Genuine Enthusiasm for Creativity
Documented by Christopher Carson
In this 2-part interview series, Janet Geddis, owner of Avid Bookshop, sits down with her friend Sanni Baumgartner, owner of Community, to discuss how Athens-town’s genuine enthusiasm for creativity attracted them and continues to motivate their locally-minded business models.
Sanni Baumgartner: Hey, Janet.
Janet Geddis: Hello, Sanni. Nice to meet you.
Sanni: Tell me where you're from.
Janet: I'm from Chamblee, Georgia which is just inside the perimeter in Atlanta.
Sanni: Huh, I didn't actually know that.
Janet: Yeah, surprise.
Sanni: Now you have to ask me.
Janet: Well, where are you from?
Sanni: I'm from South Germany, from Bavaria. I grew up outside of Nuremberg in a small town called Neustadt an der Aisch then I went to school in the next bigger city which is called Erlangen and that has an exchange program with UGA.
Janet: That's cool. When did you come to Athens and why?
Sanni: Well, I came into Athens as an exchange student in the late '90s. I was in school here for a year with an exchange program that UGA had with my university in Germany. Yeah, that was my first introduction to Athens.
Janet: Did you stay at that point?
Sanni: No, I was only here for a year then I went back to Germany. I finished school there. I got my degree and moved back after. Where did you grow up?
Janet: So I'm from Chamblee and then when I was middle school, we moved to Alpharetta, Georgia which is like where half of UGA went, is from, rather. Then I moved far away and went to NYU for undergrad and thought I would never ever move back to Georgia but look what happened.
Sanni: Yeah, I kind of felt the same way. I thought I was coming here for one year and then that was, I don't know, almost 20 years ago.
Sanni: But I tried to leave Athens twice and moved back so I ... Yeah, I was here for a year in school and then I moved back to Germany. I finished school there, came back here and then I moved to Berlin in 2005 and then came back again 2008. Athens has a special pull, I think. It's always drawn me back.
Janet: I agree with that. I used to visit my sister when she was in college here and then when I was in high school, like half of my high school went here so I really, really didn't want to go to UGA for college. But I would come up and visit all the time and hang out. I was like, "Oh, Athens is so cool," and then when I decided to go to graduate school, I had the impression that you had to be a student to live in Athens and I always thought it would be fun to live here but I was like, "Well, if I live here, I have to be a student," so I'll go grad school there and then after two years I'll leave because that's all that's there, is the university and then lo and behold, that's like 13 years later and I'm still here and there's so much more happening and I got sucked in.
Sanni: That was 13 years ago?
A Place Where Creative Pursuits are Respected and Admired
Sanni: Why did you stay in Athens?
Janet: It's sort of complicated. So I have a masters in gifted and creative education and creativity theory. So I'm trained to be a teacher but I never have wanted to be a teacher. That's another long and involved story. But I loved getting my degree and I love living here and I had planned on moving somewhere else, like maybe out of the country, maybe back to Pittsburgh where I stayed for a little bit after college but I just love the community feel here and how everyone is doing some sort of creative venture. I like to being able to go places and recognize people and say hello and I also kind of love how any sort of creative pursuit is respected and admired here and every other person is a musician or an artist or both or a writer or a poet and I had not found that energy anywhere else so I thought I'll stay a little while longer.
Then I met the man that I am now married to and that's another reason I wanted to stay and then the longer I stayed, I realized that Athens really needed a bookstore and that I'd be a good person to do it so now I'm here for at least a little while. So what you said earlier that Athens sort of suck you back, what was it? Can you put your finger on it?
Sanni: Originally, what brought me back was the music scene. So when I first lived here, I started, I was already playing music in Germany a little bit and then I started connecting with musicians here and with the music scene and got really involved and so that's why I came back originally and then now I don't actually play music anymore but it's really became ... It felt like I became part of that music community that is so special here in Athens. That was kind of my community for a long time, probably about 10 years. Yeah, that's really why I originally stayed in Athens.
