Story by Ty Smith, Staff Writer
Photo courtesy of Ty Smith
I’m not a Grand Rapids native; I’m a transplant from across state. I lived in a small town of 800 to 1100 people, depending on the time of year, and we had three bookstores to serve the population. Imagine my surprise when I come to Grand Rapids in the fall of 2015, and find only two independent bookstores serving the entire population.
Sure, there’s Barnes and Noble, but it’s not quite the same; it’s pre-packaged culture with no curation, no taste—just a bulk order of whatever sells. It worked well enough, and I did enjoy the greater variety that a large bookstore could offer, but something just felt empty about it.
In October, a little store opened up on Cherry Street called Books and Mortar, becoming just the third independent bookstore in Grand Rapids. According to its mission statement, Books and Mortar strives to be “a community-minded independent bookstore that enhances the quality of life for the people in Grand Rapids.”
The new store is owned by Jonathan Shotwell and Chris Roe, a two-man library team. I decided to check it out, and I wasn’t disappointed.
The store itself is a little on the small side, but despite the vast amount of furniture and books that the owners were able to fit in, I never felt cramped or claustrophobic, even as I perused the selection with a dozen other people. Everything is warm and welcoming, a contrast to the cold and drear outside, and the owner was friendly, making small talk with everyone who came in. There are a few chairs available for sitting if you’d like to take a rest and read for a while, and towards the back there was a separate space for children’s books. All the bookshelves lined the sides of the store, leaving the middle mostly open. There were also a few tables standing out in the open, but they were covered by books hand-selected by the owner. It was obvious that they did their best to make Grand Rapid’s newest independent bookstore feel welcoming and open despite their size limitations.
There was one thing that no amount of ingenuity could solve for them, and that was simply their selection—there are only so many books that the store can carry. Despite this, the entire catalogue felt fresh and high quality. I didn’t see a single book there that I thought wasn’t worth the limited shelf space. From exciting and adventurous fiction books, to thoughtful memoirs and academic non-fiction, each selection had a quality to it.
I asked Jonathan Shotwell how he and his partner managed to curate such a great selection despite an inability to offer a large amount of books.
“We had to be careful in our selection, because we just don’t have the space to do everything” noted Shotwell. “Every book has to be a good one.”
Books and Mortar is Grand Rapid’s newest independent bookstore, and despite competing directly with large retailers like Barnes and Noble, I think they’ll carve out their own little niche in the city. Barnes and Noble might have more books, but Books and Mortar has more soul.
About the Writer…
Ty Smith is from a small town located in the thumb of Michigan. He loves writing, reading, music, and video games. He also believes that cats are better than dogs.