Riley and Jennifer Justis had always dreamed of owning a bookstore. The pandemic gave them more time to dream. And plan. And make it happen.
When they decided to go for it, the couple’s first call was to the Small Business Administration, where they were paired with John Bunch, a Management faculty member at Central Michigan University and a consultant for the Small Business Development Center.
“They both brought a strong history of business experience to the project and had a great understanding of what was needed to launch their book store. Given that foundation, being part of the creative thinking and planning process for Sleepy Dog Books was delightful,” Bunch said.
“John brought in an expert for every step,” Riley Justis said. There were professionals to help them with financial reporting, marketing and advertising, market analysis, financial planning, and QuickBooks setup. They then wrote a business plan – and wrote and wrote for 150 pages.
“It just seems more personal working with Northern Initiatives.” – Riley Justis, Sleepy Dog Books
They took their plan to the local bank, which said the loan amount was too small for the bank to lend. The banker gave them two other ideas of where to look for a loan and as soon as they met Lucy McCraven, a commercial lender at Northern Initiatives, the decision was made.
«Lucy is great,” Riley said. “She worked with us and gave us great feedback. She worked with us to answer questions before the board loan committee asked them – but then they came up with more. It was great, really fascinating. The conversations were really nice.
“It just seems more personal working with Northern Initiatives,” he said.
The couple also worked with the Middle Michigan Development Corp., an economic development organization serving Clare and Isabella counties.
Kati Mora, Vice President of MMDC, said a big part of her work is helping small business owners find different kinds of funding and local incentives.
Among the ideas from the MMDC was one Jennifer Justis grabbed onto. Michigan Women Forward, a public statewide foundation that supports Michigan women and girls, held a pitch contest along with 5/3 Bank. Jennifer developed a video pitch, then garnered votes on social media to take third place and win $1,000. It was the start of what has become a robust social media presence for Sleepy Dog Books.
It also garnered media attention for Mount Pleasant’s only locally owned bookstore – and it was months before it would be open. Another round of media attention came more recently, when they were awarded a Make It Mount Pleasant rental subsidy. “That was really nice,” Riley said. “We were in here for months without being open, with barely any income.”
(Their co-tenants in the historic bank building in downtown Mt. Pleasant, Pure Vitality Juice Bar, were recently awarded a $25,000 grant by the state’s Match on Main program.)
Throughout the winter, the Justises worked on the store’s interior, painting and building shelves, benches and tables. They held a pop-up store during Mount Pleasant’s holiday shopping event, sold books online through Bookshop.org, and scored an invitation to a conference for Michigan librarians.
And they took a deep dive into books. Both are former teachers (Riley now works for an education tech company) and their kids grew up reading aloud to the family pets (hence the name of the store) so the family has always been surrounded by reading. But getting to know other people’s preferences has been one of Jennifer’s favorite parts.
“I’m getting better!” she laughed. She says owning an independent bookstore allows them to be nimble and change orders to reflect what people are actually reading.