Reading Between Lines: A Novel Idea Bookstore Diversifies Offerings

A Novel Idea Bookstore owner Cinnamon Dokken was charmed by the Icelandic custom of reading books and eating chocolate all night on Christmas Eve.

“I thought that sounded fantastic,” Dokken said. “Hmm … we have books. How could we offer chocolate as well?”

So, she set out to do just that in November of 2021. She found a small business to make a chocolate bar mold featuring the store’s logo, which includes its “feline employees.” Then she went to Gaylene Steinbach, owner of Lulubee Artisanal Chocolates.

“I love working with other locally-owned businesses,” Dokken said. “Gaylene makes lovely little bars for us — both milk and dark chocolate.”

Keeping it Fresh

The custom chocolate bars weren’t the only additions in 2021. Over the summer, the shop closed down for about six weeks while the team input inventory into a new custom database that integrates a point-of-sale system with inventory management.

“Using the new system and the new bargain cabinet outside the shop, we’re able to manage a better flow of inventory,” Dokken said. “The stock in the store is fresher, and customers have the chance to purchase great books from the outside cabinet at a bargain price. The system also helps us target our buying more effectively and better manage what we spend on inventory.”

Humble Beginnings

Having the inventory, space and support to implement these changes was only a dream in 1991 when Dokken and Bryan Peterson opened the bookstore. Both were seniors at University of Nebraska-Lincoln when the store opened in a small consignment space in Bargain Barn on “O” Street. Both worked at The Daily Nebraskan, UNL’s student newspaper.

“We put the store name up for a vote in the newsroom, and the writers went for A Novel Idea,” Dokken said. “We had the booth at Bargain Barn for a while. Then we found a space for rent that had no heat — but being college students, we were used to being poor, tired, and cold.”

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The new store was in a basement that had been abandoned for so long there were dead birds on the floor. Dokken and Peterson cobbled together shelves out of wood UNL had discarded. A year later, the store moved to its current location at 118 N. 14th Street.

“We didn’t even have the first month’s rent in the bank when we signed the lease,” Dokken said. “We really hustled the first month, and the second month. We were selling books as we were moving them, but there’s something to be said for having blind ambition and not really knowing what you’re getting into.”

After a couple of years, Dokken bought out her business partner, who went on to pursue other interests.

The bookstore has five human and two feline staffers. The felines are officially titled customer service representatives, and they are the most popular, Dokken said.

“I have a great crew,” she said. “I’ve always been fortunate to have wonderful people to work with, but the staff I have now is perhaps the best I’ve ever had. Katherine Bergstrom, my store manager, has been with me for 27 of my 30 years in business.”

New Beginnings

In 2001, Dokken joined with other tenants on the block to form the Parrish Project and bought the building in which their businesses were located. They renovated the second floor, which is now an incubator for startups, art studios, and other small businesses.

“We worked hard to aggressively pay down the loan,” Dokken said. “Having done that, I didn’t have a rent payment to contend with last year, which helped tremendously.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the store closed to walk-in traffic and did sales by appointment to limit the number of people inside. It offered curbside pick-up, and Dokken began making deliveries as the “Book Fairy,” complete with wings, wand, and a dragon on the dashboard of her Honda.

The store partnered with other local woman-owned businesses to create and sell Book Bag Care Packages — reusable totes containing books and treats. Chocolate came from Lulubee, Bella Spa & Apothecary created a special blend of bath salts, local artist Sharon Ohmberger made tea saucers for the store, and honey came from Valhalla Bee Farm.

“We delivered lots of those for Mother’s Day, and they’re still popular gifts,” Dokken said.

A Novel Idea participates in several events throughout the year, like Children’s Book Week in May. Its Thank You Thursday program donates a percentage of every Thursday’s sales to a charitable organization. Last year, the store started a program for children in need, through which customer contributions help the store donate Kids’ Book Bag Care Packages to organizations like Friendship Home, Voices of Hope, and CEDARS.

Dokken, an English major with minors in history and sociology, graduated from UNL in 1991.

“The bookstore is a dream that materialized before I realized that I had it,” she said. “My dad had his own dental practice and my mom, a former English teacher, opened her own perennial plant business, greenhouse, and floral shop. I grew up with those role models, so being self-employed didn’t scare me.”

Other plans for 2022 include implementing a newsletter and offering a catalog of collectable books.