By Autumn Shelton, RealWV
BARBOURSVILLE, W.Va. – This is the story of two business owners and their little bookshop that could.
Ashley Skeen and Mandee Cunningham, co-owners of Booktenders, never dreamed that one day they would own a bookstore, let alone a bookstore that would host a book release for a Pulitzer Prize winning author.
In a recent interview with RealWV, Skeen discussed how she and Cunningham started Booktenders, and how they were able to win a contest that earned them a visit from acclaimed author Barbara Kingsolver to promote the paperback release of her novel “Demon Copperhead.”
“We always said we are the little bookshop that could,” Skeen said. “We keep surprising ourselves with the things we are pulling off.”
Back in 2021, Skeen said she and Cunningham worked together in Huntington as bartenders. Both had grown up in Huntington, and they both shared a love of books, but neither thought about actually owning a bookstore–that is until a friend, who was developing a building in Barboursville, walked into the bar one day and asked Skeen if she would like to open her own coffee shop.
“I said no,” Skeen laughed, but added that she had thought about opening a bookstore. “I talked to Mandee, and the next day she had a spreadsheet.”
It wasn’t long until the duo had their business plans finalized. They opened Booktenders in June 2022.
“We decided to serve coffee and tea, and it just kind of came naturally to us to have a mini-bar so we also serve beer and wine,” Skeen said, adding that the building has 1,000 sq. ft. of floor space with a lounge in the back for book club meetings, author events, and for those who want to relax or complete work.
“We are a tiny little store, but we love being in Barboursville,” Skeen continued. “We have a record store two doors down from us that we do a lot of partnerships with. It’s just a really cute little block and we all support each other very much.”
This past summer, Skeen and Cunningham received information from their HarperCollins representative that the publishing company would be hosting a contest with Barbara Kingsolver for the paperback release of “Demon Copperhead.”
Skeen explained that Barbara Kingsolver had decided to do only one event for the book’s release, and that all independent bookstores would be able to enter the contest. Whichever bookstore sold the most copies of the hardback version of “Demon Copperhead” would win the chance for Kingsolver to come to their store on the day of the paperback’s release.
“I saw the email and thought we should do that,” Skeen said. “Mandee’s reaction was like, ‘Yeah sure, but that’s crazy. There are going to be huge bookstores in big cities that we are gonna compete against.’ So, we really went into the contest thinking we don’t have a shot in the world.”
Rebekah Franks, an employee of the store, got on board with the idea, and they decided to give the contest a go.
“We are all fans of Appalachian literature,” Skeen said. “We have a big local section in the bookstore, and love seeing Appalachia represented in literature. I think ‘Demon Copperhead’ is the quintessential Appalachian novel. It’s this epic story of a kid – you know this kid, you went to school with this kid, you rode the bus with this kid– and the struggles are so recognizable. Kingsolver called out people for making fun of Appalachia. She talks about the Appalachian struggle and how society has made it so hard for Appalachians to get ahead. It’s just so wonderful.”
The contest took place in the month of September, and Skeen said they started out with 20 copies of “Demon Copperhead.”
“We announced the contest on social media on September 1, in the morning, and by noon we had sold 50 copies, ” Skeen said. “It was something to see. People would walk over to the display, pick up a book, and just shop like, ‘Okay, this is my duty. I’m going to help my bookstore win.’”
Skeen said that they also have an online site, and people started buying books online as well.
“Our supporters from all over were buying,” Skeen noted. “We shipped out so many books we even posted a map at one point about all these places we sent books. It was something like a dozen different states where we mailed out all these books.”
By the time September was over, Booktenders had sold 250 copies of “Demon Copperhead.” Skeen said they submitted their book sales number to HarperCollins, and waited. And waited. And waited.
“We didn’t hear anything,” Skeen said. “Days went by, and I thought maybe we didn’t win. Then, our rep finally called us and asked if we could take a call, but she couldn’t tell us any more than that.”
On a Friday in late October, Skeen took that call.
“I picked up the phone, and I heard ‘Hello Ashley, this is Barbara Kingsolver,’” Skeen noted. “Barbara Kingsolver, herself, called me.”
Although the date for the release of the paperback version of “Demon Copperhead” has yet to be announced, Skeen said she believes it will take place in either May or August of 2024.
“The (Barboursville) mayor, Chris Tatum, said we will close down Central Avenue for Barbara,” Skeen said, adding that they want to make the day a festival with food trucks and bands.
“We want to get the mayor to declare it ‘Barbara Kingsolver Day in Barboursville,’” Skeen said, noting that a lot of planning is going into this special event.
“Obviously, we can’t fit her into our store,” Skeen said, adding that the newly constructed Barboursville Public Library, the first in the state to have geothermal heating and cooling, may play an important role.
While plans are being finalized, Skeen said that Booktenders will be hosting a book club called the “Barbara Backlist Book Club.”
“She has been writing books since ‘The Bean Trees’ came out in 1988,” Skeen said.
For more information, or to take part in the book club, Skeen said to visit the Booktenders Facebook page.
“Rebekah will be hosting a video component on Zoom for those who can’t make it in person,” she added.
Skeen explained that she is incredibly thankful to everyone who purchased a hardback version of “Demon Copperhead,” from Booktenders for the contest.
“Before we opened our shop, someone tipped us off that Ali Hazelwood, a bestselling romance author, had been a Marshall University professor, and that Ali Hazelwood was a pen name,” Skeen said, before noting she tracked her down and invited her to an event at Booktenders.
“We had an event with her, this New York Times bestselling romance author,” Skeen continued. “We had to close our parking lot, and we thought, ‘Nothing is ever going to top this.’ Now, this is happening. It’s just crazy.”
“When we announced that we won (the Barbara Kingsolver contest), all the comments we received from people were saying, ‘We did it.’ It really was a community effort. People were really claiming it as a group win, and I thought that was so special. It really does speak to what Appalachia is – it’s a community. That part of the contest was really special.”
For updates on the happenings at Booktenders, stay tuned to RealWV.