‘We’ve got one shot to open up this bookstore’: First Light Books opens in Austin’s Hyde Park

The independent bookstore’s approach to retail book sales post-pandemic includes a membership program and ‘the most robust magazine section in town.’

By Sean SaldanaAugust 21, 2023 10:42 am, ,

At the corner of Speedway and 43rd Street in Austin in early August, under the watchful eye of his publicist, Taylor Bruce describes how his soon-to-open bookshop got its name.

“We went through a long process, my wife, Robin and I, on what we wanted the place to be called,” he says. “We wanted the name to represent a bigger picture.”

Standing outside First Light Books near the end of a torturously hot Texas summer, Bruce presents the property, which is still under construction.

“First Light is really attached to that feeling of the early morning and that sense of possibility,” he says. “You know, awakening.”

We’re standing on the side of the building that has the store’s outdoor patio and coffee window, which will be open 7 a.m.-9 p.m. seven days a week. There’s just enough shade in the area to make the August heat semi-comfortable.

“The idea of First Light really does attach to what a book can do,” Bruce says. “Books are powerful. They can sort of change the way you think, plant a new idea.”

The building used to be a post office in Austin’s oldest suburb, but two years after its closure, it’s been reborn. Inside the renovated building, newly hired employees are unpacking thousands of books and running through test orders at the cafe.

Two weeks before the store’s Aug. 19 grand opening, I ask Bruce, a 10-year veteran of the publishing industry and first-time retail store owner, if he’s nervous.

“There’s certainly butterflies, because we know once we turn on the lights, it’s seven days a week, three sixty-five,” he says, then adding a caveat: “We’re excited.”

Deborah Cannon / Texas Standard

Crowds gather outside of First Light Books on its grand opening day, Aug. 19, 2023.

Enhancing the customer experience

The 2,500-square-foot retail space is opening its doors with 10,000 books, featuring everything from current New York Times best sellers to “a magazine section that’s going to be the most robust in town,” Bruce says, including titles like New York Magazine and The Economist.

In stocking the shelves and drafting an initial inventory list, the Bruces were in contact with friends they know in the publishing industry, poets local to Austin, and other bookstore owners.

“We want you to pick up the new novel that’s at the top of the bestseller lists,” Bruce says. “But we also want you to feel a sense of discovery as you walk between the aisles.”

In the construction of First Light Books, Taylor and Robin Bruce, along with general manager Breezy Mayo, put thought into every aspect of their new bookstore, which is opening at a time when book sales are on a post-pandemic decline nationally.

“When the pandemic first started, you had mandated business closures,” says Scott Curtin, a Bureau of Labor Statistics economist. “We had to find new ways to entertain ourselves while we were in this period.”

Curtin helps oversee the bureau’s Consumer Expenditure Surveys, data that reveals what American households are spending on.

He says that while certain categories of spending – food, apparel and services, alcoholic beverages – took a dip in the early pandemic, reading soared: Average household spending on recreational reading rose from $92 in 2019 to $114 in 2020, a 24% increase.

In 2019, Americans spent just a little over $12 billion on recreational reading, according to the bureau. In both 2020 and 2021, that figure ticked up to $15 billion annually.

“The pandemic was a huge surge in book sales,” says Austin-based Kris Pauls, publisher of Disruption Books. “People didn’t have enough to do. They had extended hours of time where they couldn’t be with other people or do their regular routines.”

Now that’s changing: Earlier this year, Publisher’s Weekly reported that unit sales of print books fell 6.5% in 2022 compared to 2021 at outlets that report to NPD BookScan, a firm that tracks sales in the book publishing industry.

“One thing that’s been tough for the book industry is to see [pandemic sales] as a bubble instead of a new normal,” Pauls says. “Because it didn’t turn out to be a new normal. And when sales subsided, it was hard. We’re still adjusting to that in the industry.”

This is where the look, feel and offerings of First Light Books become part of its value proposition to Austin readers.

Inspired by 20th century European architecture, the store is decorated with furniture made locally and a multicolored stained-glass window nestled between the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, with a pastel La Marzocco coffee machine sitting behind the cafe counter.

“Fixturing and signage and the comfy chair that you can sit in while you have your coffee all make a difference,” says Susan Reda with the National Retail Federation. “That experience matters, particularly when you’re selling books.”

Tucked in the back corner of the store, the children’s section is centered around a skylight above a five-foot nursery mobile, custom made by a European mobile artist and including a metal yellow rabbit in full sprint – “our icon of the bookstore,” Bruce says.

Throughout the property, the rabbit logo will occasionally pop up as one of the bookstore’s design easter eggs.

