Third House Books & Coffee struggles to stay afloat after a 30 percent rent increase.

Photo by Sarah Breske.

Nestled on North Main Street is Third House Books & Coffee, one of Gainesville’s last remaining independent bookstores. Inside the two-tiered space, colorful book jackets pop against the blue walls; the latest music book collection is featured atop a refurbished piano. At the register, you can expect a warm greeting from Kiren Valjee or Heather Halak, the co-owners who’ve carefully curated the store’s 300-title collection.

Illustrations by Caroline Gaspich.

In the two years since Third House opened, Valjee and Halak have built a community space even as the city’s other independent spaces — like Wild Iris, which was Gainesville’s feminist bookstore for 25 years until last December — close.

This past summer, Valjee and Halak received notice the Third House’s rent would increase by 30 percent in November, an expense they worried might force the store to close. In late August, they created a GoFundMe to cover the rent increase and pay off accumulating debt. So far, they’ve raised $2,319 of their $10,000 goal.

Just before the end of October, Fest brought in a spike in business. Valjee and Halak were able to pay November’s rent on time, but the future is uncertain.

“I don’t have much optimism,” Valjee said. “I don’t really know what’s gonna happen.”

Valjee opened Third House in late October, 2016 during Fest, which he believed would jumpstart the business. Then just over a week later, Donald Trump was elected president. Valjee realized he wanted Third House to be a space of solace for Gainesville and offered free coffee for those distraught by the results.

“It occured to me that Third House should be more than just a bookstore,” he said. “It should be a safe space.”

Halak, an avid reader, visited the bookstore regularly before becoming a partner. It didn’t take long for her to notice how tired and overworked Valjee was from single-handedly running the store. She extended a helping hand, offering to volunteer and cover several shifts.

“There’s a huge amount of emotional and mental labor that goes into this,” Halak said. 

Valjee and Halak in Third House Books. Photos by Sarah Breske.

Third House’s main source of revenue is book sales, but days can go by with only a couple people making a substantial purchase. In order to sustain himself and the bookstore financially, Valjee works two jobs bartending at Palomino’s and at The Wooly.

“We have to constantly convince people that spending their money here keeps the money in Gainesville,” Valjee said.

Valjee said it’s also disappointing to see other independent spaces close, like Wild Iris. When Wild Iris shuttered its doors in December 2017, the store’s co-owner Erica Merrell donated some of its furniture and inventory to Third House. To fill the void, Valjee made an effort to carry more feminist literature.

“It was a real loss for our community,” he said. “I thought maybe we could pick up where they left off.”

Once a month, Third House hosted Notebook Sessions, a live show of local music fashioned after NPR’s Tiny Desk concerts. One of many curated community experiences spearheaded by the co-owners, Notebook Sessions brought a consistent crowd each month. But the store isn’t certain the event can continue after the departure of an organizer following sexual assault allegations from the community.

“I don’t have much optimism,” Valjee said. “I don’t really know what’s gonna happen.”

Despite the financial challenges, Third House continues to work on expanding their reach. On Nov. 2, Valjee and Halak launched an online store that would provide customers locally and nationally with over 9,000,000,000 titles.

“Gainesville is a weird place,” Valjee said. “It seems like we should have more cultural community centers. We have a huge, prestigious university and a huge music scene, but I don’t know. I haven’t been able to figure it out.”  

After biking to the bookstore to study four days a week for nearly a year, 22-year-old Timothy Tia holds the record for the highest number of card hole-punches for each coffee purchased. His polaroid is pasted on the back wall of the bookstore in his honor.

“I think Kiren and Heather have a specific vision of what they want Third House to be,” Tia said. “They want Gainesville to have an independent bookstore that pushes works by women, by people of color, or by queer writers — but also a bookstore that builds a sense of community. You can’t get that at Books-A-Million.” •