When Stephanie Culen was sitting on a bench in front of the Duncans Mills shopping village last year, she discovered a 250-square-meter building that would be a perfect writer’s studio in the middle of the picturesque hamlet north of the Russian River.
However, Culen willingly admitted that while she would love to write in her diary, she would not use the building as a retreat for writers. While studying at Sarah Lawrence College, she remembered vividly that the late author Joseph Campbell had such an office on the Bronxville, New York campus.
But the tiny building was under control of Culen, 52, who moved from New York City to Sonoma County five years ago and has had a varied career as a school teacher, yoga teacher and most recently in wine sales at Foley Family Wines and Halleck Vineyard.
The idea of doing something with the space kept bubbling up inside her, especially given the changes that come with the coronavirus pandemic from those who have moved to the area from larger cities or who have given up their jobs for something To do more fulfilling.
“I should say that many of us have dreamed, ‘Now what?'” She said.
This inner turmoil eventually led her to open the Poet’s Corner bookstore in early November. It’s a one-woman business run from what is perhaps the smallest bookstore in the United States. Culen is approaching a one-year anniversary, which she says is “a little better than breakeven”.
Culen and other small business owners like hers hope to capitalize on the desire of pandemic-weary consumers to give up online shopping and home delivery for something tangible and a sense of community.
“It wasn’t a dream of mine to have a bookstore,” said Culen as her dog Bianca rested in the one chair by the tiny counter inside. “The dream was what I can offer the community that I know I can be good at? That I can create a space in which people can have experiences – but also to offer a product that is functional, useful and beautiful? “
The store sells a mix of books, from beach readings to Walt Whitman poetry to a recent book by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson. It also offers unique gifts like a Cabin Porn Calendar with cozy structures and children’s games like glow-in-the-dark puzzles.
But Culen said she realized that on her trip from the bank to the daily visits of the UPS driver dropping off the boxes, there was something bigger about her plans. That something couldn’t be summed up in a business plan template or sales forecast for the first year. It was about creating community.
“This (pandemic) is not going to last forever,” she said. “We people want to get together. People will want to touch books again.
“You will want to leave Zoom meetings and computers and touch paper. They’ll want to be in the world … and share stories and ideas. And I have the strength to create experiences for people. “
Culen is not alone with this view, as other small business owners believe that after 19 months since the pandemic began, more people are tending to abandon the digital lifestyle of shopping on Amazon, Grubhub food delivery, and Netflix entertaining for more community activities. They claim that local retailers can get the upper hand over their digital competitors.
That’s the case with Tifani Beecher and Melissa Stewart, two local women who recently opened Dandelion, a new store in Montgomery Village. The store offers a mix of clothing for both children and mothers. They also wanted to create a space for kids’ programming with a pint-sized portrait studio along with a flower cart in the store.
“We’re trying to create a sense of community,” said Beecher.
Avid Coffee is also looking to strengthen its connections within the county by participating in more events as well as local charitable endeavors, said owner Rob Daly. The local company, formerly called Acre Coffee, was a prime hangout before the pandemic with a wide variety of customers, from college students to mothers to retirees. Some of the pre-pandemic on-site business has been reclaimed with additional outdoor seating.
“I think it’s less of a business strategy than a cultural shift,” Daly said of companies’ efforts to foster more community. “I think it will be a valid direction for everyone to get out of (the pandemic) and find ways to truly connect outside of our four walls.”