Samantha Jacquest admits she gets a little antsy when she’s not in the middle of the action or when things get a bit stagnant.
At one point, that itch for change prompted Jacquest to go all the way across the pond for a year in England.
“If I don’t have something big to look forward to, I feel stuck, I get depressed,” Jacquest admits. “So I always need something exciting to look forward to.”
These days, much to Kenosha’s benefit, Jacquest doesn’t need to relocate across any oceans to scratch that itch. She has plenty of excitement and action in her life right here in downtown Kenosha.
Jacquest is the founder and owner of Blue House Books, an independent bookstore that’s operated from its current downtown location at 5915 Sixth Ave. A since September 2021.
Jacquest first started Blue House Books as a part-time pop-up operation before deciding to devote her full time to the business and opening her first brick-and-mortar location in September 2020. Blue House Books then moved into its current location a year later.
And owning and operating a small business contains more than enough excitement and daily twists and turns for Jacquest.
“Being a business owner, there’s no shortage of excitement,” she said with a laugh during an interview Tuesday afternoon at Blue House Books, which is now festooned with plenty of Christmas decorations.
Indeed, Jacquest has found a successful niche in downtown Kenosha with Blue House Books and has big plans for the future. That includes launching her own column for Kenosha.com, Books, Beans & Brews, which made its debut on Thanksgiving weekend.
Additionally, Jacquest now owns a trailer that serves as a “book mobile” for Blue House Books. During quarterly parent-teacher conferences for Kenosha Unified School District recently, you could find Jacquest outside schools sharing her passion for reading to area students, parents and teachers.
For establishing Blue House Books as a valuable part of Kenosha’s small business community, and for all her efforts to share the joys of books and reading with the community, Samantha Jacquest has been named this week’s Kenosha.com Kenoshan of the Week.
Early love for reading
Jacquest was born in Chicago, but she moved up to Kenosha with her family at age 6 – into a blue house, but more on that later – and has called Kenosha home ever since. She attended Vernon Elementary and Lincoln Middle School and graduated from Indian Trail in 2010 when it was still just an academy, right before it became a full high school.
Ironically, Jacquest says her family was not a big reading family when she was young, though they are now.
“I did not grow up in a reading household,” Jacquest said. “My family reads now, because I’ve forced them and I’ve influenced them. They all get books for Christmas.
“But, no, I did not grow up in a family that read all the time, so it’s very surprising that I am where I am.”
For Jacquest, that started on walks to and from Vernon Elementary with her brother, during which her face was usually buried in a book.
“My brother was two years older than me, so we would walk to and from school together,” Jacquest recalled. “I just remember reading an ‘Arthur the Aardvark’ book – the early chapter books – as I’m walking, and my brother being so mad at me because I was taking so long to walk and I kept falling behind.
“Specifically, I just remember walking through this one park and just reading.”
Jacquest says she quickly graduated up to the “Harry Potter” books, then trips to Kenosha’s fantastic public library system because requisite.
“From a very early age, I learned how to take the bus to the library,” Jacquest said. “To be honest, if I was a kid now, I don’t know if my parents would let me. But it was a little different back in the early 2000s. I would take the city bus to the library, and I would just spend hours there, and (in) my school library, as well.”
Across the pond
After graduating from Indian Trail, Jacquest completed her undergraduate degree in journalism from UW-Whitewater.
Following that, Jacquest spent a brief time in newspapers, working as a regional page designer for Lee Enterprises, first in Munster, Ind., and then in Madison.
But Jacquest didn’t find that role particularly fulfilling and didn’t feel like there was much room for advancement in that career. As she says, she became “stress-y and depress-y” and “needed something exciting to look forward to.”
So that prompted a massive move across the Atlantic Ocean to Oxford, England, where Jacquest spent one year earning her Master’s degree in book publishing from Oxford Brookes University, which she says features the top book publishing program in the UK.
It was a big move, one that Jacquest sometimes couldn’t believe she actually took. But it proved to be a great decision.
“I remember a moment (when) I was taking one of the city buses at night, and I was kind of trying to keep track of where I was going to make sure I remembered my surroundings and remembered where I was going,” Jacquest recalled. “And I just had this moment of, like, ‘Oh my goodness, I really just traveled across the world by myself, and I have no idea what I’m doing, and I don’t know anyone here.’
“… I talked to at least one person in my family every single day. They took turns, like, who called me that day. So thank God for technology, because it made me feel a little bit better. But it was an amazing experience. One of the best years of my life, and it led me to what I’m doing now.”
