GREENSBORO — It’s the bad financial decision that Brian Lampkin is extremely happy he made: the event room in back of the 3,000-square-foot Scuppernong Books on South Elm Street.
It has large, sunny windows, and tables and chairs that individuals and groups use to study or hold meetings, and where Lampkin and his friend and business partner Steve Mitchell host poet and author talks, and other community activities. All for free.
Most businessmen would have used it to store more books to sell. But Lampkin and Mitchell aren’t most businessmen, and Scuppernong is not most bookstores.
And it’s the store’s differences that have gotten it noticed on the national level more than once in its just two and a half years of existence, most recently by Time magazine.
In an issue this month, Time cited Scuppernong as an example of independent bookstores in the article, “The Death of the Bookstore Was Greatly Exaggerated.”
Lampkin said he asked the author, Lev Grossman, how he chose Scuppernong. He said Grossman told him that he liked the store’s vibe and that if he were going to open a bookstore, he’d want it to be like Scuppernong.
And in February, Southern Living magazine named Scuppernong among the South’s best bookstores.
“If it was just, like, another money-making machine, we would not get all this great publicity,” Lampkin said of Scuppernong last week. “It’s the fact that we’re doing something else that really resonates on a different level for people.”
That something else is that Scuppernong serves as a “third space” for customers — a space that is not home or work, but one that is comfortable or at least engaging, Lampkin and Mitchell say.
Scuppernong is part bookstore, part cafe, part community meeting space. It’s where you can browse and buy books, sip coffee and tea or grab a fresh salad for lunch, and chat for hours with friends.
It’s what Lampkin said was missing when he moved to Greensboro with his wife five years ago. He had owned a bookstore in Buffalo, N.Y., and said they are “ridiculously important” to him.
“It was clearly missing, you know?” Lampkin said of Greensboro’s bookstore scene.
Mitchell, who had been working as a chef, felt the same way.
“You use what you have,” he said of chain bookstores in the area such as Barnes & Noble, but added that they are not his idea of a bookstore.
With the help of the building’s owner, Greensboro City Councilwoman Nancy Hoffmann, Lampkin and Mitchell renovated 304 S. Elm St. and opened it in December 2013.
“I think neither of us realized the support that was out there in the community,” Mitchell said. “I mean, the first six months we were open people were just constantly ... coming into the store and just thanking us for being here. Just for existing, you know? And it was gratifying in a certain way to see that that feeling that we had about bookstores was out there in all these other people.”
Independent bookstores across the country are getting that same kind of love, according to the American Booksellers Association.
Dan Cullen, a spokesman for the association, said its membership has grown for seven consecutive years, now with more than 2,300 locations across the country.
He said that book sales in independent stores grew almost 8 percent in 2012 over the previous year and that those bookstores held on to almost all those gains in 2013.
He said in 2014, for 47 out of 52 weeks, unit sales of books were up over the year before, and in 2015 sales in the indie bookstore category were up a little more than 10 percent.
Angel Schroeder opened her bookstore in Uptowne High Point in April after patronizing them for years. Even though her space is small — 650 square feet — she wants to open it up to the community. She hosts story time once a week for children, and a book club meets there.
Schroeder said people are “kind of over” the chain bookstores. She said independent bookstores are the best place to get recommendations because the people who work in them have read the books and know what they are talking about.
And there’s something else about them, she said.
“Just the intimacy,” Schroeder said. “I would be bigger if I could afford it, but I am real intimate over here.”
Intimacy is also a goal of Scuppernong. One midafternoon last week, people working on laptops, surfing cellphones or just sitting and chatting occupied tables in the event room and in the front of the bookstore.
And Mary Louise Frampton browsed the selection of books on tables set up in the middle of the store.
Frampton, a professor who lives in Davis, Calif., visits Greensboro about every six weeks to work on a research project. She always visits Scuppernong when she is in town, saying it has books she can’t get anywhere else.
“I always buy something because I want to make sure the store is supported,” she said.
Sarah Carrig of Greensboro said while she doesn’t always buy a book, she loves Scuppernong’s atmosphere, which she called “comfortable, welcoming and cozy, and incredibly attractive to the eye.” Carrig, a professor at UNC-Greensboro, sometimes meets with her students at the bookstore.
Lampkin and Mitchell said they want to be there for what the community wants and needs. That — not money — is what drives the decisions they make about what type of events to host.
Not that money isn’t a concern. Lampkin said the emotional, intellectual and spiritual rewards they get from running the store are great.
But they aren’t getting rich.
“Any small business, it’s a daily struggle,” Lampkin said. “There’s no getting around it.”
The partners said they are interested in growing their business but not necessarily by opening another bookstore or increasing the size of the one they have.
Instead, they measure growth by how their store touches the community. For example, Lampkin said they’d love to establish relationships with the schools. When the store brings in writers, maybe they could have them visit the classrooms, too, he said.
“I think we’re interested in kind of deepening our presence instead of ... enlarging it in a certain kind of way,” Mitchell said. “And that goes back to a lot of the activities and engagement and things that we do here.”