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Abbigail Glen, a Philadelphia native, visited Charlotte on a road trip about five years ago and liked it so much she ended up moving here.
Glen, 32, always dreamed of opening up her own business. In the summer of 2019, she quit her HR job and opened Shelves, a mobile bookseller that started out as a pop-up at breweries and cafes around Charlotte.
Glen spent her first several months as an entrepreneur learning how to manage a website and how to build customer relationships. This summer, she pivoted to selling books online. She added merchandise like clothes and journals, too. Eventually, Glen plans to open a brick-and-mortar store for Shelves.
(The following has been edited for clarity and brevity.)
What made you want to get into the book-selling industry?
I’m a reader and a writer. It was something I tossed around in the back of my mind when I lived in Philly. I thought it’d be interesting, even if it wasn’t something I did full time.
Logistically, what did it take to open Shelves? Did you invest your own money or take out any business loans?
I used my own money. I don’t have any business or personal debt. Before I quit my job, I’d saved about two months’ of paychecks because I knew I wouldn’t make money off Shelves right away. The intent initially wasn’t to do it full time. But I realized if I am going to commit to it, I should do it full time. I did personal shopping with Shipt on the side at first.
What else did you do to help prepare yourself to launch a business?
I took a small business workshop that was being offered at the Sugar Creek library branch. I found it on the library’s website; I’m a huge library patron. It was through this group called Aspire, and they gave me personalized help by introducing me to other entrepreneurs. From there, I sent emails to a bunch of coffee shops and breweries — a friend had suggested I begin as a pop-up. Queen City Grounds was the first to respond.
How has Shelves changed since you launched it?
At first, I didn’t sell online. Last spring, I had a software developer create a page on my site where customers could place requests. I knew as a mobile bookstore, I could only carry but a few books by myself. Then in June, we got way busier. It was absolutely insane, the number of orders that were coming in daily through that page. Customers were just putting in their own titles. Over the summer, I had a software developer build out e-commerce capabilities for the site. Then I took the reigns of handling the website myself.
How did you learn all of this on the fly?
It was more the website design, and figuring out what goes together. I didn’t have to figure out the code because it was already there. But everything was new to me, even shipping. I learned how to handle all of that over the pandemic. We just hired Go Daddy — they have a software developer division. This month they’re assisting me with things I can’t do. I also just hired an assistant.
I thank God for those customers who stuck with me. They believe in the vision and they served almost as test dummies when I fixed the site. I had no idea what the hell I was doing.
How has business been since you added online sales?
June was my highest selling month. Second was September, followed by July then November.
How would you describe Shelves these days?
At the core we’re a bookstore but it’s a lifestyle brand that celebrates readers, writers, and dreamers. Reading is a lifestyle around here. Everything I do is to celebrate that lifestyle.
What’s your plan for a brick-and-mortar store?
I’m not in a huge rush. The pandemic has shown me what kind of physical store I want to be in one day — one where curbside pickup and social distancing are possible, for instance. When I do it, I have to make sure we think about what other brick-and-mortars have experienced.
If you could give one piece of advice to 22-year-old Abbigail, what would it be?
I would tell myself: Sis, get around more people who are doing their own thing and learn about the challenges they face.
What is your No. 1 piece of financial advice?
I tell people to really try to get themselves out of debt. It feels good not to owe anybody.
Photo courtesy of Abbigail Glen.
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