Alison Frenzel and her business partner, Kimberly Batson, are opening an independent bookstore — Fabled Bookshop & Cafe. The shop is located in the heart of downtown, at 217 South Fourth Street, in the building with the iconic Wacotown mural. Reaching opening day has taken a bit longer than expected, but the delay has provided time for Fabled to develop a following. They already have a newsletter, merch and a secret society. Every decision, from the depth of the bookshelves to the type of coffee served, is made with Waco in mind.
Many of those ideas sprang from the mind of Frenzel, who has a background in marketing and has worked as an independent consultant at Alison Frenzel Creative. She also ran Alison Frenzel Photography, which gave her the opportunity to use her camera to help clients tell the stories of their lives. These days Fabled takes up the majority of her time.
Wacoan writer Megan Willome spoke with Frenzel by phone to learn about the hard work of opening a bookstore, her plans to build and deepen Waco’s reading community, and her advice for children’s authors.
WACOAN: When do you expect Fabled to open?
Frenzel: We’re probably training staff by the end of this month [June]. We’re looking at next month [July] to open. It feels incredible to say. It’s been a long, long journey.
WACOAN: I know it has because I just found an interview you did with Anne Bogel, Modern Mrs. Darcy, on her podcast, ‘What Should I Read Next,’ and that was back in May 2017. What’s happened since then?
Frenzel: We started the process [of opening Fabled] in fall of 2016. The intentions were consistent throughout that time period. Anything that changed would’ve been small details that would not be significant.
What hasn’t changed is our belief that Waco needs an independent bookstore. We have a vibrant community of readers here.
I can’t remember — on the podcast, did I say how many books we would have?
WACOAN: You said you weren’t sure yet.
Frenzel: There’s a lot more math in this than I anticipated. If you don’t like math, then you won’t like planning for how many linear feet of space books take up. But right now we’re planning for 20,000 books. It depends on how many face-outs.
WACOAN: How did you connect with Anne Bogel for the interview?
Frenzel: I followed Anne for a long time. In her interview, I think I said I had a reading blog, connecting books and culture. I’d post about reading and books and celebrating reading. Any time she had her what-I-read-this-month roundup, I’d link to her blog, so we knew each other that way, online. I emailed and pitched her about us opening an independent bookstore.
We were in the beginning stages. No one could have told us how much work it would be. We were in the honeymoon stage.[Bogel] was really good to us. We sold T-shirts [from my blog], and she linked to them.
WACOAN: What other online publicity have you had?
Frenzel: There is an online newsletter for booksellers called ‘Shelf Awareness,’ and they put it in their newsletter [October 16, 2017]. It’s fun to hear from other booksellers.
WACOAN: And you have your own newsletter, which people can sign up for through your website, fabledbookshop.com.
Frenzel: With my marketing background, it felt like — what if we brought everybody along and built our tribe? And when we open, they’re already ready.
We have a really big newsletter, lots of subscribers. We’ve been able to sell shirts, and people are excited and encouraging, especially along the road, when we’re working out the details.
WACOAN: You mentioned building a tribe. Tell me more about how Fabled Fellows fits into that plan.
Frenzel: We wanted to do a membership program with a card where you can get certain discounts, percentages off books and merchandise. My mom is a member of Barnes & Noble, and I take advantage of that. We thought, what if we made this feel like a secret society?
WACOAN: I saw the Fabled Fellows video on the shop’s Facebook page. It had an air of mystery to it.
Frenzel: It was inspired from that 1940s style. I was thinking of ‘Masterpiece Theatre,’ that British miniseries.
We did it just to celebrate Independent Bookstore Day because we weren’t open yet but wanted to be celebratory. It went very well. A lot of people said, ‘I’ve always wanted to be part of a secret society.’
For the program, you get actual perks, like a percentage off a purchase. We have an event space, and if you’d like to rent it, you get a bit off of that. When we do events, we let Fabled Fellows know before anyone else, so they can get tickets before anyone else. People who signed up have been our cheerleaders around Waco.
WACOAN: You’re in the building with the Wacotown mural.
