On March 30, 2019, the Better World Books store in downtown Goshen abruptly closed its doors, stunning the community. The retail bookseller had been a part of Goshen commerce for over a decade.

As the shock began to fade, a handful of Goshen residents sprang into action. Just a few days after the announcement of the impending closure of Better World Books, three book lovers in town came together and developed a plan to establish Fables Books, a new independent bookstore in the heart of downtown Goshen.

“We started talking the day we found out they were closing about what it would take to bring a bookstore to Goshen,” said Veronica Berkey, one of the founders of Fables Books. “The idea that Goshen would be without a bookstore didn’t feel good.”

With the needs of the community foremost in mind, and finances perhaps a distant second, Berkey partnered with fellow Goshen residents Kristin Saner and Shadow Weirich to found Fables Books. Berkey’s husband, Gary, and Saner’s husband, Mark, also joined the partnership. The five co-owners shared a common belief that “every town needs a bookstore.” The group moved quickly to launch Fables on July 16, 2019.

The three original founders of Fables were no strangers to the book business. Berkey, Saner and Weirich worked for Better World Books at some point in their careers; however, they had all left by the time the announcement was made about the closure of the Goshen location. The experience they gained working for Better World Books was instrumental in the decision to open Fables.

Partnering with the community has been crucial to Fables Books since its inception. In the initial planning meeting, about 25 community members were in attendance, ready to discuss the plans for the bookstore and lend their support. It soon became clear to the founders how important this endeavor was to Goshen residents.

Having grown up in Goshen, Berkey, who also works as an administrative assistant for the art and social work departments at Goshen College, said she could not imagine being anywhere else. “The community stepped up for us,” she said, “and so we want to do that for them.”

Not only did community members offer financial support, but many also provided book donations to add to Fables inventory. Berkey said as soon as they put the word out that they were ready for donations, they started coming. Because of these generous donations, along with the acquisition of discarded and discontinued books from local libraries, having a well-stocked inventory has never been a problem.

The origin of Fables, including the first several years of their existence, was anything but conventional. Devoted to the launch of the bookstore, the owners worked for free to get Fables off the ground.

“At first, we didn’t pay us at all,” Berkey said. “At the end of the first full calendar year, we took enough draw to pay our taxes so that nobody was out funds. Like, let me work for free and then pay my taxes!”

And less than one year later, the country faced one of the biggest challenges for businesses: the COVID-19 pandemic. With the community under lockdown, and a storefront that stayed closed for six weeks, the personal connection that Fables had previously enjoyed with its customers pivoted to an online presence.

“We had a website,” Berkey said. “We just didn’t have any intention of selling books through the website…but yeah, the world changed and shifted, and we just didn’t see any way to not do that.”

Operating primarily as a used bookstore, Fables drew enough revenue from online book sales to pay their bills and stay in business. Customers began to order new books that they had heard about on television or on the radio. With the emergence of this unexpected new business model, e-commerce became a lifeline for the business.

“We did not have employees at that point, just the five co-owners, and the three of us primary co-owners were basically working,” she said. “We all have other jobs.”

Fables was able to thrive despite the pandemic because of the founders’ commitment to the Goshen community, and to each other.

“We survived COVID and scaled up in the period of time that we did because of the expertise that is leveraged by the group of owners,” Berkey said. They meet every week to check in and talk about business.

And business is good. When Fables first opened in 2019, they had an inventory of approximately 15,000 books. That number has more than tripled to around 47,000 unique stock-keeping units, or SKUs, including books and sidelines such as literary gifts, bookmarks, stickers and other accessories.

Berkey admits that “nobody in the book business is going to make a million dollars at this scale,” but she and her partners are now able to take a minimal salary, which is something that was not possible in the beginning. 

Although the owners do not make market rate for their wages, they have always been able to cover their expenses and taxes. They also employ a small staff of five part-time associates to work the floor and assist with daily operations.

“Sometimes when you look at Fables from the outside, you might only see one or two people,” Berkey said. “It’s easy to forget that there’s this whole team of people that are actually making it happen.”

Berkey is grateful for the commitment of not only her co-founders and staff, but also the support from the Goshen community. She loves her hometown and she believes in the space she and her partners have created in Fables Books. 

“Everything happened that needed to happen,” she said. “None of this would have happened without all of us.”