A Literary Giant In The Making

For a virtual bookstore, reading is fundamental to success

It was an interest in books that first brought Net-preneurs Gigi Roane and Willie Jennings together in August of 1996. The two met in the Trover Shop bookstore in Washington, D.C., where Jennings had worked for 23 years and Roane, a book enthusiast and former teacher, was a frequent customer. Roane was forced to retire from teaching after being exposed to toxic volcano fumes while on a class field trip to Hawaii. Jennings, on the other hand, had always wanted to open his own bookstore.

Roane, who after a year and a half of convalescing was anxious to get back to work, came upon a solution that would fulfill both of their dreams. She was convinced that books were the obvious item for the partners to sell, and e-commerce was the way to sell them. “I really didn’t see the point of having a commercial storefront,” says Roane. Jennings agreed. “The overhead to open a bookstore would have easily run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he says.

In November 1996, just three months after they met, Roane and Jennings launched Drum and Spear (www.drumandspear.com) on the Web with $4,000 from Roane’s early retirement account and Jennings’ savings. The store is based in Roane’s D.C. home. Most of the initial investment went to hardware, such as a computer and printer, scanner, credit card terminal and extra phone line. The Web site was designed by Erin Britz, a University of Maryland student, whom Roane used to baby-sit. Roane has since become proficient in Microsoft Front Page and designs much of the site herself, although she still gets help from her former charge, who acts as her Web master.

Citing a conflict of interest, the owners of the Trover Shop fired Jennings a month after Drum and Spear was launched. Fortunately, several of the firm’s bigger customers followed him to Drum & Spear. “I wouldn’t be doing this [bookstore] if I didn’t have him,” explains Roane. Jennings’ long-term relationships with distributors and publishers positioned the store to offer nearly 10,000 titles in relatively short order.

Though the idea is to provide primarily African American and multicultural titles to consumers, the pair has also built a base of corporate and organizational accounts. A loyal customer base, developed during Jennings’ tenure at Trover, helped the venture find its way through the lean times. An account with the U.S. House of Representatives resulted in a monthly order that generates 25% of the bookseller’s revenues.

The next step in growth was teaming up with Reading is Fundamental (RIF), a national initiative that encourages reading through a voucher grant program. When Drum and Spear joined RIF in 1997, the program’s annual catalog listing recommended vendors had already been released. Feeling they could not afford to sit out an entire year, Jennings and Roane invested $1,000 in their own brochure mailing and tied it to their RIF affiliation. It helped them to secure over 50 RIF accounts, with schools in areas as far flung as Puerto Rico and California. Roane attributes

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