When I spoke with Abbigail Glen, founder of Charlotte-based Shelves Bookstore, she was still fondly recalling the previous night, when she found herself overtaken with laughter thanks to a book she had been reading.
“I was dying laughing like I was watching a TV show,” she said. “Like seriously, in the bed cracking up.”
For her, the experience was a perfect example of why reading plays such an important role in her life.
“Television is amazing, but a good writer can have you crying reading a book, laughing reading a book, like really stop and put down a book because you need to breathe. That’s what reading can do for you, and we’re here to remind people that reading is such a freeing experience.”
As a longtime avid reader, Glen encourages curiosity in others. She recommends people question the world around them and turn to books to find the answers.
If you don’t keep seeking, she asks, how can you learn?
Glen is a firm believer in the power books have to educate as well as entertain, and she knows from experience the freedom that reading provides.
“The more you read, it will free you,” she said. “It will free you from the confines of thinking you know it all.”
This understanding, paired with a passion to serve the community, is what prompted Glen to launch her mobile pop-up bookstore, Shelves Bookstore, in June 2019. Since then, she has been popping up to sell books at cafes and breweries around Charlotte and has pivoted during the pandemic to offer online ordering and home delivery, along with merchandise and a monthly book subscription service.
But like any good story, Shelves’ success did not come without plot twists.
Charlotte’s friendly neighborhood bookseller
Glen moved to Charlotte from Philadelphia in 2016 after visiting on a road trip six months prior. She had been working in human resources, but in the back of her mind lived a dream to someday open a brick-and-mortar bookstore that offered a subscription service.
Once she got to Charlotte, it didn’t take long for her to see the need. Glen learned that there was only one independent bookstore selling new books in the city. Other indie bookstores sold used books and big-box chains made up the rest of the market.
Curious about what it was like to do business locally, in 2018 Glen began attending small business workshops offered through a partnership between Mecklenburg County and Central Piedmont Community College.
She learned a lot, but wasn’t quite ready to take the leap yet.
“I had the name for Shelves, tucked it in the back of my mind and just was like, you know, I’m gonna pull this out when it’s time. And lo and behold, I wasn’t expecting that to be the next year,” Glen said.
By 2019, Glen had resigned from her HR job and was asking herself, “What’s next?” But she already knew the answer was Shelves. To finally get the dream off the ground, however, she would end up taking a different route than originally envisioned.
After a long discussion with a friend, Glen realized that her long-term plan to bring a brick-and-mortar Shelves out to the community through book fairs and mobile pop-ups should actually be flipped — the pop-ups should come before the physical bookstore.
Armed with this new approach, she signed up for one more workshop to flesh out her ideas, this time participating in one for blossoming entrepreneurs hosted by ASPIRE Community Capital. She was the only person in attendance.
“I got their undivided attention and that was really valuable to me,” Glen said.
She launched Shelves the next month with her first pop-up at Queen City Grounds in Uptown. It was well-received.
“I needed that because that was very encouraging and I honestly held onto that experience when times got rough, because not all pop-ups went that way,” she continued. “I never forgot that experience.”
Determining what books to sell, what topics customers might be open to reading and what her mobile pop-up bookstore would look like were among some of Glen’s earliest struggles with Shelves. Still, she didn’t have any expectations for her first few pop-ups, just a hope that people would appreciate someone trying to fill a need in the community.
“It was a couple of folks who opened their doors — Enderly Coffee Co., Lenny Boy Brewing, Pepperbox Donuts — and I’ll always be grateful for everybody that took a chance,” said Glen, who today likes to call herself Charlotte’s friendly neighborhood bookseller.
“I’m glad for the experiences because it really helped me see what worked and what didn’t as far as for our customers and then what environments work for our type of business model.”
Shelves Bookstore hits it stride
Shelves was not an overnight success, and Glen isn’t shy to admit it. Like any new business owner, there was a learning curve for Glen with unpredictable ups and downs. She supplemented her income by working as a personal shopper.
Because she’s not a bookseller by trade, Glen had to figure out how to source books from publishers and, in doing so, came to understand that inventory is what makes independent bookstores unique.
