Theresa Woodward knew where her future was going to take her after walking through the door at CatTales Books & Gifts.
In November of 2016, Woodward’s husband Randy learned longtime owner and novelist Wendy Rosnau was selling the downtown Brainerd business. He set up an appointment for his wife to see the store that afternoon.
“It turns out he knows me so well,” Woodward said. “I had never entertained the idea of owning a bookstore before and I really like it. It was definitely a good fit for me.”
She walked in that late fall afternoon and knew it was the right fit. A mother of five with her youngest a 2-year-old daughter at the time, Woodward said she needed the outlet CatTales offered. She was actually a customer at the Laurel Street store 18 years earlier. For the transition, Woodward worked with Rosnau for three months, setting up a spot in the store for her young daughter to be able to nap behind the counter. She slowly made the store her own, moving the checkout counter close to the large front windows and expanding when the bike store next door closed in 2018. That expansion created more room for the gift shop items and opened the store further to a lighter, airy and roomier version of itself.
Coming out of high school, Woodward worked in retail and had a shop with her parents. Her career path took her to law enforcement and private security for theft and fraud investigations. The move to the bookstore was a change she needed, Woodward said.
“But this was a total career change for me to do something different and something new,” Woodward said. “Now I understand the book market is completely different than the rest of retail.”
Book genres, title trends and demand for certain types of books, whether paperback or hardcover, cycle every four to five years, Woodward said.
“Historical fiction is really popular right now,” she said. “Four years ago, nobody wanted it. There are a lot of interesting things like that.”
But for Woodward, keeping up with industry trends, researching markets and having detailed information on her own shop’s performance is all part of what keeps it interesting. Along the way, she’s learned a lot about the publishing industry for size of book type and recent changes that opened doors for her to compete with big box stores — from Menards to Target, and Walmart — because she could place small orders for new books.
“I’ll be carrying a lot of the popular fiction,” Woodward said.
Woodward also has a clever take on sales. She has covered DVDs and sells them for $1 with the catch that the movie is a surprise. She calls them “Bad movie night” for a mix of fun with popcorn, a sense of humor and a night of unpredictable fun. They’ve been popular with customers to give as gifts, She has albums covered as well for a “Bad music night.” There are grab bags of books by genre to get a surprise package and she covers books for a “Blind date” with a book and writes just the first few sentences of the first chapter. That way customers can’t judge the book by the cover and can be captivated by the words to know if that’s the right read for them.
Books and more
CatTales is a mix of bookstore and gift shop with stacks upon stacks of organized used books and new releases. Woodward estimates she has 200,000 books between those on the store’s shelves and in her inventory. The store is more than books and includes jewelry, clothing, greeting cards, religious cards, games, children’s toys, jigsaw puzzles, candles, and more. It’s trendy as well, with a section of items based on Disney’s “The Mandalorian.”
Thursday, Dec. 10, customers were in the store purchasing a Christmas gift for a grandson, looking for a specific Michael Connelly book, browsing the shelves and surprised to find the newly released book titles, or picking up a few items. Some had been to the store years ago, were regulars, or were in the store for the first time.
Attracted by the new stores in downtown Brainerd, Ruth Nelson and a friend were browsing the store and said more time was needed to be able to look through everything at CatTales. “It’s fun,” Nelson said of her impression of the store. “I’m glad she has new books as well.”
Working through the pandemic
When the store was shut down at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Woodward still came into work every day even though the store was closed. She cleaned and sorted books and worked on her website. When she was able to offer curbside service, she had tables of books outside and could package books for customers for pickup.
She had books available for free with a donation option and gathered enough money from those efforts to pay her electricity bill for a month. She estimates she gave away 2,000 books.
Book sales have gone up tremendously during the pandemic, Woodward noted. But a lot of those sales are online. She added popular jigsaw puzzles and has an extensive collection of puzzles.
Woodward said research and surveys found gift shops were experiencing a 32% drop in revenues. Woodward said that 32% drop didn’t happen in downtown Brainerd because of the support and grants. The downtown businesses ordered from each other where they could and referred customers to each other. The community stepped up to support them as well, as evidenced by the new shoppers.
“I think our downtown has seen something others haven’t,” Woodward said. “Ours pulled together and it was a team effort. … None of us was ever left to stand on our own.”
The pandemic and the efforts to keep the virus from spreading has had a huge impact on businesses, and it comes with not just a financial loss but an emotional one, Woodward said, adding that’s when people close their shops. “We have a sense of community.”
She said that community was there before the pandemic started. They went to business classes together. They worked together for marketing efforts. And perhaps that collective community gave them something to draw on and keep them going through this difficult time.
Woodward credits a strong mix of retail shops, services and food destinations as helping the small businesses in Brainerd. So even with foot traffic down, with the business, community and customer support, Woodward said she is able to pay her bills.
“It’s a COVID win,” she said.
But now small businesses are looking at what could be a difficult winter before a COVID-19 vaccine is widely available.
“Our area has been really good about supporting our small businesses,” Woodward said.
Creating a plan to get books to kids this winter
She is still down in revenue compared to last year and Christmas sales are down as well. So to carry her through January and February, until things pick up next spring, Woodward submitted a grant application with Brainerd Community Action and will be applying with other community organizations to do a happy mail book program — to send out books to children who still need that reading engagement even though libraries and schools are closed.
“I’m hoping we’ll get funded to cover the cost of books and delivery to be able to ship them out and we can mail books to kids in Crow Wing County who are without right now,” Woodward said. She is hoping to make a big difference in a short-term program and encourage young readers. She already sees generations of customers who came into CatTales to get their books as children and are now bringing in their own children to pick out books.
Woodward said one of the learning programs picked up books to be delivered with Christmas items. She hopes there will be other partnerships out there as well.
During the shutdown, she had customers — many older readers — who called in tears when they were out of reading material. They were already isolated and then were out of the escape the books provided when the world was a chaotic and lonely place. Woodward said she was able to bundle books for them and either do the curbside or Grab-A-Cab even provided an option to bring those books to readers’ homes.
She created grab bags of surprise packages. Woodward said the popular books right now provide that quick read and a guaranteed happy ending like the romance suspense books — perhaps best described as Hallmark movies in book form. Woodward likens them to the potato chip of the book world.
With all the challenges, Woodward is also looking at opportunities — new ways to reach customers online, more market outreach and those creative ways to make purchases fun.
“I love this place, are you kidding me? It better stay open,” said regular customer Charmaine Donovan or rural Brainerd. Donovan said she was introduced to her book club at the store. “I’ve always loved this place. … It’s just nice in here. I mean it’s cozy. It smells good. There’s lots of things to look at — not just books. … This is one of my favorite places.”
The store is especially important during the pandemic, Donovan said. And it also recycles books. Donovan said for her, it’s relaxing just coming into the store and looking around. “It’s nice to go someplace where people are always upbeat, too.”
In a pandemic, Woodward noted people shouldn’t be afraid to stock up on books. She enjoys romance suspense novels herself. And she carries journals and said if ever there was a time to start journaling, this is it. She noted the journals found of people living 100 years ago have just regular details of normal living, what they ate, what their surroundings were like, what items cost and what they did. It all provides a look at daily life in a real sense and 2020 provides a backdrop where people will want to know what it was like living through this historic period.
So now with colder temperatures and long winter nights for the next two months, it’s a good time to curl up with a book. And for Woodward, all her past experiences and work, led her to this time and this challenge.
“Managing a small business is a lot like a puzzle,” Woodward said. “You put the different pieces together and if you can organize it properly then you have something that is fun and successful.”