I’ve Read It In Books Is the Bookstore NoDa Needed
A chat with Rob Banker
One may have seen opening a bookstore in Rob Banker’s future after he graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University with an English degree in the mid-1990s. Yet he took a different route, following the internet boom and entering the tech industry.
While he remained fascinated by literature over the years, it would be a quarter-century before an opportunity presented itself to Banker while he was hanging out with Luke Stemmerman, founder of Premium Sounds, a record shop that was operating inside of Tip Top Daily Market. He pitched the idea for I’ve Read It In Books to Stemmerman and Jason Michel, owner of Tip Top.
“There was this little space at the back of the record shop, and I just kind of said, ‘What would you think about a bookshop back there?’” he recalled of the conversation that occurred back in 2020 as businesses began to reopen from pandemic shutdowns. “They said, ‘Eh, we’ll give it a try.’”
He opened I’ve Read It In Books that October, selling new and used books, and things grew from there. When he was forced out of the space in June 2022, he had just begun to break even as a business. He searched for new spaces but couldn’t find anything affordable until he was approached with an opportunity: become one third of the Vintage House, a new trio of retail shops opening in a black house on North Davidson Street directly across from Benny Pennello’s and Heist Brewery.
Joining with two local boutiques, Stash Pad Vintage and Milk Money Vintage, Banker opened the new space on March 3, launching with around 800 books, but aims to get around 1,500 in there once he starts accepting donated books again.
We stopped by the small-but-spacious I’ve Read It In Books shop to talk about the new location, teaming up with fellow tenants and his goals for the store.
Tell me a little bit about your upbringing and why books are so important to you.
I came from a military family, moved about every two years, and it was tough making friends in places and things like that when you’re coming and going so quick. Books kind of filled a space for me in those years. I was an early reader, and it’s always been a part of my life. I was the kid that was underneath the sheets with the flashlight reading.
What was the experience like with your first location inside Tip Top as a first-time entrepreneur?
At first at Tip Top, it was slow. I don’t think people knew what really to make of it, and I didn’t really know what books people wanted. I knew the things I was interested in, and people were so open with suggestions. And not in that annoying way, like, “You should do this.” It was like, no, I really want people’s recommendations because I’ve got a lot of blind spots. I’m a middle-aged white guy, I’ve got blind spots. And it was that community around Tip Top and talking with folks around there that was essential to figuring out what I wanted this to be like.
Sounds like it might be helpful that your new location is also a collaborative space.
It’s awesome. It’s a different type of vibe than Tip Top and people with completely different businesses, but the overlap is still there.
You have things in common, in that Stash Pad is also displaced for example.
Exactly, and I see a lot of businesses going that way, especially small businesses, businesses that got hurt by the pandemic or just are getting hurt by the general economic situation of, you can’t rent space. And that was the biggest thing when I was closing up at Tip Top; I didn’t want to stop. I was not ready to stop. The shop was doing the best it had ever done. It was actually just starting to break even after a year and a half. But I started looking at real estate, it’s like 800 square feet for $3,600 a month. I can’t do that.
I like working with other businesses. It provides a lot of opportunities. Again, getting a house in NoDa split three ways and all the advantages that go along with that, but also just kind of what everybody brings to it. Even if it’s not books, it’s vibe, it’s know-how. I don’t know very much about retail. The bookshop was my first experience running a retail operation.
I’m a software developer with Duke Energy. That’s my day job. During the day I work at home and the shop is covered here and we share labor and so forth. Even when I can’t be here, the shop is still good, which is pretty great and is also what it was like at Tip Top and I wanted that again because I wasn’t in a position to go into it full-time and I wasn’t in a position to hire employees yet.
So the shop is always going to be covered and I’ll be here all weekend and on Thursday through Saturday I’ll be keeping all three shops open a little bit later than they originally intended. They wanted to close at six. Well, Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights for me are hopping. I got to be open ‘til at least 8. I’ll be here. So they get to be open a little bit longer on those nights. It’s symbiotic.
