In August of last year, Ted and Nicole Wheeler brought a new attraction to Omaha, Nebraska: Dundee Book Company, a pop-up bookstore cart that carries new books with an emphasis on literary writing.
When Bookselling This Week last checked in, the Wheelers were getting ready for the grand opening of Dundee Book Company. Now, Ted Wheeler reflects on his first year as a bookseller and author, Omaha’s reception of the mobile shop, and literary events he would like to bring to Omaha in the future.
“The store launched at roughly the same time that I had a novel come out last year, so that gave us a boost...because we were going to be selling a lot of my books,” Wheeler said. “Being able to talk as an author about how books benefit the community, [which] benefits my family, helps people to understand more about why bookstores are so important and why it’s important to support every part of the process.”
For the Wheelers, it isn’t only about building customer relationships and establishing a loyal clientele, it’s about garnering public excitement for books, too. “We’re actively going out and finding [new customers],” Wheeler said. “We started hosting book clubs, which has helped a lot to cultivate that local following.”
Dundee Book Company’s book clubs include Brothers Book Club, which meets at a local bar in Omaha every other month to discuss accessible literary fiction, and a book club with a focus on social activism, which is slated to begin in August. It will be hosted at a bike shop in the Benson neighborhood of Omaha.
The Brothers Book Club has read Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh (Penguin Books) and Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado (Graywolf Press) as past picks. For September, the Wheelers have selected Love & Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere by Poe Ballantine (Hawthorne Books).
“We’ve picked mostly new books that have a lot of literary value and are accessible,” Wheeler said. “Our group is open to anyone who wants to come and talk about the book, and has featured a range of people, from MFA-trained writers to high school teachers to avid readers who we met at the bar.”
It is the blend of different readers, each from different walks of life, that Wheeler appreciates most. “As someone who has spent a lot of time in college classrooms, I really like being exposed to different reading styles and perspectives,” he said. “We [get to] learn a lot about what stories people are drawn to and why they read what they read.”
In addition to their book clubs, the Wheelers also host a quarterly poetry reading series with Backwaters Press. “It’s held at Gallery 1516 in downtown Omaha and helps us to connect with a community of poetry readers I don’t think we would reach otherwise,” said Wheeler. “Backwaters has been active in Omaha for over 20 years. Siphoning off of their cache is a definite plus, as is being able to chat with a bunch of folks who have been around the literary scene in Omaha for a long time. I love hearing stories about old booksellers and shops, and we try to appreciate the tradition we’re now a part of.”
Over the past year, Wheeler said he began to realize that while Dundee Book Company brings the flavor of an independent bookstore to Omaha, it is unique in a way that extends beyond being a mobile shop and not a traditional storefront.
“When we started, we tried to replicate what a brick-and-mortar store would have,” said Wheeler. “We learned over time that we don’t need to have the bestsellers or even the more traditional big-selling books because people wouldn’t be looking necessarily for us to have that. For us, I think it’s the aesthetics.”
When the mobile store first launched, the Wheelers knew they wanted the covers of the books they sold to be eye-catching. But they didn’t realize how important it would be to making sales.
“We didn’t think about the idea of somebody walking by at a night market, or someone just hanging out at a bar on a Saturday afternoon,” said Wheeler. “Maybe they wouldn’t be that much into books, but if something really catches their eye, [they] would come see it...aesthetics are really important for that reason. It brings people to us.”
Overall, Omaha’s reception to a pop-up bookstore cart has been positive, said Wheeler; the importance Dundee Book Company has within the larger community of Omaha became clear when they decided to set up shop at Castlepalooza, a free neighborhood festival held on the grounds of the historic Joslyn Castle.
“There were so many people who weren’t necessarily bookstore people, even though they liked books and like to read,” said Wheeler. “They came out just to see what the cart was and what kind of books we had.”
Dundee’s highly curated selection made an impact. “We had one family who was Latino and we had a few children’s books in Spanish and they said they’d never seen that before in Omaha. That kind of outreach has been really beneficial,” Wheeler added.
In August and September, Dundee Book Company will be working with the Omaha Community Playhouse as the theater company puts on a production of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (Mariner Books). “It’s a graphic novel we really loved,” Wheeler said. “Just to be a part of that and get it into people’s hands who are there to see the play will be really cool.”
As far as future events are concerned, Wheeler is also hoping to get more authors to visit Omaha.
“We’re working to bring Emily M. Danforth to Omaha,” said Wheeler. “Her novel The Miseducation of Cameron Post [Balzer + Bray] has been made into a movie and is being distributed this summer. It’s coming to our neighborhood theater.” Collaborating with other venues, such as local theaters and other historic sites, helps Dundee Book Company to build a strong clientele, he said.
While opening a traditional brick-and-mortar store someday does appeal to the Wheelers, they aren’t quite done with reaping the benefits that a pop-up store brings. “For now, we’re enjoying having something smaller, enjoying bookselling, learning what our customers want...and how to build a following,” said Wheeler. “We’ll see in a year if that’s changed or not.”