Gem City Style: Werner Books and Coffee
An interview with Lauren Shoemaker and Kyle Churman
Jessica Hunter (JH): Tell us a little bit about Werner Books and Coffee and how you got started in the book business.
Lauren Shoemaker (LS): We've both been readers our whole lives. Knowing books has been the easy part — I taught middle school language arts and now teach at Slippery Rock University. Kyle has been in different sales positions over the years, too.
Kyle Churman (KC): I spent years working in college admissions, which is essentially sales and marketing, before taking a corporate accounts role with WQLN. That position allowed me to get more connected with both the Erie business world and the nonprofit community. Gayle Werner's stewardship of Werner Books and her willingness to train me made for a seamless transition. We were also able to keep the entire staff who have been essential to our success.
LS: We were prepared to build this from the positions we had before, even if we didn't know it at the time. Being in education and nonprofits helped us understand the multiple roles that a small business has in a community outside of supporting itself.
JH: This has been an exciting year for you and your business. You were both recently honored in Erie's 2023 40 Under 40 cohort. Werner Books & Coffee just won Best New Business (Within Last Two Years) as well as Best Local Bookstore in this issue's Best of Erie Awards, and you just moved into a new space and added a coffee shop.
At a time when independent bookstores battle for survival, it takes a lot of passion, courage and possible sacrifice to run a bookstore. What has been the biggest challenge and what has been the biggest surprise about running a bookstore?
KC: Thank you! 2023 was a very special year for us! There were many conversations about whether or not this was even viable, but after our first year, we knew that an expansion was not just possible, but needed in Erie. One of our biggest challenges was making sure that we could not only afford the expansion, but also grow the business in the future. However, our risk has paid off because we feel we've created a great space for people to meet, gather, work, and read. The lack of third spaces (i.e., places encouraging social interaction outside the bubbles of home or work) in Erie was concerning to us and we hope that we are contributing to their resurgence.
LS: This shouldn't have been a surprise, but I was surprised by how much Erie and visitors to Erie appreciate used books. People want to be sustainable and economical about their reading habits. The library is likely an avid readers' first choice — and we're big fans! — but used bookstores are a close second. It's important to be transparent about us too; I've kept my full-time job through the expansion. My nights and weekends here are my side hustle.
JH: With a physical product like the books you sell, how do you keep pace in our digital world?
KC: Everyone has different reading habits and we have found that most people still love having a physical book in their hands. Customers also seek out the expertise and recommendations of our incredible staff because an algorithm can only tell you so much about what you might like.
LS: Lots of people listen to audiobooks, too. Libro.fm is an app that supports local independent bookstores through audiobook purchases. All of your Erie bookstores are on there as options. Sure, digital books and readers are popular, but fewer people want to look at yet another screen in their free time.
JH: When I step through your doors, I can feel the welcoming atmosphere that you have created. I understand why you call yourself "Erie's community bookstore." Can you shed some light on what services and events you offer our community and how you continue to stay connected with the community?
The recent expansion of Werner Books within the Liberty Plaza has allowed the store to include an improved children's literature section with cozy seating, a fun tent, and chalkboard wall which is co-owner Lauren Shoemaker's favorite new space. Photo: Jessica Hunter
LS: My first instinct was to use our space to support literacy education and opportunities in Erie. Preschool story time, book giveaways, and eventually writing programming have been priorities for us. We were very lucky to connect with United Way Community School Director Sara Musone at Grover Cleveland Elementary in our neighborhood, and we're always eager to collaborate. This fall we expanded to bring 15 students from the three Erie public middle schools to participate in WITS (Writers in the Schools) with creative writing students and residents from Slippery Rock.
We hosted writers participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in November, and Jayna Deniziak, teaching artist, offers writing instruction through Words with Friends twice a month. Word artist Mabel Howard hosts The Poetry X-change on the second Sunday of every month. We host many book clubs which are open to the public; Kyle and I run two of them, but there are so many we couldn't do it without help from staff and community members. Most of these are at the store, but some are on location with our partners, like the Hagen History Center and Erie Ale Works for Books and Beers.
KC: As much as we love our space, we always enjoy getting outside of our four walls and into the community. School book fairs are a major part of our community business model and we work with schools all over Erie and Crawford counties to provide affordable books to their students. We also have been attending the LEAF Open Markets for the past two summers and were even able to set up a craft and storytime tent for families attending the markets. Through these pop-up markets, we have met a lot of vendors and makers whose wares we have been able to have for sale in the store. We even went as far as purchasing a small bus so we can attend more markets and carry more books throughout the community.
JH: If you could invite any author for a book signing at Werner Books & Coffee, who would you choose?
KC: We love hosting our local authors at the store for events and I recently had a conversation with my sales rep at Simon and Schuster who mentioned I should try to get Brenna Thummler to do a signing at our store. I had to tell him we already have! And not only did she design our new logo, but we see her weekly before she records her podcast Spotlight 814. If I could have anyone else in our store, I'd have to say Emily Henry or Ann Patchett because I adore them and their books.
LS: This is tough! I agree with Brenna and would add Emily St. John Mandel and Marlon James.
JH: What's your favorite section of the store? If you had to pick only ONE book to be your greatest treasure what would it be?
LS: I love the chalk wall in the kids section, especially when someone gets a poll going. The book that's my greatest treasure would be the mash-up of Jane Eyre and Rebecca that I recounted around a campfire for some friends a few years ago. I love those two books but obviously can't keep them perfectly straight!
KC: I want to say my favorite spot is the couch, but I love greeting customers when they walk through the front door so I'd have to say the front desk. My favorite book is The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy which is the only book I re-read year after year.
Werner Books is located in the Liberty Plaza at 3608 Liberty St. or at wernerbooks.com
Jessica Hunter can be found at jessicahunterphotos.com