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Entrepreneur enlists help of authors to open new bookstore

SHARE Entrepreneur enlists help of authors to open new bookstore

CENTERVILLE — Behind an unassuming storefront in Centerville, there is a world of magic waiting to be discovered.

Youths excitedly wander throughout as their parents follow in an awe-inspired tow. In one of the rooms, a child admires the store's "cats," guinea pigs by the name of Puck and Pan, and in another corner, a youth sits quietly absorbed in a recent find.

The liveliest room is undoubtedly the smallest. Surrounded by bright yellow walls, local authors, all at varying points in their careers, are animatedly discussing the publishing world, offering advice and sharing a wealth of experience.

It doesn't matter that the furniture is pint-size or the shelves are mostly bare, merchandise is on its way and the mood is electric. The authors are here not for themselves, but for the newest members of their community — Michelle Witte and her new bookstore, Fire Petal Books.

The young adult and children's book community in Utah is different than anywhere else, Witte told the Deseret News. At its core is a group of writers who are all friends and come out to support each other whenever possible. With that kind of attitude, it's no surprise that numerous authors — including Anne Bowen, Mette Ivie Harrison, Lisa Mangum, Jennifer Nielsen, Rick Walton, Sarah DeFord Williams and Sara Zarr — turned out for a pre-launch party a few days prior to Fire Petal Books' grand opening.

Opening an independent bookstore that caters to children and young adults has garnered Witte a lot of attention, with many in the industry praising her for her bravery and innovative thinking when it came to raising capital.

Fire Petal Books "is a nice antidote to everyday doom and gloom," said Bowen, picture book author of "I Loved You Before You Were Born." "Michelle didn't let that (gloom) stop her dream. I really admire her."

That admiration comes equally from Zarr, author of “Once Was Lost” and the National Book Award finalist "Story of a Girl." "Focusing on a niche is very smart. Utah has such a child-centered culture, and this store is a perfect fit."

Deseret Book editor Mangum agrees. "The children's/young adult market is really strong right now," said the author of the “Hourglass Door” and its sequel, “The Golden Spiral.” "It's valuable to get a personalized recommendation when looking for something. Opening a store is a scary line to walk. But her personal touch, the uniqueness of the store, will find its audience."

It was in January that Witte, a former copy editor at the Deseret News and Gibbs Smith publishing house, decided to go into business. She drove past a co-op consignment shop a friend had just opened and had an epiphany.

"I had the thought, 'When am I ever going to do this if I don't make this happen? Why put it off if I can just do it now?' And it was sort of an instant decision," Witte said

She went home and started googling properties, finding the spot that later became Fire Petal Books on that first night. Witte immediately fell in love with the location — halfway between Salt Lake City and Layton — and the store's random quirky flow. It had a personalized feel, she said, that made it feel like home.

But just because she found a location, didn't mean that Witte could move forward. Being single without a house, she wasn't exactly the prime candidate for a loan. So she got creative and held an auction.

Swallowing her nerves, Witte e-mailed a whole bunch of authors — some whom she knew, some whom she didn't — and asked them if they'd be willing to donate something.

And boy did they donate. As word spread, signed copies from authors, agents and publishers started arriving, as did agreements from editors and writers to critique manuscripts and provide phone consultations to winning bidders.

When the auction came to a close, Witte had enough money for a down payment, basic painting and some of the remodel to her store — making Fire Petal Books, in essence, the community's store.

Asking for donations was appropriate, Witte said, because once the store becomes established, she wants to open it up to the writing community, especially teenagers. "A lot of the literacy efforts that you see, even the Read Today program, they focus on the little kids, but what about the kids who've grown up and they got lost in the shuffle, fell through the cracks?" Witte said. "If you can teach these kids how to write and to express themselves creatively, it helps both their literacy, their ability to express themselves."

And Fire Petal Books has just the kind of atmosphere that lends itself to Witte's goals. "The store feels like an extension of your living room or library," Mangum said. "It's the kind of place you can come and spend a whole afternoon and have fun."

Owning an independent bookstore isn't all fun, though. The business side can be tricky. People will often go into independent bookstores and do their browsing and then go home and order online. But Witte says there's a lot online retailers can't do. "They can't do the in-store activities," she said. "They can't do reading time. They can't bring an author to their town."

And Fire Petal Books is "a great place for a book signing," said Harrison, author of “The Princess and the Hound” trilogy. "Here, I feel comfortable, like I want to stay and have a nice chat."

Even with all the community support she's received, Witte admits she's in uncharted territory. But that doesn't keep her from having a positive outlook. "This is the best time in my life to take a risk — I don't have a husband or kids or a house, and if it all falls apart, it falls apart, and I'll just start over again.

"I just want (the store) to be a place where people can come and crash for an hour and maybe discover a book or two. That, I would consider a success."

Fire Petal Books is open Monday through Saturday 10 a.m.-8 p.m. and is located at 386 N. Main in Centerville. In addition to selling books and other literary-type merchandise, Fire Petal Books offers book signings, workshops, reading time and writing retreats. To learn more, call 801-992-3776 or visit www.firepetalbooks.com.

e-mail: jharrison@desnews.com