Georgia Used/Rare Book Store Branches Out With Hills & Hamlets Bookshop

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Hills & Hamlets Bookshop will open next month in the urbanist green living community of Serenbe, located in the city of Chattahoochee Hills, Georgia. The store, which will mainly sell new books, is the project of Josh Niesse and Megan Bell, the couple who co-own Underground Books, a used, rare, and antiquarian bookstore in nearby Carrollton.

Josh Niesse and Megan Bell
Josh Niesse and Megan Bell, co-owners of Underground Books and Hills & Hamlets Bookshop

Niesse and Bell have already raised around $18,500 selling “pre-memberships” to community members to fund the new store, tentatively slated to open October 1. The 650-square-foot bookstore will be located on the ground floor of the new Serenbe Textile Lofts building within Serenbe, a new high-end urbanist “planned” community that emphasizes green living and the arts.

The growing community of 400 residents is located just outside of Atlanta and features mixed-use shops and residential developments, all organized around an organic farm. The semi-rural development was originally established as a reaction to the urban sprawl that dominates much of the surrounding metropolitan area.

“The books we sell will have some specialized focus on the themes that are exemplified by the Serenbe community, such as architecture, urban planning, agriculture, and culinary arts, but we’ll also have indie staples: children’s books and popular fiction and literature,” said Niesse. “We will also feature some of the vintage antiquarian/rare book inventory that Underground Books has specialized in.”

Underground Books logo“I think it really works to have new, used, and antiquarian all in the same space,” Bell said. “I think it’s very important for millennials to have an access point to rare antiquarian books because they really do illuminate how physical books are art objects as well… We aim for our bookstores to be third places in the community where you can meet someone casually and have an intellectual discussion, or even take someone on a date.”

Niesse said the new store will also feature a limited selection of non-book items as well as a comfort station with free coffee, tea, and water. Underground currently has two part-time employees besides Niesse and Bell, so Niesse will be managing the new store on his own at first. The couple hopes to eventually split their time equally between the two stores, he said.

When it comes to events, Hills & Hamlets will emulate the business models of stores like Bookmark It in Orlando, Florida, and A Capella Books in nearby Atlanta, with an ambitious events schedule utilizing off-site locations. The store will also follow the example of Underground Books, which hosts author receptions as well as events in partnership with larger organizations, like a lecture series with the University of West Georgia.

Exterior view of Underground Books
Underground Books

“One of the unique things about Serenbe is that for every house sold there is a percentage that goes into the Serenbe Institute, which is mainly focused on art,” said Bell. “There is also an artist-in-residency program there, so spoken word artists come through frequently. There are already a lot of authors coming through Serenbe through the Institute, but there are also many authors living in Serenbe as well.”

“There is a tremendous amount of built-in opportunity in this community,” added Niesse. “There are 100,000 visitors a year to Serenbe: some just regional, some visiting for vacation, and then also some just visiting to see this new model of alternative urban planning and community development…So we’ll have some [events] that we will try to create, and then we’ll have some we do using existing partnerships and opportunities.”

Niesse founded Underground Books in March 2011 as a storefront for his online used book sales business. Bell, who met Niesse when she visited the store a few weeks after it opened, has taken over management of the store’s online business. In 2012, Niesse and Bell raised $9,000 through an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign to purchase their 1,800-square-foot belowground storefront. The new store at Serenbe requires a lot more money to get started than Underground Books did, said Niesse — at least $25,000.

Hills & Hamlets logo

“Since we knew how effective crowdfunding had been at creating the sense of community that had made Underground Books so successful, we started thinking about ways to apply that to this new store,” Niesse said. “Three months ago, we privately approached community stakeholders, book collectors, and authors within Serenbe, arranged one-on-one meetings, and gave them our pitch for a kind of ‘premium’ membership level, or Founders’ Circle. Donations of $500 or $1,000 would get them store credit, special perks, and priority access to events and authors at the new store, while giving us the upfront capital we needed to get the store off the ground.”

Last week, Niesse and Bell kicked off the “public” part of their funding campaign via their new store website and are inviting the public to contribute lower amounts of $50, $100, and $250. The 100-plus people who donated to Underground’s fundraising campaign in 2012 quickly became staunch advocates and supporters of the store, said Niesse. Now, he and Bell hope that the perks associated with the new campaign will encourage that same sense of investment in Hills & Hamlets.

Serenbe aerial view
Aerial view of Serenbe

While Niesse and Bell are active members of the Independent Online Booksellers Association (IOBA) and the Georgia Antiquarian Booksellers Association (GABA), they have also begun taking advantage of resources meant for traditional booksellers, attending the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance’s spring show, joining the American Booksellers Association, and applying for a scholarship to Winter Institute in Minneapolis.

In July, Hills & Hamlets hosted a pop-up shop at Serenbe to raise awareness about the store, and this month Niesse and Bell are planning several soft opening events in conjunction with the Serenbe community. Earlier this year, the couple attended the Paz & Associates “Owning a Bookstore” workshop on Florida’s Amelia Island. Niesse said he appreciates workshop leaders Donna Paz Kaufman and Mark Kaufman for “the rigor they bring to the business end of bookselling.”

“The ‘new book’ world is definitely different from the used and antiquarian world, and we have a lot to learn,” said Bell. “We are still often going back to our binders and our notes from the Paz workshop… Community in the bookselling industry means everything, especially the amount of time and attention invested in making sure that newcomers are well-informed.”