Book Smart


    GRAND RAPIDS — Early returns show that Debra Lambers has read the downtown market correctly.

    Lambers, who opened River Bank Books & Music at 86 MonroeCenter a month ago, told the Business Journal that business has been booming since Day One. And not just for the bookstore, but also for City Café, which is located inside River Bank Books.

    “It’s been fabulous,” said Lambers of customer traffic and sales.

    “I anticipated being mediocre busy. I didn’t anticipate being this busy at the outset. I was a little nervous after Christmas that it might slow right down. But actually we have so many residents and students down here that we have been quite steady,” she added.

    Lambers had a right to be nervous.

    Despite being the business and cultural sector of the city, downtown hadn’t hosted an independent bookseller for the better part of a decade, so there weren’t any success stories that Lambers could follow. On top of that, she invested about $980,000 into the business and made River Bank Books the largest retail space located downtown by leasing nearly 8,000 square feet on the ground floor of the former Steketee’s Department Store.

    “We have exceeded my expectations, I can tell you that,” said Lambers, who employs 34 at the store, which is open from Monday through Saturday, and from on Sunday.

    Lambers, a Grand Rapids native who lives in Grand Haven, has been in the bookselling business for years. She also owns the Book Nook & Java Shop in Montague. Regardless of her experience, though, she said she was a bit astonished at the type of books her downtown customers have purchased.

    “I’m a little surprised because I thought with all of the business people down here that we would sell a lot of business books,” she said. “Actually what is flying off the shelves are a lot of biographies and a lot of nonfiction books.

    “We follow The New York Times bestsellers, the most popular. And because we’re an independent bookstore, we also follow Book Sense.” is an online home for more than 1,200 independent bookstores in the United States and Puerto Rico. The site offers bestseller lists for nine book categories based on reports from its members and links to members’ sites, like Lambers’ at

    “What also has surprised me is our City Café. The café is huge. At lunch it is gangbusters — rarely do we not have a line. So, pretty much from until , it’s exceptionally busy. We’re staffed perfectly so our customers don’t wait more than five minutes for their lunch,” said Lambers.

    Two sandwiches have emerged as the early favorites of the lunch crowd at City Café. One is the Charles Bukowski. Comprised of ham and cheese, the sandwich is named after the noted author who wrote “Ham on Rye.” The other is the Page Turner, which is pork in a pita with cheese and sliced white onion. The café also has soups, salads and bakery items.

    Success of new businesses like River Bank Books & Music and the Grand Central Market, a full-service grocery store at 57 Monroe Center, is essential to the economic development of the sector as a viable place to live and as a thriving cultural center. These enterprises are vital to condominium builders and the arts organizations that perform within the district.

    William Anderson, director of the state department of History, Arts and Libraries, has a term for these downtown businesses and arts groups. He calls them “cultural magnets” and sees them as having a key role to play in the state’s economic rebound.

    “Most cultural magnets exist in the central business district, and every strategy for making a vibrant downtown or central business district is all about generating traffic, luring people into those areas,” said Anderson

    “All developers and planners are talking about loft apartments and getting people to live in the downtown area. Do you think those people are going to do business there? Of course they are. We’re all drawn by convenience, and if they’re there, they’re going to shop, go to the dentist, and all those kind of things that might happen in a central business district.”    

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