a business much longer.

When we locked the doors that day — I think it was March 17 — and everybody went home, I was like, I don’t know what I’m going to be coming back to, and that is terrifying for something that you have loved so much and worked for so much. And so that was really kind of the impetus of making me think, “How can I do this better, how can I make it more sustainable?”

It’ll be interesting to see how the industry adjusts when the dust all settles. My fear is that publishers are realizing how much money they can save on travel by just doing virtual events. So I worry a little bit that there’s not going to be as much author travel except for the biggest name authors. And I think publishers are also seeing the benefits of being able to reach a wider audience, rather than just sending an author to a specific city with a specific audience. It’s going to be a hybrid — live author events will definitely come back, but I think that virtual author events are here to stay.

SunLit: Is there one thing that you look forward to the most once things start getting back to normal, something you’ve missed about the business that you just couldn’t replicate virtually?

Sullivan: It’s just getting people back into the store and seeing our regular customers again. I think that’s my favorite thing about the store and having people in it — just seeing friendships form. We’ve seen some of our regular customers who come in, day after day, become friends with one another. And then they’re coming in and having coffee together. And I think that’s what I miss the most. I just like watching relationships unfold and watching partnerships unfold. And a lot of creativity comes out of that.

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