Three Bells Books, Mason City

Three Bells Books is a community-focused independent bookstore nestled in downtown Mason City. It holds around 4000 books for sale and offers its clientele ample seating, a bright and whimsical atmosphere, a used book selection, a roster of upcoming events, and – perhaps most unusually – a bar serving wine, beer, and soft drinks. Customers can enjoy a glass of chardonnay with their Charlotte Bronte and get to know fellow book-lovers. The name Three Bells Books is drawn from the pseudonyms used by famed English authors the Bronte sisters.  Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Bronte used the male pen names Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell to sidestep the societal expectations that prevented women authors from publishing under their own name. Their journey was an inspiration to Molly Angstman, the store’s founder and co-owner.  “The Bronte sisters were such unlikely successes. Getting published today is very challenging as well, so their story resonated with me and the writers I know. Every book on our shelves feels like a little miracle and we want every author we sell to know how much we appreciate their work,” said Molly.

Molly and her business partner Jake Rajewsky are co-owners of Fat Hill Brewing in Mason City, a popular downtown craft brewery and event space. Molly and Jake are experienced entrepreneurs with a knack for creating community spaces. Molly said, “I’ve always loved books and writing, so when we opened Fat Hill, I thought that interest of mine could influence our event schedule.” When Molly started a monthly book club at the brewery, it quickly became so popular they had to add a second one. They soon added a writing club, an annual book exchange, and author visits.  Eventually, they noticed that these events were getting too big for the space. “That part of the business just kept getting bigger and bigger. We discovered there was a need for a place where bookish people could gather and have fun,” Molly said.

Three Bells Books evolved from idea to reality thanks to Molly’s dedication to research, hands-on real-time customer discovery, and a passion for the project.  “As Fat Hill got into a routine, I realized down the road I might have time for another project as well, but I didn’t know what that project would be. I knew my biggest interest was books and writing, though,” Molly said. With the growing success of Fat Hill Brewing’s bookish events, she had first-hand evidence that there was an unfilled niche in the market. In mid 2020, Molly saw the results of a Main Street Mason City survey asking what kinds of retail businesses the community would like to see downtown, and bookstore was #3 in the report. “When I read that, I was like, ‘Oh, bingo, there it is,’” she said.

Armed with this knowledge of the community’s support, Molly started thinking and planning. “Basically, I spent the next couple of years figuring out if the bookstore idea would work or not. I went to about 60 or 70 book clubs across Iowa and the Midwest, in person and online. I talked to a lot of librarians and booksellers. I took two online classes about bookselling, did a lot of research, and then discovered Venture School.” She enrolled in the Spring 2023 Mason City cohort of the University of Iowa Venture School, which is a 7-week entrepreneurial training program that helps entrepreneurs of every experience level master the startup process. “Venture School was a great opportunity to learn and have a coach. I was able to bounce ideas off of people and make sure I was headed in the right direction,” Molly said. She worked with the NIACC Pappajohn Center and SBDC to perfect her business plan before opening.

Three Bells Books is a continuation of the successful business partnership between Molly Angstman and Jake Rajewsky, expanding their contributions to the vitality and vibrancy of downtown Mason City. When local entrepreneurs invest in their Main Street, it creates a tapestry of complementary businesses for the community to enjoy. “We have a great downtown,” Molly said. “It’s so fun and busy.  I love when it takes me a little while to find a parking spot.” Molly’s entrepreneurial journey has been a testament to following your passion and discovering gaps in the market.  Her advice for aspiring entrepreneurs is simple: “Surround yourself with really good people – not necessarily people who will agree with you all the time but, personally and professionally, make sure the people around you are awesome. I really have that and it’s made all the difference.”

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