The Reward of Local
Janet: Glad that you did. What would you say what has ... As you were developing and kind of growing into who you are now, what was the biggest influence in your creativity, in your career?
Sanni: I think that looking back now, I don't think I was so aware of it then but when I look at what I'm doing now, I think my biggest influence was probably growing up in Germany in the '80s where there were lot of kind of natural, manmade natural disasters happening. I think there was a lot of interest and awareness about sustainability and protecting the environment at the time. So there was Chernobyl and acid rain and Europe didn't know anywhere to put the trash. I mean, America still doesn't have that problem really but you know what I mean.
Like a lot of that came together at the same time and so I think we, like the Germans, developed a big awareness about how important it is to protect the environment and I think that has really influenced me more than I knew. I think now, I can't imagine having a business or having a career where the environment doesn't in some way play a factor cause it's just really ingrained in me and important to do something that's eco-friendly.
Janet: So for people that are not familiar with community or business, how do environmental factors play into what you do here?
Sanni: In a lot of different ways. I mean, I think the main way is that we work mostly with the vintage and repurposed material. So all the clothing that we sell is either vintage or recreated vintage or if we do make it from scratch, it's all eco-friendly like organic cotton materials. Then we sell a lot of local things so that plays into that too, when we have ... When you buy and sell local, you don't have those long ways of transporting and then a lot of people are ... that make things are also creating environmentally friendly. So I think a lot of that, but then beyond that, all our paper bags are made from recycled paper and all pretty much the displays were all bought used.
So when we renovated the space which was previously Jackson Street Books, we reused a lot of the book shelves and turned them into the dressing rooms and even like jewelry display. So I think a lot of decisions that I'm making in regards to the business influence in that way in terms of sustainability.
Janet: That's amazing. I think you're influencing a lot of people too because you do a really good job of providing education for people that are interested in hearing. So even at my store, I hear people talking about Community and I can hear them exchanging little factoids they learned here or that they learned from one of your labels, so it's working. It's just slowly spreading.
Sanni: How about you? What do you think has been like a big influence in your work?
Janet: I think for me, I mean, so I own a bookstore, I own two bookstores now called Avid Bookshop, same name. They're both in Athens. I think that growing up, my family always encouraged my obsession with books since I was a kid. Even when times were sort of financially tight, my parents would always allow me to buy a book. We went to the library and storytime all the time. I would always enter reading competitions. I had been a writer since I was a really little kid. So the written word has always been very important to me. I grew up, again, in the Atlanta area and at the time, there wasn't a local bookstore right near where I lived. We would sometimes drive to Buckhead to this amazing store called Oxford and that was always my reward after the dentist was that we could go to Oxford Books.
So I loved it but I didn't really have a good concept of what an independent bookstore was and then by the time I was more mobile and able to drive my own car around when I was a teenager in high school, that was the big age of the big box stores, so Barnes & Noble and Borders and Books-A-Million and that was sort of my experience of bookstores and I still loved them and I went shopping and would, I'd stayed the book hoarder that I always have been. But it wasn't until I lived in Athens for a while and had kind of thought ... I wasn't sure what to do with my degree so I had an English degree, undergrad, and then I had this masters in gifted education and didn't want to teach but there are all these things that I really loved doing.
Like I loved event planning but I didn't want to be an event planner. I loved reading but I didn't want to be like a book reviewer. I liked writing but I don't want to do it full-time. Basically, it was just I had too many creative pursuits and one day just a light bulb went off and I realized that owning my own bookstore would be a perfect way to encapsulate all those interests and things that I was good at and at the same time, I had lived in Athens for a few years at that point when I decided I wanted to open a store and I had noticed how much more rewarding it is to visit locally owned businesses and go to a restaurant where the owner is right there and stops by your booth and says hello.