“We want all of First Light to have a sense of whimsy and a sense of fun,” Bruce says. “You should feel good when you walk in the door.”

Deborah Cannon / Texas Standard

A mobile above the children’s reading area at First Light Books includes a yellow rabbit, the store's icon.

Bruce says he doesn’t know how much it cost to commission a decorative mobile with the store’s mascot – but that the shipping from Sweden “wasn’t cheap, that’s for sure.”

He also declined to share details on the costs of any of the store’s design elements – including custom bookshelves and eight freestanding tables.

“We’ve got one shot to open up this bookstore,” Bruce says. “We want to put everything we can into it. And so we want to work with people that are as good as it gets.”

He and his wife signed a 10-year lease, legally binding proof of a long-term commitment to serving Austin readers.

“When you know you’re going to be around for a long time, you can spend a little more on the mobile from Europe,” he says.

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‘The books we bring in will reflect the people’

Retail book sales is a tough business.

“When we look at the back of the napkin numbers for books,” says Pauls, the publisher, “you take the retail price and you divide it by two: That’s what stores and wholesalers are buying it for.”

If the average retail store sells a book for $20, it will net about $10 on the transaction.

That’s the money needed to pay for the location’s rent, the staff’s wages, payments on business loans, and additional inventory.

Another challenge in selling books at a brick-and-mortar location? Competing with Amazon.

Pauls notes that for independent retail locations, the business strategy is different: “If you’re looking at what would sell better at an independent bookstore, what can they provide to the community that you can’t get from Amazon?”

For First Light Books, that’s a membership program, an attempt to create a community of booklovers in Central Texas.

For $99 annually, members will get free drip coffee from the restaurant’s cafe, a 20% discount on book purchases, and free delivery within a five-mile radius, as well as “VIP access to author events and special member programming,” according to the store’s website.

Two weeks before opening, they’ve got around 300 members, a base of people who will play a role in the store’s direction.

“As we get to know our neighborhood and as our membership grows, the books that we bring in will reflect the people of First Light,” Bruce says. “We really do think that this is going to be a community space and the customer will speak into what needs to be on the shelves.”

Deborah Cannon / Texas Standard

Books line the shelves at First Light Books, which offers a $99 annual membership that includes discounts, special access to events and more.

A steady comeback for retail

First Light may be opening at a time when book sales are down, but some of the latest figures for retail sales are optimistic.

The latest Census Bureau data shows that retail sales for July total out to nearly $700 billion, a slight increase from June and a 3.2% increase compared to the same period last year.

Consumers “are willing to spend right now,” says Reda with the National Retail Federation. “It’s hard to get inside people’s heads, but I think we did have a little bit of the consumer feeling that they owed it to themselves and to their family to celebrate a little more this summer.”

Retail is also a robust part of the local economy in Austin, where more than 118,000 people are currently employed in retail, and since the initial pandemic lockdowns, the industry has made a swift and steady comeback.

“We are seeing job growth in all of the sectors that we track, which includes retail,” says Bryce Bencivengo with the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce. “Physical locations of stores where you buy commodities or goods for your home are still thriving here in the region.”

First Light also has the benefit of opening when independent bookstores have generally returned to normal after the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.

“2020 was hard because we just had to change our business model so many times,” says Conseulo Wilder, a buyer for BookPeople, noting that they didn’t have in-store events – a huge part of business – for a long time. “I think now is the right moment for a new bookstore, because we’re kind of on this upswing of people being out again.”

First Light Books also has the wind at its back by getting its doors open before the upcoming holiday season, when retail businesses generally have their strongest sales.

“Christmas always comes,” says Reda, who estimates an increase in total retail sales of 4% to 6% by the end of the year.

Deborah Cannon / Texas Standard

Katerina Matsveiko browses at the grand opening of First Light Books in Austin.

Opening day

On grand opening morning, First Light’s team has grown its membership to 400, finished stocking thousands of books, and built up a line so long at the coffee window, it spills onto the sidewalk.

“My morning’s awesome,” Bruce tells me enthusiastically. “It’s 9 a.m. There’s about a hundred people outside as we open the front doors, so we’re feeling good.”

Standing under the shade of First Light Book’s pecan trees, Bruce says this lifelong dream came together quickly.

“It got real two years ago in terms of really building out the business plan,” he explains. “Before that, it was just kind of like ‘wouldn’t it be amazing to have a bookstore one day?’”

When asked if he views running an independent retail bookstore in 2023 as a challenge, Bruce disagrees with the implication of the question’s premise, saying that indie bookstores and books are thriving.

“Our hypothesis is that if you create a beautiful bookstore with a cafe element, people want to get together, people want to hang,” Bruce says. “Our hope is that people will find time to linger here.”

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