Interview: Story & Song Bookstore Bistro

By Dylan Bailey

I was given the opportunity to interview Donna Kaufman, who is the co-owner of Story & Song. With Amelia Island’s annual restaurant week, I was excited to gain some insight from one of the stores that have been a part of the event.

Amelia Island’s 15th Annual Restaurant Week took place this year from Jan. 20-29. The event is a 10-day culinary showcase of savory prix fixe menus. Amy Boek, who is the chief marketing officer, told me that the event had been a massive boon for the island. With January being one of the slower months for restaurants in the area, it’s allowed new life to blossom in the unique culinary world that is found only on Amelia Island.

I met with Donna Kaufman at Story & Song and was greeted with a warm smile and a glass of cold iced tea. We sat down in the corner of the lobby, which is beside the in-store bistro, surrounded by a plethora of beautiful books and chatter from the patrons filtering in and out. I started by asking her about Story & Song’s experience during restaurant week.

As soon as I asked the question, I could see the excitement wash over her face. Donna had nothing but positive words to say about the event, especially with how many new people are able to find the business. She told me that a big draw of Story & Song being a hybrid business during restaurant week is that you can eat inside a bookstore, which is a novel idea.

One of the more interesting concepts that Donna brought to my attention was the difference between perusing through a bookstore in person versus browsing online. I loved the example she gave.

“People will come in and discover something they never knew existed. When you’re walking around a place something catches your eye that you would have never been looking for. Like that book on “How To Make Bird Food” and then you think to yourself about how much your mom loves birds.”

We then continued to talk more about restaurant week. Story & Song has been participating in it for three years now and Donna has noticed that the event seemed to gain significant traction recently. She believes that food is an adventure, and people love discovering and finding new dishes and places to visit. From what she said, every year they have managed to find new people walking through their doors because of it. And she loves that it is so intensely local and manages to bring together a sense of community.

On the topic of how long they’ve been participating, I wanted to know how long they’d been open and what the store has experienced. Donna told me that it’s been open for five years now, with their anniversary soon approaching in February. She told me that they use the word love a lot around the store and what could be more fitting than having an anniversary so close to Valentine’s Day?

Their 2-year birthday was when COVID-19 hit. Two hurricanes and a pandemic came through; the store managed to weather both and is flourishing. Donna believes they’ve been able to stand so firm within the community because of the neighborhood feel, pride, and enjoyment of living on Amelia Island.

We then reminisced for a while on how we’ve both watched Amelia Island change and grow. Donna said that without a doubt the people here have a lot in common: they work for the good of the local community. She hopes that dynamic can remain, especially as the world continues to become more challenging and is faced with divisiveness.

The more we talked about Amelia Island, and the community, it made me curious if Donna and her husband Mark had grown up here or if they’d migrated from another part of the country. They’ve been on the island for 20 years, at this point. Their other business, where they help people open and run their bookstores, brought them here to Books Plus, which was a bookstore headed by Don Shaw.

Mark is originally from California, whereas she’s from Michigan, and the two originally met at an author’s retreat in Nashville, Tennessee. As the years went by, Mark wanted to be back by the water, and Donna was done with the snow, so the small-town feel of Amelia Island drew them in. She believes that the island will always maintain that.

It was evident that Donna truly loves books, which made me ask about her background with them. She mentioned that when you’re young and find an interest, it generally sticks with you. As a child, she didn’t have a big library at home. Raised by a single mother, the school library was invaluable to her. She was captivated by the stories and would find herself reading them over and over. A big moment in her life was when she had gone on a road trip with her family and they stopped at Louie’s Bookstore Café in Baltimore, Maryland. Being 63 now, she can still vividly remember stepping inside the store — it planted a seed in her that was part of the inspiration for Story & Song. A dream that took decades, but a dream that never left her.

Donna began to elaborate on what she believes books and reading are capable of. She believes they can shape our lives and they can be our best friends. Readers are never lonely or bored, and it feels good knowing that in life, we can go anywhere and become who we want to be. We can find inspiration, comfort, and adventure all in the pages of a book.

Her biggest joy is Story & Song’s literacy outreach. Every Saturday they host a free children’s story hour that includes crafts and costume characters from the storybooks. She’s hoping that the children who experience this will be able to have the joys of books and reading stick with them their entire lives. She was beaming at this point and let out a laugh as she said, “It’s fun too!”

I asked Donna what it was like to see where Story & Song has come from. She told me that business has nearly doubled, which has been wildly gratifying. She and Mark took their best concepts of bookstores that they’d helped open or had visited, and put them together in a format the island community would enjoy.

What she loves is how people can come somewhere, seven days a week, sit quietly in a corner, be alone, but not lonely and have a cup of coffee or wine, and meet people for lunch. Or you can meet your committee members upstairs, which is a free space they offer to anyone. They welcome the community into the store with open arms. And now they’re beginning to find themselves on lists for best bookstores and places to go in Florida.

Donna also mentioned that they have a not-for-profit foundation: Story & Song Center for Arts & Culture. It’s allowed them to broaden their ability to engage organizations, like Synovus Bank, which is now sponsoring all of their children’s programming. Synovus Bank is currently paying for the supplies and costumed characters so Story & Song can have their free children’s story hour on Saturdays. The foundation they’ve built has allowed them to create a space that will continue well beyond them, and that is Mark and Donna’s ultimate goal.