It's so completely different from the suburbia that I grew up in as a teenager and it's just so much more rewarding to me and meaningful and then I started doing more research into local economies and how much more, how much stronger our economy can be and our social networks are when we actually try to source and buy things locally. Anyway, so it was sort of a perfect storm of things but it all started with a book obsession that has never waned over the last 30 odd years. So what about now for you? We've talked about what influenced you, your story, since you opened Community, have there been any factors that continue to impress upon you and influence your business? Anything Athens specific that's happening that affects you?
Sanni: I think that now I have probably more role models than I had when I first ... When I first started Community, it was really more like a vintage store and we sold some handmade, some redesigned things. But now, I think as the concept of sustainable fashion has generally grown, there's kind of a movement of slow fashion, I have some more actual, concrete role models of businesses that are doing something that I think is really cool. There's Alabama Chanin, Natalie Chanin who's doing a lot of great stuff in Florence, Alabama including growing her own cotton and processing it all the way into a garment so that like that hyper local farm to closet approach is really inspiring to me.
Then there's a company in Germany called Manomama whose ... It's a little more of a factory setting but what they do, they produce clothing but they also have that social aspect that they want to give people jobs that have a hard time finding work and I think that is something that is much needed in Athens, in my observation is jobs for people that don't have a college education, like ... There's always going to be a lot of students around that can work all kinds of jobs, but there are lot of people that live here that have a hard time finding work because there's no ... There's very little manufacturing anymore in the US in general. Athens used to have a pretty big garment industry. I mean, there were a lot of businesses.
Sanni: Yeah, there were like mills, there were sewing factories. So it was quite a bit of garment industry like probably pretty much everywhere in the US which all moved overseas in the '90s and so that hasn't ... A lot of these jobs haven't really been replaced by other jobs. So you have people that are maybe unskilled or not highly trained or not highly educated working at Walmart, McDonald's but like beyond that, what is there? What options are there? That company in Germany employs these people. A lot of them are maybe older, like have maybe five till retirement, have a hard time finding work then or people that are immigrants. I like that they have not just a sustainability aspect to their clothing but they also have that social aspect to it. So really creating jobs for people that need it.
So yeah, those are probably my two most concrete influences right now. What about you? Like what do you think inspires you right now in your work or what influences you?
Janet: Well, sort of speaking hyper locally, my staff at Avid Bookshop is wonderful. They're all very well read and very passionate and it's hard as I'm guessing you can identify, it's hard to be an entrepreneur with a vision and kind of imagine how you want your story to be told and how you want your business to develop then of course as it grows, you have to hire more and more people to support that vision and it was difficult to let go of the reigns a little bit because there is a certain point where ... I mean, there aren't enough hours in the week for me to do all the things that Avid Bookshop does, but it's been fascinating to me to see how when I've given up a particular program and pass it on to someone else, it's become more successful and inventive than I ever would have dreamt and I'm a fairly creative person.
So it's been really neat to kind of watch them blossom over the years. I'd luckily have a very low turnover rate for as far as Athens is concerned so I have people that have been with me for a really long time which is great.
Sanni: Some more local folks rather than all students working?
Janet: Yeah. Some of them were students who planned to leave Athens after graduation and then they love their job and the community so much that they stay, which is awesome.
Sanni: Oh wow. That's amazing.
Janet: Yeah, I love it. They're also just these fiercely intelligent people. Most of whom, not all, but most of whom are very into social activism. They stand up for human rights. So just they inspire me. So sometimes, when I'm kind of thinking about dropping the ball on a certain project, they picked it up again. Then in terms of other bookstores that I love, I'm very fortunate to be a part of the American Booksellers Association so it's trade association of hundreds and hundreds of independently owned bookstores and there are a handful of stores in particular whose owners or managers are booksellers I'd become close with and we kind of consider ourselves sister stores and it's a cool industry and that each of us can be fiercely independent but we go to conferences two or three times a year and say like, "Here's this amazing event idea we pulled off at my store. It was amazing. Go home. Do it at your stores."
So it's a way of supporting each other well, still being able to come home to our personal communities and kind of do things our own way so it's a really cool mash up of that-
Sanni: Oh, that's great.
