Sunrise Books Opens A New Chapter
Merchant Maverick Opportunity Grant 2023 winner Edith Johnson will add staff and update systems after winning $10,000.
What motivates a person to open a small business in an economy that could best be described as challenging? How about opening a physical bookstore at a time when so many people read and shop for books online?
For Edith Johnson, the owner of Portland, Oregon-based Sunrise Books, the answer is simple.
“I love stories, and I love people,” she said. “I wanted to be a writer. When I had my little ones, I write them stories and tell them stories all the time. And I was like, ‘Oh, I should get serious.'”
Johnson’s independent children’s bookstore is seriously thriving, and now, thanks to a $10,000 opportunity grant from Merchant Maverick, she can continue following her small business dreams and building her bookstore.
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Writing Her Own Success Story
For Johnson, “getting serious” involved focusing on the themes she said she had running through her head, forming them into a business plan. A former employee at Portland’s legendary Powell’s Books, she started thinking about running her store long before she had any formal plans to launch one.
“When I worked at Powell’s, that was constant. If I had a bookstore, I wouldn’t have those bookshelves, I’d have these bookshelves. That’s how it all started, on the inside,” she said.
Although the idea of Sunrise Books began to take shape in her imagination long ago, Johnson’s dream bookstore formed slowly in reality.
“When I first started and wanted to be serious about this, I emailed every bookstore I followed on Instagram and said, ‘Hey, do you have any advice?’ ‘Hey, what were some of your fundraising ways to raise money?'” she said.
Although her questions often received no response, she did receive some pivotal advice from one bookseller in Iowa.
“She reached out to me, and she told me she started as a pop-up. So I got the table, I got the books … then I started doing storytimes at coffee shops.”
Somewhat to her surprise, her bookselling strategy tapped a huge need in the community. Business owners started reaching out to her, inviting her to bring her books to their businesses, too.
“They needed that story time, and I needed them to buy the books so I could have income,” she said with a laugh. “I’m not pushing books on them. I’m actually bringing people together, and they just so happen to like buying books.”
Turning The Page To A Full Store
As much as Johnson was enjoying selling books as a pop-up store, she started to think about a more permanent sales location.
The most pressing questions were about funding: where, how, and how much?
In addition to pop-up book sales, Johnson was working part-time at a preschool. After being approached about producing some social media content on contract, she was able to put some money aside for what would eventually grow to be the bright, warm, and welcoming Sunrise Books.
“I knew I needed $50,000 to start a bookstore,” she said. “That was the number. That’s what all the other people were telling me: You need a lot of money.”
Then she brought her pop-up to a market in Portland’s Beaumont District. Someone mentioned attending Johnson’s story times, and another person mentioned a vacant storefront nearby and said, “You should take it. We need a bookstore in the community.”
Johnson’s immediate response?
“I said, ‘Oh, I need $50,000, and I don’t have it.'”
The woman responded, “No, you don’t,” Johnson recalled. “She said she only had $7,000 to start her tattoo shop, and she said, ‘You can do it.'”
Shortly after, Johnson attended a Juneteenth event and was chatting with other attendees. A casual conversation with one woman in particular delivered big results.
“I was talking about my bookstore and the community and opening up reading rooms and a place for kids to come and read,” she recalled. “She was like, ‘We are looking for people to do community engagement, and I have a $5,000 grant for that.’ Half of that grant went to pay for the first and last month’s rent and all the technical stuff. The other half was for bookshelves on sale, books, and other things.”
Johnson also raised $1,500 on the crowdfunding website Indiegogo.
And on October 22, 2022, Sunrise Books opened its doors for business.
Joining A Permanent Community
Sunrise Books’ start as a pop-up bookstore is an important part of its small business formation story. It was while traveling to Portland’s different neighborhoods that Johnson realized how important community would be to her business.
“The pop-up was fun, and I actually miss it because you get to meet different people in different neighborhoods,” she said. “So, I would be in Southeast Portland, I’ll be in North Portland, Northeast Portland, across the bridge, going to Southwest Portland. I love meeting the different neighborhoods and meeting the different needs of each neighborhood. They all wanted something different,” she said.
