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Let's Play Books turns a page: to close Emmaus store, focus on new region-wide programs

Let's Play Books
Jay Bradley
The owners of Let's Play Books announced they would be consolidating all retail operations to The End: A Bookstore near the west end of Allentown, while growing their focus on engagement events

SOUTH WHITEHALL TOWNSHIP, Pa. — It's a new chapter for Let's Play Books.

The company, which currently operates two locations as Let's Play Books! at 244 Main St. in Emmaus and The End: A Bookstore at 3055 Tilghman St. near Allentown, is making some major changes in its businessshortly after its 10th anniversary.

It now will be known as Let's Play Books Co., and will consolidate all retail operations at The End, while the original Let's Play Books location will shut its doors June 23.

"I'm genuinely sad to leave Emmaus."
Let's Play Books owner Kirsten Hess

Owner Kirsten Hess was emotional about the change but said she recognized with the assurance of others that it was a smart decision and a good one for the customers.

"I'm genuinely sad to leave Emmaus," Hess said at Wednesday's book launch event for local author Jordan Sonnenblick's new novel.

"I wasn't aware of how much it didn't work until we opened The End. And now that we have a full year under our belt here at The End, it was very, very clear that there should only be one retail location, and that the Lehigh Valley can handle this store."

Focus on The End, engagements

She said it was difficult to support two locations — one being kids-only and the other a traditional bookstore, both for customers and staff.

The original location also had accessibility challenges because it was spread across three floors.

In addition, she said low sales in Emmaus because of too limited foot traffic and online shopping habits following the pandemic have continued to make an impact.

Essentially, she said, The End was subsidizing Let's Play Books in the time since the newer store opened.

At the same time, while the original Let's Play Books location was struggling, the company as a whole continued to grow its popularity as a stop for celebrity and local author events.

Visits included humorist David Sedaris and author Brad Meltzer while also expanding the annual Lehigh Valley Book Festival.

Sonnenblick said the new store is "a beacon of something that this end of the Valley otherwise doesn't have, which is a uniquely vibey gathering place for people who want to support books and each other in supporting books."

'What made the most sense'

In February, Let's Play Books' business as a whole was up 31% in sales between its two locations and online operation — but the majority was web sales and at The End, Hess said.

About 78% of customers from Let's Play Books now are choosing the new location as their primary store, something Hess said "has completely thrown us."

"I had to whittle down what made the most sense for this business to spend its energy on," Hess said.

Kirsten Hess Lets Play Books
Jay Bradley
Let's Play Books owner Kirsten Hess (center) with employees Maddie Rasbold (left) and Sophia DePhilips (right) at The End: A Bookstore

Hess said that less reliance on day-to-day retail staffing will allow the flexibility to offer bookselling services at events, such as the Lehigh Valley Juneteenth Celebration at ArtsQuest in Bethlehem on June 15 and other events they might not have had the bandwidth to appear at in the past.

She said it also will let them have a greater focus on service, which will "offer [customers] something that point-and-click Amazon doesn't, or that even Barnes & Noble doesn't."

In a notice sent to customers, the company said it will ramp up efforts in support of community outreach programming while continuing to produce its current slate of programming, such as author events, authors-to-schools programs and the Lehigh Valley Book Festival, held each March.

She said efforts in the future could include a nonprofit organization that could contribute financially toward getting books in the hands of more kids in the Lehigh Valley.

But the priority now is getting The End to be the best it can be before bookselling season kicks off in the fall, she said.

At the new store's one-year anniversary in July, The End will close for a stretch of days to incorporate increased inventory and rearrange the store floor plan.

The shop continues to offer a full catalog of sales online in addition to brick-and-mortar sales.

For customers in Emmaus, Hess said there could be an order pickup location in the borough in the future to make it as easy as possible for groups and businesses to partner with them.

A difficult spot

Hess said she did not originally plan to or want to shutter the Emmaus location.

But declining sales paired with accessibility challenges and high costs to lease other in-borough locations made it hard to continue in Emmaus, she said.

A survey was sent out to community members in February as the company was evaluating what to do with its old location as it reached 10 years.

"They're the ones that actually told me that it was the right thing to do to close."
Let's Play Books owner Kirsten Hess

Now, Hess said she has been reaching out to regular customers who have visited the stores since the business first opened in 2013, first for feedback and then to let them know about the change.

"They're the ones that actually told me that it was the right thing to do to close," Hess said.

Other businesses, such as Nowhere Coffee Co. and FD Market, also have left the Emmaus Triangle in recent memory.

There are no current plans for continued use of the Emmaus Let's Play Books location aside from potential office space.

The last event at the location will be its summer enrichment camp during the store's final week.

One of the two cats that make the store home, Garfield, is in hospice care. It is yet to be decided where the cats will live following the store's closure, Hess said.

Rumors of closure

Also fueling the closure were rumors shared online that the location was imminently or had already closed when that decision had not yet been reached.

Hess said she had heard from many people that they were sorry to hear that the store had closed while it was still open.

Kirsten Hess Jordan Sonnenblick
Jay Bradley
Bethlehem author Jordan Sonnenblick (center) with customer Carol Front (left) and Let's Play Books owner Kirsten Hess (right)

"Whether or not that person would have actually shopped at our store, I don't know," she said. "But people think we're closed. And that plays a big role."

But repeat customers remained optimistic and supportive of the business going forward as it looks to The End.

"It doesn't feel like a loss, it feels like a natural evolution. In the way both successful community and successful business grows, you don't know what your business or your bookstore or your family will look like in three 5, 10, 12 years. But as time goes on, we're still here and they're still here."
Local author and longtime Lets Play Books customer Paul Acampora

"It's sad, because it's such a cute place, it really is, but I gravitate to this one," said Fogelsville resident and longtime customer Carol Front while at the author event Wednesday.

"This is much easier and I can come here more often."

Local authors at the store Wednesday also praised it and said they were excited to see it evolve beyond its status as a "kid lit" hub.

"It doesn't feel like a loss, it feels like a natural evolution," local author and longtime customer Paul Acampora said.

"In the way both successful community and successful business grows, you don't know what your business or your bookstore or your family will look like in three 5, 10, 12 years.

"But as time goes on, we're still here and they're still here."