Janet: Of huge community meets just very individual creativity. In particular, right now, Word Bookstores, they have locations in Jersey City and Brooklyn and then a tiny little store called Hello Hello Books in Rockland, Maine. Those are the two companies and the female owners of those companies who have influenced me the most especially in the last several months. I can call them at any time for business advise and if I'm having a cash flow crisis or if I'm not sure how many books to order for an event, like they're always there.
Sanni: Oh, that's great.
Janet: It's really neat to have people that I admire and then you and I talked a lot about owning businesses and even though our stores are different, I think we encounter a lot of the same issues and have a lot of great conversation where I think we leave our conversations having a bunch of new ideas.
Janet: Which we can always take advantage of because, again, limited time.
Vote with Your Dollars
Sanni: But it's a great support system. So when you think of Athens like from your perspective, what do you think are Athens' greatest assets?
Janet: I really love that although it is a city technically, I love that we all call it a town because that's what it feels like. I had a friend in town from California last night, a visiting author and she was jokingly calling me the mayor because everywhere we walked, I would see people that I knew. While I do know a lot of people because of my business, most people who make an effort to kind of hang out at locally owned businesses and kind of in the downtown and in-town neighborhoods, they all could be called the mayor because like all of us kind of just run into the same people and chitchat. So I love that. I think if I were not a social person or if I didn't like people so much that it would probably be kind of nightmarish but I do love people and I love talking to people and I love running into people so I love that community aspect.
I mentioned earlier, I just really love how creative everyone is and I have ... Especially in my 20's, I remember the feeling like when I lived in New York and even a little bit when I lived in Pittsburgh, people sort of acted like if you were in a band and you haven't made it by 25, it's time to cash in and go ahead and get a corporate job. People, not my friends in New York but a lot of like scenesters that I would talk to would kind of look down on musicians or artists who weren't making money from what they were doing, weren't booking really big shows and here it's not like that all. It's like people here that like, "Oh my God, you're in four bands. That's so rad. Oh, I'm going to come to your art opening. Oh, so and so is opening a business." I just love the genuine enthusiasm people for each other's creative pursuit.
People, for the most part, seem to be turning out and the term I use all the time is “voting with their dollars” so I really appreciate that someone could go and get fast fashion that's made overseas out of cheap material, but instead they choose to come here and get something that's been lovingly made that's going to last a long time or they come to Avid Bookshop and they could get a book for several dollars less on Amazon, but they know that Amazon doesn't host authors and Amazon doesn't send you a sympathy card when your parent die. There are all these things about the community that is just so much stronger the more involved you are with it. So yeah, I just love it here.
Sanni: Yeah, I think I had a similar experience too when I was after leaving Athens for like five years and I moved back to Germany. I was still pursuing music at the time and, yeah, I think every, almost everybody asks me, "Oh, you make a living at that? You make money playing music?" I'm like, "No, who makes money playing music? I don't know really a lot of people that make money playing music but that's not the point." I thought that it was kind of a German American difference but from the way you're talking, it's actually really just Athens being that rather special place that really supports creativity and the arts. Yeah, and local, local businesses. Yeah, I think that's definitely an asset to have that community, that supportive community here.
Janet: I agree. I do think, I know people sometimes get tired of hearing it but I find myself having to just continually remind people, especially as stores like yours that are doing well, you're mentioned in the New York Times and I don't want people to get complacent and like assume that you no longer need the community's support because you've made it big because it's the same thing with bands that are touring worldwide.
Sanni: We were just talking about that, yeah.
Janet: Yeah, like they, "Whoa, they sold out this big club in New York." They're still like barely getting by and like all crammed into a tiny van and sleeping on their friend's floors in their living room. We still need to support each other so I just-
Sanni: Yeah, we were just talking about that the other day how when you have a business or a successful business that people immediately assume that you're just bringing in tons of money especially for yourself. We're just not. I mean, I don't know, I mean, I don't know that about all the business owners but it's certainly not true for us.