From Donna’s perspective, Story & Song has always been about conversation, connection, and community. Whether they’re doing something culinary, or literary, it’s about making meaningful connections between people to build community.

I was incredibly interested in Donna’s opinions on physical books, versus digital. As she is someone who has been in the business for some time now, I knew she had a much more personal experience with how they’ve threatened physical bookstores.

To Donna, that question has been an ongoing debate, dating all the way back to the ‘70s. When the paperback book came out, the reading community was up in arms, believing such a cheap product would ruin the reputation of books. But the paperback book opened up a new market, allowing more people to purchase them. Then technology and bigness took effect, which was the proliferation of chain stores. That’s when the world began to ask: will the little bookstores die? They didn’t. And Amazon then started offering books in an easily accessible way, which prompted another question: will bookstores in general die? They didn’t.

Then the Kindle came out, and e-books and audiobooks began to gain traction. Donna believes that people recognized little bookstores were the real drivers behind the shop local movement. Amazon doesn’t sponsor storytime for their children, and they don’t give gift cards or silent auction items to the not-for-profits that need support.

While Amazon is still highly aggressive with its marketing and has managed to capture a hold with the Kindle, Donna says bookstores are actually flourishing now and more are being opened. But of course, there are other challenges. Real estate is going up and so is rent. Small businesses will always face challenges, but in many ways, you don’t get into it unless you’re intensely local, passionate, and have persistence and patience.

Donna mentioned that they could have folded during COVID, but instead they dove in even more. They delivered and even set out a mini bookstore in their courtyard. The e-book is just another format, like hardbacks or paperbacks. And there are still people who want physical books. It’s a tactile experience and the feeling and connection are something you can’t get with a cellphone or tablet.

We talked about the difference between reading a book inside of a place like Story & Song, compared to reading it at home, and she told me about a customer who had come in once and loudly proclaimed, “I love this place! It smells like books and Sunday supper!”

As we walked upstairs, Donna showed me the local art they had on display and told me how they let local artists sell in their store. What you find here is one of a kind. We then viewed the meeting space, which is available for free to all, and talked about the future of Story & Song. She said that they want to continue building on the foundation that’s already there. They want Story & Song to be a positive beacon of light within the community.

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Lynne Anderson
Lynne Anderson(@lynne-anderson)
1 year ago

Story and Song is an absolute treasure, for all the reasons cited in this interview and more. There are the books, of course, but also the lovely courtyard as a place to meet friends on a beautiful Amelia Island morning/afternoon, The card selection, which is way more interesting than you will find at the usual stores. The upstairs event space where, with S&S’s stated intention of being the island’s living room, I’ve attended many TED talks, movie nights, author interviews, musical presentations, etc. The opportunity for local artists to showcase their work. And last but certainly not least, there’s Donna and Mark and their wonderful staff — so pleasant, so enthusiastic, so helpful, so dedicated. Islanders — try it, you’ll like it, and you will keep going back!

Mark Tomes
Mark Tomes(@mtomes)
1 year ago

I agree with everything Ms. Anderson states in her comment. Mark and Donna are wonderful people who understand what community is all about and how to make it happen. They build bridges, not walls, and create solutions to today’s problems.

Linda Sexton
Linda Sexton (@guest_66953)
1 year ago

Story and Song is a perfect example of a special place you find Only On The Island …I love going there and meeting upstairs. Donna and Mark are always available. friendly and make you feel at home. This is a special place.

Alan Peralta
Alan Peralta (@guest_66955)
1 year ago

Donna & Mark have a beautiful goal, that is to raise people up and bring them together. There aim is pure.

Lyn Pannone
Lyn Pannone(@lyn-pannone)
1 year ago

So grateful to Story & Song for the meeting space they offer to the community. Until they so generously offered this, we never knew how much it was needed. Thank you, Donna and Mark.

Richard Timm
Richard Timm(@rtimm-ontheislandgmail-com)
1 year ago

Story & Song has achieved all that and more. Thank you Donna & Mark. And, thank you Dylan for the article.

Deborah Kessler
Deborah Kessler (@guest_66961)
1 year ago

Thanks for highlighting Story and Song, Mark and Donna, and the excellent staff who make it all happen. We are fortunate to have such a treasure in our community. I’m very grateful.

Jerry Torchia
Jerry Torchia(@agtorchia)
1 year ago

The Kaufmanns and Story & Song are huge assets to this community.

Kevin B
Kevin B(@kevin-b)
1 year ago

It would be nice to know the location?

Peggy Bulger
Peggy Bulger(@peggy-bulger1949gmail-com)
1 year ago
Reply to  Kevin B

They are at the corner of 14th Street and the road to enter Amelia Park . . . such a great place to have in our community!!

Valerie Bailey
Valerie Bailey (@guest_66968)
1 year ago

Really appreciated the deep dive into Story & Song. Definitely stirred up interest to visit. Thank you for the in-depth interview, Dylan.

Frank Dougherty
Frank Dougherty (@guest_66974)
1 year ago

“Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers.”
Charles W. Eliot