How Birmingham’s Thank You Books created community, found success through pandemic

Laura Cotten, Kristen Iskandrian and Elizabeth Goodrich wanted a home for Birmingham’s literary and author community. 

They were proud of the city’s rich history of storytellers and avid readers and felt like something was missing within the city limits. The three friends opened Thank You Books in mid-December 2019, just three months before a global pandemic would shutter local businesses and wreak havoc on communities. But one year later, they’re thriving.

None of the women are from Birmingham, but two of them claim the South as home. Iskandrian is a writer from Philadelphia, but moved to Athens, Ga., for graduate school. Her debut novel, “Motherest,” was a “defining book of 2017” by the Wall Street Journal. 

Cotton is from south Georgia and moved to Birmingham to be an English teacher. Iskandrian and Cotton became friends in Birmingham and have talked about opening a bookstore since 2016. 

In 2019, they started seriously considering the idea after meeting Goodrich, who also expressed interest in creating a literary hub in the Magic City. 

They modeled Thank You Books’s warm, community-centered atmosphere and literary focus after other thriving local book sellers in the South such as Square Books in Oxford, Miss. and Avid Bookshop in Athens, Ga. They wanted to put Birmingham on the map and become a regular stop on author book tours. And while 2020 wasn’t the best year for national book touring, Thank You Books succeeded in creating community.

“One of our earliest goals was we really wanted to put Birmingham more firmly on the map for authors who would maybe go as far south as Parnassus [bookstore in Nashville], or would maybe not even consider [going] southeast,” Iskandrian said.

For its first three months, Thank You Books thrived. Book clubs were filled, books recommended in person with near astrological precision. But When March rolled around, Thank You Books shut their doors to the public citing the importance of keeping their community safe. 

Iskandrian said she was nervous their new endeavor wasn’t established enough to survive a months-long hiatus, but she vowed to be there for the growing readership they established. They already had an Instagram account, but almost immediately moved Saturday morning in-person story time and bi-monthly book clubs to Instagram and Zoom and offered curbside pickup.

Cotton said although plans didn’t go as envisioned, the owners feel fortunate they were able to continue doing business, despite desperately missing the in-person connection often culled from the magic of books

“We had not planned on relying on algorithms or on being a social media bookstore. But we were able because we were so young to make changes really quickly, in a way that probably other businesses that had been around longer weren’t able to do,” Cotton said. 

By summer the bookstore was back open to the public with strict guidelines, making it a safe space for the community to take a breath and explore storylines outside the dystopian world presented on the news. They were intentional about remaining open during the election day and Jan. 6, when news of the Capitol insurrection left many people overwhelmed and fearful.

“It was important to us to be open on the day of the election because we knew it would be an unhappy day for people,” Cotton said.

The three co-owners stock the shelves with books they like, many of which have women, queer and or Southern authors. Cotton said they consistently sell out of local works such as Casey Cep’s “Furious Hours” and, more recently, John Archibald’s “Shaking the Gates of Hell.”

A recent Zoom book club featuring Archibald drew more than 400 attendees compared to most virtual events that usually have anywhere between six and 80, Iskandrian said. 

During a year of impossible uncertainty and unimaginable growth and learning, Thank You Books made it to the other side of the world’s new normal. 

Part of the store’s core mission is listening. Iskandrian said reading is an act of listening, which the three women credit for making the space a light, a place of respite and growth for the community caught in the middle of a changing world. 

They hope 2021 is a year for learning more about the book trade and connecting with readers rather than just surviving

“I am of the mindset that if you really believe in something, and you share it in a way that feels honest and authentic, you will find your people,” Iskandrian said.

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