We had the good fortune of connecting with Christy Smirl and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Christy, what was your thought process behind starting your own business?
I was looking for the right equation: work that pays enough to make a living, that inspires me and challenges me, and that allows me to live the life I want to live, schedule-wise. I started to look for services that my skill-set might fit, and I saw that there was room in the market for high end library work. I didn’t see other businesses out there doing precisely the sort of service I knew I could offer. I went into business open to the possibility that it might not work, or that it might not fit that equation I dreamed of. But I knew I could pivot again if it didn’t work out, and I decided it was worth a try.
Social impact: how does your business help the community or the world? It was interesting moving from non-profit and government work to a luxury industry. I originally went into the library profession because I wanted to help people and contribute to my community. I thought I would work in public libraries for the rest of my life. But I pivoted that career to private library work, and now most of my clients are affluent. That was a shift in identity. I believe there are ways in any career to give back and improve the world, whether on the clock or in terms of volunteering, activism, and donating money to causes you believe in. I also believe that books are powerful in any setting, any home. That they make a difference in people’s lives. I get to choose books for clients who want to learn and be inspired, who want to read great stories, who want their children to grow up reading. That’s valuable, I think it makes the world a better place.
Risk taking: how do you think about risk, what role has taking risks played in your life/career? That’s an interesting question. I think risk is a part of the human experience, whether you’re driving your car, walking in the woods, falling in love, or starting a business. We are all dreamers or adventurers of one sort or another, but we also like to feel safe. Risk in any part of life is looking at your cards, looking at the potential payoff, and asking yourself, “Might it be worth it? What’s the worst case scenario if I fail?”
I am not the best example of entrepreneurial risk. I was able to start my business from a place of privilege: I had some savings to fall back on, a partner with stable work to pay the bills until I turned a profit, low overhead, and a family safety net if things really went south. So while business has felt risky at times, I would not have quit a stable job to make up my own career if not for those circumstances. There is a lot of pressure in American culture around bootstrapping, manifesting, giving up stability for your dreams. I believe being able to start a business is less about courage and moxy than it is about dumb luck, privilege, and being in the right place at the right time.
Alright, so for those in our community who might not be familiar with your business, can you tell us more?
I am the founder of Foxtail Books & Library Services, we create custom residential libraries around the country (and around the world), from curation to organization to design. When I tell people I’m a private librarian, they usually ask “does that mean that you…” and come up with all sorts of wonderful ideas of what the job might entail. The answer is usually “yes.” Our projects range from curating collections of books to large organization projects. We work with new, used, and rare books on all manner of subjects. Some of our work is focused on the content, the information and the literature. Other times the emphasis is on the design of the room, on arrangement, art, and book ends.
After getting my Master’s Degree in Library Science, my career led to a number of public and institutional libraries, through the years. At a certain point I decided I wanted a change for a few reasons — primarily work/life balance and work culture, but I also had hopes for more of a creative element to book work. I started researching home library services and found there weren’t many options available around the country. What few options there were out there did not have professional librarians on staff, nor did any of them really focus on interior design in tandem with wonderful books, new and rare.
I’m proud to have in some ways created my own profession, a conglomeration of the traditional librarian, the interior designer, the bookseller, and the project manager. We work for a wide variety of clients, the commonality being that all are book people: individuals and families who are passionate about learning, reading, and living with books.
It was far from easy building a brand and a business from scratch, in the beginning I was of course providing library services as planned, but also had to be my own marketing, accounting, sales, receiving, and shipping departments. I have taken full advantage of trusted friends and family members who have been there along the way to ask the right questions, provide ideas and wisdom, give feedback as needed, and connect me with information and resources.
The most important factor to my success has been the books. They are the heart of my brand, and there’s a very strong, deep cultural value for them. I can’t think of any other object that has the effect books do in our lives, in our homes – they have the potential to be so highly personal, deeply nostalgic, physically beautiful, rich in content (or all of the above). Perhaps I’m biased, but I just can’t think of another product that could elicit the emotion and intellectual reaction that books do. It’s been such a pleasure to build this business around them. It never gets old.
