Austin Carter, Jessica Callahan and Julie Ross often hung out at independent bookstores in Columbus, Ohio, where the three friends from different parts of the country moved for job opportunities.
They all met in school while pursuing graduate programs. Each of them has worked in their respective field, one in academia, one in research and one in the corporate world. But, they wanted a change.
What the three really wanted was to own a bookstore.
Carter, who is from Lititz, thought Lancaster would be a good location for an up-and-coming independent bookstore that sold a curated collection of new books. That idea eventually grew into Pocket Books, which will open at 903 Wheatland Ave. April 30, in time for Independent Bookstore Day.
Here’s how local stores will celebrate Independent Bookstore Day on Saturday
Before the opening, LNP | LancasterOnline sat down with two of the owners, Carter and Callahan, and talked about independent bookstores, how it all came together for their store, and the books they currently read.
This article has been edited for length and clarity.
What prompted you to come together to create an independent bookstore in Lancaster?
Austin: We all ended up moving together to Columbus, Ohio. … We were all sitting there, we didn’t know anyone else in town, so we spent a lot of time hanging around and going to the many great independent bookstores that exist in Columbus. It’s a fabulous city for bookstores. And, we kept thinking, that’s what we’d like to do, but we can’t, because we have all these jobs, all these responsibilities, all these pets, all these other things to do.
After completing the second year shift of teaching on Zoom, sitting in Zoom meetings all day, never interacting with anyone but ourselves, we thought to ourselves, why can’t we ? Why can’t we just blow up our lives and take the risk on ourselves and do this crazy thing that we think we’ll be really good at? And that’s what we’ve done. We planned a visit to Lancaster just to take stock of things.
I’m from here; I come from Lititz. So, I thought Lancaster seemed like a cool place to live for a variety of reasons. Close to family, but it’s also a fun town, great people, and it’s a town that needs a big, really cool independent bookstore. We have a lot of great stores, a lot of great used book stores, and I thought this would just be a really cool place for us, the kind of store we open. We came in October and offered a place this weekend. We just went there. I got the keys to our building on February 1 and we’ve been on hyperspeed ever since.
Jessica: A lot of things fell into place at the right time, and we kept saying yes when things were possible.
Austin: We really hope Lancaster loves the books as much as we think. And it pays (she laughs).
What do you think will take your store away from existing businesses?
jessica: So there are a lot of very good used book stores here in Lancaster, and a very good children’s book store. But we’re hoping to fill the gap for new general books, but we’re also happy to stock genre fiction. We’re going to have a huge romance section, a huge sci-fi and fantasy, horror, mystery section.
All the ones we really focus on in a way that most stores don’t. … We’re a little more corny about some of our genres. We really want to dive deep into the backlogs of some of the authors we love. We really like the idea of having a horror section where you can pick up a book and not be afraid to see a traumatic rape scene on the page. We care about feminist horror, we care about horror that includes queer experiences. We really want to have a diverse and inclusive group of books that represents our lives and the people we know.
Austin: Absolutely, we are really intentional in our curation. It’s tough, when you’re trying to store as many books as we’re trying to store, but we really aim to be behind everything we put on our shelves.
Book sales have increased nationally since 2019. Why do you think people are turning to books more now than in the past?
Austin: Well, I hope the answer is that people are curious. I hope they want to know more about the world around them. In general, book sales should always be up, and often are up. We often see stories that say no one reads anymore, but that is never backed up by facts. In reality, people read, because it is human nature. Either worlds similar to yours, or completely different worlds, but also non-fiction. So far we’ve been selling a ton of non-fiction just on our online store, and a lot of it is clearly people trying to get out there and learn more about it. other experiences, other walks of life, just trying to find out more about the world.
jessica: I think we’ve also seen a bit more attention to social movements over the past two years. We’ve seen more attention on issues of racism, sexism, access to abortion, all those sorts of things. It looks like publishers are also paying attention to this and finally publishing more stories from a wider variety of authors, by people who have never seen themselves represented on the page before. I hope that’s why people buy books and read them.
Austin: Stories have always been there and they are still being written. I am, in my other world, a literary critic, I am obtaining my doctorate in English. There have always been people from all walks of life writing about their experiences, both fiction and non-fiction, and people have always wanted to read them, but the publishing industry is finally doing some square. They need much, much more room to make. Things like BookTok, Bookstagram, and Book Twitter, whatever they call Book Twitter, all democratize information. There’s access to these books in a way that when all you can do is go to Barnes and Noble and look at the bestseller list, you don’t necessarily have the same understanding that this who exist.
Why is it important to support and celebrate independent bookstores?
jessica: Well, we really aim to be part of the community. The money you spend in our store, we will use it to buy more books to help children learn more things. We want to be a community institution, we want to hold events, we want a safe space for people to come and be, whether it’s a locked-in teenager who hasn’t really been able to explore books that might represent, or a tourist from out of town who wants to learn more about local Amish culture; we want to be that place where people can come. Jeff Bezos, owner of Amazon, will become a billionaire. So you can either support a billionaire or support a community institution.
Austin: Yes, we are not going to become billionaires. I promise you all that the three of us won’t even become millionaires leaving this bookstore. Instead, we take that money and try to put it back into the community as much as we can. It’s more than just books on shelves, that’s what we aim for.
jessica: We also secretly hope that someone will want to come and run away in our store. We want to have small weddings, and we also want to have baby showers and kids’ birthday parties and things like that. You can’t get married at Amazon, so (she laughs).
What do you think would be your favorite book? I know it’s like choosing your favorite child.
jessica: I don’t know if I’ll make this my favorite book, but one book I really, really like is “Harrow the Ninth” by Tamsyn Muir. It’s a science fiction book, it’s like lesbians in space, but also necromancy. They can raise the dead and the bones.
Austin: This defies explanation.
jessica: Yeah. It’s incredible. This is the second in a series. In fact, I named my kitten Harrow after the main character in the book, and the third one is coming out soon. It’s not like any other book I’ve read before.
Austin: I like this; this is such a good answer. I wonder what is the best book, compared to what is my favorite book. What I always answer when people ask me what is the best novel or what is my favorite novel, it always comes back to Toni Morrison’s “Beloved”. I could talk about this for 10 years. I think it is, without exception, the great American novel. He’s so smart, so interesting, he tells you everything you’ll ever need to know about America with style, panache and flair. It is incomparable.
What are you reading right now?
jessica: I actually just finished John Scalzi’s new book, “The Kaiju Preservation Society”, which is a sci-fi novel set during the pandemic, which is a little weird. This guy just works for UberEats, and he gets an offer to work with some kind of big animal conservation company. It turns out they’re taking him to an alternate Earth, and the animals he has to protect are basically these giant Godzillas. So it was pretty crazy, but it was good. It was fun.
Austin: The one I read regularly is “Book of Night” by Holly Black, which comes out on May 3rd. Holly Black is well known for her YA fantasy. She’s super loved for those dark YA fantasy series, and this is her first foray into adult fantasy. And it’s a highly anticipated novel and I got my hands on a copy early, so I’m reading it. I’m barely far off to give a good description, but there’s shadow magic and bounty hunters and thieves and crooks, one of those badass heroines. But I have several hundred pages to read before I get to the end.