Flowing & growing with the neighborhood: the story of Commonplace Books
Updated: Sep 22, 2020
On our drive across the country, we had the pleasure of stopping in Oklahoma City at Commonplace Books. I recently spoke with one of the four founders to get the story behind the creation of the bookstore, and the value of independent businesses in our culture.
We visited Commonplace Books on a sunny afternoon on our way out of the city (next stop, Amarillo, TX). My state of mind at this point is important to note, as I was about to do one of my longer driving shifts, which made me quite tense and nervous. I am admittedly not a confident driver, which can make driving across the country a particularly interesting challenge! But I have to say that walking up to Commonplace Books and then entering the lovely space had a calming effect I desperately needed.
First, the exterior is crisp, bright, and beautiful. The clean lines and green text on the windows told me instantly this was my kind of place: one window proudly displays the words, “We read to know we are not alone.” On the Commonplace Kitchen side, the words on the windowpane sum up what you come to this place to do: “Eat slow, drink well, share stories.”
In a world where most communication is taking place on digital devices and social media, this spot is nudging you to stop and change your pace. It’s encouraging you to connect in a physical space, to share a real, live experience, which is becoming simultaneously more uncommon and more important than ever before.
On their website, Commonplace Books is described as “A thoughtful shop with a common love for books and people.” Thoughtful is a key word here, as that’s exactly what I felt about this space. You can tell there was a lot of care and thought put into creating an experience, from the outside in. Everything feels carefully curated to make you feel cozy and at home. One thing I noticed right away was how the books were uniquely displayed. Rather than all of them stacked in perfect rows, exactly the same way, the books are sometimes horizontal, sometimes vertical, sometimes laying down, sometimes standing upright. It’s almost like someone played Tetris with the books and perfectly nailed the layout—no book left out of place! It’s fun and orderly at the same time, an effect that’s hard to achieve.
And if seeing a large white dog curled up in front of two cozy reading chairs doesn’t make you want to curl up and read a book, I don’t know what will! I definitely have a soft spot for stores that feature pets front and center, and Boz is certainly a feature—he even has his own profile on the store’s website!
I recently had a chance to chat on the phone with one of the founders, Ben Nockels, and got the story behind Commonplace Books. We also had a lively discussion about the value of independent and small businesses in our culture today. Because this conversation was so good, this is going to be one of my longer posts, and I hope you stick with me through it! (Some things just shouldn’t get the usual online bullet point/quick list treatment. Still, I tried to break it up into digestible sections for those of you who prefer to browse the content first.)
How Commonplace Books Started A group of friends came together and decided it was time to bring a bookstore to the downtown area, something that had long been on both the wish lists of the co-founders and fellow downtown dwellers. Ben says it was created more out of love than out of business, which I think is true of many independent creations, and it is one major reason I’m drawn them. It was great to hear an independent business owner vocalize it: “It wasn’t some big business strategy, and it wasn’t about capturing some huge market potential,” says Ben. “It was just born in relationships, and that’s how it is going to be sustained as well.”
Being a local, independent business is all about building relationships
Over the last few years since the store opened, Ben says it has been all about investing in relationships. They intend to be around for a long time, and in order to do that, they need to invest in building relationships with the neighborhood, the city, and its people. And as that relationship grows, they respond to what they see are needs or opportunities in the community. That’s why they made the decision to add a kitchen to Commonplace Books, even though none of the founders had intended to start a restaurant when they opened the bookstore. “It’s us getting in the flow with our neighborhood and community, and just doing the next intuitive thing,” says Ben. The quote on the front window of their space, “We read to know we are not alone,” is a quote from author C.S. Lewis, which Ben says they’ve adopted as part of their philosophy. They figured if we read to know we are not alone, then we also gather around the table for a meal for the same reason, and the kitchen was another way they could bring people together. “This is really about practicing hospitality and demonstrating a lifestyle of hospitality in as public a fashion as we possibly can,” says Ben.
A world-class experience and hospitality = longevity
Ben reminded me that a local business doesn’t become great simply because it’s local and independent. We all know this from our own shopping experiences: if you’re like me, you want to love and support every independent business, but you definitely have your favorites for a reason. “Local and good are not synonymous. I encourage and challenge other local retailers and restauranteurs to be world class—and then happen to be from here,” he says. “I think for a time and a season being local warranted support. But if you have an inferior experience and an inferior product mix, if you’re not truly inspiring people with the experience you’re providing, that support will only last so long.”
You’ll never leave Commonplace Books empty-handed, no purchase required
“I would say a bookstore is a unique place in that it is one of the very few places that you are welcomed and encouraged to just be without an expectation of purchase,” says Ben. This statement surprised me at first because, after all, a bookstore is a business! But there are countless times I’ve browsed at a bookstore without buying. I still considered it a great experience and it’s not something that prevented me from returning and purchasing at a later date. And as Ben explains, in a world that encourages us to buy, buy, buy, not feeling that pressure is a welcome change of pace. “Our goal is that nobody leaves here empty-handed, but that has very little to do with whether they purchase a book,” says Ben. “We want there to be a mutual experience by which everybody’s giving and everybody’s receiving, and that includes our patron. Their role is to not to just come in and receive, their role is also to come in and give, and to contribute one to another.” I would say this is true based on what I saw from my brief visit to the store. Most of the seating areas were occupied with couples or friends talking with one another, having a shared experience over books, food, and coffee.
Amazon is not the enemy
Yes, you read that right! While many independent businesses have united to take a stand against Amazon, Ben says that shouldn’t be the focus. “Amazon is not your enemy. I think that’s a really uninspiring narrative,” he says. “Let’s be so inspirational that people would gladly pay full price for a hardcover book in one of our stores.” He recounts a personal story in which a friend and neighbor came into Commonplace Books expecting to browse, then buy online. But she told him after her visit that she couldn’t leave the store without buying a book, and that’s because of the quality of the experience she had in the store. The staff was attentive to her and her kids, and thanks to that personal touch, she gladly purchased from them directly.
Books as artifacts
“For us, we think about the book very differently. We don’t think about it as a product, we think of it as an artifact of an experience,” says Ben. “We’re creating an experience for people that lends to a connection with other human beings, and we believe people want artifacts of that experience.” Ben explains that that’s what really keeps people coming back: the way they’re treated and the way they feel in the store, which is all centered around building meaningful connections. “Generosity begets generosity, so if we’re generous with our patrons and our neighbors, they will be far more generous with us and support us, ensuring that this bookstore exists for decades to come.”
Creating the culture
This is the question I ask all indie business owners who will talk to me: What role do you think indie businesses and creators play in your community? “We create the culture and the culture is everything,” says Ben. “Culture is who we are and what we do with the world that we’ve been given . . . it’s what you create, it's what you make, it's what you prioritize, and it's what you insist upon. And we’ve got a beautiful group of people in this town that are insisting upon beautiful, inspiring, ultimately humane things that last.”
What Ben sums up in his answer to this question (and honestly in all the others I asked him), gets to the heart of what independent businesses mean to communities all over this country. In their own way, they voice what is important to us. They have the ability to reflect our values and beliefs because they’re both business owners and members of the community. And that’s why it is so important that we continue to support those indie businesses and creators that share our values and bring us joy—after all, they help us see we are not alone!
An exciting piece of news to note: Commonplace Books recently expanded to bring their culture of hospitality to another community: Fort Worth, TX. Commonplace Books Fort Worth opened in June.
Which local indie spots do you frequent that make you feel less alone, like you’ve found your people? Spread the word and tell us about them! You never know who might need to find that exact place right at this moment in their lives.
Keep it indie, friends!