As the country begins to emerge from a year characterized by widespread restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many experts will be watching brick-and-mortar retail stores to see how they bounce …
As the country begins to emerge from a year characterized by widespread restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many experts will be watching brick-and-mortar retail stores to see how they bounce back.
Despite the tough time for retail, some are looking for opportunities. Among the optimists is Debbie Gress Jansen, a long-time teacher at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy, who decided last year to pursue her dream of opening a bookshop on Germantown Avenue in Chestnut Hill. Her plan is to open a general, all-genres-represented shop to be known as “booked.” at 8511 Germantown Ave., the space formerly occupied by BusyBee Toys, which closed its Hill location permanently in March. Her plan is to open in September.
Gress Jansen described herself as aware of the challenges of opening a retail store in 2021.
“I'm just so overjoyed with the idea of this actually happening,” Gress told the Local. “And I hope that it will work. And I just look forward to this journey, I really do I look forward to this adventure. We'll see what happens.”
Gress Jansen, 52, grew up in Fort Washington and was a “lifer” at Springside, the all-girls school in Chestnut Hill that merged with Chestnut Hill Academy in 2010 to become Springside Chestnut Hill Academy. She is married to chef David Jansen, the owner of Jansen restaurant in Mt. Airy.
She developed a love for theater at Springside and wanted to be an actress. Her parents convinced her to study something that would better guarantee employment after she graduated so she went to Elizabethtown College and received a bachelor’s degree in early elementary education.
With that degree in hand, she was hired by Chestnut Hill Academy where she has worked as a teacher for a range of age groups in the lower school for 38 years. Gress Jansen said she loved her time as a teacher at SCH but never gave up on the idea of someday owning a bookshop. She’s always thought of being an author herself, particularly someday turning to write plays.
“There's something really romantic to me about books and words, and the power of words, and having it around me seems quite natural,” she said.
One of her favorite things to do with books is to share them with others.
“I love matching people with books, you know, if there's a match-making quality to me, I'd like to maybe think that's what it is,” she said. “I literally get a book for everybody, every Christmas.”
The decision to change her career came during a period of self-reflection, a thing many have had the chance to do as the pandemic has kept most people working at home and unable to travel or visit friends and relatives.
“I think, what happened to a lot of people during the pandemic was they took some time to think and look and reflect on their lives,” she said. “Owning a bookshop has been something that, if you talk to anybody who's known me, you know I dream of owning the bookshop one day. And so this past year I just really knew that the time had come to hang up the teaching apron and pursue this dream. Stop talking about it and actually do it. If not now, when?”
Gress Jansen envisions a general all-purpose bookstore with children’s books, literature, nonfiction, history, cooking and more. She also wants to carry a selection of stationary and hopes to host author events. She said she admires Shakespeare and Company, the famous English language bookstore on Paris’s Left Bank, in particular.
“It's just going be a place that you want to come in and stay for a bit and chat about books,” she said.
The book business has been in an interesting place in the last year. According to a report in Publisher’s Weekly, print book sales were up 8.2% in 2020 over 2019, but bookstore sales fell 28.3%. That report, however, noted that some bookstores saw sales growth in 2020 despite the pandemic. Gress Jansen said she spoke to a trade group representative who warned her about the numbers but that, in the end, said she seemed to have planned as well as one could. Gress Jansen said her friends and family have been universally supportive.
“I've spoken to other people, and they're thrilled. I think they're really excited,” she said.
And many are happy for a new bookshop in Chestnut Hill. Even with the Friends of the Free Library’s new used shop opening last month, there’s a certain excitement, Gress Jansen said, about having a shop that sells new books and has author events right on the Avenue.
“I think it's something that has been missing for a while,” she said. “We used to have the Frigate (an Avenue shop that closed sometime in the early 90s), and we had Borders, but we haven't had a bookshop since then, which is crazy to me. I don't understand why we don't have one.”
Despite the challenges, Gress Jansen is excited.
“I know there's reason to worry about this climate,” she said. “But I can't turn my back on it now. It has to happen, and if it works, that's all the better. If it doesn't, then at least I will have tried it.”
The Local will be in touch with Gress Jansen and update readers as “booked.” approaches opening its doors.