Book pages turn, the espresso machine whistles and cars rumble along Magnolia Avenue in downtown Auburn. Under the blue-colored awning of Auburn Oil Co. Booksellers, inscribed on the window is a quote from Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird:” “Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.”
June Wilcox is the owner of Auburn Oil Co. Booksellers, which opened in October 2019. However, this is not her only bookstore. Her first one opened in Greenville, South Carolina, seven years ago. Juggling between two stores in two states, she spends the day-to-day operations in Greenville and oversees Auburn with the help of her staff. Despite the four-hour drive between her businesses, Wilcox said she is not worried about the distance.
“The success is never about one person,” she said. “It is so much about who you have around you.”
Wilcox has a business background with 22 years of experience as an IT consultant. However, she said being a bookstore owner is new to her in the grand scheme of things. Before her IT work, she went to graduate school in Spain at the University of Salamanca and moved back to the United States to work with Motorola in Chicago. She later did an expatriate assignment in Sao Paulo, Brazil. However, in 1999, she moved back to Greenville to start a family.
While Wilcox grew up in Greenville, her husband, Mike Armor, grew up in Auburn. Traveling to Auburn with him, she said she fell in love with the city and grew a desire to become part of the community. Wilcox said the inspiration for the name Auburn Oil Co. Booksellers was the idea of local community. The name alludes to the community Armor’s father, Murphy Armor, created with his gas station business.
Upon meeting new people, they ask her: What do you do for work? When they hear she is a bookstore owner, Wilcox said they give her some worried looks and tell her: “Oh yeah, sorry about that, that’s definitely on its way out.” However, Wilcox said this is far from the case.
Storytelling is a powerful thing, and it’s the way people are engaging with literature that is changing, she said. Through working at her stores, Wilcox said she has noticed films and TV shows, like Netflix’s “Anne with an E,” are inspiring people to read the original literature. Wilcox said even with new technology, like Kindles, people have not stopped reading books.
“What we're seeing is paper being very much alive, and that people tell us all the time that they love the feel of a book, and they love the smell of a book,” she said.
The notion that reading is a lost art is not the only obstacle in owning a bookstore. Similar to other small businesses, she said part of the challenge is learning about the community and finding where the business fits. From there, Wilcox said there’s the process of crafting the community within the store.
“It doesn't matter how much business success you have or what the books look like,” she said. “It's about the people who bring it to life.”
Wilcox said someone who highlights this is the store manager of Auburn Oil Co. Booksellers, Angela Wilhite. Wilhite manages the book shipments, works on the floor with customers and oversees the other employees. Wilhite said the bookstore needs a diverse book selection, but more crucially, they desire to provide personalized service.
“It's just so important to have a warm and friendly atmosphere and a friendly face behind that counter who can give great book recommendations,” she said.
Wilhite said it is with that same level of care Wilcox treats her employees. In February, Wilhite was diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer, and she received the last of her radiation last month. Wilcox drove down from South Carolina at the end of September and gave Wilhite the week off, telling her to take the time to take care of herself.
“A lot of bosses, I don't think, would be that supportive like she is,” Wilhite said. “She's an incredible businesswoman, but she's also an incredibly kind, caring person and employer.”
With Wilcox’s second bookstore opening on the cusp of the pandemic, she had to choose between her bookstores or her consulting business. She chose the bookstores. However, she said this was not the easier path. The reality requires working with other people and monitoring the finances.
“We get employees a lot who send in their application, and they love to read,” she said. “Their image of reading is with a cup of tea, with a cat beside them, behind the counter. It's just not like that. It's so hard. It's a lot of work.”
At the end of the day, Wilcox said it’s a business she puts a lot of heart into and with that there’s a risk, “but it’s absolutely worth it.” As an only child, she found a connection with animals and books. Within stories like “Black Beauty,” Wilcox said she felt she could identify, in some way, with the words printed on the pages.
“There's perspective, and there's so much that you can learn about humanity by reading and telling stories,” she said. “I think that independent bookstores are critical to fostering and supporting that sense of human connection.”
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Abigail Murphy, senior in journalism with minors in history and women and gender studies, is the operations managing editor at The Auburn Plainsman.