It's been a hectic selling season for Theron O'Connor and Demaris Brinton, who've been working almost nonstop since mid-May, when the couple opened Apostle Islands Booksellers in Bayfield, Wis. The store is in a 19th-century building in the heart of a bucolic village of 600 year-round residents nestled on the south shore of Lake Superior. The nearest city, with its chain bookstore and big box stores, is 90 miles away.
"We had a strong summer," Brinton says, disclosing that, if the daily cash flow continues to hold steady, they'll be in the black early next year. "We were busy from when we opened at 8 in the morning until we closed at 9 at night, seven days a week."
Fortunately for the two new booksellers, their previous careers accustomed them to working long hours for months at a time. Before moving to rural northwestern Wisconsin two years ago, O'Connor and Brinton lived in Northern California, where Brinton was a high-powered attorney at a large corporate law firm, advising venture capitalists on starting up high-tech companies in San Francisco and Silicon Valley. O'Connor, also an attorney and equally high-powered, traveled the world as president of his own company, providing negotiation consulting and training services to international Fortune 100/500 companies.
"It was hard to step off that merry-go-round," Brinton says, recalling the couple's initial and failed attempt to slow down by moving from San Francisco 70 miles north to Sonoma County. While vacationing in Wisconsin, where O'Connor's family has owned a cabin for decades, the couple decided to leave the fast lane once and for all.
After buying a 40-acre farm outside of Bayfield, the couple heard that the sole used bookstore in town was up for sale. While negotiations between its owner and Brinton and O'Connor didn't pan out, and that store eventually closed, the notion of owning their own bookstore in their new town greatly appealed to Brinton and O'Connor. "I value my law degree, and I appreciate having gotten it," Brinton says. "But we wanted to provide something of value to our community." The two moved quickly when another storefront came up for sale, buying the building and using as many environmentally friendly techniques as possible in renovating it.
Although their store carries 5,000 titles in a 900-sq.-ft. retail area, O'Connor and Brinton are intent upon creating the ambience of a larger store in the small space. It is a full-service general bookstore with a carefully chosen but eclectic selection, beyond its core inventory of classic literature, new releases, and regional titles. The books are primarily selected by O'Connor, who relies upon the New York Times Book Review and the Heartland Bestsellers list compiled by MBA and GLiBA for information about new releases appropriate for the store. Besides books, the store stocks area puzzles, games, maps, nautical charts, Moleskin journals, music CDs, and regional newspapers, as well as the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. Apostle is not selling any e-books at the moment, but O'Connor is watching what is going on with Google Editions.
Store bestsellers reflect the emphasis on new releases and regional titles. Besides regional hits, like Tales of Bayfield Pioneers and Jewels on the Water: Lake Superior's Apostle Islands, Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy is selling well, as are William Kent Krueger's mystery thrillers, which are set not too far away, in northeastern Minnesota. On October 23, Krueger will be the first nationally renowned author visiting the store to read from and sign copies of his new release, Vermilion Drift—although David Wroblewski (The Story of Edgar Sawtelle) stopped by and signed stock when he was in Bayfield this past summer doing research for his next novel. Author Michael Perry (Population 485; Truck; Coop) did the same when he was in the area with his band.
While neither O'Connor nor Brinton have any previous bookselling experience, Brinton insists that her legal background working with startup companies has helped her considerably in building a strong foundation for the new business. Also, one of their five employees used to manage a Borders bookstore in Milwaukee, and the independent booksellers in four other small towns ringing Lake Superior have continued to provide helpful advice about how to remain viable throughout the year, particularly during the slow winter months. Beginning October 3, they scaled back the store's hours, and after the holidays, when they expect good sales, are prepared to cut down to four or five days if needed.
"Everyone's been so helpful—unlike the law and venture capital worlds, where everyone's trying to cut each other's throats," Brinton says. "I loved what I did, but it was time for a change. I'm totally happy."