Source Booksellers owner Janet Webster Jones has weathered a lot of changes in the 32 years since she began selling books in her hometown of Detroit. In the past year and a half alone, Source has been transformed from a small business serving its Detroit community to an indie with a global customer base.
“A lot has changed, and it’s constantly changing,” Jones pointed out. “Like Margaret Mead said, there is nothing more common and more sure than change, and it’s always underway.”
In spring 2020, the pandemic forced Jones to lay off two employees, and she admitted to being “scared,” adding, “We were just struggling to figure out how we were going to keep going.” It’s a very different situation today. Those two furloughed employees are returning to work on October 1, and Jones intends to hire a third. Jones and her daughter and business partner, Alyson Jones Turner, have kept the store open and are overseeing an expansion of the business. Earlier this month, they had the wall separating Source from an adjacent vacant retail space demolished—a move that has almost doubled the size of the business’s footprint; the sales floor has expanded to 1,200 square feet, up from 800, and there is now a separate fulfillment area and an office.
The bookstore is renowned for its nonfiction offerings, with an emphasis on history, culture, health, spirituality, and the arts. It also has a commitment to spotlighting women authors, and a selection of remainders, along with a few used books. “We try to have a range of prices so that people aren’t afraid to come in,” Jones explained.
The larger retail area will allow Source to expand several current categories, including the children’s section, as well as adding new areas such as business, finance, technology, sports, and crafts.
While traditionally Source has drawn customers from all over the city, the store has greatly increased its online traffic. Books now ship to customers all over the U.S. and around the world—the result, Jones said, of “all the social, political, and cultural” events that have taken place since the murder of George Floyd last year. She added that last year, Source helped to fill orders generated from a five-day virtual conversation series featuring Ibram X. Kendi speaking with other BIPOC authors. “We were assigned to the second day,” Jones noted. “We sold 3,000 books. I guess the pandemic taught us how to do something.”
She attributed the store’s adaptability to its origins: in 1989, Jones, who at the time was an educator in the Detroit Public Schools system, began selling books about African and African American history at church bazaars, fairs, and other community events. “They call it pop-ups now,” she said. “We didn’t call it a pop-up back then: we just went where we knew the people would be. There would be people selling jewelry, oils, clothing. I turned out to be the book lady. I registered my company name. I had someone do my taxes. I did everything I could to be a business person, but I didn’t know anything about the ABA. Then I learned about BookExpo, and I said, ‘I’m going to New York, I’m going to go see this.’ I like to get to the root of things.”
After retiring from DPS in 2002, Jones and three other African American women entrepreneurs formed the Spiral Collective and sold their various products for more than 10 years in a shared space across the street from the Source’s current location. Source became a stand-alone business in 2013. It has always focused on nonfiction because, Jones said, “that’s what I like to read. What I’ve tried to do is to have books that are representative of all of the nationalities that have trod through Detroit.”
In addition to nonfiction, Source carries a selection of poetry, science fiction, and astrology titles, as well as graphic novels.
Jones cited the reputation Source has earned for service and accommodating customers as an important reason for its longevity. And it’s still experimenting. “One of my ladies is going to handle a book fair up the street, at a senior center,” she said. “Nothing ever goes away; it just changes form.”