Frenzel: Which felt so perfect. We wanted a bookstore that feels like it’s in the heart of the community, so to have this building that is already celebrated because of the mural has been so amazing and fun and felt so right.
WACOAN: How did you come up with the bookshop’s name?
Frenzel: The name Fabled was created from several long brainstorming sessions. We wanted the name to feel nostalgic and give a nod to the mythical, tall-tale quality stories can take on here in Texas.
The play on Fabled being an adjective about our bookshop was fun too.
WACOAN: On your website you mentioned that when you were researching whether Waco needed an independent bookstore, you spoke with a lot of people. What kind of feedback did you receive?
Frenzel: We were surprised by almost everything we found. A lot of people, myself included, had ‘You’ve Got Mail’ syndrome, where we think that independent bookstores are closing down, that they don’t survive. But there are a lot of them that are thriving.
A lot of that is the Shop Local initiative. Also communities wanting to celebrate reading. Amazon will never give you an in-person recommendation. Sometimes they do a great job, and sometimes it’s Recommendations For You, and it’s a stapler.
Our hope is anybody can come in and say, ‘I’m going on a cruise. I’m not a reader, but I need a book,’ and our booksellers will be able to help them find a book.
Back to the process, we looked at retail information, like from the census, and how people shopped in Waco, how many books they bought, in what genres. We did an online survey. We received a lot of feedback.
We connected with independent stores like BookPeople in Austin, Interabang [Books] in Dallas, small ones in the South. A lot don’t have the coffee element. We’re so encouraged by what they were telling us.[In Waco] we tried to do our due diligence, raised money with local investors and wanted to give them as much info as possible.
WACOAN: But your cafe will have coffee.
Frenzel: We will have coffee, beer and wine, light food offerings. Native Sons [Coffee Roasters] is making a Fabled blend for us. We’ve been working with them, so you can drink the blend there and purchase it.
WACOAN: What’s your plan for special events at Fabled?
Frenzel: I think it will hold around 50 people, seated.
But we are hoping to do our own events, literary-focused events, author signings, Dr. Seuss’ birthday, along with kids events. Having people rent it out — if they want to do something fun for a conference day that’s not in the office, or having a poetry group, local writers groups. We want to show that we’re advocating for them and their presence in Waco, that they have somewhere to go.
WACOAN: There’s always a need for space for writers groups.
Tell me more about your plans for the Author Connection and how you’ll partner with authors, local and otherwise.
Frenzel: That’s something we’re still figuring out. Authors are interested in coming to Waco — it’s somewhere people want to come. That’s more of the organic connection.
But also being able to connect with publishers — how can we host an event, how many people we can project to come, especially if [the author] has a community following in Waco.
Publishers have asked us, ‘What are your connections to bigger, larger events in town?’ and ‘Are there churches around you? Do you have connections with them?’ Funny enough, we do!
We’re the newbies, wanting to prove ourselves — anything you want at all, we’ll do. Just send us people.
Because we have such great bookstores in Dallas and Austin, we’re hoping to woo people from up and down I-35 while they’re in town.
WACOAN: I would imagine Fabled will attract tourists from farther away too. When I’m on vacation, I try to hit an independent bookstore.
Frenzel: A lot of people do that. You get a feel for the town you’re in, and maybe you see something you’ve never seen before.
A new bookstore opened in Georgetown, Lark & Owl [Booksellers]. We’ve connected with them. We’re loosely planning something where we have a passport for a tour of bookstores, for bookstores up and down I-35.
WACOAN: Earlier you said one of the challenges of opening a bookshop is all the math involved. What are some other challenges or surprises you’ve found along the way?
Frenzel: I’ve been surprised what a friendly, generous industry this is. Coming from marketing, there’s more of a territorial aspect. When someone has an idea, their instinct is to protect it. But people have encouraged us, talked with us, given us as much advice as we need — from the depth of your bookshelves, to how you promote, to how you get publishers to take you seriously. We have a camaraderie among each other. If we’re all thriving, we can all thrive together.
