Chapters Books & Gifts Finds Timing Is Everything

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

For Carla Ketner, an offhand comment from a friend started it all. Ketner, owner of Chapters Books & Gifts in Seward, Nebraska, never intended to own a business. That changed a few years ago, on a shopping excursion to Nebraska City, about 90 minutes from Seward.

"We were in The Book Clinic and my friend said, 'You should open a bookstore in Seward.' I said, 'Yeah, right. I don't want to work that hard.'"

But the idea stuck. Ketner decided to do some research and "after a while, I had so much time and energy invested in the idea, I had to go ahead and at least try it."

In addition, she said, "I was frustrated by the fact there was no place to buy books here in town. Birthday party gifts, too -- the choices are going to Wal-Mart and getting junk, or driving to Lincoln to get something. That's how I decided what to sell: I figured if I needed these things, other people might, too."

Thus, Chapters is a general bookstore with an emphasis on children's books, plus those birthday gifts: science kits, wooden puzzles, classic toys, and book tie-ins.

"We do books for all ages," Ketner said, "but children's are my favorite because of my teaching background." She taught pre-school through sixth grade, and, after obtaining her Masters and Ph.D. in elementary education and early literacy, taught teacher-education courses.

Ketner doesn't miss her work in education, though: "At the bookstore, I get the parts that I liked about it. We have story time, interaction with kids, and lots of kids' activities. Then I get to send the kids home without having to call the parents when their grades are bad. It's the best of both worlds."

Before she could get her business going, Ketner had to educate herself about bookselling and business ownership. She said The Book Clinic staff was very helpful, and suggested she join the American Booksellers Association. Ketner did so, and attended a Prospective Booksellers School.

"The timing [for attending the School] was perfect," Ketner said. "I'd been into the idea of opening the store enough that I knew what questions I had and what I needed help with. It also reinforced some things I'd already been thinking about."

Timing played a key role in Ketner's success in other ways, too. When she started exploring the possibility of opening a bookstore, "the owner of a store that had been here for 30 years retired ... and it was the perfect location on the busiest corner in town."

The store's web presence is another example of spot-on timing. A local web designer looking to build her portfolio offered to create the store's website -- for free. And when it came time for the store's 2004 grand opening, the poet Ketner lined up to speak at the event, Ted Kooser, was named United States Poet Laureate.

Kooser, who's a professor at the University of Nebraska - Lincoln, has "been really good to us," said Ketner. "I jokingly told him he kept me in business the first year. It was another sign it was the right time to open the bookstore."

The store's staff (one full-timer, and two or three part-timers, depending on the season) works in Chapters' 1,800-square-foot space. The bookstore is housed in a century-old, red-brick building in Seward's downtown historic square, and its interior walls are painted in bright, cheerful colors. Because the store used to be a pharmacy, there's a raised area in the back of the store that now serves as the perfect spot for events, from book signings to story time to tea parties.

Inspiration for Chapters' events and displays often come from Book Sense mailings, Ketner said. "I use all the Book Sense Picks fliers, and go through the boxes of goodies to get ideas."

Essay contests have proven popular for the store, too: last year, a young customer was a finalist in Scholastic's Main Street essay contest, and this year, the store is sponsoring This I Believe Seward, an essay contest inspired by NPR's popular program.

Bookselling-centric events like BookExpo America and Midwest Booksellers Association meetings are key information- and inspiration-sources for Ketner, as was ABA's 2008 Winter Institute.

"The binder from the Winter Institute has a lot of great ideas in it," she said. "I came back after [the event] and rearranged the whole store. My staff hates it when I go away!"

She also cited as useful an education session about bookstore self-audits, which inspired her to do a customer survey. "I talked to several of my regular customers and asked them for suggestions for improving the store.... Many of them were things in the back of my head that got pulled forward as a result."

The Winter Institute session "Getting the Most Out of Your Children's Section" proved helpful, too, as did "Improving Efficiency to Achieve Success."

Ketner said improving efficiency " something I've been trying to do. I used to be on the sales floor the whole time, but now I'm trying to leave more to my staff, to go in the back and get things done, like making a marketing plan and paying bills. My staff is perfectly capable, and I make time to wander through the store and talk to customers. I'm getting a lot more done this way."

Chapters' regular customers range from kids to parents to grandparents (who frequently purchase the store's unique gifts and toys). Ketner added that, to her surprise, a number of customers are travelers taking a break from the nearby interstate. "You wouldn't think there'd be a big tourist spot in the middle of Nebraska!"

And what about the friend who suggested Ketner open a bookstore? "She's a good customer!" -- Linda M. Castellitto