Jacquest earned her Master’s degree and came home to Kenosha to start hunting for jobs. At first, she had plans on moving to the East Coast, where there are far more job opportunities in the book publishing industry than there are in the Midwest.
Jacquest did find an internship in this area. But during her job seeking she discovered that her heart was really at home and that moving to the East Coast to do the – as she calls it – “grunt work” of the book publishing industry just wasn’t for her.
So, in the meantime, she started a pop-up bookstore.
“I started doing pop-ups just as a way to stay in the industry, so I didn’t have a gap in my resume while I was job hunting,” Jacquest said.
She didn’t know it at the time, but Jacquest had planted the seeds for a whole new career.
“There was a new baby on the way in the family, and so I just decided to stay (in Kenosha),” she said. “Publishing jobs in the Midwest are not as plentiful as the East Coast, so it was just a struggle.
“After a while, I was just kind of over the search, and I was like, ‘I have something good started here, so let’s just stick with it.’”
Establishing Blue House Books
Running a pop-up business certainly isn’t easy, and Jacquest admits there were several times she almost gave up on it, especially as it appeared from time to time that other full-time jobs might work out.
“It’s such a grind doing pop-ups,” Jacquest said. “It’s so much physical work. I had full-time jobs while I was doing all that.”
Still, Jacquest says there was something that just kept pulling her into operating a bookstore. She was good at the pop-ups, and she came to realize that perhaps this was really the career she’s been seeking all along.
“One day it just clicked that, ‘You know, I am actually loving this, and I think if I gave it the time and attention it really needs, I think it could really be something,’” Jacquest said. “So I started falling in love with the fact that I could still be out in my community, I could still be with customers and not at a desk every day, and I realized that those are all the things that I love.”
Jacquest went to a training course for new or potential bookstore owners in February 2020, quit her full-time job in July 2020 and opened the first brick-and-mortar location of Blue House Books a couple months after that.
So, what’s in the name? Well, Jacquest grew up surrounded by a large, loving family in a blue house, and she wanted to express that same feeling of warmth and belonging to her customers.
“I had such a happy childhood,” Jacquest said. “My family and I are still so close. I have 11 nieces and nephews, four siblings. We’re a big family, and we’re all so close. We were all just together (Monday) night for the Bears game.
“I just loved the feeling of having such a happy home and a happy childhood, and I wanted to make others feel that warmth and that comfort. And so I was just trying to think of a name that would represent that. I also wanted something that felt comfortable, so that people from all walks of life knew they could come here and feel safe and feel happy.”
Today, Jacquest’s heart melts when customers tell her they feel “at home” at Blue House Books.
“You have no idea how many people tell me that this place is their happy place,” she said. “It just makes my heart so happy, because that’s what my home was for me growing up, and that’s what this place is for me growing up.
“I just wanted to give that feeling of, ‘You’re at home when you’re here.’”
Of course, running a small business entails about a million things, and Jacquest laughs when asked how she learned to do it while starting it with no business experience.
“Lots of Googling,” she said with a laugh. “Lots of trial and error.”
Jacquest admits that when she would interact with sales reps from publishing companies for the first time, she would simply ask them what to do. Additionally, she credits veteran Kenosha businesswoman Vicki Seebeck, general manager of Coopers Uptown, with providing invaluable guidance.
“She’s kind of like my unofficial business coach and very dear friend,” Jacquest said. “We met one day at some random downtown thing, and we just connected right away. So she’s a huge, huge help.”
Additionally, Jacquest says the bookstore industry is very cooperative. The American Booksellers Association and the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association provide great help for independent bookstore owners like Jacquest.
“This is the most supportive industry in the world,” she said. “I talk to other retail owners about their industries, and they’re like, ‘I don’t even know if we have an association.’ … We have the most supportive and friendly industry.”
In fact, Jacquest notes that a former Blue House Books customer has even opened her own independent bookstore in Waterford, Reads by the River.
As far as the day-to-day operations of Blue House Books, Jacquest says she spends plenty of time in her office at the back of the store, dubbed “the dungeon” due to its lack of windows. But she makes sure to get out on the floor and interact with customers as much as possible.
“I didn’t realize how much admin work it was going to be,” Jacquest said. “And it, like, hurts my heart that I’m not out here as much as I wish I could be.
“I’ve kind of altered the schedule to make sure I’m forced to be on the floor on certain days and certain times, because my favorite part is being with the customers.”
Jacquest also points out that she has lots of help running Blue House Books. Her fantastic staff includes store manager Casey Larsen.
“I could not do this without her,” Jacquest says of Larsen.
