Feature image via unpackingthebookstore.org
Listen up all queermos within striking distance of Philly! There’s a new bookstore coming your way — a very very queer bookstore with a café and art and all sorts of amazing things. And it’s being built from the ground up by community members Makella Craelius and Puppett. Today is the last day for their Indiegogo campaign, so both before and after you read this interview, I’m gonna encourage you to go check that out. Let’s help some community members out with their business and let’s make sure queer bookstores aren’t a relic! Keep them alive!
But without further ado, please welcome Makella and Puppett, who are gonna give you the low down on how they built their business. And how they built it for you.
ALI: I’m Ali, by the way.
PUPPETT: Hello. I’m Puppett.
MAKELLA: We’re all in different places.
ALI: Actually, where are you guys?
MAKELLA: I’m in Philadelphia.
PUPPETT: I’m in Los Angeles.
ALI: So how did you guys end up doing a business partnership, considering it seems like we’re straddling the country here? I know, I used the word straddle.
MAKELLA: Puppett actually lived in Philly near me for about five years and we hung out all the time, we’re amazing friends. And she studied film in Philly, so we kind of got close then. And then she abandoned me for L.A., but for bigger and better things.
Last fall Ed Hermance from Giovanni’s Room said he was putting the store up for sale. And shortly thereafter, Puppett called me up and said, “Hey, I know that I love Giovanni’s room, and you love that place, and I heard it’s up for sale.” And I don’t think I’d even gotten that news yet at the time. And she said, “Listen, I know you’re looking to start a business and I have some really great ideas. I think that we can join together and buy this place.” Actually I think a friend of mine was actually working at the store before and said, “Hey, you want to buy a book store?” And I said, “Absolutely not.” But then when Puppett called me up and had a ton of great ideas and we were sort of able to think those through and pool together our resources, it really became this actual viable idea, not just a dream.
So I decided I would be the local person, really kind of getting people together, building a team, and all that. And Puppett would kind of be this other coastal support. And that’s kind of been interesting because she’s been able to bring a lot to the process from being on the other side of the coast and meeting all sorts of people. [Puppett’s] met publishers and writers and other filmmakers, people that we’d love to collaborate with.
ALI: So let’s talk about that sort of bi-coastal thing. What’s your process for that? Because we’re all over the world and we know that’s really rough. How do guys do your communication? Like what kinds of things are y’all bringing in from each coast?
MAKELLA: I hear from Puppett a lot. She has a lot of different connections in L.A. She’s meeting new people every day, and is trying to incorporate more not just literary things into our business, but more media. And then she’ll call me up and say, okay, I met this person, I want to get you in touch with them, we can create this relationship. We’re both kind of night owls. So we kind of have a regular mode of talking to each other late at night. We recap what’s going on with the business on the ground in Philly, what have you been up to in L.A., who have you connected with, that sort of thing.
PUPPETT: I was at a film screening last weekend and Leon Mostovoy was handing out postcards for an art show that he’s hosting. And so he said that he’s making a book about trans bodies and I was like, oh, I’m opening a bookstore. And so we were talking and he said that he was probably being published through Transgress Press and we already have a relationship with him, so I’m able to have an in person connection with an author and talk to him. And he got really excited about the idea of coming to our store in Philly. So that’s something that happened out here. I have a meeting with a publisher about an hour and a half north of L.A. to talk to them and see if they want to be in our store. So that kind of stuff.
ALI: What’s going on with your business development right now? I know you guys have a Kickstarter. Is that correct?
MAKELLA: Yeah, we have an Indiegogo right now. And to go from the point at which Puppett called me up and said, “let’s buy the bookstore” to now there’s been a whole trajectory. So we started working on a business plan last fall. We had a couple of different versions. And we ended up submitting a few different proposals to the owner of Giovanni’s Room. And he eventually accepted our proposal in, I think it was January of 2014. And he said, “All right, I think we can make this work. I’ll sell you the store.” And so we quickly got ourselves incorporated as an LLC. We then started the whole legal process, got the whole legal documents drawn up. And we’re hoping to get it all in writing.
And I think it was just towards the end of February where we were kind of waiting on some documents, he said, “Listen, the store is yours. Why don’t you start working here in a week?” I said, oh, okay. I thought we’d get a little more warning. But they needed some extra help so I ended up starting to work there the end of February, very beginning of March. And I started working there full time because they needed the help. And then I was getting caught up in a lot of different legal meetings. So me and Ed agreed that I would hire on another couple employees. So I hired two other full time employees. One of them was an events coordinator and a social media guru (Matty Boyd). The other one was our general book store manager.
Matty is still working with us now. Tucker was the person we hired to be the bookstore manager at the time, and he was very excited to help us build up Giovanni’s Room. He was an older man who had been going to Giovanni’s Room for years and had a lot of experience in retail and had all these ideas of how he wanted to transform the space and add products, which was great, sort of a book buyer and a product buyer. And so he was excited to be on our team. And we just had one part time person, Kate, who is a friend of mine. We all kind of had a connection to Giovanni’s Room. Like Kate, she said it was the first place she went to when she moved to the city. She found solace there. And similarly for me and a lot of the other people, we really connected to this space. So she really wanted to help us out in any way she could.