That experience helped her realize that she liked community even more than bookselling.
“All the kids together, with shakers or with flags, jumping around, it brought people together,” she said. “That’s when I fell in love with the idea of community.”
Unfortunately, running a brick-and-mortar store has left her with little time to revisit her pop-up roots. Although she holds events like storytimes in the store and has done a few outside events, she has cut way back.
“I know I cannot handle it,” she said.
She acknowledges that while running a pop-up store is physically demanding, overall, it’s easier in some ways.
“I had to carry my table, my box of books, my bubble machine, all the things. It was hard physically. But having a brick and mortar is a lot harder,” she said.
Winning the Merchant Maverick grant already is helping make it easier. For example, even before she deposited the $10,000 check, she hired her first employee, a friend who had frequently volunteered to help out at Sunrise Books in the past.
That move could free up time that this small business owner can spend with her own children, ages 3, 4, and 7.
The grant will also allow Johnson to upgrade the software she uses in the bookstore. Her business bank, KeyBank, recommended she use Clover POS for her point-of-sale system. Like many Clover customers, she has found the cost to be steep, especially when it comes to adding on additional functions like advanced inventory controls.
“I can buy an inventory app, and I will have to buy the (scanner) to use the app,” she said. “Inventory here is extremely hard because I’m doing everything in a notebook. I’m researching the best affordable inventory app. Because I have to pay for it every month.”
She also hopes to purchase accounting software for her bookstore.
“QuickBooks, I want to get something like that, so I don’t have to manually do my own Excel accounting,” she said.
Pages Of Possibility For Sunrise Books
On the day Merchant Maverick spoke with Johnson, she had just hired her first employee, and she described part of her day to us.
“I love my neighborhood. It’s very warm,” she said. “Today, thanks to the grant, I hired my first employee and started training her. And we went to have sushi. It’s probably three doors down, and I walked her into three different places. The smoothie shop, the coffee shop. That’s how I would describe my neighborhood. So surprisingly small town.”
Just as she visits nearby businesses, those businesses are sending their customers her way.
“Customers will walk in, and I’ll ask, ‘How did you hear about me?’ ‘Oh, the smoothie shop told me about you.’ ‘Oh, the Hawaiian spot told me about you.’ It’s very supportive,” she said.
Her community vibe extends beyond the Beaumont neighborhood too. She still follows bookstores on social media and considers other booksellers to be more colleagues than competitors.
She mentioned another local bookshop, Green Bean Books, and said that a Green Bean bookseller recently came in to check out her store.
“He’s like, ‘I had to check it out; I’m hearing the buzz about your children’s bookstore.’ And he is supporting me. He probably got seven books. He was so awesome. We see them as partners,” Johnson said.
These partnerships continue to pay off. Another bookseller introduced Johnson to a major money-saving opportunity: ordering books from a book wholesaler or directly from the publishers. Each option comes with significant discounts for bookstores.
“My Iowa [Instagram] connection, we’re still buddies,” Johnson said.
Johnson continues to sell books online through her Shopify-powered online store. Online sales at Sunrise Books are a small part of the business, however, and there seem to be as many live events featured on the website as books.
The website might be one area Johnson has time to focus more on now that she has an employee working at Sunrise Books. She’s also likely to be much better prepared for 2023’s holiday season.
Opening a bookstore in October as Johnson did means you won’t have much time to work out the kinks before the holiday season descends. Johnson described her first holiday season as “crazy town.”
“I was not prepared. It was very fast-paced. Black Friday is a thing I understand now. You get in the black, that’s the goal. I had a successful Christmas. Christmas paid two months’ worth of my rent,” she said.
With grant money now in her bookstore’s bank account and day-to-day financial concerns like paying the rent receding from the front of her mind, Edith Johnson, owner of Sunrise Books, has time to grow and refine her small business.
We can’t wait to see the next chapter unfold!