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It's About the Outcome, Not the Income

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In the early '80s Shirley Mullin wanted to buy the book Goodnight Moon as a gift for a friend, only to find that it was not for sale anywhere in Indianapolis. 

"You know, I could keep Goodnight Moon in stock," Mullin told herself. "I'll just do it myself."

And so, in 1986, she opened Kids Ink Children's Bookstore on Illinois Street. She's been selling children's literature and toys ever since.

Kids Ink packs a lot of character into a tight space, while finding room on the floor and the calendar for frequent visits by authors. - KIDS INK BOOKSTORE
  • Kids Ink Bookstore
  • Kids Ink packs a lot of character into a tight space, while finding room on the floor and the calendar for frequent visits by authors.

At one point Mullin owned three Kids Ink stores, her first one in the Butler-Tarkington area and then later shops in Greenwood and Carmel. After she became a grandmother and as more grandchildren came, Mullin decided to close the branches and focus on her flagship store.

Cozy and quaint, the charming little shop features wall-to-wall packed bookshelves and sweet displays of creative-play toys and games tucked here and there throughout. In keeping with most children's bookstore's Mullin's also features a familiar storytelling area toward the back. Even though Kids Ink makes the most efficient use of its nearly-900-square-feet space, this beloved Butler-Tarkington fixture would almost fit inside the fiction area of a typical national chain bookstore.

Examples of the big book barns, Borders Books and Barnes and Noble once commanded this retail market. Now Borders is out of business and Barnes and Noble continues facing large earnings losses.

Meanwhile independent bookstores such as Kids Ink, Bookmamas and the not-for-profit store Indy Reads remain literacy staples of the Indianapolis community.

These stores don't have the square footage of the big box stores or coffee shops on the premises, or clerks hawking e-readers to customers as if they were in an Arab bizarre. What indie bookstores do have are owners who are vocal about their love of literature and are eager to share that love with everyone who walks through their doors.

Bookmamas owner Kathleen Angelone tries to make her Irvington bookstore part of a culture of literature on the eastside. - MIKE POTTER
  • Mike Potter
  • Bookmamas owner Kathleen Angelone tries to make her Irvington bookstore part of a culture of literature on the eastside.

Kathleen Angelone, owner of Bookmamas, initially bought the store as an online bookseller in 2007 and later transitioned the business into the store's physical location in Irvington. Angelone said she doesn't worry about big stores like Barnes and Noble, because there are not many around, and they do not offer the same kind of personal service her store can.

"Customers like the personal contact," Angelone said. "We have more events and author events, than Barnes and Noble. Also we develop relationships with our customers and the authors we work with, and Barnes and Noble and Amazon don't tend to do that."

As for weathering the recent economic downturn, Angelone can't exactly pine for better days, because she doesn't know them (from a financial standpoint with her store). She got sucker punched by the great recession like every other independent business owner. Angelone said she opened her store one month before the stock market crashed in 2007, so she has no "good times" to compare to the present.

However, when the stock market crashed, remarkably  Kids Ink's sales went up. Mullin said 2012 was the best year the store ever had.

"When a family has to watch what they're buying for a child, as far as gifts, they look for something with value," she said. "A G.I. Joe doll will be in the trash two years later, but a book will be cherished."

Travis DiNicola is the executive director of Indy Reads, which works to improve adult literacy in the city and which is supported by sales at Indy Reads Books. - MIKE POTTER
  • Mike Potter
  • Travis DiNicola is the executive director of Indy Reads, which works to improve adult literacy in the city and which is supported by sales at Indy Reads Books.

Kids Ink and Bookmamas are, indeed, for-profit businesses. Indy Reads Books is trying a different business model: a non-profit independent bookstore. 

Indy Reads Books, located on Mass Avenue, is an offshoot of Indy Reads, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to improve literacy for adults and families in central Indiana. The organization provides all sorts of reading-related services, and one of its initiatives was to open the bookstore in July 2012.

"The idea behind Indy Reads Books came from our interest in combining an independent bookstore with a not-for-profit model, back in 2009," said Travis DiNicola, executive director of Indy Reads. "We wanted to look at what our bookstore would offer compared with others, and we found that we could connect it with our cause and with hosting events to draw people in."

The store's inventory is made up of books donated by private individuals. Its location on the The Indianapolis Cultural Trail: A Legacy of Gene and Marilyn Glick helps draw in customers, DiNicola said.

What sets Indy Reads, Kids Ink, Bookmamas and other independent bookstores apart from the large chain book retailers, according to the indie bookstore proprietors, is their character and their knowledgeable staff.

Indy Reads serves as an anchor for the north end of Massachusetts Avenue, situated on the Indianapolis Cultural Trail: A Legacy of Gene and Marilyn Glick. - KIRSTEN EAMON-SHINE
  • Kirsten Eamon-Shine
  • Indy Reads serves as an anchor for the north end of Massachusetts Avenue, situated on the Indianapolis Cultural Trail: A Legacy of Gene and Marilyn Glick.

DiNicola said that independent stores will always be more personal and have more character, but  any time a customer goes into a bookstore they should feel a certain literary sense of daring -- not quite knowing what story they might stumble upon.

John Clark is a co-founder of the nonprofit art and community organization Big Car, Clark also helps with the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art and is a regular visitor of Indy Reads Books.

Clark said he chooses to shop at independent bookstores because of the sense of adventure it brings him, and the personal touch that stores such as Indy Reads Books provide for Indianapolis.

"You're not going to have a personal involvement with someone on Amazon," Clark said, "but you go into an independent store they might say 'hey, we just got something in you might be interested in.'"

Another fan of independent bookstores, and independent stores of all types, is Irvington resident Stan Denski. Denski is a retired professor at IUPUI, a published author, avid blogger, and a lover and collector of books.

Denski highly recommends independent stores as treasure troves for book collectors.

"The people at these stores are knowledgeable," Denski said. "That's something you don't get online. If there's a used bookstore, you accumulate a body of knowledge by going [there] ... and meeting somebody who's a dealer and who is knowledgeable."

It is the knowledge, the passion and the sense of community that sets indie bookstores apart from giant retailers and online sellers.

"Stores like mine are important because I help children develop a love for reading," Angelone said. "I help spur interest in academic and literary pursuits; I give a lot back to the community, whereas the big chain stores don't do those sorts of things."

Independent bookstores have a distinct character that manifests in the spaces they occupy. Indy Reads is pictured on the left, Bookmamas on the right. - MIKE POTTER
  • Mike Potter
  • Independent bookstores have a distinct character that manifests in the spaces they occupy. Indy Reads is pictured on the left, Bookmamas on the right.

There's something special about walking into a small store tucked away in a crowded street, browsing shelves, not knowing what might be found, and having a conversation with someone whose main goal is not to make money but to share a love of reading. For these booksellers, it is all about the person-to-person outcome of their transactions, not the income their stores receive.

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