Friday, October 15, 2021

How Curious Book Shop lasted through the advent of the internet and COVID-19

September 15, 2021
The outside of the Curious Book Store on Sept. 1, 2021.
The outside of the Curious Book Store on Sept. 1, 2021. —
Photo by Lauren Snyder | The State News

Nestled between the various eateries, bars and clothing stores on Grand River Avenue is a local business that has managed to keep its doors open for over 50 years: Curious Book Shop. 

Beginnings

Owner Ray Walsh was a student when he began selling books out of his garage in 1969. Two years later, Walsh graduated from Michigan State University with a degree in communications. 

After a couple of years in his garage and a couple more in the basement of the old Paramount News Center, Walsh and Curious Book Shop found a permanent home at 307 E. Grand River Ave. in 1973. 

Fourteen years later, Walsh opened a companion bookstore just down the road: Archives, which is still in business as well.

In addition to his book stores, Walsh is active in the Lansing community, serving as a member of the Downtown Management Board for East Lansing. He’s also written book reviews for the Lansing State Journal for over 30 years. 

The Internet

When the internet started picking up steam in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, online shopping sites like Amazon and eBay began to change the way books were bought. 

“It was increased competition," Walsh said. "Certainly, it has changed the book market because many prices have gone downward as people realize how many copies there are of these books available throughout the country. On the other hand, some of the very nice books — the exceptional books by Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, first editions and jackets — have gone up significantly.”

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As the book market shifted, Curious Book Shop adapted. Walsh started using mail-order services, Amazon and other online book databases to keep up with the competition. The shop’s Etsy site is a large portion of the online revenue. With over 600 items listed, the profile makes sales daily. 

COVID-19

Curious Book Shop managed to adapt and thrive during the age of the internet, but COVID-19 presented a unique threat. Waves of closures shut down non-essential businesses at the end of March 2020, forcing most brick-and-mortar stores to temporarily close.

But Walsh’s employees weren’t ready to give up.

They devised a plan: A GoFundMe fundraiser. 

“When we had the campaign, I never thought I would do something like that," Walsh said. "But my employees suggested it, and I said, ‘OK.’ We set a goal that was not realistic. But we thought why not try it and see what happens." 

Typically, a contributor to a campaign on GoFundMe receives an email offering thanks. Curious Book Shop did things differently. 

If a contribution was over ten dollars, the shop offered a handful of random books from the contributor’s preferred genre. Walsh said the shop sent out over 200 packages during the campaign.

The store’s campaign began to gain traction, eventually receiving a mention in a Buzzfeed article about bookstores running similar campaigns across the nation. Curious Book Shop was one of 35 stores mentioned in the article, which resulted in donations and contacts from alumni and former customers across the nation. 

The local and national community has raised nearly $30,000 for Curious Book Shop’s GoFundMe campaign, which is still active.

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“We really appreciate the community support and I'm fortunate to have a staff that works hard and does a good job in getting this type of thing done," Walsh said. "Nobody expected anything quite like this." 

Still Thriving 50 Years In

Despite the road bumps, Curious Book Shop continues to be a local favorite, especially among Michigan State’s incoming and returning students. 

“I think part of it is the character of the shop," Abigail Rhoades, a new employee and customer of Curious Book Shop, said. "It’s very eccentric, it’s a little cluttered, but that’s what gives it its charm." 

“The types of books that you get here are very different," genomics and molecular genetics sophomore Aria Muchhal said. "You want older books or a specific type of book or you just want to browse a section. The feeling that a bookstore has, the smell of old books and everything, is great."

There is a constant stream of new reads, as Walsh buys collections and receives donations consistently. 

“Our inventory is increasing," Walsh said. "Sometimes, when I turn out the lights at night, there are more books there in the morning." 

With the amount of new inventory available through collections and donations, Walsh said he likes to be a bit selective with the books he acquires, focusing on a few genres that seem to resonate with the students. Agriculture, physics and other subjects popular with the university are often in stock.

Walsh’s unique collection of books is often a main source of attraction for both returning guests and new visitors.

“The local bookstores seem to have better collections," biochemistry and molecular biology sophomore Ilayda Korkmaz said. "They've actually selected the good books instead of every book like there is in big department stores."

This article is a part of our Sept. 14 print issue. Check out the full issue here.

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