Quite the wonderland in itself, Adventures Underground's origins actually began as an online store. After sitting with Amanda (the store owner) and Tiffany (the social media manager), I had the great opportunity to hear how that grew upwards to a physical store as well. We also hear how they have adapted over the years while keeping that love for books and community alive!
How long has this specific store been in business (asking because you have both Underground and Caterpillar Cafe)?
Ok, yeah. We opened the storefront it was just the Adventures side in 2007, but we've been selling online since 99, so, 23 years now. Then we opened the Cafe side in 2015. But yeah, this coming summer will be 15 years here [at the physical store].
How has running a website changed since the 90s? Have you seen that growing change?
It's been kind of off and on. Our focus [at the time] was only on our website. Before we had a website, we sold some books on Biblio and Used Book Central, ABE, and Choosebooks.com. We sold only online. Then we had our website, and we sold them there. It was 100% online for the first eight years. And then, once we opened the storefront, we were so busy with all that that we kind of neglected a lot of the online side, and that dropped off because we weren't focused as much on that. So, we'd been kind of toying with getting back into it, bringing that back into a focal point. We really decided that we had to focus on that and grow it regardless of the end of the pandemic or not. We definitely need to have that be sustainable, if there are times it’s only thing we can do.
What inspired the names: Adventures Underground and the Caterpillar Café?
My partner at the time was a big fan of Alice in Wonderland – the original title was Alice's Adventures Under Ground. Underground was actually two words, but we just came back to one. So, you'll actually see the Alice theme throughout our store. For example, the white rabbit on the store logo, some other art, the Caterpillar Café name.
Caterpillar Cafe, despite having a bug in its name, serves food. Its inspiration comes from the Caterpillar in the Alice in Wonderland book. So, we went back and forth on many things for a while, but ultimately decided with that.
What inspired you about utilizing the Alice theme, such as the rabbit and caterpillar?
They were just obvious connections we could make in art, and we’ve tried to keep it up over the years. We had an original store dog named Charley. He was named after Lewis Carroll, whose real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. So, Charley's full name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson II...again tying in with the Alice theme.
When you guys started back in '99, how did the business come to be?
So, my partner was my boyfriend at the time, and we -- just as a hobby, we would go book shopping. We'd just go to thrift stores and buy books. And that was what we liked to do. At one point, we were like, well, we're never going to read all of these. Maybe we should sell them. And he looked into selling. And so, we found a site (ABEbooks.com), and we started selling on there, and thought “Oh, we can make actual money to pay for this, right. That's very cool. We can buy French fries at Zip’s.” We were going away to college, and we had stored our books in his parents' house, in their garage. His parents had actually helped with shipping books and processing orders while in college. They were amazing and we couldn't have done any of this without them. When we came home, we rented a little warehouse space from his brother in Finley. We operated out there for eight years.
Eventually we found a place, and it was quite the process moving in. Everyone from friends to family helped, even people we’d never met before stopped by and put in some work. We spent months getting it ready and it was so much work. My partner's dad did so much stuff, his mom made the curtains. They were great.
You can see that, too, when you walk into the store. Amanda's intent is to have customers feel comfortable and come in and buy things that we love and have employees that have passion and sell items that customers make that connection of stuff that you feel passionate about. It is a store with real people.
Was it hard to open the shop initially or get up to where it is now?
We have learned a lot along the way. It was always a struggle with money, too. Like, we went almost $60,000 if not $80,000 in debt, just buying shelves. And that was also on credit cards when we first opened in 2007. So right before the recession. We’re still paying off the debt from all that, everything accumulated along the way, haha.
We were in the warehouse for eight years, and our whole social life revolved around high school buddies and our tiny little circle in there. We became good buddies with the post office. But then we were like, well, we don't want to sit in the warehouse forever. Let's see if we can do it. We found a place that had an affordable rent. Thank you, Mr. Go! (The property owner).
It was SO empty when you first started. I was a customer at the time. I knew I really wanted to work here, and we came in, and we were like, why did they get such a prominent place? There's, like, only a few shelves.
We never wanted to have to move! I don't want to go into this 400 square foot place and have to move in a year.
Quite a few of us were like, wow, this is a massive shop, for we didn't know what it would grow into, and then it would even eventually be bigger.
Amanda and Tiffany both (laughing):
Little did we both know?
Yeah. We started with the books and several collections, both from my partner. And then we bought some bulk comics online and a couple of groups of records. And we didn't even have board games when we started. I think we got some maybe the first week or something.
Yeah. And even then, you didn't have that many - you said it was maybe a shelf. And now it's a whole wall. You didn't know what it was going to grow into when you saw it. If you saw it back then, it was different from now.
However, despite the rocky start, their opening did receive an enthusiastic greeting. A lot of relief came to Amanda between the continued sales from their online store and the new customers that came along to check out the opening.
But quite a few of us were like, okay, this will get good. We're excited. We're going to keep coming. We're going to see what happens.
We had regulars on day one. We're like, okay, I think we're going to be okay.
We have customers from day 1 still coming into this day. We love them so much!
What kind of items does your store carry? Just comics, or a little bit of everything?
"I enjoy carrying a little bit of everything, not just 5 or so different book genres"- Amanda.
It's a little bit of everything. That's the thing. If one thing isn't selling, then something else is, but it's also balanced because we have our fingers in so many different areas. We're never going to be the best game store or the best comic store because we're also trying to do other stuff. You talk to an employee on the floor. They might not know anything about comic books, but maybe they play D & D every night. They might not know anything about board games, but perhaps they've read the entire sci-fi section.
