Owner of what may be America’s smallest bookstore seeks community in Sonoma County

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As Stephanie Culen sat last year on a bench outside the shopping village of Duncans Mills, she spotted a 250 square foot structure that would be a perfect writer’s studio in the middle of the quaint hamlet just north of the Russian river.

Still, Culen easily recognized that while she enjoys writing in her journal, she wouldn’t put the building to use as a writing retreat. During her graduate studies at Sarah Lawrence College, she remembered clearly that the late author Joseph Campbell had such an office retreat on the Bronxville, New York campus.

But the small building had a hold over Culen, 52, who moved from New York to Sonoma County five years ago and has had a varied career as a teacher, yoga instructor, and most recently in sales. wine at Foley Family Wines and Halleck Vineyard.

The idea kept bubbling through her of doing something with the space, especially given all the changes underway with the coronavirus pandemic, ranging from those who have moved to the area from major cities or who quit their jobs to do something more fulfilling.

“I should say a lot of us were dreaming like, ‘Well, what now?’,” She said.

This internal churning finally led her to open the bookstore in the poet’s corner at the beginning of November. It’s a one-man business that operates in what may be the smallest bookstore in the United States. Culen is approaching a one-year anniversary in which she does “a little better than breaking even” according to her own account.

Culen and other small business owners like his are hoping to harness the desire of pandemic-weary consumers to ditch online shopping and home delivery for something tangible and a sense of shared community.

“It wasn’t a dream for me to have a bookstore,” Culen said as her dog, Bianca, was resting on the only chair near the small counter inside. “The dream was what can I offer the community that I know I could be good for? That I can create a space for people to have an experience, but also to provide a product that will be useful, useful and beautiful? “

The store sells a mix of books ranging from beach readings and poems by Walt Whitman to a recent book by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson. It also has unique giveaways like a Cabin Porn calendar with comfy structures and kids’ games like glow-in-the-dark puzzles.

But Culen said she realized that on her journey from the bench to the now daily UPS driver dropping off boxes, there was something bigger in her plans. This something could not be summed up in a business plan template or income projections for the first year. It was about helping to create a community.

“This (pandemic) is not going to last forever,” she said. “We the people are going to want to come together. People will want to touch books again.

“They’ll want to quit Zoom meetings and computers, and they’ll want to touch paper. They will want to be in the world… and share stories and ideas. And I have the strength to create experiences for people.

Culen is not alone from this point of view, as other small business entrepreneurs also believe that after 19 months since the start of the pandemic, more and more people are inclined to abandon the digital way of life. shopping on Amazon, food delivery from Grubhub and entertainment from Netflix for more communal activities. They argue that local traders can have an edge over their digital rivals.

This is the case of Tifani Beecher and Melissa Stewart, two local women who recently opened Dandelion, a new store in Montgomery Village. The store offers a mix of clothing for children and mothers. They also wanted to create a space for children’s programs with a pint-sized portrait studio as well as a flower cart inside the store.

“We are trying to create a sense of community,” Beecher said.

Avid Coffee is also looking to strengthen its ties within the county by participating in more events as well as local charitable efforts, owner Rob Daly said. The local business, which was previously called Acre Coffee, was a premier gathering place before the pandemic with a wide variety of customers ranging from college students to moms to retirees. Some of its on-site activities before the pandemic have been recovered by the addition of more outdoor seating.

“I think this is less of a business strategy and more of a cultural shift,” Daly said of companies’ efforts to foster more community. “I think coming out of (the pandemic) and finding ways to really connect outside our own four walls will be, I think, a valid direction for everyone. “

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