Sanni: I mean, it's still a struggle and after seven years, we're still ... I mean, we're making it, but it's hard and it continues to be hard and we have to keep pushing and continue to grow, hopefully and yeah. So I think that often something where there's some misconception about owning your own business that you make a lot of money and that's easy and that's ... Right?
Janet: Not exactly.
The Human Factor
Sanni: Another asset that I think I want to add is probably UGA. I do see that as a big asset for Athens. Most of our employees now are not students anymore, I would say. We do have a couple that are students that are part time, but I do like having employees that live here and that want Community to be their job rather than it being kind of a side job. But we do always have great interns and we do work with UGA quite a bit in that way. So I think that having a lot of students that are really eager to get some kind of experience, it's definitely a great asset I think too for a business in town.
Janet: I agree with that. We started having interns after you did because I copied you.
Sanni: Oh yeah? I think I ran my business on interns for the first few years.
Janet: It was great because I remember, I mean, I did a lot of research and there are laws about what interns can do and what they can't do so I wanted to be very respectful of that but we were shocked that the number of applicants we got when we first announced the internship program because we advertised it as unpaid internship and people who love books and love hanging out in Athens, like we had so many applicants and still, every semester, as we advertise for unpaid internships, which you can get credit, but you kind of have to fight a little bit hard for it so but the people are still coming down the doors. It's awesome.
Sanni: Yeah, most of the interns that apply here, they don't even ask for credit. I'm always happy to do whatever we need to do for them to get post credit but mostly they just are so excited to get some kind of experience and they're so excited about books and they're excited about sustainability. They're excited about fashion and I think that we really do try to offer them experiences that are beneficial for them so we do want to teach them a lot. I don't want them to make coffee or ... I definitely don't, I'm not having them work sales, but we want them to really learn something that hopefully works towards a career down the road and gives them some skills.
Janet: I've been talking with my long-term staff about interns and the new part time hires we've made and how they are really good, their enthusiasm. One of the perks of the job is that ... Of owning a bookstore is you get a bunch of free books before they're published. We've only realized that we've become jaded about that when we see the excitement of the new hires or the interns when a box of free books comes to us. We're like, "Oh my gosh. We have more ... Where are we going to put these?" We're just rich in books and they're like, "Oh my God," they're like diving through the boxes and so I think they serve as just this constant daily reminder of like, "Oh wait, we all have our dream job right now, this is incredible." So I really like the enthusiasm.
I usually don't get down on my job but sometimes when you're worried about cash flow and paying bills, it's nice to go into the receiving room and see somebody freaking out over a book that they've been dying to read and you're like, "Oh yeah, that's why we're here."
Sanni: You have had some of your employees have been published too, right? Tell me a little bit about that.
Janet: So one of my former employees has a really YA novel out with Bloomsbury Spark. Her name is Frankie Brown. It is an awesome book. Bookseller Will Walton has a book called Anything Can Happen.
Sanni: Which I read, which is great.
Janet: Yeah, it's delightful. That was out with Scholastic and now my friend Caleb who worked for me has a book out in the fall with Scholastic called Top Elf and he is so eager about having his fan support, independent bookstores that he's hoping everyone will preorder the book from an independent bookstore but if you preorder it from Avid, he has all these different levels of perks and like one of them is like ... One of his friend's a professional Google Doodler so you get like a Google Doodle but if you order five or more, you'll get an episode of his YouTube show where he tell jokes to dogs dedicated to you so I preordered five. Anyways, so they're just super creative and strange and I love them.
Then I've had a couple of employees do like little chat books which are sort of just like smaller, lower budget not with a major publisher but just like little collections of poetry or art. Yeah, so I think everyone on staff is a writer, even the people that keep it a secret. I think all of us are writers.
Sanni: So do you think, I mean, that's kind of amazing. Do you think Avid played a role into them somehow getting published?
Janet: I do.
Sanni: Or were they connections that they made through working at Avid?