How to know whether to keep going or to give up? When business is too slow, or too busy, or in some other way frustrating, I step back and look at the parts of it I love, and also at what the work allows me to do with my life. So far, the cost benefit tips easily to the “keep going” side. In the workplace, that’s considering the people I get to work with and for, the variety of books I experience, and the settings for various projects (I work most of the year in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and travel to projects around the world). I am challenged and inspired by the work. Most importantly, the business allows me to live the personal life I want to live, in terms of setting, schedule, budget, and values. Nevertheless, I think it’s important to ask ourselves those big questions on occasion. Things change, and we have to create (and recreate) our own definition of success. It’s always wise to remind yourself that you have options.
Work life balance: how has your balance changed over time? How do you think about the balance? Since I moved from the public sector to owning my own business, I probably work more hours, in some ways, but I also allow room for spontaneity (both in terms of work and free time). My schedule shifts from week to week, project to project, and I enjoy that. For me, a schedule that changes with clients, personal needs, travel plans, and the seasons works well for both business and life.
When I worked for a paycheck, I felt much more free to completely “check out,” to disconnect from the drama and challenge of the workplace in the evening, on the weekend, or on vacation. But I found it much harder, mentally, to go back on Monday morning. Working for myself, I have to be more intentional about that division – because I care (and enjoy the work), but I don’t want it to be all-encompassing.
We only get so many weekends in this lifetime, so many after-work hikes or happy hours, so many trips with people we love (or on our own). It’s important to me to maintain a schedule that allows me to step up when my business requires it. But really my priority is to be able to set work aside and step up for my people, my community, myself. To get outside, to learn, to exercise, to live a rich life.
What makes you happy? Why? I love the idea of a life layered with people, nature, history, and art. I’m really happy when I have a balance of time outside, time with people who get me, time creating things (which could be writing, or baking, or curating an interesting library). Also when I’m pursuing my own curiosity, when I’m learning something. I love exploring a great city – museums, culinary adventures, design, something new on every street. Or experiencing a great trail in the mountains with a friend – wildflowers, creatures, trees, and the weather around us all. Basically, I say happiness is built of human connection and intellectual curiosity. Because what else is life for?
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
I live in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, just outside of Grand Teton National Park. Let’s say this friend drives into town one morning: after they arrive in the valley over a steep, forested mountain pass, I would have them meet me at Pearl Street Bagels in the little hamlet of Wilson, Wyoming. It’s a good spot to have a latte by winding, babbling Fish Creek. If we’re lucky, a moose will wander by while we plan our day.
If someone visits for a few days, I recommend a day enjoying town and at least a day in the mountains. My guest might need to settle in before we get on the trails, so I would first stop by a few of my favorite shops in town: Womenfolk, Jackson Hole Book Trader, Mountain Dandy. We could see if there’s a good exhibit on at Jackson Hole History Society & Museum, or up at the National Museum of Wildlife Art.
Before the sun starts setting, we would head to Teton Village. What are ski slopes in the winter are a wonderful wildflower hike in the summer, meandering between meadows and forest, and there’s a great tree swing halfway up. At the top is Piste, where we can happy hour and have a snack before grabbing the gondola back down. Then it’s perfect timing to head to dinner: my choice would be sushi at Sudachi.
Day two, let’s get outside again. We usually get up early to beat the crowds. I like to grab lunch to go at a cafe called Picnic, we could throw sandwiches (and delicious pastries) into our packs and head for the hills. There are lots of options in Grand Teton National Park. To get a lot of bang for your buck, I’d take us on a paddle board from String Lake to Leigh Lake. On the far side of Leigh, there are lovely beaches looking up at the mountains, perfect for picnicking and reading in the sun. Drinks with a view at Dornan’s on the way back to town.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
To the women who have been examples to me along the way: who chose a unique path, who didn’t care what people thought, who started off taking the beaten path but detoured somewhere more interesting along the way.
Linkedin: Christy Shannon Smirl