And so we had those people working there through March and April, almost two months. And we were paying them and put a lot of time and money into the deal. There was a two week period where we had been working there and Ed was actually out sick for two weeks. And he came back, and I don’t know what changed with him, but he said after those two weeks, “I know I said you could rent the buildings from me and buy the business. I changed my mind. You have to buy the buildings.” And so that came as a shock to us.
PUPPETT: He said you have to buy the buildings by Friday.
MAKELLA: Yeah, this was like a Tuesday or Wednesday. He said, “Can you come up with the commercial mortgage by Friday?” And I said “No, that’s going to be impossible.” I had my lawyer come and meet with him again and tried to figure out a situation where we could maybe front some extra money in the beginning and buy later. Anyway, we tried to find a compromise, but eventually I think that must have been what killed it is that we couldn’t buy these buildings. So we had to fire a couple of people, pull our staff out, lost a ton of money.
PUPPETT: We let them go. We didn’t fire them. It’s different.
ALI: You guys are wonderful humans. This sounds so difficult. Then from losing the sale of Giovanni’s Room to now, where you have the Indiegogo campaign, you’re looking for a new space. So what changed between April and July?
MAKELLA: I was in love with that place. And at the point that this couldn’t happen and we had all these amazing ideas for how we were going to change it, we were going to add a cafe and add some other retail and really fill the events calendar.
When we had the rug pulled out from underneath us, we were sort of in this space where we were like, wow, the way we were planning on doing this didn’t work out. But there may be an opportunity here. Maybe this is a blessing in disguise. Maybe our plans were a little bit too different from what the legacy of Giovanni’s Room was and maybe we now have the freedom to really carry these out in kind of a bigger way. And so it was kind of we hit a fork in the road and we could go one way or the other. We could give up or we could really pursue our dreams.
PUPPETT: We gave up for 24 hours.
MAKELLA: I was working in the store and we had these amazing employes and not just that, but we had this whole community that had become excited. And that was one of the things that carried me through.
So we kind of pivoted and geared back up and decided, okay, well we need to rework our plan and see how we can make this work, especially if Giovanni’s Room is closed for good. I mean, this huge resource for queer and LGBT queer feminist books in Philly is going to be gone. So how can we fill that gap but also how can we tap into a new community that was maybe left out of the population that Giovanni’s Room catered to?
PUPPETT: One of my things that I’m really excited about with looking at new spaces is that we get to prioritize meeting ADA requirements and being handicap accessible. And that’s something that we couldn’t do in the old space. So now we can look for a building that meets code and build a bathroom that’s accessible. So I’m excited about that.
MAKELLA: Yeah, I actually have a background in architectural design and I had fallen in love with the building as well at Giovanni’s Room, because they’ve got this amazing southern light. But the actual way that you got into the building and moved around it, there was a guy we had to bring in in a wheelchair and we had to put this temporary ramp in and then try to carry him to the second room and then there was stairs to go up to the second floor. He could never really go there. And there was almost no way we could have made it ADA accessible. So that was sort of an nice thing now that we’re looking at spaces. We’re only considering spaces that are versatile or easily accessible.
We still have our events coordinator, social media guru on board. And they’ve been extremely helpful in really putting these events together. We’ve done a couple of readings this summer through the William Way Community Center, the LGBT Community Center. It’s just a few blocks away from where Giovanni’s Room was. And those have been really great. Starting in August, we’re setting up an entire series of pop-up shops in August in different parts of the city. We did just have the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference where we set up a table. We had a portion of books, very curated selection of books for the Trans Health Conference. And we are also carrying some jewelry and other items from local artists. So we did that and we’re going to continue that in August and then continue the book reading series and maybe do like a film series.
PUPPETT: So the Indiegogo campaign — we have perks on there from Buck Angel and he’s also currently writing a book and wants to be able to come to our space when we’re open and do a reading there. So that’s already being negotiated and it’s not even done yet. So that’s cool. And then we have some stuff from Gina Young, who first came in the public eye as a Riot Grrrl and now she’s out here as a feminist theater director. So we’ve got some cool stuff going on.
MAKELLA: One of the things we’re excited about is really delving into children’s books, LGBT and gender neutral feminist children’s books. So we want to carry a lot more of those. We met Amy Fabrikant, the author of When Kayla Was Kyle. We’re hoping to get her to come in the fall and do a children’s book reading and have it kind of be an introduction to our children’s book section that we’re going to be building up.
ALI: This is all amazing.
PUPPETT: That went over really well at the Trans Health.
MAKELLA: Yeah. We sold a lot of those. We sold some amazing coloring books there. We’re excited about that.
ALI: So to pivot just a tiny bit and then we’re going to go back to sort of this process that you guys have done, I saw in Publisher’s Weekly this week that Giovanni’s Room is remaining open?
