It’s pretty much impossible to think of a local business that embodies the “buy local” movement better than Carmichael’s Bookstore.
This holiday season, the beloved shop has lots of big news and plenty of reasons to celebrate — including a whopping 40-year anniversary, an expansion of its iconic Longest Avenue location, and a much deserved retirement for original owners Carol Besse and Michael Boggs.
The founders are passing the torch to their daughter, Miranda Blankenship, and their niece, Kelly Estep. You can expect the spirit of the store and many of the specifics to stay the same, but Blankenship and Estep also have some new ideas they are excited to try out.
Insider Louisville caught up with Besse, Boggs, Blankenship and Estep to look back at the past 40 years and peer into the future.
Boggs and Besse first met in college and started working in book retail outlets soon after, namely Chicago’s Barbara’s Bookstore.
“If you love your work and you’re pretty good at it, it’s easy to move to the top of a small organization,” says Besse.
Boggs took on some of the bookkeeping, and Besse handled the ordering. Soon they realized there was no more room for them to grow.
“We were tired of the city and had some roots in Kentucky, so we came down and opened in 1978,” says Boggs.
While many folks might not remember, the original location of Carmichael’s was at 1582 Bardstown Road, at the corner of Bonnycastle, but after a few years, the store moved to 1295 Bardstown Road.
It was a very different street in the early ’80s.
“It was maybe us and the Bristol,” recalls Boggs.
Slowly the strip filled up around them, including the first Heine Brothers Coffee, their longtime building mates, who brought coffee and a reason to stay even longer. This created a destination spot where books and beans cohabited.
Since the onset — or is it onslaught — of digital books, a lot of people have bemoaned the fate of local booksellers.
But Besse says they’ve stayed afloat during other seas of change and have high hopes they can continue to do so.
“We’ve seen the rise of B. Dalton (Bookseller) and Walden(books) and the mall stores, and then it’s the big box stores, and then the internet. And we’ve survived,” she explains. “‘Small is beautiful’ has been our model.”
Staying small included hiring family when possible. Estep was fairly eager to join the business.
“I started working here when I was just a kid,” she says. “I came in to start working on weekends when I was … I guess ‘officially’ when I was 14 … I would say I’ve done every job in the store. When I was a kid, I dusted shelves.”
Blankenship, on the other hand, was at first determined to get out of the bookstore in which she grew up.
“I didn’t want much to do with it, honestly,” she admits. “So I didn’t start working until I got back from college in 2004. So I was probably 21.”
She eventually came around.
“I realized it was better than a desk job,” says Blankenship.
Both have worked their way through the ranks to top leadership positions, though Blankenship admits Estep had a big head start.
“I’m still learning a lot. And now that my parents are officially retiring, I’m stepping up and doing events and stuff that Carol, my mom, has been doing,” she says.
Boggs and Besse’s decision to hand over the store began about two years ago, according to Estep.
“It was them making sure this is really what we want to do … And whether we were ready and willing to do that together,” she says. “And then, when you get down to it, there are a lot of details involved. It’s not ‘Oh here you go.’”
Now Estep and Blankenship are plotting the next steps for the store.
“We want to keep it going and keep it true to (Besse and Boggs), but move into the 21st century on some level,” says Blankenship. “There will be some adaptations we need to do to keep pushing forward, but we want to keep the heart and trueness of what they started.”
Estep says the expansion of the Longest location is a great example.
“I think if we hadn’t been here and said, ‘We’re ready to do this, we think it’s the right decision,’ that they probably would have made a different decision.”
With the new space in the building, Blankenship and Estep have a lot of questions to answer.
“A lot of people have asked us if we’re going to have coffee,” says Estep.
The answer is “no,” but Estep was careful to point out that coffee is still welcome in the store, and the relocated Heine Brothers is just across the street.
They’ve been able to free up a little space in the store’s old footprint so things aren’t as cramped; they’ve expanded sections like poetry, cookbooks and drama; and there’s some space to sit and relax, too.
As for Besse and Boggs, it’s not like they are disappearing.
“I’m sure we’ll spend some time haunting the shelves,” says Boggs. “I think retirement won’t be playing golf. We’re not golfers. We’ll go in and say, ‘Can I work a night shift?’”
Check out the newly expanded Carmichael’s at 1295 Bardstown Road. Or drop by the other location at 2720 Frankfort Ave. And there’s also Carmichael’s Kids, located at 1313 Bardstown Road.