Mary Eaton portrait

Mary Eaton, owner of Normal Books, poses for a portrait inside her bookstore on Prince Avenue in Athens, Georgia on Monday, June 10, 2019. Eaton opened the business with her husband Chris Eaton in December of 2017. (Photo/Caroline Barnes, https://carolinembarnes.wixsite.com/photography)

Normal Books is more reminiscent of a grandparents’ house than a Barnes & Noble bookstore.

Plush armchairs are distributed across the floor, which slopes toward the front door. Patches of concrete peek through the hardwood. The fact that the building is partially constructed of an old home is part of what drew the owners, Mary Eaton and her husband, Chris, to the property initially.

The store, she says, “had a special feel about it.”

There are two levels, and the front quarter sits just a few steps below the rest of the store. Seated at the counter, right past the steps, Eaton can see customers from above as they walk-in.

She greets people with her soft Southern accent, asking if it is their first time in the store or if they need help finding anything specific.

Normal Books, which opened in December of 2017, specializes in accessible, bargain books.

“A regular bookstore is probably going to carry the New York Times 10 best-sellers, and when one comes out, they say ‘Oh, that’s going to be hot,’ so they order a hundred of them,” Eaton said.

Eaton explains that if only 60 of those books sell, the store has a right to return them to the publisher. The publisher can’t market the books as “hot off the press” anymore, so they sell them to stores like Normal Books at a high discount.

“It’s a lot of fun when you see people come in and they can’t believe it’s a new book for $5,” said Chris Eaton.

Before starting Normal Books, Eaton worked a number of other jobs. She was a newspaper publisher in the ’90s, and later worked on and off as a massage therapist.

According to Eaton, working in the book industry brought “a whole new rhythm” to her life.

Chris Eaton worked in the bargain book industry for decades before Normal Books, but decided to leave his last company when the business changed leadership. However, he was still too young to retire.

“I am looking forward [to retiring at] the beach and all that stuff,” said Mary Eaton. “But we weren’t ready to roll over and do nothing.”

Small patrons and furry friends

An instrumental cover of Taylor Swift’s “Love Story” played in the background as Eaton explained that the store’s expansive children’s book collection is there by design.

“The little kids are fun,” she said. “I have never heard such tremendous negotiating outside of the 4, 5, and 6-year-olds. You would not believe what they can come up with trying to convince their parents to buy them a book.”

However, there’s more to Eaton’s decision to keep children’s books a priority.

“Reading is so important,” she said. “Not every kid is going to get to go to a university, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t learn as much as they can on their own, and if they can read, they can do that.”

Furry, four-legged patrons are also embraced by the store. Two pet-friendly signs and a water bowl sit just outside the front door.

There’s also a jar of doggie treats on the check-out counter.

Eaton wants Normal Books to be about community, a word she uses often when describing her vision for the store.

Before it opened, she dreamt of a mom-and-pop bookstore where people could come together. She wanted it to emulate the popular 80’s sitcom “Cheers,” which is about a neighborhood bar where a group of regulars spend their free time. Of course, “without the bar part.”

Normal Books hosts events throughout the month that any Athens residents are welcome to attend, whether customers or not.

Some of the events, which are advertised on the store’s Instagram and Facebook pages, include the “Stitch and B*tch” crochet circle, a signature book club and Q&As with local authors.

All about community

“Reading Between the Wines,” is an event Normal Books hosts once a month from 6-9 p.m. It’s mainly a social gathering, where of-age community members bring wine and chat.

At 8 p.m. on a Friday, five women are sitting in foldable chairs around a small table with assorted finger foods and four bottles of wine on top. One of these women is Normal Books staffer Shannon Dominy, who is working the event.

As two other customers peruse the store, they begin discussing the merits of self-driving cars, which eventually spirals into a conversation about the movie “Titanic.”

When it’s time to leave, two unopened bottles of wine remain. The owners choose to leave it in the store, as they all express their desire to attend the event again next month.

Vanessa Murray, who attended the event and regularly shops at Normal Books, once visited the store at Christmastime. The Eatons helped her find two specific books she wanted to give to her little brothers.

“I just remember [Mary and Chris Eaton] being very welcoming and them being really nice,” said Murray.

The most rewarding part of working at the store is “that people seemingly leave happy,” said Eaton. “That’s very rewarding for people to be leaving the store with a smile on their face. And most of them do.”

A few minutes later, Eaton rings up a customer’s books and offers her a bookmark with the store’s contact information. “I think you do a great thing for the community, selling books,” she said, after realizing Eaton is the owner.

“See, I get that, that right there,” Eaton said before adding, “I did not pay her to come in and say that.”

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