During the pandemic, Source Booksellers owner Janet Webster Jones has a new approach to her timeless mission of connecting Michiganders with good reads.
DETROIT, MI — What does it take to keep the spirit of small business alive and still foster a sense of community during a pandemic? Just ask Source Booksellers owner Janet Webster Jones.
“We never closed,” Jones told The ’Gander. “We shuttered the door and pivoted quite quickly to online sales, which we had never done before.”
Jones, 83, has owned Source Booksellers, a cozy bookstore on Cass Avenue, since 1989. Completely closing during a life-changing event was never an option for the entrepreneur, so she found new ways to connect with customers during the new age of social distancing.
She says she kept the governor’s guidelines always at the forefront and took on new challenges to keep her audience of readers engaged.
“We chose not to do online sales [before the pandemic],” Jones said. “I’d never thought of this business as transactional.”
Historically, each customer who walks into the store is given the service of extensive book knowledge from Jones and her staff, whether they walk away with a purchase or not. And the pandemic hasn’t impacted customer service, as no conversation is too long or request too odd for the store that moved into ecommerce as everything around it changed.
Pandemic Forces a Pivot
Gov. Whitmer now allows businesses like Source Booksellers to welcome customers in person, but, in an abundance of caution, Jones is choosing to keep the store closed to public browsing.
“My daughter took on the creation of the website, and we never stopped doing business because I firmly knew that once you stop, starting is difficult,” Jones said. “It’s not going to be what it was. It’s not yet what it’s going to be. You have to just trudge along.”
There was one customer who got the rare chance to browse Source’s shelves recently: Gov. Gretchen Whitmer stopped in on a tour of the area’s businesses to assess how they are faring through the pandemic.
“She has shown to be a very steady person, a very open person,” Jones said of Gov. Whitmer, “a person who doesn’t respond irrationally, and I told her I think she’s been handling this very well.”
Jones’ store is staying afloat without any assistance from the federal government. Filling out the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) application was difficult and off-putting for the entrepreneur, who said she has always been wary of loans. Jones said the program didn’t seem to fit what she needed.
In fact, Forbes cited an April 6th report from the Center For Responsible Lending (CRL) that found that roughly 95% of Black-owned businesses, 91% of Latino-owned businesses, 91% of Native Hawaiian or Pacific Island-owned businesses, and 75% of Asian-owned business “stand close to no chance of receiving a PPP loan through a mainstream bank or credit union.”
Instead, local funding through TechTown’s Stabilization Fund and the Detroit Economic Growth Fund ensured Source employees remained on payroll and the store’s debts were paid. When asked what types of opportunities the nation’s next president could offer small businesses like hers throughout economic and public health crises, Jones said leaders could extend many of the same courtesies that large corporations have been given to businesses like Source.
“There’s a lot to be said for governance and leadership. It’s not the loud ‘Rah rah, I can do it all’ type person, but it’s one who can consider possibilities, to be thoughtful about gathering people who can help to assist her in the information she’s getting,” she said. “All of that is part of what I see in the governor.”
Jones said she tries to look at most things objectively, a trait she likely earned while curating and distributing so much information throughout her career.
“I’m a purveyor of books, so I try not to make things personal,” she said.
Behind the Source
Before Jones opened her first storefront, she was an educator with Detroit Public Schools for over 40 years and sold books at local bazaars and fairs.
“I did not open a store, that was never a dream,” she said. “I was given opportunity, and I used my courage.”
A trip to Egypt in the 1980s provided the name for what would eventually become Source Booksellers.
“I did an ancient Egypt study and when I returned, everyone wanted to know what I’d learned because I’d just come from the source [of knowledge],” she said, referencing the Greeks’ use of Egyptian and Ethiopian teachings in their own widespread texts.
Her next opportunity would see her selling books out of the Spiral Collective, a space dedicated to women-owned businesses on Cass Avenue, for 10 years. During that time, the plaza that houses her current location was built, and Jones was approached to move into one of the available spaces. She’s been at 4240 Cass Avenue ever since.
Keeping the store open during the pandemic has paid off. The phone rings constantly.
“I answer the phones,” Jones said, preferring to keep her hands-on approach. “And I don’t click over if I hear [call waiting] because I want to give each caller the same attention they’d get if they were here in the store.”
Jones says a second line may be added in the future, but for now she’s content providing her perfected brand of customer service to each person she interacts with, saying the Source Booksellers community is made up of everyone she encounters, “whether they know it or not.”