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Source Booksellers: 34 Years of Nonfiction Bookselling


By Zoe Perzo

Source Booksellers in Detroit, Michigan, has been going strong for 34 years. The owner, Janet Webster Jones, is the winner of 2023’s Voice of the Heartland Award. She started bookselling while she was working in the Detroit public school system, and continued bookselling full-time when she retired.Source Booksellers owner, Janet Webster Jones, stands in front of a bookshelf.

I sat down with Janet Webster Jones and her daughter, Alyson Jones Turner, to talk about the evolution of Source Booksellers and to get Jones’ perspective on the industry as one of our oldest and most experienced booksellers. 

Source Booksellers is a store specializing in nonfiction. Though their offerings have expanded over the years to include children’s titles and a small fiction selection, nonfiction remains the heart of their mission.

Why nonfiction?

“Well, that’s what I like.” Jones laughed. “We also think that information, perspective, and understanding really helps people. It leads to empathy.” 

“We started this journey of book selling in December of 1988,” she told me. “I was still employed with Detroit Public Schools. And from 1989 on, I would take books to wherever people had gathered for an event.”

After 10 years of this, Jones retired from the school system and took the next step in her bookselling journey. She joined forces with three other women-owned businesses to open a shared space called the Spiral Collective. Inside the Spiral Collective, Source Booksellers found its first brick-and-mortar home.

The shop thrived in its physical space, acquiring new customers as well as retaining many from its previous ten years of operation.

The space served them well for another ten years, but eventually it was time to move on. In 2013, they moved into a building just up the street, and that move proved how much of a community fixture Source Booksellers had become.

“It was a neighborhood move,” Jones said. She and her daughter laughed while recalling how customers showed up to help them move. One man brought his wagon and hauled small items down the street, another used his truck to transport bigger pieces. 

They’re still in that location today, though they’ve since expanded it.

There have, of course, been challenges along the way. Like many other bookstores, the pandemic brought uncertainty and forced Source Booksellers to adapt.

Jones made the decision to keep the store open.

“I felt in my heart that if you close something and stop it, you cannot reopen where you were — things will have changed,” she explained.

So she took a step she had never been keen on before, and moved the business online with the help of her daughter. 

They set up a shipping station inside the store and took the challenge in stride. Because she had chosen to remain open, Source Booksellers was able to serve the community as they dealt with the next blow.

“Then [came] the George Floyd murder and the resulting social unrest.” Jones recalled. “People wanted to know what was going on. Because we were nonfiction, we had many of the titles that were coming to the surface at the time and we were able to service people from across the country.” 

Source Booksellers has been incredibly adaptable during its long operating life, going from vendor, to brick-and-mortar, to virtual. And Jones has a profound philosophy for dealing with each new challenge. 

“When I think about obstacles or impediments,” Jones said, “my tendency is to turn it into something good.”

A similar philosophy has allowed Source Booksellers to grow and serve the community in all kinds of exciting ways.

“I always felt that we could say yes until we just had to say no.” Jones explained. 

Saying yes has brought Source Booksellers all across town, into suburbs, to festivals, and recently, into homes themselves.

“Someone asked if we can manage books at a private home!” Jones told me. Though initially nervous about the project, they said yes. 

Despite everything they’ve seen, some things in bookselling stay the same.Janet Webster Jones stands outside Source Booksellers, pointing up at the store's sign.

“Books have been, are still, and will continue to be a source of knowledge and pleasure for human beings,” Jones said. “People will turn to books when they're not sure about things, because human beings are always curious.”

“I think the thing that stays constant with booksellers is that we are serving the community, staying true to the mission of the store, and then trying to make a living with that. That's another tricky part right here,” she laughed.

For Source Booksellers, part of serving the community is saying yes to community partnerships.

“We have a library right down the street from us,” Turner explained. “They’ve saved us and we’ve saved them. When our venue hasn’t been big enough, we’ve needed their space. Then there were times that authors came to the library and they had no bookseller, so we’d run over there.”

“We like to partner as much as we can with other institutions,” Jones said. “I'm totally convinced that nothing stands alone by itself. Joining together, you can add more to the neighborhood and more to your own efforts as well.”

To that end, she’s also part of Midtown Detroit, Inc., a nonprofit organization that supports the neighborhood.

“We’re really in the cultural heart of the city,” she explained. “There’s Wayne State University, the College for Creative Studies, and the Detroit Institute of Arts, several main libraries, and lots of residences and galleries. This is the heart of the city — where people live, learn, work, and play.”

Perhaps everything Jones and Turner shared with me can be summed up with Source Booksellers’ tagline: “Making the Literary Arts Visible.”

“When people think of arts they think of the visual arts. But the literary arts are our language, or reading, listening, speaking, our writing. Those things are the hidden side,” Jones explained. “So ‘Making the Literary Arts Visible’ is the tagline, and service to the community is what we do.”

If you’re in the Detroit area and their mission resonates with you, check out some of Source Booksellers events. They maintain a packed schedule, and Turner shared just a few of the upcoming things they’re excited about. 

On March 29, they’re hosting an author event for When Detroit Played the Numbers by Felicia George. 

“We also partner with a local Lions Club to do a disability book club with a focus on Blind and Deaf authors,” Turner explained. “And April 8, we’re on the national tour for There’s Always This Year with Hanif Abdurraqib! We’re really excited about that.”

You can learn more about Source Booksellers and their upcoming events on their websiteFacebook, or Instagram, and don’t forget to stop by the next time you’re in Detroit!