"Birmingham is full of writers, readers, literary people, people with amazing taste, and people who want to have hard conversations. A bookstore can hold all of that in a really special way."
Interview by Tonia Trotter Photo by Ambre Amari
Kristen Iskandrian, Laura Cotten, and Elizabeth Goodrich are the trio behind Birmingham’s newest independent bookstore, Thank You Books, opening in Crestwood Village on Saturday, December 14. Each partner brings a unique set of skills and experiences to the endeavor, and their shared passion for building community and making connections through the power of the written word is sure to be a boon for local writers and readers alike.
How was the concept for Thank You Books born?
Laura: Kristen and I first met in Athens years ago through the bookstore community there and then got to know each other through Desert Island Supply Company, where we both volunteered. Last year, Elizabeth had the idea to do something similar to DISCO but with a bookstore and we were all connected by our mutual friend Chip Brantley.
Kristen: Our visions and desires lined up so organically, and we all felt motivated to create something that didn’t exist here.
What is the vision for Thank You Books beyond a retail space for books and unique gifts?
Elizabeth: We wanted a place where everyone felt welcome and comfortable walking through our doors — whether you’re a more sophisticated reader or just curious about what might be out there, even if you don’t think of yourself as super smart or bookish. There is also such an opportunity for niche fiction and poetry that has been unrepresented, and everyone can discover something new.
Bookstores are as much about hospitality and fostering creativity as they are about selling books, and it makes me consider how we approach our inventory carefully so that we really can put treasures into people’s hands.
The sign at the front of the shop asks people to name the books that have shaped them. What books have shaped your lives?
Elizabeth: The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry. He’s such a keen observer, and I love the way his writing expresses things I’ve seen but not understood.
Laura: I actually didn’t love reading as a child initially, but I used to sneak Roald Dahl into my room and read. I remember Matilda, The BFG, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factoryfor letting me peek into these secret lives of kind of bad kids.
Kristen: Beloved by Toni Morrison or the work of Lydia Davis. She is such an outside-the-box writer and isn’t afraid to break the rules.
You all share a love of literature but come from different backgrounds. What personal experiences led each of you to begin this new venture?
Laura: I was an English teacher living in Michigan and feeling like something was missing. I thought back to when I felt happiest, and I remembered how I felt when I was working at Continental Bakery. I missed that interaction with others.
My grandparents had a store when I was young, and I felt like opening a bookstore made sense for my experience, interests, and desire to create and also be a part of this diverse, welcoming space where people can go. In this time of social media and the internet, what seems to be missing are these hubs where we can gather and feel a sense of community.
Kristen: Growing up, I really thought I’d be a librarian. I knew I wanted to be around books. I was an English major and then got my PhD in English and kind of assumed that I’d teach, but that just wasn’t where my life went. I ended up writing a book that came out a couple of years ago, and I spent a lot of time touring and in independent bookstores.
It took publishing a book to truly understand how important booksellers are to literature, to writers, and to readers. They have the power to put books in front of an audience. To see the work that goes into an event for an author made me feel like I wanted to be a part of building that experience for others.
I’m not originally from Birmingham, but part of my commitment to this city is finding those places that feel like home and being able to do some small amount of good. Birmingham is full of writers, readers, literary people, people with amazing taste, and people who want to have hard conversations. A bookstore can hold all of that in a really special way.
Elizabeth: It is exciting to think about launching local writers and about the amount of talented people we already have in our mix. I hope we can help amplify those voices. I’m the daughter of a newspaper editor and a librarian, so I never had a choice about being a reader or a “words person.” I grew up in Memphis, and our life was full of creative, eccentric, and fascinating people who loved literature.
I married a man from Birmingham and moved here years ago knowing that I was also marrying this city in a way. At first, Birmingham seemed so buttoned down to me, but what I came to learn and appreciate about this community is how many cool things are happening below the surface. There’s this incredible arts and culture subculture that makes Birmingham what it is.
My career thus far has been in the church. I’m a Presbyterian minister by training, and I thought a lot about how that translated into this new chapter. I think it’s really about making a space and creating opportunities to serve the community.