Editor's note: The Rebound is a weekly series about how Northeast Florida companies navigate change, including during the pandemic.

Signs on building columns touting coffee, books, and wine, lured me to pull over to check out a charming neighborhood bookstore bistro on a recent visit to Fernandina Beach.

A front door sign directs you to the entrance of an iron-gated spacious patio with a serene setting. While walking on the stone patio and observing flowers on tables and murals on the walls, you can’t help but get the feeling that there’s something different about Story & Song Neighborhood Bookstore Bistro.

I had no intention of writing about this retailer until I quickly learned that a big secret to their success has to do with the way they cater to visitors. From a meal to a newly released book or locally-made or unusual gift, it’s available. Even space upstairs for a community event is available to the public. 

I’m new to the area, so I was just trying to understand the basics, like how Fernandina Beach is actually a city on Amelia Island.

But most visitors to Story & Song are locals in Nassau County. More importantly, they’re customers who made sure this three-year-old business succeeded in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“We generally know just about everybody who comes through the doors by name,” said Connor Fasel, who leads the social media marketing and buying efforts at the store. “They want us to succeed.”

Donna Paz Kaufman, co-owner at Story & Song, said the biggest challenge for her has been managing cash flow and worrying about the ability to continue. She and her husband, Mark, started the business in February of 2018 and had just reached the break-even point when Covid-19 hit. They only closed the business for six weeks during the governor-issued mandatory shutdown.

Responding to COVID-19

Immediately after the pandemic started, the store promoted its delivery service and curbside pick-up.

"When it was clear people were going to be at home for a good long while, we recommended books and purchased many, many cases of jigsaw puzzles, which turned out to be a runaway hit," she said. 

Customers would visit the open-air courtyard to look at the puzzle selections.

"Between books, puzzles, and take-out food, we provided enjoyment, love, support, and escape," she said.

Now even as our community sees fewer COVID-19 cases, consumer habits are changing.

The challenge, however, is that while across the country book sales overall have been strong during the pandemic, much of the sales are at big-box retailers like Target and Walmart, and of course, Amazon, which now accounts for about half of all book sales nationwide.

Independent businesses offer a sense of community, character, diversity, and humanity. They need our support.

The biggest changes were starting local deliveries. It wasn't exactly planned. Kaufman said they were trying to survive during Covid, so when they started getting phone calls asking if they could deliver, the answer was always yes. And because of an older demographic, for about a year, many of the orders started with a phone call and a staff member going to browse books and gifts with the caller on the phone. Then a staff member would make the delivery personally, whether it was food, a book or a gift.

"We were grateful that they would call us rather than going to Amazon.  They showed us that we’re all in this together and they wanted to support a local business. Plus we made it easy for them," she said. "Everything took twice as long for the same sale.  We were run ragged. But one thing that came out of this is that we learned that we can survive hard times. Our perspective has changed.   We proved that we know what we're doing. In terms of customer support we showed up and so did they."

They also started a weekly subscription service for customers to pick up a 26 oz carton of the bistro's signature soup each Monday.

For those who weren't ready to come into the business, the company shifted the business dramatically including Facebook live events, and creating a new Youtube channel where they post readings, author talks, and Storytimes for children. They even did Instagram live interviews with authors. A month ago the retailer started Storycast, which is a podcast-like audio series on both channels, and a culmination of everything they’ve learned from the pandemic so far.

“We have a primarily older customer base, so we had to work to meet people where they are. We were trying to figure out how to move more content online, and as we were learning about lighting and sound while dealing with the Internet that’s not great on the island, our audience was learning how to engage with it,” said Fasel. 

There was a lot to learn, but their customers were patient. 

"Thankfully, what they really cared about was not perfect lighting and sound, but that Story & Song was trying to send out positive energy.  I think that’s why people responded.”

Barbara Gingher, a retired nurse practitioner said she enjoys engaging with Story & Songbook online, including when there's a discussion of cooking recipes with an author or a chef. But she's most excited about visiting the bookstore in person, enjoying the food and the live events and meetings upstairs.

"It's my home away from home. It's so welcoming and they have so many diverse options...I can't emphasize enough how wonderful their staff is. It's the best small business on the island," Gingher said.

Giving back to the Amelia Island community

Getting people to support the bookstore was only one concern for the store. They wanted to know how they could help the community get through COVID-19, Kaufman said.

“We served meals to the ER staff at our local hospital, coordinated a book drive for the local women's shelter, coordinated another book drive to gather at least one book for every child in the county who received daily meals," she said.

Kaufman's team spends a lot of time thinking about how they can play a role in serving the community. Why? Her biggest goal is to be the kind of vibrant business that people want to support because they're trying to contribute to the community's quality of life.

It's paying off because the business is now profitable, and they're confident that they've made it through the most difficult times. Sales have continued to increase each year, even with the pandemic.

Now they're looking ahead. They plan to launch their own line of books with the publication of "Amelia Island's HAPPY PLACES: The Insiders' Guide."  The books will be written by staffers with photos from members of the community. And they plan to introduce local holiday greeting cards, with works by local photographers.

"We are entrepreneurs and cultural creatives, so we can't stop creating and inviting others to join us. We are not driven by numbers, however, getting better and connecting people in positive ways is what makes us tick."

As the pandemic subsides and the general public starts to get more comfortable returning to social spaces, it’s time to support local businesses that treat you like an individual, instead of a commodity.

Marcia Pledger is the Opinion and Engagement Editor for the Florida Times-Union. She can be reached at [email protected]

Source : https://www.jacksonville.com/story/business/2021/10/24/fernandina-beachs-story-song-used-social-media-deliveries-reinvent/6093962001/

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