Bookstore Solidarity Project: An Interview with Janet Geddis of Avid Bookshop in Athens, GA

Welcome to the next installment of the Bookstore Solidarity Project! Every month, we’ll be highlighting indie bookstore owners and booksellers across the country (and beyond!)

For May, we’re featuring Avid Bookshop in Athens, GA!

Avid is an iconic indie store who have been up to all kinds of cool things lately, including calling for the University of Georgia to collaborate with local bookstores and businesses for their events, and suing Gwinnett County Jail over their mail policy that prevents Avid and other bookstores from mailing books to incarcerated people.

We spoke to owner and founder Janet Geddis. Check it out below!

Your name and pronouns?
Janet Geddis, she/her

Tell us a little bit about the store and your community.
In 2004, I moved to Athens, Georgia for what was supposed to be a two-year stint during my graduate program. I had grown up in nearby Atlanta but hadn’t lived in Georgia since I was in high school. Because most Athenians I knew back then were students, I figured there wasn’t much going on if you weren’t affiliated with the university; if I wanted to live in Athens, this was my one chance. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Athens is my forever-town, somewhere I can’t imagine leaving for long. I fell in love with this creative enclave, a little blue dot amid the mostly-red state. Even before announcing my plans to open a bookstore, I felt a strong sense of community. Once I started Avid Bookshop, my connection to the community grew ever stronger.

In 2007, a friend and I decided to begin researching the possibility of opening a bookstore in Athens. In 2008, we announced our plans and immediately garnered lots of encouragement and support from the Athens community, our friends, our family (even if they were trepidatious!), and the then-unfamiliar book world. Those of you who weren’t adults in 2008 (or those of you who’ve blocked out that period) might have forgotten that that was the year of a recession that was devastating for millions. Not the ideal time to ask banks and private lenders for capital to help open an independent bookstore, especially as folks [whose feedback I wasn’t actually asking for] openly said what a bad idea it was to open a bookstore, especially with Amazon’s continued dominance and the growing buzz about these “ebooks” that were going to make paper books totally irrelevant.

Because we’re still open now, in the year 2024, you know that I did manage to open a bookstore. In 2011, I finally opened a small shop on Prince Avenue, an 800 sq ft historic space less than half a mile from where I was living at the time. In 2016, we opened a second location in a different neighborhood of town. And, on the last day of 2019, we voluntarily closed our original store. (Within a few months, the decision to pivot back to a one-store business model proved to be an inadvertently genius move, as keeping one store going amidst a pandemic was hard enough.)

I am so proud of my store and of my staff past and present. My current crew is especially tight, and I love how we share with each other, support each other, ask for help when needed, and hold each other accountable. And yes, the “we” includes me even though I’m ostensibly the one who’s in charge of it all. It’s not always easy to hear, but getting my colleagues’ feedback on is instrumental and I am grateful for how well we communicate with respect and appreciation, no matter if we’re praising one another or asking folks to step up.

We look to our mission statement to guide our decision-making, our buying, our decision to speak out (or not), our relationships with customers, and more. Check it out here.

What got you into bookselling?
A lifelong obsession with reading; a BA in English; understanding that, while I was a good teacher, I didn’t feel truly inspired or alive while teaching; my deep love for Athens; the fact that this college town didn’t have the kind of community-focused bookstore it so richly deserved.

How did you choose your store’s name?
My friend Amy, who was my original business partner in the early planning stages, thought of it. While I liked the name, I was vying for “Word.” We had thought of tons of options (crowdsourcing from friends during happy hour was always fun), but Avid and Word were the top two contenders. Then, in 2009 or so, I was visiting a dear friend who lived in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. We emerged from the subway and I stopped in my tracks: there, right in front of me, was an eye-catching neighborhood bookstore called WORD. Someone already had the name! “Oh,” my friend said, “This is the bookstore I wanted to show you. Isn’t it cute?” Reader, it was cute. It is cute. And it is the reason I told my friend that we should go with Avid. My one sticking point was that we call it Avid Bookshop, not Avid Bookstore. The emphasis on “shop” conjures a cozier, friendlier, and decidedly indie vibe. (Side note: not long after seeing WORD for the first time, I became buddies with the then-manager and the owner. Fast forward to now, and the founding owner of WORD, Christine Onorati, is one of my dearest friends and confidantes!)

What’s something about your store that you think will surprise people?
Depends on which people you mean.

Those in and outside of the book world might be surprised to know that—despite Avid’s being in a state where employees are not legally entitled to as many rights as they should be—I voluntarily and eagerly offer paid time off, sick leave, and a generous family leave policy. In spring 2022, we redefined “full-time” as working 35 hours per week instead of 40 (without a corresponding decrease in pay).

Those not in the publishing-bookselling ecosystem might not realize that a bookstore can do as well we do yet still struggle mightily to pay our bills each month. In spite of our high sales, accolades, community support, and excellent hand selling skills, it’s profoundly difficult to stay in the black (outside of the holiday season, at least). This industry is a notoriously tough one in which to turn a profit, and it’s getting harder. But we’re still here and I have zero plans to give up trying to find a better way.

What are some of you favorite ways your community supports your store?
I could write a book-length response to this, but I’ll stick with this: I am deeply honored that many in our community share their hearts with us. They come here knowing that this is one place where they will be seen and appreciated by us and by each other.

Amid personal and worldwide crises (post-Election-Day 2016), people feel safe at Avid. In moments of boundless joy (a pregnancy was just confirmed! a marriage proposal went off without a hitch!), they celebrate with us. During hours or months of staggering bewilderment and grief (a life-changing diagnosis; a friend’s death), they know we will welcome them exactly as they are. When significant things happen in their lives, or when they’re dealing with big feelings, Avid is among their first destinations, a place where booksellers and patrons can bear witness to whatever they want to share.

What are two books you can’t wait for people to read, or your current favorite handsells?
Briefly Perfectly Human by Alua Arthur; Liars by Sarah Manguso.

How can customers who aren’t local shop your shelves and support you?
Buy yourself one of our famous subscriptions (a twice-named best gift idea from Wirecutter!), or virtually order just about any book that’s still in print from our website. Check out our staff pages, where you can see what our different booksellers are into. Find a bookseller whose taste jives with yours? Buy a staff pick from their list, or ask if they can be your personal bookseller choosing titles if you do buy one of those subscriptions. You can find us on X & Instagram: @avidbookshop. We’re most active on IG!

Anything else you’d like to share?
We <3 Microcosm!

Be sure to follow Avid Bookshop on their socials, and click here to see their interview on the podcast!

You can read our other Bookstore Solidarity Project posts here!
And click here to get a copy of How to Protect Bookstores and Why.