The correct way, as I understand it, is to open a bookstore, and then you launch a book festival,” Alex George laughed. “But I did not do that.” George founded Columbia, Mo.’s Unbound Book Festival in 2015 and followed that up three years later with Skylark Bookshop, housed in a building a few blocks from the University of Missouri’s flagship campus. The festival and the bookshop remain separate entities, but their symbiotic relationship has only helped both to grow, despite the pandemic’s disruptions.
George can best be described as a jack-of-all-literary-trades. Besides serving as Unbound’s executive director, and running Skylark, George has written three novels that became “Indie Next” picks and remain indie bookseller handselling favorites: A Good American (2012), Setting Free the Kites (2017), and The Paris Hours (2020).
An Oxford University–educated Brit who has practiced law in London and Paris and still practices in the U.S., George moved from Europe to Missouri almost 20 years ago with his now ex-wife, a native of California, Mo. George said that the idea for the festival was inspired while on tour for A Good American, when he was invited to participate in several book festivals around the U.S., including several in small cities similar in size to Columbia, such as Gaithersburg, Md., where the book festival that city hosts is now in its 12th year. “I remember thinking, this is so cool,” he said, “all these people just congregate together to hear these writers talk.” He added: “We’re a community that loves festivals, and we’re a community of great readers and writers. We have three universities in town. Everything seemed to align.”
The inaugural Unbound Book Festival, held on an April weekend in 2016, featured Michael Ondaatje as keynote speaker. Since then, keynote speakers at Unbound have included such literary luminaries as Salman Rushdie (2017), Zadie Smith (2018), and George Saunders (2019). After a two-year interval, the festival returned to a live format April 21–24, with readings and panel sessions held inside restaurants, art galleries, coffee shops, hotels, and other venues all over downtown Columbia. This year’s keynote, Viet Thanh Nguyen, spoke to an audience of 1,200 inside the Missouri Theatre.
The enthusiasm the Columbia community showed for Unbound made George think about opening a bookstore. At the time, Columbia had no indie bookstore selling new books. It was while listening to an episode of the Book Riot podcast on the renaissance of indie bookstores in recent years, George said, that he made up his mind and thought, “Now is the time.” Having never worked in a bookstore, he hired Carrie Koepke, who had for eight years worked at the long-defunct Tigers Tales Bookstore, as manager. After leasing a 2,700-square-foot space in a building on the same block as the used bookstore Yellow Dog, Skylark opened its doors on Aug. 25, 2018.
Skylark is a full-service, general bookstore, and carries an extensive selection of adult fiction that includes, of course, George’s own novels. An added bonus to operating Skylark, George acknowledged, is that The Paris Hours has been the store’s top seller since its 2020 publication, with 1,000 print copies sold to date. As a published author, George had some familiarity with the publishing pipeline, but becoming a bookseller has deepened his appreciation for all that goes into producing and promoting a book. “I have a much deeper understanding of the sheer number of books that are published every year,” he said, relating that Skylark’s back room is filled with “stacks and stacks and stacks” of galleys. “I have a much greater sense of the infrastructure of the whole thing, everything that is done before the books appear. What this has taught me is how fortunate I have been as an author to have received the support I have received from my publisher and from booksellers.”
While Skylark, like other indies, had to quickly pivot when the pandemic hit, George is grateful that the store had been open for enough time—18 months—to have built up a customer base, with many Columbians having discovered Skylark through the Unbound Festival, as the bookstore is its official bookseller. Skylark received such “staggering support” from its customers while it was closed to in-store traffic that George and Koepke ended their workdays for months by driving all over Columbia dropping off books. “We also did the whole IndieCommerce thing,” George noted, “If it had not been for the pandemic, we never would have done that, and that’s been amazing.” Sales between April 2019, when the last live Unbound before the pandemic was held, and April 2022, when Unbound resumed, were up 31% and remain strong.
The pandemic also compelled George and Koepke to think outside the box in terms of virtual programming. While many indies were unsuccessful in monetizing virtual events, that was not the case for Skylark. Store sales relating to virtual events spiked after authors were asked to write a haiku upon being scheduled for a virtual appearance. The verses, which the store called Skyku, were printed on numbered bookmarks that its author signed—a bookmark was then inserted into every book sold during that author’s virtual appearance. “We’re not doing them anymore, but we probably should,” George said. Skylark also hired a “virtual bookseller” during the pandemic, Mary Webber O’Malley. Her responsibilities include managing social media so that George and Koepke can focus on the bricks-and-mortar store operations. O’Malley also hosts a weekly live book talk on the store’s social media channels, during which she introduces new releases.
“There have been silver linings,” George said about the pandemic. “Mary has been the silver-est of linings. Her wonderful book talks have been incredibly popular on Instagram and on Facebook, to the point that when she visited Columbia in April and was walking around during Unbound, people kept approaching her to ask her, ‘Are you Mary?’ ”
“We’re having a lot of fun continuing to think up new ways to promote authors,” George said. “Bookselling has been the best thing I’ve ever done.”