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Sabu’s Books Wants You To Come And Stay Awhile

By Jordan Durham
bookshelf sabu books

Photos by Ava Kitzi

Sabreena Anowar has loved books her entire life. In fact, she loves them so much that in 2022 she quit her job in academia as a professor of civil engineering and decided to give bookselling a try. This was the beginning of Sabu’s Books, named in honor of the nickname her close friends and family call her, Sabu.

The independent bookstore first opened online, generating enough income for Anowar and her business partner, Janene Hillbrick, to open a physical location on the south side of Columbia. The physical location opened its doors earlier this year on Feb. 24 after over a year of renovating the suite space. The renovations included painting walls, finding books and bookshelves, buffing and cleaning floors, among many other tasks that the two completed.

“I didn’t know a thing about becoming a bookseller,” Anowar says. “It was an impulsive decision, and I’m learning as I go. I have found that there’s an independent study course that the Professional Booksellers School offers, so I’m going to attend that.”

Three months after opening, the two completed a children’s room, decorated with Winnie the Pooh characters, trees and origami fortune tellers on the walls. On May 14, they celebrated with Opening 2.0, an event to celebrate the room’s opening. Currently, the store shelves nearly 4,000 books, with approximately 3,000 in storage.

bookshelf sabu’s books

“We want to bring the nostalgia of printed books alive,” Anowar says. “It’s a place to come and enjoy your time with your book, whether or not you buy it. We will provide you coffee and snacks, just enjoy the book. We want to tell you, ‘Hey, it’s not just a place to buy books, it’s a place to enjoy and renew your relationship with books.’”

Each book is handpicked by Anowar and Hillbrick. In the beginning, many of the books were from Anowar’s collection that she accumulated over the COVID-19 pandemic. For the others, the two found them at garage, estate and library sales, among other places around town that seemed promising for gently used books. They joke about becoming friends with the estate sale managers.

“I’m learning that I don’t know much about books,” Hillbrick says. “I didn’t know that I didn’t know.”

Anowar and Hillbrick clean each book to ensure the quality is up to their standards for selling, sanding pages as needed, removing stickers and erasing any marks from stamps or markers. “We want to maintain a certain quality of the books even though we are a used bookstore,” Hillbrick says.

Anowar states that literal blood, sweat and tears went into the shop, and the blood was from many, many paper cuts while processing the books.

This dedication comes from Anowar’s love of books, but also from her upbringing in Bangladesh, where her town holds a month-long, city-wide book fair each February. “We want to create that for Columbia along with other bookstores in the area. You can never have enough bookstores.”

An expat of 16 years, she moved in 2008 to Canada, then from Canada to the U.S. Then she moved to Canada again in 2018, and then to Singapore, and finally back to the U.S. all to follow her academic pursuits and aspirations. She met Hillbrick at a dinner function at the University of Missouri in 2019, and the two clicked immediately. Now, they see each other as having two different personalities, but with many commonalities, which they claim is what makes the business relationship work. Hillbrick is a massage therapist, who also owns the business directly next to Sabu’s, Sun Structural Massage. The two businesses share a door through which the 15-year-old bookstore cat, Rama, comes and goes as he pleases.

When walking into Sabu’s Books, customers are greeted right away with, as expected, books —hardbound classics behind glass, as if in honor of the authors who spurred many generations of readers — as well as a coffee stand, merchandise and smiling faces, giving customers an immediate invitation to browse the books and stay awhile.

“I’m loving every moment of it,” Anowar says of running the store. “It doesn’t have a fat paycheck at the end of the day, but my heart is full and it’s irreplaceable.”

Sabu’s Books is open noon to 7 p.m. Monday to Thursday, noon to 6 p.m. Friday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. To visit the bookstore in-person, its address is 4603 John Garry Dr., suite 12. For online purchases or more information, visit sabusbooks.com.

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