You'll hear us yell out for each other, too. If you ask a question, and we don't know, we'll be like, oh, I don't know. But, George, George has got you. And then we'll yell out, George, where are you? And we'll get you to that person who knows the right place. And if they're not able to find it in-store, they are thrilled to order your book of choice.
Amanda: We work with many sellers and distributors who we can order from.
They also are keeping their website up to date, cataloging the books nightly, so rest assured that by the following day, you can guarantee it's the most up-to-date. They also do pull-lists for comics, and they understand that comics tend to be time-sensitive. Their social media manager, Tiffany, states that the new comics are released every Wednesday!
Their collection spans the entire spectrum of book genres from romance to historical non-fiction to graphic novels, comics, and other pop-culture-related titles. They also sell record albums, model kits, puzzles, kids’ toys, collectibles, board games, and cards (mostly Trading Card Games such as Magic, the Gathering or Pokémon). Overall, they take pride in having a little bit of everything, and will happily place an order for you, if so desired!
How has COVID affected Adventures Underground?
It’s been hard. We’ve been trying to keep everyone, staff, and customers alike, safe. We get a lot of appreciation for cleaning and masking precautions, but some people get really angry about it. We had to shut the store down in 2020 for several months and it was a scary time. Now we’re open every day, not quite the same hours. We do some extra cleaning, and we require masks. Like really require it – we have to have a door person to make sure everyone coming in is in compliance. Some people get really mad about having to have their noses covered. But this spreads quick. And some of us are immunocompromised, some of us have kids that can’t get vaccinated yet. Some of us are caring for other people. We’re just trying to do the right thing.
COVID has been hard on small business – the only other small bookstore in town shut down last year. I mean technically it was competition, but we liked them. We wanted people to have alternate places to go, and not feel like they have to shop online at Amazon. We’ve always appreciated a diversity of local businesses and have always sent people to other shops if we don’t have what they’re looking for, and many of them do the same. If all the small shops close, you lose your options. COVID has just made it harder on everybody.
"We really want people to shop local."-Amanda
The city is also super supportive of their small businesses, helping promote the companies around town when they can. For example, when Small Business Saturday rolled around, the city held raffles for gifts from businesses and special mentions of the local Christmas and holiday festivities. Amanda and Tiffany, in fact, want to give special thanks to Mandy Wallner (Economic Development Manager for the City of Richland) for helping them out – keeping them updated and providing support.
They've done quarantine packages at the store level, often filled with snacks, comics, etc., and do personal deliveries. Now that things are opening up, Adventures Underground kept that idea and transitioned that into Adventure Boxes. Even keeping the concept of themed packages, such as sci-fi or family packages (packages for the whole family).
Another change they made, in part due to COVID, was moving their gaming tables out of a back room and into the café, so they can host events right next to their beer sales.
The Caterpillar Café came out of a desire to primarily sell coffee and have a public restroom. (The only other restroom is shoved way in the back in the stock/break room. Over time it just became awkward to deny customers since it’s really an employee-only area).
A friend of Amanda’s happened to be a business major and had coffee experience, so the collaboration was a somewhat natural progression. However, that partner moved on to bigger and better things, and Amanda and Logan bought out the café, but let it be run by staff. Before too long, they hired Joy as the café manager. Soon after that, Amanda bought out Logan’s share in both the café and Adventures Underground, and it’s just been positive changes since then.
A quick note about Joy: not only is she super passionate about coffee, but she also decorated all the gaming tables!
Each table has a distinct theme from seafaring to LOTR (Lord of the Rings), with both Galaxy-themed and MTG (Magic the Gathering) tables in the works!
Currently, they're still not offering proper tournaments or scheduling events outside of minor book signings. Customers are still allowed for drop-ins if they desire, as Adventures Underground still allows small groups to utilize their tables. (In fact, during the interview, two different meetups were happening, one for DnD and the other for Magic).
Memorable moments and recommendations:
Amanda: We've had a proposal here; I don’t think a wedding as of yet? but def a proposal. The customer bought a book, put the ring inside it, and proposed that way. There are people who’ve met here and later got married. We’ve had customers celebrate birthdays here. It’s apparently a pretty fun place!
Amanda’s book recommendations:
Lolita, written by Vladimir Nabokov
(Amanda’s note: It’s a great book, really makes you feel for the bad guy. But he’s definitely a bad guy! I just love Nabokov…)
Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
(Amanda’s note: This book may be the reason the store exists)
Flyboy Action Figure comes with Gas Mask written by Jim Monroe.
(Amanda’s note: It’s probably the only book where I’ve wanted to write a fan letter. Never got off my butt and wrote it to Mr. Munroe, but I love the book. He’s also got some really unique graphic novels.)
Tiffany’s book recommendations:
Overall, I'm super proud of my team and couldn't have done anything without them. I make a joke about Good Omens being the reason the store exists, but it’s really the people who work here. They make it a fun place to work and shop. Our customers are the other half of that – we appreciate the support from the Tri-Cities all these years.
We try to do what we can to help her out.
Overall, Adventures Underground is a real family affair. You can come in, and have a solid selection of books, games, music and even grab a cup of coffee! If you can’t find what you’re looking for, they’ll be happy to help you out. Their main site can be found here.
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