MAKELLA: Our social media person saw that article. And it wasn’t clear. They said the paperwork isn’t signed and having kind of been there, we’re waiting to kind of see, okay, will this paperwork get signed? But yeah, I think it would be great if Giovanni’s Room opens up again. I think what we’re doing now is not really similar at all to what Giovanni’s Room is and we’re hoping that if they do reopen we can maybe create a partnership there, collaborate with them, and make sure that we’re definitely carrying different products. We’re not talking about just carrying books. We’ve always been talking about a cafe. And when we were going to be Giovanni’s Room we were going to keep the book selection that they had and add more. So I think that depending on whether or not they open, we may adjust our selection a bit.
I’m the type of person who I love collaboration and I think Philadelphia is a wonderful city for that. We’re small enough but there’s a lot of different things going on, different things where you can really benefit from these collaborative relationships. So I see that possibility for if Giovanni’s Room opens up again. I think that would be amazing and I think we still want to keep that partnership with William Way Community Center.
ALI: Awesome. So I want to go back to when you were talking about doing your business plans and submitting proposals and getting all that legal stuff together. What advice in that area do you have for queer people opening their own businesses? Are these skill sets that you brought to the table or are they things you learned on the fly?
MAKELLA: I’m a person who I love to learn things on the fly. My background is architecture. I took a class in development. And in that class, real estate development, we did a little bit of business building in that class. But pretty much I learn on the fly. I like to read a lot and then learn from what I read, learn from other businesses. But I also do know a few people who started businesses who I spoke to about writing the business plan and getting the numbers set. And we’re still working with people like that to help us out. My parents own a business. I know a lot of people who have done that sort of thing. So it runs in the family but I definitely started learning as I went along.
PUPPETT: I also like to just figure stuff out when I decide to do something. So I had an idea. If I was in Philadelphia and doing this alone, it would not be working a well as it is with Makella, because she has more business experience than I do. But I guess advice that I would give would be to read through every legal document you get and whatever you don’t understand, have your attorney explain to you.
ALI: And for other people that are just learning, what are some resources that you guys have found helpful?
MAKELLA: I did actually do an entrepreneurial fellowship. I had already been sort of on the entrepreneurial path. And this was maybe a year prior to doing this all. I had applied to an entrepreneurial fellowship, got in. Basically you chose a venture, they’d go through it with you and have you do kind of your executive summary, which is really just the bones of what are you doing: what good is this bringing to the world, who needs this. It really got us to focus on that and then really our pitch. We got an opportunity to network. And that was really helpful to me.
And so I would say if somebody’s going to start a business to seek out the the resources that their city offers is really important. There’s a lot of different fellowships or ventures, but there’s also you don’t need to be in the fellowship, you can just connect with those people. So you can talk to people one on one. There were some coaches that they would be willing to help out people whether or not they were a part of the fellowship with their business advice. And so I ended up starting a different venture through that that I did the prior year and then I got involved with this bookstore.
PUPPETT: It’s useful to talk to friends and people about what you’re doing, because you never know who your friends know and just kind of fall into place sometimes with what people can offer. Makella brought in a friend of hers that does contracting work to look at Giovanni’s Room when we were in there. And she’s friends with my former employer, Kelly Beurkhardt, who then texted me and was like, “Oh my god, are you doing this? Can I help you?” And now she’s our other employee. I think that people are what to pay attention to.
ALI: Okay. Is there anything else that you want the Autostraddle audience to know about this business and about the book store? Do you guys have a name yet for the store?
MAKELLA: We actually came up with a name, but we’re kind of keeping it under wraps at the moment. We just wanted to work on the marketing for it. So we’ve been calling ourselves Queer Books and we have a marketing campaign called Drink. Read. Love. About our cafe and the books and just the experience of the community space that we want to create. Our three main values are community, inclusivity, and sustainability. Sustainability in an environmental sense and also a business sense.
PUPPETT: There’s an artist in Philadelphia, Kristen Hensen. Well, her company is Hensen Handmade, so like Jim Hensen but it’s Henson Handmade. And she makes note cards with a lot of animal puns and stuff.
ALI: Puns? Did you say puns? We have a very punny readership.
PUPPETT: So we’ll be carrying her cards. But in addition, we’re designing a queer version of her card line. So for example, she has one that says “I can’t bear to be without you” with a picture of a bear. And then we have the same card but replaced it with a gay bear, like a person. And so that’s a line that we’re designing and she’s making for us. Right now you can only get it through our company. And we also are bringing in a jewelry line that is made by a queer artist, and Rainbow Alternative is a queer clothing line that they both have a lot of ’80s stuff and we’re talking about designing some stuff specifically for our store.
To check out their Indiegogo campaign, click this link! To congratulate them on being fantastic human beings, leave a comment below.
This interview has been edited for length, flow and that time that my kitten dumped himself in the garbage and I had to very professionally pause the interview to rescue him.