With any new business, you’re surprised, like you’re in the middle of a field in Round Top, and look what you’re loading into your truck. You’re the workhorse in the beginning. I’ll look in my car and find a wrench that I needed, and that’s not something I normally have floating around in my car.
WACOAN: Your merchandise is already for sale online.
Frenzel: Creating our merch ahead of time was a happy accident. Construction of our building, the process was taking a long time, and we’d built so much momentum from the Modern Mrs. Darcy podcast and sending out a monthly newsletter. Plus Midway ISD invited us to be part of their [Midway Reads Festival]. We were like, ‘Let’s take the opportunity to design our shirts and meet people face to face before we open.’ That continued the momentum, people being excited about our opening, and making some money in the process.
We work with Hole in the Roof. They’ve been so creative. I have an idea, and they think outside the box to make it happen.
WACOAN: I like your Pumpkin Juice pins.
Frenzel: We’re wanting to promote some good Harry Potter references, like that one.
WACOAN: How did you connect with your business partner, Kimberly Batson?
Frenzel: We connected in fall of 2016, through Lane Murphy, at Baylor. He’d heard both of us say we’d want to open a bookstore. I always said I wanted coffee involved.
I’d met [Batson] at a women’s entrepreneurial group. We talked about it, and we just kept seeing that we had the same vision. We wanted something that felt magical, that called to the nostalgia of reading. Somewhere that would celebrate community and have that discoverability factor — ‘Oh, I didn’t know I wanted this book.’
Having that shared vision is really special because every independent bookstore has its own feel and vision for what they carry, what their intentions are. It’s been small steps toward a large endpoint. It’s been a great working relationship. I’m grateful she has all the coffee knowledge, and she’s done renovations before [at Common Grounds and Heritage Creamery]. She says, ‘You have to be patient with the construction process.’ The two of us are owners, but we hope to add a staff with knowledge and expertise.
WACOAN: I assume that means you want to hire book-lovers.
Frenzel: We’ve had a lot of applications, I think almost 200. I’ve joked it’s a good problem to have, but it is a real problem. There are so many amazing people who have had an interest in working with us. We always write down their book recs.
There’s a great reading community within Waco, but we’re also trying to create a new reading community — new authors, new books that we don’t even know about yet.
WACOAN: What do you want to offer to Waco’s reading community?
Frenzel: As far as our offerings, we’ll have new fiction, science fiction and fantasy, mystery, all the general categories, but in that, building an inventory. It’s the push-pull of selecting things people love but wanting people to read things they haven’t yet heard about, maybe a book published by a small press. We’re only two people, but we’re hoping our booksellers will help us. We’re not experts in every genre.
In interviewing, we’re looking for people with different expertise, like books about business and economics, someone to say, ‘You need these authors and this book that’s getting a lot of buzz.’ We’re looking to bring in a vibrant selection and a community that celebrates that.
WACOAN: Am I correct that Waco’s only other bookstore is Barnes & Noble?
Frenzel: There are a couple of used ones, but no independent bookstore selling new books. Which is amazing considering we have three higher ed schools and great public schools and private schools.
WACOAN: I imagine you came to your love of books partly from your father, who teaches English at Baylor.
Frenzel: Maurice Hunt. That’s why we moved here; I was 2. He helped my love of reading. His specialty is Shakespeare.
Both my parents are huge readers. They read bestsellers before I get to them.
WACOAN: Were you an English major?
Frenzel: I went to [Texas] A&M, needed to spread my wings. I thought I would major in sociology, actually took a minimester class at [McLennan Community College], maybe British lit, and realized how much I loved it.
I did not want to be a teacher. I thought, ‘There are other things I can do — I don’t have to teach.’ Right after I graduated, I was a writer and editor with WRS Group. I found I really loved the marketing side. When my husband went to seminary in Kentucky, Asbury Theological Seminary, I was part of an ad firm and really enjoyed it.
WACOAN: When did you and your husband, Brandon, move back here?
