Q&A with the New Owner of Books & Mortar

Photo by Jonathan Shotwell.
Photo by Jonathan Shotwell.

GR|MAG had the opportunity to talk with Jenny Kinne, the new owner of Books & Mortar, about her transition from employee to shop owner as well as her goals for the store, thoughts on the uniqueness of independent bookstores and some of her favorite reads.

GR|MAG: What was your relationship with Books & Mortar before working there, and what led you to become an employee?

JK: I’ve been friends with Christopher (Roe) and Jonathan (Shotwell), who started Books & Mortar, for a couple of years now, and from the very beginning I followed Books & Mortar and was a customer and such a believer in what they were doing. I was in there all the time picking out books or talking with them about books.

So one day when they mentioned that they might need some weekend help so they could have some time off, I jumped on it. I didn’t really have a ton of time to do it and looking back on it, maybe it wasn’t the most responsible decision…but I just had to. Books & Mortar has always been one of my favorite spaces, so I jumped at the opportunity to learn a little bit about how the store works on the inside and to see what it was like to be a bookseller. And I loved it! I just felt like I belonged there.

GR|Mag: How did you become the new owner of Books & Mortar?

JK: When Christopher and Jonathan were starting to think about selling the store because they were both pursuing other potential professional adventures, they ended up approaching me to see if I’d be willing to take over. And I couldn’t say no. I dreamed about owning a bookstore since I was little. In my parents’ and my grandparents’ basements, I would pretend that I owned a bookstore and worked at a library. I would try to sell and lend books to my family. So even though it’s scary and a big leap for me, my gut was telling me I had to go for it. That’s how I got to be the owner. I took over officially on Nov. 1, so I’m a little over a month in and it’s going great.

GR|Mag: Looking ahead, how are you feeling about this new transition?

JK: I was definitely nervous getting started since it’s my first time owning my own business and I never thought that it would actually be something that I could do. I had to hit the ground running and I’ve been learning a lot. It’s very impossible not to be excited in Books & Mortar. I mean it’s just such a beautiful space and the fact that I can just spend my days around books and readers…I’m just overwhelmed by all the excitement I feel about the future of owning this independent bookstore.

GR|MAG: Can you tell us about some of the plans you have for the bookstore?

JK: As far as things go right now, after taking over the store, everything has remained consistent. I haven’t made too many changes other than bringing in some books and some inventory that I really love. I want to make sure that customers still feel completely at home in this place. Christopher and Jonathan did such a great job building it and I don’t want to change too much right away. But my goal in the coming year is to try and work hard to make Books & Mortar more of a community center. I have a background in grassroots organizing so I would really love to see Books & Mortar be a place where people come and congregate, whether it’s book clubs or political activist groups or nonprofit organizations or school groups.

GR|Mag: As an independent bookstore, how is Books & Mortar unique?

JK: One really great thing about being a smaller bookstore is that I have the ability to pick everything in the store. So I handpick all of our books and all of our gifts, and I really try to make sure that everything we bring into the store is high-quality but also really great reads. And I also think the proudest thing about this store for me is the fact that this store is proudly progressive. We make sure that we carry books that are progressive and we support progressive organizations and make sure that we make space for political activism in our bookstore.

That’s a really, really important thing to me, just as it was to Christopher and Jonathan. And I think that makes us unique. Sometimes, especially if you’re talking about larger bookstores, they don’t have room for political activism. They don’t really have the freedom that we do to vocalize a political opinion, to have a political personality. And Books & Mortar does. We’re proudly progressive and we want to do work according to that mission.

GR|Mag: What is the sense of community like at Books & Mortar?

JK: If you were to walk into a larger bookstore, you probably aren’t going to know the people that are there, but we know all of our customers. It’s my mom and I and my cousin that all work in the store, so people get to know the whole Kinne family and we get to know them. It’s really cool to be a part of this reading community, and we all share what we love about books and what we’re struggling with and what we’re going through in our personal lives. And it’s a lot more than just a retail space.

GR|Mag: What are some books that you’ve enjoyed reading recently?

JK: One of the books that I just adored that I read recently is a fiction book. It’s called “The Overstory” by Richard Powers, and it’s kind of like environmental fiction. It’s a multigenerational saga but it’s told from the perspective of a tree. You get to learn about how trees work and how amazing trees are. I’ve really been into environmental literature lately so that is an amazing read. I also recently finished a book called “There, There.” It’s by a newer author named Tommy Orange, and he’s a native writer. This is a fictional story about a bunch of native families in the Oakland, California area who are all converging on this pow wow that is about to be robbed. It’s such a great book, and it’s filled with wonderful characters and relationships. The plot is fast and very suspenseful, but at the same time, you get those deeper interactions that I adore in books.

And I will recommend one non-fiction book. There’s a book called “The Library Book” by Susan Orlean, and it’s a nonfictional account of the Los Angeles Library and its history. The author tells the story of that library through the stories of librarians and then she uses that to sort of zoom out and tells the story of the public library – like the entire public library system and how libraries came to be. I’ve always loved libraries, so I’m reading this book and it feels like you’re just sitting in a library adoring all the people who work there and all the books in that library. It’s one of the most fantastic books I’ve read in a long time.

GR|Mag: Do you have any all-time favorite books or writers?

JK: I love “Moby Dick.” It’s my favorite classic, and we’ll always have it on display at the store. There are a few brave souls who will read it, and I want to talk to all of them. That book means a lot to me. My dog’s name is Melville, if that’s any indication of how obsessed I am with “Moby Dick.” I also love strong female writers, so some of my favorite writers would include Barbara Kingsolver and Louise Erdrich.

GR|Mag: What else would you like people to know about you or about Books & Mortar?

JK: I love reading and I took this on because I love books so much, and I really believe in the power of books to change people and change communities. For the store, I’d like to mention that in addition to coming into the bookstore, people can also order books through us. If they don’t want to use Amazon or do all of their online shopping through larger stores, they can shoot us a message or give us a call and we can order books to be delivered to the store or delivered directly to homes. So if anybody doesn’t have the time or doesn’t live close enough to get into the store, they can still support us.

*Main photo by Photo by Jonathan Shotwell. All other photos courtesy of Jenny Kinne

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