Arts & Culture » 1st Thursday

A Novel Approach

Downtown bookstore beckons niche consumers


Owning an indie bookstore is every artsy bibliophile's dream enterprise. The idea invokes images of lazy mornings curled on vintage sofas, giant mugs of coffee grasped between two hands and the smell of new books wafting up from uncracked spines.

But operating a bookstore isn't all gliding on floor-to-ceiling ladders and quoting Proust. The business of selling print publications, as anyone who's kept up with the abysmal state of the industry knows, is a difficult business to stay afloat in, especially without corporate backing. And the Internet—once merely a facilitator of anonymous You've Got Mail pings between Kathleen Kelly and Joe Fox—is now even threatening to put the corporate big-box chains out of business. So what's a local independent bookstore to do?

Go niche.

"Adventure and travel is one of the things we want to specialize in; it's something we're interested in," said Michael Rainey, part owner of Boise's newest indie bookstore A Novel Adventure.

Rainey recently purchased the old Boise Book and Gift Co. with his wife, sister-in-law and brother-in-law in September 2008. Though the space had previously been home to the Book Shop for 136 years, the location has recently had trouble adjusting to the changing book market. Rainey and Co. decided they wanted to change that.

"We're all big readers, but none of us has ever worked in or owned a bookstore or anything like that," explained Rainey. "It was one of those serendipitous kind of things where it was there and we were doing research on it, figured we could make a go of it and decided to give it a shot."

Though Rainey and his partners hadn't previously given much thought to the day-to-day operations of a bookstore, they knew from the beginning that the business' success would hinge on its ability to engage specific communities. From courting travelers to poets to local art connoisseurs, the store would have to do more than just sell books.

"One of the things we did when we redesigned the layout of the store when we bought it is have picture-framed areas [installed]," said Rainey. "There's a new local artist that we show every month, and it opens on First Thursday."

Many downtown businesses rely on First Thursday as an opportunity to draw in a more varied group of consumers. As people stumble from store to store, sampling wines and grabbing fistfuls of pretzels, they often wander into places they normally wouldn't go and gaze at art where it's normally not.

"First Thursday is important to me as a new business because it gets a lot of people downtown," said Rainey. "It's like 30 days a month I'm a bookstore, and one day a month I'm an art gallery."

And though A Novel Adventure's First Thursday opening celebration in November—with photos by Hoffman Fine Art Photography and wine from Alia's—was overwhelmingly successful, Rainey is hoping to also draw a more regular crowd. The store has a variety of events dotting its February calendar in addition to a new art exhibit opening this First Thursday. Along with music from folk trio Willison, Roos and Young, the bookstore will feature a collection from art dealer Nancy Halliwell.

"These are all regional artists; they're not all from Idaho, but they're from Montana and Wyoming and all the surrounding areas," explained Halliwell. "It's a varied group; it's fine art, and many of them are in museums across the country. There's going to be everything involved: There are prints, there are watercolors, there are bronzes, there are oils. It's everything."

Halliwell, who moved to Boise from Santa Fe, N.M., in 1993, approached A Novel Adventure to showcase art that a couple of local private collectors wanted to sell from their collection. She thought the artwork—landscapes, depictions of Idaho landmarks, Native American paintings—would be a great fit for the venue, which recently displayed similarly themed work from artist Cherry Barrywood. And she couldn't pass up the deal Rainey was offering.

"Most galleries want 40 to 50 percent of the sale of the artwork when they show something. Also, if they have a lot of artists, maybe they might not even show everything," said Halliwell. "Mike is taking 20 percent and that is great for the owners of this art."

Besides courting local Western-themed art aficionados, A Novel Adventure is also extending a hand to Boise State's Mouth and Thistle reading series. On Feb. 7, at 7 p.m. the store will echo with prose from fiction writer A. Wolfe and poet J.R. Walsh. The following Thursday, Feb. 12, it is hosting Italian Night, with Italian eats and Sardinian travel advice from Jill Simpson at Island Spirit Adventure. Though it might seem strange for a downtown Boise bookstore to host an Italian travel seminar, Rainey insists it's all part of the store's new concept. If you cater to smaller niche communities that can't be served by big box chains or online retailers—like area travelers, outdoor adventurers or local landscape art enthusiasts—a loyal base will follow.

"It's one of the reasons the name is A Novel Adventure," explained Rainey. "It's like the adventure you can get living in the Northwest: mountaineering, skiing, mountain biking, rafting. Or the adventure you can get from getting lost in Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson."

All upcoming events are free and open to the public. A Novel Adventure, 906 W. Main St., Boise. For more information, call 208-344-8088 or visit