Joelle Herr’s love affair with books started early. As a young child, she stood before her parents’ bookshelves, eyeing the many titles there, mesmerized. “I remember staring at them, opening them up, smelling them, imagining what they were about,” she says. The book bug eventually led her to a degree in English, a career in publishing, and ultimately to her own 400-square-foot store, Her Bookshop. (Yes, Herr does appreciate a good pun.) It’s a tidy, bright space filled with the kinds of books “you would cross the room to pick up,” she says. And indeed, those who browse the shelves and tables do that very thing.
Located in the Fatherland Shoppes in East Nashville, Her Bookshop is the product of “forty years of book-loving” for Herr, a native Nashvillian who returned in 2011 after two decades away, working as an editor in several major U.S. cities. The shop’s tiny footprint belies an astonishing variety of titles: cookbooks, fiction and literature, art and design, children’s books, coloring books for adults (there are several, for every taste, trend, or persuasion), and all manner of lifestyle guides that might teach you how to build a cabin, landscape your backyard, identify trees, or tie a scarf around your head like Jackie O. Each title is handpicked by Herr, who says her natural tendency to introversion is challenged in the best possibly way by this foray into retail.
“People are effusive in their delight about the books I have, which has overshadowed any fear I initially had,” she says. “I want to make sure they have a really wonderful time in here, and most of the time I’m able to help them find a book.”
She recalls one skeptical shopper—a man arriving with some female friends—who, Herr noticed, was wearing a Bill Murray t-shirt. Among her coloring-book selections for adults, Herr had stocked a “really obscure” Murray coloring book. “I knew that it might sit for a few months, but I also knew there were Bill Murray people out there,” she says. She approached the t-shirt guy, handed him the book, and stepped away. “I don’t like to hover.” By the time she returned to the counter, t-shirt guy was right behind her, wallet out.
The thing about this lovely anecdote is that it’s not uncommon to the experience of shopping at any independent bookstore, which is why anyone who thinks that Amazon owns the bookselling future should take another look in the crystal ball. Driven as much by passion as by any lure of profit, small, niche bookstores are thriving. The fact that the most successful are indeed a labor of love speaks to the power of book-lovers selling books.
“I don’t try to be remotely comprehensive,” Herr says. “My goal is to offer books that get overlooked, not bestsellers.” Among her recent favorites are Donna Hay’s Life in Balance, the illustrated children’s book Du Iz Tak? by Carson Ellis, and Patterns: Inside the Design Library, by Peter Koepke. (A connecting theme? They’re all absolutely gorgeous books.)
Just a seven-minute drive from Her Bookshop, another East Nashville newcomer, Atomic Nashville, takes a similar approach to idiosyncratic selection. “One of the first things we learned from our consultants is that your bookstore is going to be you—it’s going to reflect what you like,” says Dan Balog, who opened the store in April 2016 with his wife, Kerry. Like all independents, Atomic carries a unique but wide-ranging selection of titles. But where Her Bookshop skews toward “beautiful books,” as Herr calls them, the focus at Atomic is on quirky and alternative; the Balogs put an especially strong emphasis on graphic novels and other comics. During my visit, I snagged the first volume of March, John Lewis’s graphic memoir, but I also picked up a copy of a bestselling conventional memoir, J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy.
Atomic also stocks all-local music and art, and it’s here that Dan and Kerry see the store truly setting itself apart from the herd. A musician himself, Dan worked in the recording industry for years before turning to retail. “My heart and soul are in music,” he says, and Kerry adds, “The local-music part was important. We wanted to shine a light on musicians who get ignored, and now we’ve become dear friends with a lot of [them.]”
But wait—isn’t there an Atomic Books in Baltimore, too? It’s true: in an unusual twist, this East Nashville shop has a sort of unrelated twin in the mid-Atlantic Atomic, also marked by a high quirk quotient and a commitment to image-enhanced storytelling. But where the Baltimore shop sells individual-copy comics, East Nashville’s Atomic Nashville sticks to graphic novels and collections. A focus on music and art distinguish it, too. While the Balogs have worked closely with the owners of the Baltimore Atomic in getting their business off the ground, they say there’s no official connection between the two.
Another bookstore, which once occupied the roomy retail space Atomic fills today, has also played a role in the Balogs’ endeavor: Fairytales, a children’s book-and-toy store, left this location for a spot in East Nashville’s Five Points several years before Atomic came along. Fairytales’ founding owner, the late Tammy Patterson Derr, was a beloved figure in the East Nashville community. Her husband, John, has been “instrumental” during Atomic’s early months, the Balogs say, providing fixtures and encouraging them to develop a children’s section of their own. Derr also suggested titles that were “weird” in just the right way. “We feel like [Tammy] is still a part of this place,” Dan Balog says. “John has been a godsend. He suggested Madlibs! I hadn’t thought about Madlibs in forever.”
Despite their stores’ many charms, these retailers understand that bookselling in the Age of Amazon will never be effortless. Herr quietly fights showrooming—the practice of snapping phone photos of books, presumably to consult when purchasing online later—with a small sign that reads, “Find it here? Buy it here. Keep us here.” For their part, the Balogs have faced incidents of theft, as well as the challenge of luring customers to a location that’s just a bit off the beaten path. But Dan Balog is upbeat about the future: “Everyone who comes in is extraordinarily complimentary,” he says. “It’s just a matter of getting people to know we’re here.”
Susannah Felts is a writer, editor, and educator in Nashville, as well as co-founder of The Porch Writers’ Collective, a nonprofit literary center. She is the author of This Will Go Down On Your Permanent Record, a novel, and numerous journal and magazine articles.