Ask him, and he’ll be honest: Alex George has been pining for this spot. There’s a painting in his dining room that he bought a decade ago, depicting the storefront of 22 S. Ninth Street, once the home of a bookshop and, most recently, headquarters for the avant-garde fashion boutique Muse Clothing. In the era of George’s painting, Ninth Street was a strip dotted with bookshops — including Ninth Street Bookstore, Acorn Books, and the subject of the painting, Columbia Books. But with the explosive rise of Amazon came the temporary but destructive fall of indie booksellers.
All three stores shuttered their downtown locations, and today most townies will tell you the obvious place to peruse literature on Ninth is Yellow Dog Bookshop. The dilemma, as George has observed for years, is that the beloved hole-in-the-wall mainly stocks used books. Ninth Street lacked a centrally located, independently owned new books hub. For a community as literary as Columbia’s — and for a college town full of young readers — this was baffling.So George took a long look at his dining room painting and decided to make it real again. That spot at 22 S. Ninth Street is his now — his and Carrie Koepke’s — and as of August 25, it’s the up-and-running home of Skylark Bookshop.
George, who spends his days as a lawyer, author and the founder of the well-known and well-loved Unbound Book Festival, knows it’s cliche for a writer to find sentimentality in coming full circle. But step inside Skylark, and you can understand his emotion.
A former employee at the now-closed Tiger Tales Bookstore & Espresso Bar, Koepke maintains Skylark's stock as store manager. She and George pared down an 856-page Excel spreadsheet full of recommended books to fill the store with only what they thought best, and together they’ve watched the orders trickle in and consume the space. They gathered suggestions from friends, colleagues, wholesalers and other writers. They read as much as they could and bought piles of the works they loved. They set up author readings and Q&A sessions, the first of which will happen Sept. 11. Elliot Reed, author of A Key to Treehouse Living, is the headliner.
They make an entertaining duo as they step around boxes and ferry books back and forth: Koepke with her soft voice but get-it-done attitude and George with his lofty aspirations and charming British accent. Theo the Bookshop Dog, a black lab/retriever mix, weaves around their feet. They entered this space on June 1, and in less than three months they’ve made it a riot of color. Yes, the shelves themselves are a simple white and taupe; the sloped ivory ceiling and art-deco paneling that runs atop the shelves are left mostly untouched from when Muse owned the space. But it’s the books, of course, that leap out from every direction, many of their covers facing outward so customers can appreciate the beauty of each design.
There’s a poetry section that Koepke and George consider their pride and joy. There are two tables in the back for writers to whittle away at their drafts. There’s a display planned, to be titled “Wake Up,” where the owners will showcase the books they feel Columbians must read. That’s the motto here: The only genre of books at Skylark is “good books.”
“We do not believe that just because we’re here, people are going to come,” George says. “We have to work incredibly hard to earn people’s business.”
So, yes, the pressure gets intense. But the industry looks good. Despite his friends’ repeated protests that opening a bookshop is insane, George insists that indie bookstores are thriving across the country. This was — this is — the time to do it. And when he wakes in the morning fretting, George comes in and handles the product. There’s something about the paper, he says. It’s as if your skin absorbs it. That feeling soothes him and keeps him moving.
He’s still running the Unbound Book Festival. He’s still managing a law practice. He’s taken a brief break from writing since his seventh and latest novel was sold to Macmillan in January. Sleep is predictably evasive. But it’s worth it, he thinks. George has been in Columbia for around 15 years now, having moved throughout England and eventually to mid-Missouri in 2003. His dining room painting serves as a reminder of his mark on his American community. The name of the bookshop has changed, but 22 S. Ninth St. is once again a home for literature.