Storyhouse Bookpub

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Storyhouse Bookpub - Abbey Paxton

What started out of Abbey Paxton’s Windsor Heights garage as a safe space for people to connect and purchase books during the pandemic has morphed into its own brick-and-mortar in the East Village.

For Paxton, her business, Storyhouse Bookpub, is about much more than just selling books – it’s about bringing people together and building community.

Collaborating with other small business owners, particularly women, is her jam. Paxton partners with local businesses to host Storyhouse Storytimes for children and their parents, and she also offers pop-up shops.

Paxton has big ideas for the future and hopes to continue growing Storyhouse Bookpub and its reach organically. With the business’s early success and excitement its brought to Des Moines, there’s no doubt Paxton will accomplish all that she sets her sights on.

Tell me about how Storyhouse Bookpub came to be.

I managed an independent bookstore in Denver, Colorado, for five years, so I suppose it kind of started with that, or else I wouldn’t have really understood the whole world of bookstores at all.

My background is in teaching. I started as a high school English teacher right out of college and got burnt out pretty early on. I was trying to figure out what I was going to do next, and I just sort of stumbled into this bookstore in Denver and thought it would be a cute part-time job while I got my master’s degree. But I fell in love with the whole industry – the whole world of books and authors, publishing events, and all of the things.

I didn’t really think that I would be starting my own bookstore as quickly as the timeline has proven to be.

I’m originally from the Fort Dodge area, and we moved back to Iowa at the tail end of 2019. I didn’t really know what I was going to do, so I started working on this bookstore project thinking I might as well sort of work on it creatively. I took the DreamBuilder class at the Iowa Center [which helps people develop a business plan], still thinking it would be like five or 10 years down the road, but, you know, the pandemic hit. I didn’t really get any kind of normal job, so I guess that’s sort of how it started.

And you started it in your garage, right?

Yes. So my first iteration of the store was like I was going to work a fun part-time job while also working on some Storyhouse projects. My first thought was to do children’s story times and do that from other independent businesses’ space and start building that way, in a small way. And that was right before the pandemic. The first week of March, I got Storyhouse’s LLC.

I had some stuff on the books, like I had this cute story time set up with a cupcake shop. And it all fell apart, of course, because everyone was like, yeah, we’re having to lay everyone off and close the doors, and we don’t know what’s happening. So I laid low for a little bit.

Then I partnered with the ladies at MoMere in Valley Junction. They’re a mother daughter duo and just brilliant merchandisers and community makers. So I ended up connecting with them. As they cautiously reopened with COVID restrictions, they were in the process of opening the store’s second floor, which was going to have this whole children’s section. They were like, you actually came to us at a great time, because we want to do children’s books, so they allowed me the space in their store to build a little miniature children’s bookstore.

That’s like the first thing I really started doing. That gave me really good contacts and just a platform to start talking about Storyhouse.

When I started thinking a little bit more creatively about what we could do during the pandemic that would still bring some of the joy and connection of a bookstore without actually having a bookstore, I did a Little Free Library in my front yard.

We also did a book swap, which was our very first Storyhouse event. I just invited all of my neighbors and worked with the platform I had started building on Instagram to bring young families. My sister owns her own little cottage bakery, so she brought baked goods, and we just did a big book swap. So people brought books that they didn’t need any more and laid them out in the yard. I had a bunch of books, too, and it was just lovely. It gave me confidence that people were looking for safe things that they could do and bring their families to. There’s such a love of books here.

For the holiday season, I decided to try actual sales. We did three Saturdays in December from my garage. I just adapted the garage to be like a bookstore. We kind of transformed it into this little wintery wonderland space full of books. We had story times and people came and it was just so fun. It was exciting to see the community getting into this weird way of book shopping outside.

So yeah, it’s grown really organically. And really, I feel like it’s been a cool conversation with the community about kind of testing where everybody’s at and what people want to do, how they respond to different types of events and get-togethers and things. I just feel really lucky.

Owning a bookstore seems like a dream. What’s your favorite part of running the business?

I think the thing that makes bookstores a little different than a lot of other kinds of retail is that there’s something about books in our lives that can connect us in perhaps a deeper way, where it doesn’t feel transactional as much as an opportunity to connect. So my favorite part is when real community is built and connections happen. Reading can be a really powerful thing, but it can also be really fun. It’s such a neat platform for jumping off into other ways that books bring us together, too, like welcoming writers into the store.

You do a lot of collaborations with other small businesses, mostly female-owned. What’s that been like?

It’s been huge, because when you start your own small business, one of the hardest things is that you’re by yourself; you’re your own staff, you’re your own everything. So even if you want to bounce ideas off people or just have some of that collaboration of spirit and support, it’s been so good to have a community of women to build trust and encouragement. It’s like an unofficial network of people who are cheering each other on and willing to try something new and different and weird, especially in this last year.

Looking to the future, what are some of your goals for Storyhouse Bookpub?

I definitely want to keep offering a lot of dynamic events and points of connection for readers and families in Des Moines, whether that’s book clubs and meetups or other events, or just a space to come and be. I want to keep growing it. It’s called Storyhouse Bookpub because it’s really important to me to include that community nature of what a pub can feel like.

Abbey’s Top Three Book Picks (as of right now)

1. Girlhood by Melissa Febos

2. The Renunciations: Poems by Donika Kelly

3. Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson

*On Friday, July 23, at 6 p.m., Storyhouse Bookpub will host a meet n’ greet with Melissa Febos and Donika Kelly in Raygun’s new mezzanine space downtown Des Moines.

Abbey’s Favorite Book of All Time

1. Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward