In 2006, Jason Hafer and Paul Oliver opened Wolfgang Books in Phoenixville, Pa. After working in bookstores for years, owning one was Hafer’s dream come true, but the town was still emerging from decades of economic depression after its steel mill closed, and the time was not yet right for a bookstore to thrive. Oliver left for New York City, where he works as director of marketing and publicity at Soho Press. When Hafer closed the store in 2011, he took his knowledge of books and went to Rittenhouse Book Distributors.
Hafer forged a handful of close friendships with customers at Wolfgang, including with Robb Cadigan, who had worked on a manuscript that eventually became Phoenixville Rising. “We had a lot in common,” Cadigan said. “He was writing and I was writing, and we would share and critique each other. At one point, I just said to him, ‘If you ever want to get back into the bookstore game, I would be very interested. I don’t have the bookstore knowledge, but I have the retail and marketing knowledge.’ ”
It was no idle offer. From 1991 to 2002 Cadigan worked as chief creative officer, executive producer, and executive v-p for broadcasting marketing at QVC, the pioneering television retail behemoth. In that time, he had honed a simple but powerful ethic that resonated with Hafer. “My philosophy at QVC was that our selling style was the backyard fence—that you are telling your neighbor across the backyard fence about this product that you’re selling,” Cadigan said. “You’re not speaking to a million people. You’re speaking to your neighbor. That, I believe, is the heart of any retailer.”
While Cadigan brought marketing heft to the partnership, Hafer was able to leverage extensive ties in publishing, formed during his ownership of Wolfgang. Together, they came to believe that a bookstore would be viable in Phoenixville, and they started planning. As word got out, not everyone in town shared their enthusiasm. On social media, some people wrote that eight bookstores had opened in Phoenixville in recent decades and none had survived.
But Cadigan and Hafer believed an important change had occurred. Phoenixville itself was undergoing a long-term revitalization, which began with the restoration of the Colonial Theatre on the town’s main retail street. By 2019, an influx of young professionals, alongside multigenerational families, had given the town what Cadigan calls “a college town feel without the college.” Breweries and restaurants surrounded the theater, and historic buildings were ripe for renovation.
When a café across from the theater closed—two doors down from where Wolfgang’s had been—Cadigan and Hafer quickly reached out to the landlord and secured a deal for the 2,200-square-foot space. They opened Reads & Company in May 2019. The store has a broad selection of books for adults and children, and with 8,000 titles, it is geared toward browsing. Faceouts greet customers up front, while books are packed more tightly in sections farther back. Shelves are arranged in such a way that there are sight lines across the store, so as to increase customer interaction. In addition to Cadigan and Hafer, Reads & Company has two full-time managers and three part-time employees.
The store drew early support from authors—including Craig Johnson, Laura Lippman, Madeline Miller, and Jerry Spinelli—and it hit its early sales marks leading into the pandemic. Hafer’s knowledge of the book industry and Cadigan’s marketing expertise helped them make a swift transition to selling books through Bookshop.org and running online events during the first months of the pandemic, which stabilized the business—and bucked the early predictions that a bookstore could not make it in Phoenixville.
If anything, Hafer said, customer loyalty to the store at the outset of the pandemic showed how quickly Reads & Company had cemented its place in the community. “We developed a very devoted following, so when we closed and said, ‘You can still support us by buying books online,’ we saw so many Bookshop.org orders, I don’t even know if we could have kept up without remote fulfillment.”
Having survived such a substantial challenge in their first years in business, Cadigan and Hafer are eager to show the community what a fully opened Reads & Company can be. If possible, they want the year ahead to feature an ever-expanding calendar of events, storytimes, and other community-focused programming that fulfills their vision, in which the cash wrap is the backyard fence and the bookstore is a place for people from all over town to come together.
Above the store, they are also planning something special. Throughout the pandemic, they held onto an apartment, which they hope will soon be able to host writers for residencies, where they can write from above the bookshop, give readings, and offer workshops. From the store and writers’ loft, Hafer and Cadigan see a literary culture rising in Phoenixville for years to come.