Local Matters: A brick and mortar bookstore comeback
BY ATANAS GOLEV
Artist Ronald Davis and author Crystal Wilkinson originally opened the Wild Fig bookstore in 2011, taking over the Leestown Road space formerly occupied by Morgan Adams Books. Wilkinson is an award-winning Kentucky author and “the godmother of creative writing in Lexington” (according to author Gurney Norman). Wilkinson’s husband, Davis, had supplemented his artist’s income by working part time at Morgan Adams. The couple were longtime residents of the Meadowthorpe neighborhood, and they opened the store to great neighborhood and literary acclaim in the summer of 2011.
The move seemed a brave one — opening a brick and mortar bookstore just as the increased competition from Amazon was shutting down bookstores all over the country — but the couple didn’t think of it that way.
Wilkinson wrote at the time, “Of course we’ve all heard the stories about the large book chains closing and I have mourned the closing of every single independent across the country, many of which I visited last time I was on a book tour. But brave? I’ve never thought of myself in those exact terms. Unrestrained, maybe? Careless? No. Mostly it’s simply that I don’t believe the hype. A day and a time when ink and paper books don’t exist. Pshaw!”
Wilkinson and Davis thought the store would work because of the solid foundations that had already been laid at that location. Previous owners Mary Morgan and David Adams had spent more than two decades on the bookstore. There were also great business neighbors in the Meadowthorpe neighborhood.
And in a day and age when there is so much onscreen to compete with, the two felt maintaining the spirit of ink and paper books is crucial.
“We want our children and grandchildren to continue to read ink and paper books,” said Wilkinson. “As book lovers and writers and being an artistic couple, of course we jumped at the chance to be brick and mortar bookstore owners.”
The two found retail to be a rocky road. Chains like Half-Price Books (with two Lexington locations) could afford to compete vigorously on used book prices, both buying and selling, and on convenient locations. Small businesses often operate on a thin margin, and unexpected expenses — like a brick through their plate glass window — proved to be devastating.
Unfortunately, after three and a half years in business, the store closed just after Valentine’s Day this year.
“When we closed,” Davis says, “we weren’t 100 percent certain that we even would reopen, and if so, we thought it would be two or three years down the line —at the earliest.”
Wilkinson and Davis had considered re-locating the store last year and had been in discussions with North Limestone developers, but nothing had panned out.
However, in April of this year, NoLi landlord Griffin VanMeter contacted the two and said his group had acquired more property that they could consider if they were still interested.
“Of course we were! One of the primary draws to North Limestone is not just its increasing potential for retail, but the fact that so many of those who supported our old store actually lived in the N. Lime area —that was a crucial detail and deciding factor for us with considering a reopening so soon after our initial closing.”
Of course, there will still be challenges for Wild Fig to overcome.
“Owning a bookstore has become somewhat of a niche market,” Davis admits, “especially for used-book stores: you must cater to a certain group of readers or run the risk of not surviving. But we didn’t cater to a niche with the old store and national chains have cornered the general interest for used books here in Lexington; though we paid out the most in acquisitions, we lost out to the convenience of presence and accessibility that the chains represented.”
To remain viable, Wild Fig will be more specific in its reopening to meet the needs of the current market. It will cater more to patrons’ specific interests and not be as much of a used-book catch-all, especially in the new, smaller location. In addition, Wild Fig will now carry more new books than old, and will expand upon the limited coffee service. The new Wild Fig will now offer lattes and smoothies, and limited selections of additional items like jewelry and clothing from local craftspeople. (Farther south on Limestone, Third Street Coffee has succeeded with a similar approach for decades, but not without also encountering a few bumps in the road).
The shifts also almost sparked a rebrand.
“The new store is going to be so drastically different than the old one that we weren’t even wanting to reuse the same name.”
Davis was leaning toward Proust Face Killah and NoLi-brary while Wilkinson was seeking additional inspiration from the works of the famous Lexington native and poet Gayl Jones (Wild Fig Books derives its name from her poem “Wild Figs And Secret Places”).
“Prior to that we had considered using Jones’ poem, ‘Xarque,’ as our original name. Her work has inspired us so much in our own creative endeavors —it seems only fitting that our store pays tribute to her literary legacy.”
Ultimately, Wilkinson and Davis decided to keep the name. The mission also remains the same: to preserve, support, and advance the local literary community.
“For Lexington (or any city, really) to remain vital, it HAS to support independent and local operators across every industry. It’s the independent operators who actually attempt to target the needs of the local culture and countercultures. The success of small brick and mortars is what supports the interests of the larger stores seeking growth in our city and state —but we can’t abandon one for the other… there is room for all; as consumers, we just have to make the conscious choice that local also matters.”
This article appears on page 11 of the August 2015 print issue of Ace.
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