Across from the Casselberry Commons, with its comparatively grandiose Publix and the adjacent haughty Starbucks, hides a small bookshop, tucked away next to a hair salon in the Market Square Shopping Center. The sanctum lies behind its humble sign which reads, in large, dull red block letters, “Books.” The title does not fully capture what lies behind. Though, perhaps it does; books stand, stack, and splay across any horizontal surface that is not the floor. The certain controlled chaos of literature that seemingly only ever occurs in small-town novels about eccentric geniuses somehow finds itself in a serene environment that creates a mood only befitting under the circumstance of being surrounded by a small yet vast expanse of books. So there, standing proudly behind a pile of cookbooks and a display of current books that have been made into movies, is A Novel Idea’s current owner, Dede Baker.
Upon walking into the shop, Ms. Baker exclaimed in her own soft-spoken style of mellow excitement that some of her kids were graduates of Lake Howell High School. (It was previously scheduled, so she knew I would be interviewing her for the LHHS school newspaper.) “In fact, I think Mathew still has a swim record there,” Baker said as we delved deeper into the conversation. “He was on the swim team. He swam 500 FLY instead of Free; he was just being smart-alecky ’cause nobody else would do it.” She laughed almost deviously (but light-heartedly) at her son’s antics, and I laughed along as I pretended to know what “FLY” and “Free” meant. (As it turns out, according to usaswimming.org, “FLY” is the nickname for “butterfly,” a competitive racing stroke, and “Free” is the nickname for “freestyle,” another kind of racing stroke in the sport of swimming.) In addition to Matthew, Baker has two other children. She explained that the pictures on the wall behind her included her children; the now fully-grown adults hold a great range of professions from a former Cirque du Soleil performer and a Sea World choreographer to an architect. The pictures of one of her children with an assortment of famous people were proudly displayed next to a picture of, wait for it, Ms. Dede Baker herself as a circus performer.
She told the story fondly. A friend of hers enjoyed looking up people’s histories, and the friend asked Baker if she could look up hers. After sharing the background of Baker’s family, the friend added that, while doing research, she had found a photo from LIFE Magazine in the Florida State University archives. The picture depicted a young Dede Baker atop the back of her partner in the foreground with several other performers holding a striking pose (they each balanced against different levels of some type of high-flying circus set) in the background. Baker had been in the circus for two years. “I had no brains at the time. I was like, ‘Why am I doing this? It’s so scary.'” She explained the time when LIFE Magazine came to the college. The photographer was picking out people to pose for the photo. “You and you and you and you and you,” she said, mimicking the photographer’s voice as she pointed at invisible people in the flashback. The people picked were told to go put on costumes, for they were going to be in the photo. The former circus performer divulged how disappointed she had been at the fact that she wouldn’t be featured in the picture at the time until, after the other girls were in place, the photographer told Baker and her partner to go over; they were going to be in the foreground. The memory captured as a photograph, still perfectly captured in black and white, showed Baker and her partner in the very front as featured performances in the article’s picture.
“That was kind of fun,” she added. “I got letters from people all over the country. Somebody from Australia!” She and I laughed together in the quiet book store at the hilarity of the random sequence of events. Barely audible instrumental music played in the background. (“I have a new toy. It’s called bluetooth. And I was like, ‘O.K. What’s bluetooth?’ I’m eighty-one.”)
In addition to traipsing around with the circus, Baker did actually take classes at Florida State University and graduate as well- 1951-1955. I asked what she majored in, and she smiled conspiringly. “I majored in art. My father didn’t care what I majored in just so long as I graduated.” The bookshop owner disclosed that when she said she wanted to be a librarian, the college told her that she needed to to take science classes, which she emphatically refused to take. “The first class I had, they started cutting up a cat, and I said, ‘O.K. I’m done. I think I’ll major in art.’ So I majored in art, and it was fun. I had no talent, but it was fun, and I graduated!”
After her somehow real compilation of college adventures that belonged in a multitude of sitcoms, before A Novel Idea, Ms. Baker worked as a bookkeeper for a number of places. She worked with a friend at a store and then an owner who owned a couple of stores. Afterwards, she bought A Novel Idea from a friend in 1993 (the friend had founded and owned it for a year and a half before she had to move and sold the store to Baker).
When she first owned the store, romance novels were the most popular, and were Baker’s personal favorite. (“They always have a happy ending.”) That and science fiction novels were top sellers. Now the people who usually stop by the bookshop are grade-school students and students from Full Sail University doing projects like movies and so on. Subsequently, she likes to keep a lot of the books that students usually come looking for, and they are almost always classics and therefore easy to find. To Kill a Mockingbird has been in particularly high demand recently. “Right now, I think it’s Winter Springs High School, is reading To Kill a Mockingbird, and I knew they were going to get it, so I got some in.” Popular books like Wicked and Brave New World, as well as of the famous current series like The Hunger Games, Twilight, Divergent, and Lord of the Rings, are kept in stock for chance that people often come in looking for those specific books. Additionally, Baker likes to follow any news that has to do with books. To Kill a Mockingbird has also become very useful as of late because it was found that Harper Lee had actually written another book about the same characters but then wrote the book we know today with the main character as a child. The first book is going to be coming out in hardcover, and the news has people racing to read To Kill a Mockingbird again. Baker has in turn made sure to keep that book in stock. Along with that she keeps any books that are being made into movies. For instance, right now, she has American Sniper on display on her counter because the movie has come out in theaters recently.
With all of the books that she managed to get a hold of, I asked where she got them all. She responded that a friend of hers, the one who found the circus picture, has a hobby of going out and finding books. Therefore, a mutualistic symbiotic relationship has been formed; Baker gives a list of the books she needs to her friend. Baker gets the books she needs. Her friend gets to find them through one of her favorite hobbies. Each person wins. Any other books are ordered new from the publisher, and some are even donated.
This diverse community creates one of Baker’s advantages over large chain bookstores. Since most of the material is used, an overwhelming majority of the books are sold at about half the price the book was originally, if not less. Even books that were ordered new are sold at 20% off what the book would be sold as at the larger bookstores, and books that are pre-ordered at A Novel Idea are sold for 25% off the publisher price. Baker doesn’t make as much money off of newer books, but with the discount of the books, those customers are hoped to be seen again out of a newfound favor of that store over others.
Really, the bookshop owner needs any leg-up on other stores that she can get, especially when even online stores like Amazon are tough competitors to the small bookshop in today’s world where people can buy books without stepping into a bookstore at all. Even so, the opportunity to own a bookstore is one too appealing to Baker to simply give up in a time of tough competition. When I asked her what she liked most about owning a bookshop, Baker responded, “Oh, I love it. I don’t mind being here at all. I mean, I live close by, and, you know, I don’t have anything else to do.” Chuckling, she continued, “I’ve been here twenty-one years. What would I do without it?” Though, really, any single person could also ask what the community would do without her and the comforting bookstore with the assortment of potted plants and towers of books upon books, and I do not think anyone would really want to imagine the answer.
The A Novel Idea Book Shop is located at 1436 State Road 436 in Casselberry at the corner of Semoran Boulevard and Howell Branch Road. For the phone number of the store and more information, visit the store’s Facebook page here.
By Jade Ammones