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Plenty Downtown Bookshop furthers Cookeville’s quiet transformation into one of the state’s most impressive cultural hubs.

When Ashley Michael made the move from Oxford, MS, to Cookeville, TN, nearly a decade ago, running an independent bookstore was the furthest thing from her mind. A mother of four, she stuck to a rigorous schedule as she and her husband, Dr. Tony Michael, balanced parental duties with adjusting to life in the town that is home to Tennessee Tech, where he is a Counseling and Psychology professor.

But, as the pandemic receded, Michael decided she wanted to act upon her love of the written word. Months of conversation with her friends Lisa and Dave Uhrik led the trio to kick around ideas to see if they were viable. “And then last summer, it felt like the timing was just right,” Michael said. “And so we sort of said, ‘Well,  let's do this. Let's open a bookshop in Cookeville.’”

With a population of just under 36,000, Cookeville may not seem like the ideal city to launch an indie bookstore in the vein of Nashville’s “world famous” Parnassus Books. After all, nearby Knoxville has only been able to sustain two non-secondhand bookstores in recent years. However, even though Knoxville’s greater metro area is twenty-nine times the size of Cookeville, the largest city in the Upper Cumberland welcomed Plenty Downtown Bookshop as its third new book retailer when Michael and the Uhriks opened in summer 2022.

Over the past half-decade, Cookeville has evolved far beyond its reputation as a college town with a mile of chain eateries on Interstate Drive that locals sometimes less than affectionately refer to as “Restaurant Row.” The downtown corridor that Plenty calls home has seen a burgeoning coffee, boutique, and local restaurant scene more akin to Franklin than the smalltown Main Street imagery politicians often invoke. In most ways, Cookeville is demographically like any smaller Tennessee town. However, as Plenty’s success indicates, it also has an undefinable X-Factor that makes it one of the state’s most dynamic tourist and business hotspots.

For Plenty co-founder Lisa Uhrik, Cookeville was the perfect location to nurture an entrepreneurial spirit. She and her husband, Dave, took over the reins of Franklin Fixtures, a custom shelving company in Massachusetts that services bookstores and other shops, and moved it to Cookeville with the hope of creating jobs and supporting local craftsmanship. The Uhriks’ time working with book retailers fed their desire to open a store like Plenty, a goal they shared with their new friend Michael. “We are after curated browsing that engages Middle Tennessee–browsing a carefully selected collection that you won’t find anywhere else,” Lisa said.

Though Plenty is a model independent bookstore, its greatest strength is its dedication to showcasing the best in contemporary literature. The store is largely free of impulse-buy items that have increasingly taken up shelf space at its big-box competitors. It also boasts a wide array of signed first editions from celebrity authors like John Stamos and SNL staple Keenan Thompson to the newest from fiction icon Zadie Smith. More importantly, the atmosphere exemplifies Southern hospitality, entirely free of the often superior “indie bookstore” vibe that makes many local shops in urban centers intimidating to all but the most dedicated bibliophiles. “Plenty is its own culture,” Ferran KeFauver, executive director of Cookeville CityScape said. “It’s giving people the You’ve Got Mail and Hallmark movie feeling they are looking for.”

In her capacity at the nonprofit Cookeville CityScape, KeFauver supports projects that aim to revitalize and preserve the city’s historic downtown. Funded primarily by donations, the organization’s mission is to make it easier for local businesses to achieve longterm success in the city center, a goal it fosters through a range of programs from awarding grants for awning and facade repair to advocating new sidewalks to make downtown more walkable. When Plenty’s original location just outside of downtown flooded shortly after its opening, CityScape did all it could to help Michael and the Uhriks set up shop in a vacant building in the heart of downtown. 

Beyond its unassuming charm, what makes Plenty particularly unique is that it is one of the only nonprofit bookstores operating in the United States. In addition to selling new releases, bringing in guest authors, and cultivating book clubs, Plenty also offers a host of community outreach initiatives, including developing library partnerships, making books available to public school students, and creating little free libraries across the city. “We want it to belong to everyone,” Uhrik said. “We want it to have the benefit of synergizing with related nonprofits for elevating book culture and reading and we want to pave an IRS path for other bookshops around the country.” 

While both the Lee administration and Metro Nashville government endlessly tout their economic development successes, such policies often leave little room for small businesses as government lures corporate giants such as SmileDirectClub and Amazon with generous tax incentives while earmarking taxpayer dollars for projects purportedly in the public interest like new stadiums. Through merging local business and nonprofit outreach, Plenty hopes to serve as a model institution that enriches local communities while providing a pathway for the type of small-footprint entrepreneurship often absent from political agendas. “We've been able to be a part of outreach,” Michael said. “Maybe the people don’t come to this part of town, or don't know that we're here, but we can still go and we can bring the books to them.”

In his 2015 book, Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class, Scott Timberg laments the decline of the store clerk, an occupation he argues is fundamental both to the cultural curation that makes society fuller and the early development of creatives like Jonathan Letham and Quentin Tarantino. For Michael, providing such positions is central to her ideal of community development. “Bookstores are actually thriving and are doing really well. And there are more of them opening every year. But they are hard to sustain, especially if you want to pay your employees well, which is important to us. We think that you should be able to pay a decent wage, because this is a tough job and requires a unique set of skills.”

Though its staff is small, Plenty provides the perfect forum for Cookeville residents who are passionate about the written word. An English graduate student at Tennessee Tech, Jaime Linder began working at Plenty because of its close-knit community. “You walk in, and you have to feel happy,” she said. Likewise, Tracey Hackett works at the store as a break from her day job at Tech’s marketing and communication office. It's a calling that also allows her to make use of her certificate in bibliotherapy. “There’s a little bit of magic in here,” she said.

Since its shift to downtown last May, Plenty has attracted a multi-demographic group of dedicated readers who see the store as vital to the city as it recovers from the aftermath of COVID. “People want community,” Michael said.  “I think that’s why we like our bookstores and our coffee shops. They feel sort of like a third place. And you can never get too many places where people can connect and have community.”