Shelves doesn’t necessarily carry the trending books or bestsellers, but instead focuses on lesser known authors in an attempt to encourage discovery among readers.
“Each bookstore is a reflection of its staff, its owners, its folks who make all of it work,” she said. “I learned to relieve myself of the pressure of trying to select the right books.”
Before the pandemic hit in spring 2020, Glen had recently launched an online book request service for customers to order books they couldn’t find at her pop-ups then pick them up at Enderly Coffee Co. in west Charlotte or Mint Hill Coffee & Social House in the eastern part of the county.
The new service was slow to gain momentum, however, and not a single request came through in February.
After receiving just a handful of book requests in a few months, Glen was shocked to see the numbers skyrocket as folks began to quarantine and spend more time at home.
“I looked at my phone one morning and saw we had a book request. I opened it thinking it was just one, and it was dozens,” she said.
That initial influx of orders funded the creation of Shelves’ online bookstore. By summer 2020, with in-person pop-ups on hiatus, Glen made a full pivot to the internet.
She offered home delivery, but kept the option for local readers to pick up books in Enderly Park and Mint Hill. The additional revenue stream allowed her to revert her focus back to ideas she had put on the back burner while getting the mobile bookstore off the ground — ideas like designing merchandise and launching a monthly book subscription service.
She did both, launching a monthly service called Reading Is A Lifestyle, or RIAL. Customers who pay to join the “RIAL crew” choose what types of books they are “open to reading,” rather than “interested in reading,” and that’s by design.
“Interested in, that’s influenced off of your experience,” Glen said. “Openness is like, ‘You know what? I may not have had any experience with this but I’m open to learning about it.’”
Each month, Shelves delivers a new adult hardcover book to RIAL members that fits one or more of the categories they selected. They don’t know what book they’re getting until they receive it.
Members also get access to an exclusive monthly virtual hangout where they talk with authors and share thoughts about the latest book they received with other members.
But RIAL is much more than your average book club, Glen insists.
“We’ve been able to build an even more intimate community of supporters through our subscription because these are individuals who are intentionally investing in the store every month with their monthly subscription payments saying, ‘I don’t know what book you’re gonna send me, but I trust you,’” she said.
Reading is freedom
Glen said she doesn’t necessarily believe that her own passion for reading gives her a unique perspective to own a bookstore as much as her ability to create community wherever she goes does.
“I’m really good with people and connecting people and making people feel like we could talk and have a good time anywhere, or sit down and get to know each other anywhere,” she said. “I feel like bookstores are the perfect environment for that, and so I envisioned that and was like, I possess those traits and I know that no matter what environment I find myself in that I have the ability to create community. And why not do it around books when books are written in an attempt to connect people with parts of the world — parts of themselves or cultures they haven’t explored before?”
With Shelves, Glen feels like she’s operating in her calling — a commitment to educating families, celebrating the joy that reading books brings and spreading the notion that reading is freedom.
That’s how she’s been able to navigate the ups and downs of the business with “some semblance of poise,” she said.
Glen intentionally curates each selection of Shelves books — whether at the mobile pop-ups, in the online bookstore or through the monthly RIAL subscription picks —to expose readers to lesser-known writers and narratives, to encourage curiosity and conversation, and to foster learning.
“When you read a book, you are freeing yourself from your biases, especially when you are reading books that are not necessarily about topics and subjects that you’re comfortable with, which is why we also push the narrative of really diversifying the subject matter that you read,” Glen said. “When you only go back to things that you’re comfortable with, you will never get comfortable with being uncomfortable and that could be in other cultures, among other thought processes.
“When you incorporate reading in your lifestyle, I feel like you just can’t lose. You can’t lose because you’re keeping your guard up against the prejudice and things that are always at risk of clinging onto us if we’re not careful.”
It’s easy to gravitate toward what we’re well-versed in and what doesn’t make us think, Glen admits, rather than subject matter that makes us question what we know.
But if we don’t keep seeking, how are we ever going to learn?