Meet Megan Bell & Josh Niesse, co-owners of Underground Books and Hills & Hamlets Bookshop
Megan Bell & Josh Niesse
Store and location:
Co-owners of Underground Books in Carrollton, GA and Hills & Hamlets Bookshop in Chattahoochee Hills, GA
Number of years as a bookseller:
Megan full time 5 years; Josh full time 8 years
Best part about being a bookseller?:
Someone shared a Guardian piece in one of the bookseller groups this week titled “Bookselling is the most over-romanticized job in the world.” There were some good points in it, but overall we think we should be emphasizing the romance of bookselling. It IS romantic in many ways. It’s how we met (Megan came in the bookstore 2 weeks after Josh opened it and never left), eventually getting married and now co-owning the business. We have a deep love of books and reading and are grateful we’ve created careers for ourselves where we get to spend our days with books. Being more naturally introverted, retail customer service can be challenging at times, but having ongoing years-long conversations with regulars, seeing a child walk down our steps into the bookstore and say “WOW,” and any of the numerous beautiful bookstore moments that happen every day make it all worth it.
What book(s) are you reading?:
Megan: I’m a monogamous reader, and I alternate fiction and nonfiction. I just finished Rebecca Solnit’s new collection Call Them by Their True Names. I’m currently reading the new ARC from Charlie Jane Anders, The City in the Middle of the Night, which I picked up at the SIBA Discovery Show. I’m a huge fan of Anders’ Nebula Award-winning debut, All the Birds in the Sky. It was a dream meeting her at SIBA!
Josh: I’m listening to Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine (Libro.fm has turned me into an audiobook addict!) and I’m just finishing reading Against Elections by David Van Reybrouck and getting ready to start an ARC of Black Leopard Red Wolf by Marlon James.
Favorite handsell of 2018:
Megan: First, We Make the Beast Beautiful by Sarah Wilson. This is a book I didn’t know I needed, and it’s been incredible to really feel I’m making a difference when I put this book in the hands of fellow readers struggling with anxiety. It’s a beautiful book inside and out.
Josh: So far this year I’ve been handselling Yuval Noah Harari’s books nonstop, but I’m currently really excited about a new memoir just out called Southern Discomfort by Tena Clark. Tena has such an incredible life story, and we have 75 tickets pre-sold to our event with her this Friday, October 12th.
Best thing you did this year at your store:
We pulled off our first really large (for us, anyway) author event, hosting Rick Bragg in our city’s arts center auditorium and selling 200 copies of his newest book. Megan has also been having some major successes experimenting with creative social media videos and promotions that have really resonated with our customers and have helped us reach a huge new audience.
Social Media Stats (FB likes, Twitter followers, etc)
- Facebook: 6,400
- Instagram: 2,200
- twitter: 770
- Pinterest: 2,000
Hills & Hamlets Bookshop
- Facebook: 1,000
- Instagram: 1,160
What are some ways you work with your community?
Community partnerships have been a major part of the success of our bookstores. Before opening our second location (Underground Books opened in 2011, Hills & Hamlets in 2016), we spent nearly a year meeting with neighborhood residents and community organizations and businesses. We partner with arts organizations at both locations, and Josh is on the board of the artist in residence program in the community where Hills & Hamlets resides (writers who have been through the residency program and signed books at our store this last year include Jason Reynolds, Sarah Kay, Eve Ewing, and Brendan Wenzel, among many others). Underground Books is closely allied with our local university and Hills & Hamlets with the local charter and Montessori schools. At Underground Books, we host an international literature book club sponsored and led by the University of West Georgia-they receive funds to buy the books from us, and we hand them out free to people who sign up for the club. We also host several book clubs, do pop-up bookselling booths at numerous community events, host various artist and writer receptions, donate ARCs and damaged books to our local jail, donate gift cards to most charitable organization requests, and so on.
Do you have any community partners you work with regularly?
AIR Serenbe, Serenbe Playhouse, the University of West Georgia (see previous answer).
Do you have passions that carry over into your bookselling life?
We’re not sure there’s a difference between bookselling life and regular life for us! As co-owners of two bookstores we’re definitely on the clock most waking moments.
Megan: The bookstore has been a way to focus and sustain my creativity. Through the needs of our bookstore, I’ve discovered a passion for marketing, especially creating, directing, and editing videos, but also copywriting, social media photography, and managing campaigns. I love that through our social media, you can see on one hand a celebration of reading, learning, nerd culture, and the beauty of books and on the other hand pure silliness and unself-conscious fun that I hope gets across that reading is really for everyone.
Josh: My personal educational background and passions are philosophy and urban/town planning, and for 6 years out of college I worked in and then managed an AmeriCorps literacy tutoring program with youth-at-risk. Bookselling has been an amazing way to combine my intellectual passions with a kind of quiet/gentle community activism.
Top priority for 2018: We did over 100 events in 2017 between our two stores, and this is just the two of us and 4 part time employees. Like most bookstores, events have seemed like a way to try to add value and get people in the doors during a time when they can easily (and usually more cheaply) just get a book online from Amazon. We looked back on 2017 though and said to ourselves, “We’re killing ourselves doing so many events; is this sustainable?” We’ve really been scaling back and trying to focus on doing fewer events but doing them really well and making sure they are profitable. With the time we’re saving from fewer events we’ve been refocusing on our higher margin specialty of rare & antiquarian books. We’ve also been focusing on creating really great social media marketing that celebrates print, book collecting, and bookish culture in general. In terms of bookstore owners, we’re on the younger end of the spectrum, and we’re trying to take a long view. If we want to do this professionally for another 20-30 years, we need to be investing time in cultivating the next generation of serious book collectors and lovers of print media, and we try to let that view inform our marketing efforts.
Favorite SIBA programming benefit: Coming from a background in used & antiquarian books, we’ve been tip-toeing into SIBA and the ABA over the past few years. The trade shows and in-person gatherings have been amazing. Its hard to beat getting to spend time with other booksellers, sharing the joys and headaches of our business and learning directly from each other. We’ve learned so much through SIBA’s eurekaSIBA event and, just recently, our first Discovery Show. We’ve also gone to the last two Winter Institutes and the most recent SIBA show inspired us to take the leap and commit to going to Albuquerque this year and make it 3 years in a row.