Nestled in the heart of the Short North lies the area’s only standing independent bookstore, Prologue Bookshop. Owner Dan Brewster was working in the software industry in San Francisco when he became inspired by their thriving independent bookstore scene, something he had seen deteriorating back in his home state of Ohio. Dan decided to leave his career in software behind and return to Ohio to start an independent bookstore of his very own. We sat down with Dan to discuss his journey as a new business owner and his thoughts on why bookstores play an important role in enriching the local community.
K: Can you start by telling me a little bit about yourself, where you’re from, and what led to you becoming a part of Prologue?
I grew up in Northeastern Ohio in North Olmsted. I was working out on the West Coast for a while – growing up I had never had an idea about a local bookstore, and I wasn’t familiar with the concept of independent bookstores. At that time big box stores and malls were very popular. When I moved out to San Francisco and saw how exciting the independent bookstore scene was out there, it really was inspiring. When I made the decision to move out of software, I really was interested in seeing what I’d be able to do back in Ohio. I was inspired by a lot of the stories out there and decided to work on starting my own store here in Columbus.
K: What’ve been some of your favorite memories since you started your business?
There are so many. It’s always really exciting when we’re able to put the right book in someone’s hands. We have also had some really awesome events. We’ve had events with a great author, Moriel Rothman-Zecher, who did an event here last April and that was a huge success. We also do things like our monthly Bookish bar trivia nights, which have also been really great.
K: What are some obstacles you have had to overcome as a new business owner?
I think like any kind of independent retail, we deal with figuring out how to meet the high expectations of customers in regards to being able to get things instantly. We have what is on the shelf and you can do a lot of that instantly. but we only have so much that we’re able to do with ordering and with shipping. We can’t offer free shipping for small orders and that kind of thing. I think that the Short North itself is a changing neighborhood, and people are still figuring out how often they’ll come down. Some people have decided that they won’t, and we’re still figuring out as a neighborhood what that means for the retailers here. That’s been something we’ve definitely worked with this year as well.
K: What do you think makes Prologue unique to other independent bookstores?
I think a lot of bookstores have a lot of great things in common. We have a wonderful staff and a great curation and a great connection in the community, and I think any store that is successful these days has those thoroughly. The other indies in Columbus do. We tried to make our collection a little bit more unique. I know in the Short North here, we have a very strong LGBTQ community and we reflect that. We have an LGBTQ section here in the store and we have LGBTQ book clubs. Our local section is also very strong. We tried to do a lot of books on Columbus, Columbus history, current things of interest and really bringing some unique items that people might not otherwise be able to find.
K: Could you tell me a little bit about your book clubs? Is there one that’s the most popular?
Definitely. Our LGBTQ book clubs are very popular here in the store. We actually started a second one because the first one was so popular. We also have a woman author book club, and we have a speculative fiction book club. We’re always trying out new book clubs and seeing how they do, and sometimes they’re not as popular so we’ll move on to a different idea. It’s fun to see what’s working and just be able to meet as a community and talk about books.
K: I want to touch a little on your marketing. What does your marketing team look like or who’s responsibility is that?
So all of our social media is handled by one of our employees, Chloe, who really handles that. She does a great job. It’s a lot of work. You’re posting you know, every single day, and that is a tremendous amount of content to generate. I know that it can be really challenging to come up with content and to deal with your boss, who doesn’t always have that content available when you need it. I’m sure that a lot of small businesses can relate to that kind of thing. But I feel that, you know, that is something that we’ve been able to turn into a real strength thanks to our staff. Featuring the staff has always been something that people love to see, and we’re always on the lookout for new ideas and new ways to engage people. But it’s definitely a lot.
K: What role do you think social media has played in your business? Do you think it’s been a part of your growth?
Absolutely. I don’t have any doubt that we would have reached as many people as we do without social media. We don’t have hundreds or thousands of followers or anything, but we have a lot of people who engage with us. We have people who order books with us through social media. And if that’s the only way that I’m reaching them, then that means that’s a success and that’s an important thing for us to do.
K: How do you think the bookstore industry has changed the past few years and what have been some things that you’ve had to do to adapt?
The bookstore industry has been changing for 30 years. I think the last few have been interesting. We’re in the home stretch of this current phase of the big box stores in decline, the indies are in this little resurgence, and Amazon is continuing to increase its stranglehold over book sales. It sells almost 50 percent of physical books in the country now. But I think looking ahead, there are some really interesting things on the horizon. Barnes Noble has a new Chief Executive and new ownership that might really make some big changes, which would certainly impact us in the small stores. I think that a lot of the small stores are really figuring out the power we have and what we can do by working together and understanding our business better. We’re really growing as a resurgence and there’s some real opportunities ahead for the industry – it’s exciting to see where those are.
K: So looking forward five years, where do you see Prologue?
I would love to see us continue to be a stronger presence in this community and really throughout Columbus. A lot of Columbus just does not have a bookstore to go to. You know, years and years ago, you could drive up and down High Street all the way to Worthington and back, and there were stores all over the place. That is much less the case now, so I think people in some sense really crave having a bookstore in their community – a place they can go to for knowledge and for discussion. They may not know it, but it’s something that adds value to the communities that they’re in, and I would love to continue to be a part of adding that value to communities around Columbus.
K: Besides reading books, what do you do for fun?
I’m also a musician. I play cello, piano and handbells. I have not gotten to do much of cello and piano since I’ve moved here just because of time, but I’ve really enjoyed doing that in the past. I know I do enjoy traveling to an extent. I’ve enjoyed learning more about the area of Central Ohio. Like I said, I grew up in northeast Ohio and we didn’t usually make it down to Columbus or southern Ohio, so it’s really neat to rediscover areas that I maybe had been to once or twice as a kid, but never really got a chance to really know very well, like Hocking Hills, for example. I also enjoy biking and swimming, especially in the summer.
K: What are some of your favorite local businesses in Columbus?
Oh, that would be a very long list. I have to shout out to some of the other bookstores in Columbus because there are incredible ones that I love to patronize: Book Loft German Village, Cover to Cover Children’s Books, Two Dollar Radio Headquarters, Gramercy Books, Beanbag books up in Delaware. Those are all really fantastic local bookstores and many of them have been around longer than we have. They’re all very passionate about what they’re doing and are excited to help you find great books and book related gifts, and some of them have cafes. They’re wonderful. You know, I spent a lot of time in the Short North since the store is here, so I’m always a fan of the businesses that are right around us. I feel like I have to start listing them and if I don’t list all of them I’m going to hear about it. But, you know, definitely places like One Line Coffee and Glean and Roaming Goat here in the building and Red Giraffe and Jolie – all of them right in our little corner of this neighborhood. It’s awesome to see how creative and welcoming people are and working together and coming up with exciting ways to make all of us succeed. I’ve been really impressed by the positivity. There’s a community of entrepreneurs, especially here in the Short North. There are small businesses who’ve been here for a few months, some of them who’ve been here for many years. It’s just so exciting to see all of us get together and do things, and I feel very privileged to be part of that community.