“… People constantly ask me all the time, ‘How do you do this by yourself?’ … ‘There’s five of us! What do you mean by myself?’ And it’s constantly, like, my fiance bringing me lunch, or my parents running out a delivery for me. No way could I do all this by myself.”
And as any small business owner knows, you always have to be ready to handle unexpected challenges.
“Every time I’m scared of tackling the next big step, I just keep telling myself, ‘Remember where you were a few years ago. You figured it out up to here. You can figure it out again,’” Jacquest said.
PHOTO: Mike Johnson
Jacquest is very clear on one point: Operating an independent bookstore is about far more than just selling books.
With that in mind, Jacquest wants Blue House Books to be a leader in holding events and working with other small businesses.
“I was always adamant about, ‘I don’t want to just sell books and have that be the end of it,’” Jacquest said. “That’s boring. And to be honest, in the book industry, our profit margins are lower than most retail industries.
“And so it’s not sustainable to only do that, and it just doesn’t feel good. So one of my biggest things was always events. We have to do events.”
For example, Blue House Books has had tons of success with author events. Jacquest said her business just held back-to-back author events at the Rhode Center for the Arts that drew about 120 people. She also loves to collaborate with other downtown businesses, citing a recent “plant parent workshop” with Equinox botanical boutique and an essential oils class with Modern Apothecary.
It’s also vital for Jacquest to keep up with social media and current trends in literature consumption.
Maybe people don’t read physical books as much as they once did, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t reading. Jacquest says BookTok, the TikTok community for books, has exposed people to books in a whole new way, so Blue House Books embraces that.
“BookTok is a huge thing,” Jacquest says. “Especially for the preteen to teenage (demographic), and ‘new adult’ we kind of call it – like early 20s – oh my gosh, people are devouring books like crazy now. They’re not always book buyers, or sometimes they’re Kindle readers, but the amount of people who come in and they’re like, ‘Oh, I saw this one on TikTok,’ or we’ll see a random increase of this super random book being special-ordered, and we’re like, ‘Oh, probably a TikTok book.’
“… I actually hired a social media intern, and one of her main focuses is TikTok, so that we are on there, they see our store, they see our faces, because it is such an important aspect. To be honest, it’s made reading a thing again, and it’s so exciting.”
As for her brick-and-mortar location, Jacquest has plans to eventually expand her space to add an area where people can gather for events.
“I’m not committing to a specific time, because I don’t know when, but I’ve already talked with my landlord,” Jacquest said. “He’s already game for it. Basically, on the back side of this wall, if you drive to the other side, there’s a whole other storefront. So we would open up a hallway.
“… On that side, I would like to do a beer, wine and coffee bar. … We would want to have that side be events and this side be about the actual books and products. So that’s the big thing. I would love to do another location someday, either out in the county, or somewhere not too far, but not right (downtown). Maybe Twin Lakes.”
And in a move that means Jacquest has come “full-circle,” she’s bringing the pop-up concept back with her “book mobile,” in order to spread Blue House Books and reading all over the community via book fairs.
“The book fairs have been really, really cool,” Jacquest said. “We hear from a lot of teachers, parents and librarians that they’re unhappy with the traditional book fair suppliers, because they’re limited to that stock, or they’re sending them dumb ‘knick-knacky’ stuff that they don’t want and that kind of thing.
“So by doing it with me, they get to customize from all suppliers. I even bring stuff for adults so that teachers and parents can shop. And I really make sure we’re focusing on books and educational toys, which is what they want. And that’s been amazing so far. So that’s a goal for 2024, is to really pump that up.”
Jacquest would also love to start a nonprofit one day.
“For that, I would love for it to be basically getting books into the hands of people of all ages who can’t afford to buy books themselves,” she said. “A lot of focus on children. I already do a lot of stuff with nonprofits and with schools, so I would love to make that a big part of the business.
“It’s just so many projects!”
Yes, it seems like these days, there’s no way that Samantha Jacquest could ever get bored or restless, or ever run out of ideas and things to do with Blue House Books.
You could say she’s found a perfect home right in downtown Kenosha.
FIVE CURRENT BOOK RECOMMENDATIONS BY SAMANTHA JACQUEST
“The Book Thief,” by Markus Zusak
“The Thirteenth Tale,” by Diane Setterfield
“The Storied Life of A.J. Fickry,” by Gabrielle Zevin
“The Dictionary of Lost Words,” by Pip Williams
“Uprooted,’ by Naomi Novik
Blue House Books will be holding an upcoming author event with Annelise Ryan, author of “A Death in Door County,” now on sale at Blue House Books. Visit the Blue House Books Facebook page and website for more details on that or any other upcoming events.