By Gabby Bass-Butler
Photos by Elise Ferrer Photography
When you walk into Little Professor, it feels as if you have stepped into a new world. The interior is bright yet serene, and you instantly feel right at home as you get a fresh brew of June Roasters coffee while you peruse or just chat with the employees. Just by spending a few moments in Little Professor, you can tell that this is not just a bookstore. “We want people to feel known and recognized when they come into the store,” co-owner Meredith Robinson says. “We want them to feel a connection and bond with our team.”
Flashback to February 2020, and the store—which has been located right in the middle of 18th Street for the past three years—looked a little different. Meredith and her husband, Jonathan, had just bought the business from Paul Seitz, who started the book store in Homewood in 1973 and was looking to retire. They quickly refreshed the store layout and inventory, playing music and eating take-out at night as their kids ran around the store, “helping” their parents move shelves and envision a new look for the space. In these moments, the Robinsons, avid readers who call Homewood home as well, were thinking if they could just stay open for at least 90 days, all would be well. Nothing could have prepared them, though, for a worldwide pandemic to hit just a few weeks after they opened shop .
But lo and behold, their vision came to life in the year no one saw coming (and not just because they stocked puzzles), with Meredith leading the store’s rebrand and making the interior equally inviting and beautiful and Jonathan overseeing operational logistics. “We recognized an opportunity to take an underutilized space and use a love of reading to bring the community together more,” Jonathan says. “Our primary vision is we wanted to transition from a somewhat stale bookstore to a reimagined, enthusiastic community hub.”
In some ways people were already craving “third places”—spaces to gather that are not home or work—but especially as we began to emerge from our homes when stores reopened last year. Fittingly, the Robinsons did not want their bookstore to be a place where you just buy a book here and there, but rather become a part of your life and routines. “I have memories from my childhood of going to Barnes and Noble with my dad and sitting with coffee for hours to talk and read,” Meredith says. “I think those points of connection can get lost if there aren’t spaces for them to take place… We don’t want to just be a spot you come to buy a beach read but a place you revisit weekly, as well as, where your kids have affection and emotional ties to a community hub.”
To do so, they started inviting the community in very particular ways too. A community member reads to kids for a story time every Wednesday morning, and they host birthday parties and book clubs. They also offer an annual membership program, which saves members 20-40 percent off every purchase and keeps pricing competitive with Amazon. Jonathan and Meredith have also brought in a coffee brand started by their friend Jimmy Truong and, on Saturdays, pastries from Bandit Patisserie (“It doesn’t get better than their almond croissant,” Jonathan and Meredith say.). In many ways, the bookstore now feels like a coffee shop with local coffee and pastries, tables for lingering, and staff who are always ready to talk.
But of course, at the store’s core, it’s still about books. “I think people who read are the most interesting kind of people, because they start with that seed of curiosity and can chase it in a million different directions,” Jonathan says. “Talking about books is similar to the way people talk about what shows they like. People love to talk about the books they’re reading and why they liked them. Community and like-mindedness form in that little interaction.”
Reaching out to younger families has been a big part of the vision at Little Professor too. “People are so excited to come in on Saturdays and make it part of their tradition to shop for their kids and stop by for coffee,” Meredith says. Meredith also believes the conversations and connections around books are crucial for kids as well since they enable kids to think how they would feel if they were the character. “It helps them build empathy and identify their own feelings and their own discovery in the circle of literature,” she says, noting the joy she’s felt watching their daughter finish a book on her own and recount the story.
The couple is quick to recognize their competition in Amazon and that what sets their store apart from it are member discounts, paired with a local, human connection in the book-buying experience. Additionally, Little Professor partners with local organizations like Children’s of Alabama, Better Basics, K-12 teachers, and most recently, building a library of English language learner books at Shades Cahaba Elementary. They also want to make sure customers have the convenience they are used to. You can build wish lists on the Little Professor app or website, and order books for curbside pickup or free local delivery twice a week. “We want a seamless kind of customer experience whether people come in for story time or just need a book delivered to their house the Friday before they leave town for the weekend,” Jonathan says. “You have to catch customers through different channels based on how they want to engage with the store.”
“We’re building relationships,” Meredith adds, “and it all feels like you’re growing some roots that are so much deeper than someone spending money.”
At the same time, research shows that digital readership has plateaued and that print readership is up, as much as 8 percent in 2020. “I think we all get digital fatigue,” Jonathan notes. “Many of us want an analog experience when we are trying to read. We don’t want to get a Twitter notification in the middle of a chapter.”
As they look toward the future, Jonathan is exploring a vision for Little Professor satellite locations across Birmingham while Meredith dreams up ways to continue to make the interiors and programming inviting. But for today, they are proud of the community growing inside their store and hope each person that visits Little Professor doesn’t see it as a place to only buy a book, but a place where you can come and stay a while, hopefully with coffee in hand.
Find Little Professor at 2844 18th Street South, littleprofessorhomewood.com, and @littleprofhomewood on Instagram and Facebook.
Things To Do @ LP (Besides Buy a Book!)
- Get coffee from June Roasters at their coffee cart.
- Join one of their book clubs.
- Attend one of their author and community events.
- Catch up with a friend at their bistro tables.
- Grab pastries on Saturdays from Bandit.
- Host a birthday party for your kid.
- Come to story time with your kids on Wednesdays at 9:30 a.m.