A booklover in Iowa dreamed of a shop—then opened one, years ahead of schedule, during the pandemic.

When she hosted a few holiday pop-ups in her chilly Des Moines garage in 2020, Abigail Paxton had no expectation that her fantasy brick-and-mortar, Storyhouse Bookpub, would follow just six months later.

abigail paxton book shop portrait
Credit: Kelsey Hansen

You grew up in rural Badger, Iowa. Were you a bookworm?

AP:  I did love reading as a child. Badger has a tiny little library, and I'd walk there often. My parents had a lot of books around the house, and I spent many hours quietly reading.

Tell me about your career path.

AP: After college, I taught high school English in Denver. While working on my master's, I stumbled into a bookstore, hoping for a part-time job. That's where I fell in love with bookselling and writers and readers and learned that independent bookstores are a magical place.

What happened next?

AP: My husband and I moved to Iowa in January 2020. I founded Storyhouse in March—right before the shutdown—with a plan to put pop-ups in local businesses and eventually open a store, maybe five to 10 years down the road. In December, I hosted a few mini book markets in my garage. A coffee shop brought hot drinks, cottage bakeries did pastries, and Des Moines really showed up—in winter jackets, hats and masks. When a business offered me its adjoining storefront, my shop happened a lot faster than I thought it would, opening in June 2021.

Describe Storyhouse Bookpub. 

AP:  We are in the vibrant East Village downtown. Our floor-to-ceiling windows give people a great view of our antique shelves, intimate space and "Read Together, Des Moines" wall. When people walk in, I want them to feel welcome and joyful, my two biggest values. They'll find fresh titles for all ages that they haven't encountered before. We have a book club, Author Afterparty series and children's story time. I love the cozy, conversational feel of a pub, so as we grow, we plan to offer more togetherness with food and drink.

The shop is tiny! How do you stock it strategically?

AP: A big-box store can feel overwhelming, so the beauty of Storyhouse is the browsing experience. Everything here is heavily curated—I have to think about every title I put in our 400 square feet. I hand-select books that are new and relevant and maybe a little quirky. I highlight recommendations from other small-business owners. And as a white woman in an industry dominated by whiteness, I prioritize titles that let readers discover historically marginalized voices. I want readers from many identities and backgrounds to feel seen and celebrated on our shelves.

Have you encountered doubters? 

AP: I'm often asked, "Oh, a bookstore. How's that going?" But I believe a bookstore is something people are craving and want to support. They've stood the test of time. If there's one thing we've done to get us where we are so quickly, it's developing friendships. I love the work-together attitude of our local business community: The more successful my neighbor is, the more successful I am!

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.