What does it mean to you to be here in this storefront in a neighborhood that is so badly starved for a bookstore?
It’s always struck me, like, how is there not a bookshop in this neighborhood? And then I realized, oh, it’s because you can’t afford it. New books, especially, it’s a razor-thin-margin business. I love NoDa, and since I moved to the city, it’s changed dramatically and it’s still very alive, but I don’t even think I allowed myself to even entertain the idea of opening a shop here because it just wasn’t going to happen. To be the guy that got a bookshop into NoDa, I feel pretty good about that. And the people have been so receptive just in the first three days that we’ve been here.
You’re loudly a pro-LGBTQ and all-around progressive bookstore. How important is that aspect of it for you, especially in a time when, even in a city like Charlotte, there are folks who are working to actively suppress certain books from school curricula and things like that? What does it mean to you to be able to serve on the other side of that fight?
It means everything. And this isn’t to cast any aspersions on independent bookshops that do things differently, but I feel responsibility to my friends, to the people that I’ve worked with in the homeless community, to the whole city, actually, just to provide a shop that they can go to and get the information that they need and find books that represent them — that they open these books and it’s not just another white person writing about the horrors of racism.
Being a progressive bookshop in the South, I’ve always wondered, am I going to be catching heat? I haven’t really, yet. There was one phone call once, but it wasn’t threatening or anything like that. I struggled for a little while with, “Do I try to present all points of view? Do I stock conservative books?” Things like that. And I don’t think you can. You can try, and I think a lot of book shops do — your average Barnes & Noble and things like that — but I couldn’t do it. I just wasn’t able to. I’m not against stocking books that I don’t agree with, but I will not stock something that I know to be lies, to be misinformation or hate speech.
And that was the one phone call that I got, was a woman looking for The Real Anthony Fauci by the black sheep Kennedy anti-vaxxer [Robert Kennedy Jr.]. She called me three times. She said, “When are you getting it in?” I’m like, “I’m not.” “Why?” “Because I believe that to be lies and all evidence proves it to be lies.” And she said, “Well, that’s censorship.” “No, I don’t think you understand the meaning of that word.”
Yeah, exactly. It’s my shop.
How specifically do you curate each book selection and how will that change, if at all, as you start to reach those higher numbers?
It is a lot of work, and that’s another reason why I’m so grateful for the community that’s kind of sprouted up around the bookshop and the folks at Tip Top; there’s a lot of people sending me suggestions. As the number gets higher, I’ll just have to see. I am not giving the curation up. If I have to keep the number down in order to keep the quality up, I will.
You’ve used your store to support our homeless neighbors in the past. Will that continue?
Any books that are donated, I’ll either take them directly out to the community, be it Block Love CLT that does dinner in Uptown every night. I’ll go up and put my book cart at the beginning of the line, while people are waiting, they’ll come get books. I love doing that, and I haven’t been able to do it for a couple of months now.
There’s that aspect, just taking the books out. But I also sell the donations [used books] and 100% of those sales, at the end of each month, I look at what’s sold and try to split it up amongst local grassroots organizations who don’t get funding from other people. Folks like Shamelle, who runs Da Village Pop-Up [free fridge in front of Haberdish], I’ll send her some money to fill up the fridge.
Or Block Love, if you spend $250, that’ll provide a meal for all those folks for an evening. And that’s kind of how it got started was getting involved with the mutual aid group and being out in tent city when that was going and taking books out to folks in tent city.
People would ask me then, what does that do? Well, it’s an escape. Who deserves an escape more, right? It just kind of ballooned from there, and it’ll always be a part of what the shop does.
I’ve Read It In Books will be open along with its Vintage House neighbors, Stash Pad Vintage and Milk Money Vintage, from Sun.-Wed., Noon-6 p.m.; and Thurs.-Sat., Noon-8 p.m.
This work by Queen City Nerve is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
I loved walking into I Read It In Books while perusing the record collection. It was a nice surprise. They’re a lot more progressive than most of the bookshops in the city, which really feels as if it reflects the people and community more. Big Ups!