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In the 20 months that Get Lost Bookshop has been open downtown on Ninth Street, owner Meghan Gilliss has steadily added shelves and doubled, tripled and quadrupled the number of books and magazines on display.
In turn, the recent college graduate has seen a commensurate rise in the number of regular customers and curious shoppers wandering off Ninth Street to see what’s inside the cozy, somewhat cluttered bookshop.
The inventory caters to a wide range of interests and backgrounds, and the design makes readers feel comfortable browsing and perusing. A small couch by a children’s nook, the handmade signs and the name itself complement the homey atmosphere.
Gilliss opened Get Lost Bookshop in April 2008, about 14 months after Ninth Street Bookstore closed and nine months after Acorn Books had to leave its space next to the Missouri Theatre when the building was renovated.
For months, a downtown sandwiched between a university and two private colleges had no bookstore.
That dry spell, Gilliss said, “terrified me. I can’t tell you how scared I am of the death of culture. To see our downtown start to dry up as the box stores around the fringe grew bigger and bigger was just too depressing to sit by and watch.
“Bookstores, and independent bookstores in particular, in my opinion, keep us connected with the rest of humanity across space and throughout time. Books, I think, remind of us our potential. I think independent bookshops are important in college towns, where a skinny, dusty and otherwise seemingly innocuous volume might inspire a life’s work… or at least a momentary but passionate obsession.”
Gilliss said downtown Columbia has great potential for development: “I would love to see all the beautiful empty spaces filled with one-of-a-kind businesses.” But one of the obstacles to growth, she said, is the tendency of many young people to envision themselves as short-term residents.
“A lot of young, fresh energy leaves town for good on the heels of its diploma,” she said. “I know this because I didn’t think I would be here after I graduated.”
Gilliss, who is from Louisville, Ken., expected to leave town after graduating with a journalism degree from the University of Missouri.
Instead, she took a chance on an industry in transition. The number of independent bookstores has plummeted since the 1990s as they’re pushed out of business by high-volume chain stores such as Barnes & Noble and by online sellers such as Amazon.com.
Gilliss also started out small — in both space and inventory — unlike the Ninth Street Bookstore, which sold a wide array of new books and was located in a huge space with expensive rent that has since been portioned into three stores, including a florist and wine shop. Get Lost Bookshop is less than a sixth as large.
Gilliss has her own business philosophy. “If it doesn’t feel satisfying, I don’t do it,” she said. “There’s a lot of junk I could sell, and I could sell it either here at the shop or on the Internet. The absolute last thing I want to do in my life is make money from selling people something they don’t need.”
Get Lost Bookshop offers mostly used merchandise; Gilliss obtains the majority of her books from local residents, though on occasion she will choose new books that she finds especially worthwhile to have on the shelves.
Gilliss often fills special orders for customers and always hand-selects her inventory. There’s a bit of everything in the shop — from fiction and cookbooks to history, biographies, literary criticism, art, children’s books, news and art magazines and literary journals. The shop also carries cards, small letterpress stationary, journals and other writing materials.
Gilliss calls her confines a “browser’s shop,” a place where customers can find the forgotten or unexpected.
Ken Green, owner of an Acorn Books “satellite” shop in the Market Place Antique Mall and with a jewelry repair shop downtown, said the scarcity of downtown bookstores has become somewhat the norm for college towns. Green, who ran his bookstore next to Missouri Theatre for 19 years, travels often and has seen this trend throughout the country, from Iowa City to Bloomington to Boston.
“I believe people’s online purchases are hurting used bookstores,” he said. “Also, could it be people are spending more time on activities and reading less?”
Even with the Internet at their fingertips, many local residents hold a special fondness for independent bookstores, including Steve Weinberg, an MU journalism professor and author. Weinberg, who has written eight books, browses the Get Lost Bookshop frequently and recently held a book signing there.
“I’ve signed at bookstores across the nation, but I always do at least one signing in Columbia,” he said. “I never buy books online. I want brick and mortar stores to remain in business.”
Weinberg’s most recent signing at the shop was for his book Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller. Gilliss, characteristically, baked cookies for the event.
“I suggested the signing because only a small percentage of booklovers in Columbia know the store exists,” Weinberg said. The result, however, was impressive. “We sold at least 30 books, which is a lot for a signing unless the author is John Grisham or some other celebrity.”
Market Place Antique Mall, 1100 Business Loop 70 W., Columbia (573) 449-8030
Barnes & Noble Bookstore
Columbia Mall, 2300 Bernadette Drive, Columbia
517 Court St., Fulton
309 S. Providence Road, Columbia (573) 449-7417
Columbia Books specializes in children’s books, Missouriana/Civil War, modern firsts and art books.
21 Conley Road, Ste. Q, Columbia (573) 449-6164
New and gently used paperback books.
The Get Lost Bookshop
8 S. Ninth St., Columbia
Brady Commons, University of Missouri Campus, Columbia (800) UBS-TIGR
Hathman Village Shopping Center, 1808 Paris Road, Columbia (573) 449-8637