Frenzel: We took a long tour of the South. Moved to Alabama for our first church. Our daughter was born there, but we really missed Texas. We moved to Fort Worth, where he was pastor of students at First Methodist Church of Fort Worth. Our son was born there.[My husband] is currently the executive pastor at First Methodist here in Waco. We’re so happy we moved back. Living in the metroplex, I was not excited at first about coming back, but now that we’re here, Waco is such a great size. It has so many things that a big city has without all the big-city headaches. I always say it’s little enough to see people you know but big enough to always have someone new to meet.
WACOAN: Do you and your husband ever get a chance for a date night, and do you have a particular place you like to go?
Frenzel: We’re both busy. We don’t get a lot of time just us. We love Hecho en Waco, a new Mexican place downtown.
WACOAN: Tell me something about each of your kids.
Frenzel: My son [age 8] is the best hugger, and my daughter is a very good conversationalist for being 12 years old.
WACOAN: You said on the website that once your children were born, books took on a different significance.
Frenzel: Anytime you go through something a second time, when you experience something alongside your children, it takes on a different meaning.
My son was diagnosed with dyslexia last year. It’s been a huge eye-opening experience, to be opening a bookstore and have a child with a reading disability and those challenges.
I was researching, are there certain books that help dyslexic kids read or a certain font that helps them? What I came to is, it’s just something they struggle with. I felt more and more that really good books are so important for kids, especially kids like him, who have to work so hard to read. I thought if an author were to ask me, ‘What can I do to help kids with reading disabilities?’ I’d say, ‘Write a really good book, because it’s 10 times harder for them than for someone who doesn’t struggle.’
WACOAN: What book recommendations do you have?
Frenzel: That is what I love about books among people — when you love a book, you want people to know about it.
‘The Which Way Tree,’ by Elizabeth Crook. I’ve begged her to come visit. I just picked it up. It was magical. I’ve made everybody read it. It’s the best audiobook I have listened to. The narrator does such an amazing job because he does all the different voices. It’s one of my favorite books I’ve read.
I just started ‘Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee,’ by Casey Cep. It’s about a court case that Harper Lee attended and supposedly was to write a book about, but they never found the manuscript. The prose is so beautiful. It feels very much like ‘To Kill A Mockingbird,’ which is one of my favorites.
I always have a couple books going at the same time. My book club is reading ‘Then She Was Gone,’ a murder mystery, a thriller. It’s by Lisa Jewell.
WACOAN: You mentioned audiobooks. I want to avoid the audio versus print question and ask instead what you get out of audiobooks that you don’t get from a regular book or an e-book.
Frenzel: I would say my purpose in listening to books is to get another book in that I might not have time to read the pages of. I’m not an auditory person. Visually, when I read I can remember what the page looked like, what part of a page a scene was on. I definitely prefer an actual book, even over reading an e-book. I don’t retain [audiobooks] like I do a paper book. But the auditory process is having another book to be lost in.
We’ve partnered with Libro. They are like Audible but for independent bookstores, in terms of prices, in terms of membership. But you select your independent bookstore, and we get a portion [of your purchase]. They’ve been incredibly generous to us, giving us free audiobooks that we can listen to ahead of time, even if it just came out. If we don’t have time to read, we can listen to it.
WACOAN: You’ve said, ‘every shop has its own purpose and passion and vision,’ so what is your purpose for Fabled?
Frenzel: A store for everyone, even if you’re not a reader, that you’d be able to find something for you. A place with that discoverability factor, where you find something new, something you haven’t seen or even heard of.
We have many running lists of books [for the shop], people who tell us, ‘You have to have this, you have to have that.’ You think, ‘I know a lot of books,’ but there’s always more and more and more.
FIVE ITEMS ALISON CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT
1. Headphones. If I’m not reading an actual book, I’m listening to one, or podcasts.
2. The Daily Message Bible. This year I’m reading through The Message’s version of The Daily Bible, and it’s been riveting. Plus, it gives you a day off, or in my case, a chance to catch up.
3. My jean jacket. Whether it’s at church or Common Grounds, I’m usually cold, but I’ve found I’m more productive and a better listener if I’m wearing it.
4. A dainty bracelet my husband gave me this past Christmas from Vrai & Oro. I never take it off. It’s a special reminder to me of his love and support.
5. Books. Because, of course!