The Little Bookstore That Could

How Cat Blanco put more heart into Marietta’s book-loving community

written by Echo Montgomery Garrett

BE storefront w lightsIt’s a Thursday night, and Cat Blanco’s Book Exchange is busy with customers eager to meet local self-published authors lucky enough to capture the popular bookseller’s attention. “I love introducing my customers to authors they otherwise might not ever hear about,” Blanco said.

That’s the kind of innovative thinking that has helped make the Book Exchange a community hub in Marietta. Ever since she became the owner in January 2000 — the store celebrates its 40th anniversary this year — Blanco has experimented with ways to draw book lovers through the doors of her small shop on Old Canton Road.

CB headshot Aug 2015 copyA New Chapter The outgoing, wisecracking Blanco, a New York transplant from the same upstate hometown as Lucille Ball, came to the bookselling business by a twist of fate. After working for Transworld Entertainment Corporation as a district manager based out of Marietta but constantly on the road, Blanco decided she wanted to do her own thing. When financing fell through for a business in South Florida, she happened to mention that she was looking for a retail business to the then-owner of Book Exchange, where she was a frequent customer.

“Gal, if you are serious, I’ll sell you this place,” said the owner.

“I asked if he was kidding, and he told me to come back on Monday, and we’d talk numbers,” Blanco recalled.

When she took a look around the store that Monday, she thought, “What am I doing? This place is filthy, disorganized, reeks of cigarette smoke and there’s a big section of porn in the back.”

As she turned to leave, a book by Truett Cathy caught her eye. The title “It’s Easier to Succeed Than to Fail” jumped out at her. “I took that as a sign from God,” Blanco said.

Although she was a retail veteran, Blanco worked at the store for a year and then managed it for six months before taking it over. “In my previous job, I sold music, so I figured that I could learn how to handsell books,” Blanco said. “Maybe I watched too many TV shows, but I wanted this place to be a gathering place for the community.”

Her goal the first year was simple: ditch the seedy adult section, eliminate the smoke smell and make it a bright, homier spot with her stamp on it. She whipped the place into shape and added sections dedicated to classics and children’s books.

The Authors among Us
Knowing a simple redesign wasn’t enough, Blanco focused her efforts on finding authors in the Atlanta community.

“I concentrated on women’s fiction and romance and discovered that there were a lot of authors in this area,” said Blanco, who formed friendships with novelists Karen White and Patti Callahan Henry, both of whom have now made The New York Times bestseller list numerous times. “We grew up in the business together.”

Blanco gained a reputation with authors like Mary Kay Andrews, Mary Alice Monroe, Lynn Cullen and Susan Rebekah White for truly knowing the authors’ books and expertly handselling their books. She fashioned events tailored to the author’s tastes or something connected to the book — setting up a hair salon in the front of her store for a Dorothea Benton Frank novel set in a hair salon or bringing in a coffin for an Andrews’ book centered upon a funeral. She plays ABBA at Karen White’s book events because the author loves the band and makes gourmet brownies for foodie Susan Rebekah White. She does giveaways and offers snacks and music at her book events.

Her database grew steadily as she became known for her fun and creative events, and book lovers discovered that Blanco was so popular with authors that they often drop by her store unannounced to sign books and talk shop. Now she heavily promotes all events on her website and via social media. Her lively Facebook page features photos of authors dropping by, her latest events and information on the many authors she heavily supports.

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Beyond the Books
For the past nine years, Blanco has been named the official bookseller for the Georgia Romance Writers, which features more than 90 authors each October at a conference where fans meet the authors. She also serves as the bookseller for all events for the Cobb Library Foundation. “The book business is a service to the community,” said Blanco, who has volunteered with the Decatur Book Festival for the past decade.

A dozen years ago she launched a book club that meets monthly in the store. The membership of that club has steadily grown, too. “We usually have about 20 at our meetings, but when an author talks, we may have 40 or more show up,” said Blanco, who also started a writers’ group, in which members include established, award-winning authors mixed with emerging writers not yet published.

In recent years, she’s made her store home base for a knitting group and mahjong players. She just started offering painting classes a few times a month, too, which also draws a small crowd.

Blanco’s biggest surprise hit came from her support of yet another self-published writer mentioned by one of her other authors.

I had a book signing for Stephanie McAfee, who wrote ‘Diary of a Mad Fat Girl,’” Blanco said. “Nobody had ever heard of her, but we had 75 people in here that night. She was funny, new, from the South and talked about college football. My customers loved her.”

Georgia Author of the Year and 2014 Savvy and Successful honoree Renea Winchester, author of “In the Garden with Billy: Lessons on Life, Love and Tomatoes” is another of Blanco’s self-published finds.

“I can tell you for true that when no other bookseller would give me the time of day, Cat Blanco took a chance on me and stocked my first book,” Winchester said. “And that is why she got my launch, because she was the only bookseller in the beginning who believed in me and hand-sold lots of copies. While other booksellers return unsold copies, she knows her readers and sells books. She takes chances, and many booksellers in the area copy her ideas. Her store makes money and is an asset to the community.”

So Blanco’s dream of providing a community gathering place has come true. “I love being surrounded by all these books,” she said. “When I open the store in the morning, I am living my dream.”

For More Information
bookexchangemarietta.com

Upcoming Event
Self-Published/Indie Press Open House
Thursday, Nov. 12, 6:30 to 8 p.m.

Many people expressed interest in the last Self-Pub/ Indie Press Event, but weren’t able to attend, so Blanco scheduled another. Please note, this will be the final event of this type for 2015. Sign up quickly as the number of openings is limited. Come meet writers of cookbooks to self-help and everything in between! Call 770-427-4848 to participate or to RSVP.

Blanco’s Holiday picks: “Twain’s End” by Lynn Cullen: Turn on the fireplace, fluff the pillows and pour a delicious glass of wine; this well-researched, novelized account of Samuel Clemens’/Mark Twain’s final years, is told through the voice of his devoted secretary Isabel Lyon.  “Pretty Girls” by Karin Slaughter: A new, stand-alone novel with a very dark and twisted plot and complex characters. Fans won’t be disappointed.  “The Bazaar of Bad Dreams” by Stephen King: A collection of short stories and poems with insightful, emotional commentary that accompanies each entry.  “Go Set A Watchman” by Harper Lee will see another big push during the holidays. Donald Trump and Dr. Ben Carson both have new books. Hmm… Which came first — the Presidential run or the book?  Anything Star Wars. Adult Coloring Books: Young and old are enjoying these cool, updated versions of a beloved American pastime.

Staff Picks: Heather Brown: “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore” by Robin Sloan  George Colmant: “Black Wind” by Clive Cussler Carl Danbury: “Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson” by S. C. Gwynne Robin Harrison: “Private Yankee Doodle: Being A Narrative of Some of the Adventures, Dangers, and Sufferings of a Revolutionary Soldier” by Joseph Plumb Martin, George E. Scheer    Colleen Ann McNally: “Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear” by Elizabeth Gilbert Shannah J. Smith: “My Southern Journey: True Stories from the Heart of the South” by Rick Bragg Tiffany Willard: “Girl on the Train” by Paula Hawkins