By GEORGE MORRIS, The Advocate
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Starting a tiny, independent bookstore is an unconventional 21st-century business model. And, with backgrounds in restaurants and teaching, James and Tere Hyfield are an unlikely pair of book-mongers.
Welcome to Red Stick Reads.
Operating with less than 400-square-feet of office space, it’s a place for children’s books, puzzles, role-playing games and an eclectic, diverse selection of fiction and nonfiction. Although smaller, it has the atmosphere the owners remember from their favorite bookstores of the past.
For James Hyfield, who grew up in Baton Rouge, it was Elliott’s Book Shop, which closed in 1997. For Tere Hyfield, who grew up in Miami, it was Books and Books.
“I realized not only was I getting the books I wanted, but I was connecting with the people who worked there in ways that I hadn’t at Barnes and Noble,” she said. “I liked that I could go up to the guy who remembered me from last time and say, ‘If I like that, what else could I read?’ And he had an answer for me. I loved that. That was part of what I wanted to bring here. There was a connection between us and the customer.”
They met working at The Chimes restaurant when both attended LSU. Tere Hyfield went on to be a Spanish teacher at St. Aloysius School. James Hyfield worked at The Chimes for 10 years before running the prepared food operation at Whole Foods in Baton Rouge for another decade. He left that to be part of a startup that went out of business in a year. I have decided it was time for a career change.
James Hyfield took a job with Barnes and Noble to learn about book stores. By the time he got laid off after the pandemic hit in 2020, he and his wife had already been selling books in tents at the Mid City Makers Market and other opportunities.
When a small storefront became available, they leased it and opened the doors that December. Tere Hyfield still teaches, and James Hyfield is full time at the store.
“My goal was to urge him to do something that makes him happy,” Tere Hyfield said. “We were willing to walk away from a certain amount of money in order to do that. The stress of that is huge; I won’t lie. But I felt I needed us to walk away from this situation saying we tried whether it worked or not.
“We talked about this a lot: You’re between jobs. You either jump now or find the next safe thing. I’m all right with either, but if you’re ready to jump, I will do what I have to do on my end to make that happen because I want to see him happy.”
While the tiny store is not yet profitable, James Hyfield said it has started better than he expected. Red Stick Reads can’t compete with Amazon in price, but it finds customers who appreciate the personal service they get. The store has a garden outside, and he hopes one day to have a cafe, though that may require relocating.
Tere Hyfield makes most of the book selections, and with the store’s small size, getting that right is more important.
“We’re good listeners to our customers,” she said. “We tell them all the time, ‘I know I’m missing a lot. If there’s an author that you love, a genre, tell us.’”
Karla Venkataraman complimented the store on a recent visit as she browsed books on enneagrams.
“I can tell you from someone who reads a lot, you’ve got a lot of stuff I’m interested in,” she said.
Venkataraman lives near the store, and creating a neighborhood feel is important to the Hyfields. James Hyfield grew up in Mid City, and even if the store moves, the Hyfields want it to be close by.
“I have always felt a certain affinity for this side of town,” he said. “I feel like the Garden District, Bernard Terrace, Capitol Heights, all these little areas around here are looking to have a shoppable neighborhood experience where they can walk to all the places they want and they would be willing to do that.
“I’ve got several of my contemporaries… who own businesses locally, and they’ve all been successful by finding a niche and just continuing to appeal to those people they know are going to listen. I’m hoping to get in on that, too.”
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