Megan & Peter Blackshear
by Shelley Daily
From the February, 2018 issue
"We spent time bouncing the idea for a while that maybe we should start a business--and jokingly threw 'bookstore' into the mix," Peter Blackshear recalls. His wife, Megan, adds, "I don't know at what point it went from joke to obvious."
On a bitter cold afternoon in January, snow flurries swirl outside the windows of Bookbound, their bookstore in the Courtyard Shops on Plymouth Rd. Inside it's cozy, as the Blackshears sip coffee while music plays softly on the overhead speakers. Their eleven-year-old yellow lab, Chester, naps behind the counter.
In August, Megan, forty-three, and Peter, forty-nine, celebrated Bookbound's fourth anniversary. They spend so much time here that the store "almost feels like an extension of our house," Peter says. "It's like I'm hanging out at home, but anyone might drop by at any time."
Sure enough, John McLaughlin Williams and his middle-schooler daughter, Chase, duck into the store from the cold. They live in the neighborhood, and John says they'd rather shop here than at "the big chain store," meaning Barnes & Noble on Washtenaw. He appreciates "the homey atmosphere"--Bookbound, he says, reminds him of the "mom-and-pop shops" of his youth. Chase, grinning through her braces, buys a guide to the zombie apocalypse, which she plans to read during the final days of her school break.
The serene atmosphere belies the nail-biting that went into their decision to open a bookstore at a moment when conventional wisdom held that print would soon be extinct. They took the plunge during what Peter calls a "transitional period" in their own lives. They'd been married just two years, and Peter was out of work after Borders closed. He'd been there almost twenty years, working his way up from Christmas help to buyer in the discounted books section. Megan had quit her job in development at Food Gatherers to focus on freelance writing for websites, only to realize it was not for her.
That's when they started talking about opening their
own business--and went with the "obvious" choice. They couldn't afford downtown rents, and besides, Hilary and Mike Gustafson had just announced plans for Literati. So "we trolled every strip mall on the outskirts of town," Megan says. "We'd sit and watch the traffic." They settled on the Courtyard Shops but worried that their interior space might be too hard to find.
"We knew we had one shot at this crossroads [in their lives], and we were privileged enough to take this chance," Megan says. And luck was on their side: Cardamom had recently opened right across from them, and the Indian restaurant was drawing huge crowds.
"Before Cardamom expanded, they [customers] had nowhere to wait and so basically we became their waiting room," Megan says. "The first year or two the vast majority of sales happened around mealtime."
At first, 80 percent of their stock was bargain books--Peter's old contacts from Borders gave them some great deals. They've gradually shifted the mix to 80 percent new books. "It was a slow build" by design, says Megan. Their 15,000 titles include many science, art, music, and architecture and design books, reflecting their North Campus location. Other big sellers are "serious literary fiction," children's books (school-age kids "rush in to the back" reading corner, Peter says), history, social science, and sci-fi/fantasy. "We dig deep," Peter says, to find the books that their customers want.
"We've developed real relationships with people who shop here," Megan says. "We know them as human beings, not just as shoppers"--like the regular who generally buys books on the social sciences and politics, then special-ordered a book on relationships.
"Honestly, the books people request catch me off guard four years in!" Peter says. Megan recalls a woman who was reading books about medieval history one week and infectious diseases the next. "Everyone in this town is a polymath," she says.
The couple met through online dating site OkCupid; the initial questionnaire gave them a compatibility rating of 97 percent. "Our running joke the first couple of dates was trying to offend one another," Megan says. Their life priorities--they don't put a high value on material possessions, their political outlooks are similar, and neither wants children--were in sync. And, she adds, "we have the same twisted sense of humor." Each had been in long-term relationships, so "we took our time, knowing this would be for the long haul."
They married in 2011 in a nondenominational service officiated by one of Peter's sisters, an Episcopal priest. The ceremony was at the same New Hampshire church where Peter was baptized, near an idyllic lake property that's been in Peter's family since the 1930s. Most summers the couple vacations for a week there with extended family--he's one of six kids in a family that moved from upstate New York to Michigan when he was ten.
Megan grew up in Plymouth, with her parents and one older sister. A self-described introvert, she says she can get "overwhelmed" by what Peter calls his "noisy and large" family but still enjoys her time in New Hampshire. They visit her parents, now retired to Florida, for a week each winter.
A division of labor helps them get along: Megan handles most of the accounting and marketing, while Peter oversees most of the inventory and special orders. Two part-timers help out for about twelve hours a week.
They realize Amazon and its emerging brick-and-mortar storefronts will always take a big slice of the book market, "but it's still Amazon, and it's not local," Megan says. "We can't match Amazon's prices, but we provide a different service"--for instance, by suggesting a day-brightener when needed.
"It's winter. Things are crazy in the world," Megan says. "People want a book with a happy ending!" One she often recommends is A Gentleman in Moscow, a book she says indie stores have helped make a bestseller. Peter says his personal favorites are pop science and his rediscovered love, sci-fi, which he read as a teen. Megan, who is active in social justice causes, enjoys choosing books on those topics for the store.
They knew there was a risk to opening a business together--especially early in their marriage. "We thought, 'What if the bookstore fails and the marriage goes south because of it?' But we still like each other!" Megan says, grinning, as Peter reaches over to squeeze her knee.
[Originally published in February, 2018.]
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