GREENSBORO, N.C. (WGHP) — In December 2013, Steve Mitchell and Brian Lampkin had what – at the time – seemed like a risky idea. It was a proposition that, decades before, would have seemed commonplace.
“It’s a tough business. The margins are very, very thin,” Mitchell said.
On Dec. 21, the pair opened Scuppernong Books on South Elm Street in Greensboro. It was the only independent bookstore in the Piedmont.
“Bookstores are places where you can find the things you don’t know you want,” Mitchell said.
At the time, Amazon was already a powerhouse, having surpassed $300 a share earlier that year.
Mitchell knew, based off Amazon’s business model, that Scuppernong Books couldn’t sell books at the same prices Amazon could.
“In some sense, they are a competitor, and in another sense, they aren’t, because we can’t compete with them,” he said.
At the time, Mason Engel was a loyal Amazon customer. A math major at Purdue University, Engel (naturally) decided to write a book. Titled “2084,” it’s a science fiction novel, which had some early success as an Amazon exclusive. Eventually, Engel wanted to get more eyes on it, so he came up with a plan.
“My idea was to take a road trip around the country to 50 indie bookstores in 50 days, give away a copy of my book at each store, and just ask for feedback and ask if they could sell it,” Engel said.
About 10 stores into the trip, he realized; he was going into independent bookstores – up against Amazon – essentially trying to get them to help Amazon.
“In hindsight it seems so obvious, so obviously insensitive, what I was doing,” Engel said.
He planned a second trip. This time, however, he wouldn’t be selling. He’d be studying.
“Shot interviews, trying to answer the question of, ‘Why should people care? Why should people shop at an indie bookstore,’” Engel said.
Shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic started, and an intended stop at a North Carolina bookstore fell through, he contacted Mitchell with the hope of visiting Scuppernong Books.
“It sounded like a cool idea,” Mitchell recalled. “He’s traveling around the country going to independent bookstores.”
When Engel arrived, they got some quick video inside the store, and were left with about 12 minutes to do a quick interview.
“I’m so glad that we made the trip over there,” he said. “Those 12 minutes are some of my favorites of all the interviews that we’ve done.”
That brief interaction became a piece of what caused Engel to start his next chapter.
“I haven’t always been a lover of indie bookstores,” he said. “I have been in the Amazon camp, because it is so easy, and so fast, it’s hard not to be.”
“There are definitely hardcore book people who are our customers, but there’s also just a broad range of people who are interested in other things and can find it here,” said Mitchell, of Scuppernong Books’ customer base.
As the number of independent bookstores continues to increase across the country, Engel seems to have discovered the reason behind the demand. For, while you can get something you want online quickly and cheaply, sometimes it’s the story – of how you found your favorite stories – that lasts.
“With that cheapness, and with the convenience, we don’t feel fulfilled,” he said.
Engel says the documentary detailing his journey, titled “The Bookstour,” is available for purchase from June 6 to July 7. All the money raised during that time will benefit the Book Industry Charitable Foundation, or Binc, which helps bookstore owners and booksellers with unforeseen emergency financial needs.
The documentary can be seen here.