Janet: I think that, so all the people who've gotten professional publishing deals, I think they would have gotten there themselves. They're really talented. But I admittedly don't, and no bookstores are able to pay these smart and usually very well educated booksellers what they deserve so I try to give a good book discount. I give them all the free books that I can but I also invest in their education and try to give them as many opportunities to meet famous authors or debut authors as they can. So I know that that definitely influenced a couple of the book deals just by making sure that if there was an opportunity for them to go network with publishers and editors and I gave that to them and I paid them for their time. So I do think that helps.
Now, it's been neat over the years because when I would first go to conferences and say have a little tag said Avid Bookshop, Athens, Georgia. You can could the looking and look away because I wasn't important. Now, if any of my staff walks around any of the conferences, people are like, "Oh my God. Avid Bookshop. Are you the author?" So I think it helps a lot. It helps too that there are all of those people mentioned who wrote books are just really nice people and so you'll want to help nice people, like if I need an author who's really great, I'm much more likely to stock their books on my shelves because I want to support people who are bringing kindness into the world. It sounds very cheesy but it's true.
Sanni: The human factor plays a bigger role in a small business.
Sanni: So the next question is what would you like Athens to be? This is a difficult question. Who came up with this?
Janet: Not me.
Sanni: Nobody takes responsibility for this question.
Janet: I really love it how it is. There are several things that worry me about Athens. Retail wise, it is frightening to me how much prime real estate cost for entrepreneurs who want to rent businesses.
Sanni: Especially on Clayton Street, I think.
Janet: Yeah. So you see more and more chain businesses moving in because they're the only ones that can afford that rent. I shouldn't say the only ones but mainly they have much deeper pockets and marketing to provide that kind of funding. But so it's been hard to watch Athens grow the longer I've lived here and see fewer and fewer locally owned businesses and more and more chains come in.
Sanni: Because there isn't really much of an alternative to downtown, I think. There isn't another downtown that the local creative businesses could take over and just create their own new downtown. I mean, there's downtown and then there's like little pockets like Five Points, like Normaltown. But it's so much smaller and like I think it's not as easy as just moving into another area and then we can thrive there.
Sanni: I think that there's just not as much foot traffic anywhere else.
Janet: So I find that problematic. I do wish that government would work harder to just kind of explore caps on the number of locally owned businesses versus nationally or internationally owned businesses. Just sort of trying to find creative ways to support people who live here, who are trying to make this a better city and it can be very frustrating as I pay all my bills and all my utility, all these stuff and you just know that the bills are crippling sometimes. It hurts my heart a little bit that a lot of people I know couldn't even get to where I am because they just don't have some rich investor or somebody who can help them. I think too that we're very diverse town on paper but I don't see that in a lot of neighborhoods. So we have so many people from so many different countries, so many ethnicities and there's not a lot of overlap.
So I think experiences like the 4th of July fireworks that were last year, after some activism, they are going to bring them back downtown this year, but just walking around that party, it was so great to see people all ages, all backgrounds and tons of people that I've never seen before all my life and I was saying earlier how much I love running into people, but also it's a problem when you think there are 120,000 people that live in the tiniest county in Georgia and you do see the same few hundred all the time. It's great but at the same time, what are we doing that is making other people feel like they can't be a part of all these other parts of the community. So I think that's a perpetual issue that we have.
Janet: How about you? What are some ... What was the question? Hold on.
Sanni: What I would like Athens to be.
Janet: What you would like Athens to be?
Sanni: I know always had high hopes that Athens would somehow be a model town for sustainability in Georgia, at least. I feel like we're a small enough town that I think it's maybe easier to do than with a big city to really make some progress with solar energy or something. I see a lot happening at UGA now, but I feel like it's not really happening outside and I think that's a little disappointing. Like I think we always think we're so progressive, but in that way, I feel like we're really lagging behind. So yeah, that's kind of what I would like to see. I think Athens has an opportunity here to really be a leader in sustainability and it's only happening on campus that I can see right now. So yeah, that's what I would like to see happen.
Janet: Me too. I support that vision.