At the end of May, Ada’s Technical Books co-founder Danielle Hulton made a remarkable announcement: Ada’s would be taking over operations of local minichain Fuel Coffee. By any metric, buying three neighborhood coffee shops in the middle of a global pandemic and economic collapse is a bold move. Even more surprising, though, was Hulton’s announcement that the three Fuel locations will also become small indie bookstores, with each eventually carrying roughly 1,000 nonfiction, fiction and children’s titles.
Fuel Coffee seems like a wise investment no matter what the business climate. Owner/founder Dani Cone expanded Fuel from one location in 2005 to three beloved neighborhood hangout spots in Wallingford, Montlake and Capitol Hill. (Cone is keeping 10% of her stake in Fuel.) But conventional wisdom would argue that opening three small neighborhood independent bookshops in Seattle in the year 2020 is, to put it gently, a little bit of a risk.
Luckily, Hulton has never paid much attention to conventional wisdom.
When she and her husband David founded Ada’s 10 years ago, she had no bookstore experience, but coming in fresh proved to be a strength. While many new bookstores flounder around for a few years before honing their stock and discovering their audience, Ada’s almost immediately found its own rhythm as a scientifically focused bookshop, cafe and STEM community hub. Three years after it opened, the store expanded from a tiny annex at the end of Broadway to a lushly renovated house on 15th Avenue East, where it has thrived ever since.
“Ada’s is what I want to exist in the world, and I’ve gotten lucky that other people want it too,” Hulton explained on the phone in a recent interview with The Seattle Times.
With Ada’s firmly established, Hulton had been looking to expand into new businesses. When Cone asked if Hulton and her husband would be interested in buying Fuel back in January, they were enthusiastic about the opportunity. One statewide lockdown and two massive quarterly plunges in GDP later, Hulton found herself in charge of four independent bookstore/coffee shops and a staff of 20 bookseller/baristas.
Right now, all three Fuel locations are offering limited “summer walk-up window” service, with baristas serving coffee drinks, baked goods and a small selection of six to 12 books from the front door. With the indoor seating closed, Hulton is working on rebranding the spaces and preparing for the architects at Seattle’s Board & Vellum to redesign the spaces.
“We have our building permit for the Capitol Hill Fuel location, and we’ll probably start on that soon,” Hulton says. The other two will follow soon after. When the redesign has finished, Fuel won’t just be coffee shops with a couple of ramshackle bookshelves shoved into a corner. Hulton and her staff are surprised by how bookish Board & Vellum’s designs are.
“I thought that the Capitol Hill location would have the least amount of books because that location is not that big,” Hulton admits. “But we actually found a pretty decent chunk of space.”
All of Board & Vellum’s plans for the shops “have book nooks or little bookstore areas in them. They’re significant,” Hulton says.
And now, for Hulton and her staff, comes the fun part: introducing Fuel’s baristas to the books and letting the neighborhoods shape the shop’s selection. Each Fuel location has a box with about 100 titles inside, and baristas are asked to display a few books.
“They put out the books they want to put out, which has been fun,” Hulton says.
Already customers are beginning to shape the inventory at each shop. “We brought children’s books to all the locations, but in Montlake we have not been able to keep them in stock. People keep buying everything that’s on display,” Hulton says.
Customers at the Montlake and Wallingford Fuels, which are farther away from Seattle’s biggest bookshops, seem to be hungry for all the new, hot titles. “New York Times bestseller list titles don’t move a ton at Ada’s, but they’re moving a lot at the Fuel locations,” she explains. “So that’s been fun for us — we can see if a title has infiltrated into the neighborhood yet, or not.”
Longtime Ada’s book buyer Rain Sepulveda is in charge of all the merchandising in the Fuel locations and training the baristas in the ways of bookselling.
“Rain does a great job at working with people that aren’t — and maybe don’t even want to be — booksellers, and finding a way for them to become a natural bookseller,” Hulton says.
Ultimately, she thinks, it comes down to loving the books you carry. “If a customer is asking for a recommendation and there’s a book on the shelf that you love and that you’re obsessed with, then you’re going to want to recommend it.”
The recipe for bookselling success sounds simple when Hulton describes it: Stick to your vision, find your people and share what you love. Given that she’s already built one of Seattle’s best independent bookstores with absolutely no prior experience, and given that she’s just opened a new chain of independent bookstores in Amazon’s backyard during the worst year for small business since at least the Great Depression, maybe it really is that simple.
What are Fuel Coffee customers reading?
Though Fuel Coffee locations have only been selling a small selection of books from walk-up windows for a little over a month, Hulton identifies a clear pattern that has already emerged.
“Our bestsellers right now are children’s books and anti-racism titles,” she says.
Seattle author Ijeoma Oluo’s primer on race in America, “So You Want to Talk About Race,” has been a bestseller at Ada’s since it came out, Hulton says, and it’s selling well at Fuel, too. “The bookstore community in Seattle in general is pretty proud of our local authors, and we especially love [Oluo].” “Me and White Supremacy,” “How to Be An Anti-Racist” and “Freedom Is a Constant Struggle” are all selling well around town, too.
Fuel’s readers are interested in science fiction and fantasy, including N.K. Jemisin’s latest magical celebration of New York, “The City We Became,” and Charlie Jane Anders’ futuristic, hard science fiction paperback “The City in the Middle of the Night.”
And children’s books including “Hair Love” and “All Are Welcome” are selling briskly at each Fuel location, but Hulton has especially fallen hard for “Julián Is a Mermaid,” a children’s picture book about a boy who becomes infatuated with mermaids written and illustrated by Jessica Love. Hulton praises the book for delivering “a beautiful message of support, and the art is amazing.”
“It’s so cute,” she gushes.