The maxim 'straight from the lion's mouth' may have come about because Venice, Italy, which has the Lion of St. Mark as its symbol, had its own hotline system where citizens could report misdeeds. Statues of lion heads were placed around the city and citizens could write down concerns on paper and stuff them into the mouths.
Benjamin Franklin may have borrowed from this 13th-century idea in 1750, about a decade after founding The Library Company of Philadelphia. A tin box with the face of a roaring lion on it included the message, "Gentlemen are requested to deposit in the lion's mouth the titles of such books as they may wish to have imported."
Just over a year ago, Amy Mazzariello latched onto the name as perfect for her new downtown Green Bay book shop. With the goal of providing a high level of customer service that isn't available online, her business model is straightforward; listen to her customer's ideas and requests and do her best to never say no. Lion's Mouth Bookstore, an offshoot of the former Reader's Loft in Bellevue, was born.
"This is what makes independent bookstores special," she said. "For us, we have always been very customer-oriented. We bring in the books that customers are wanting and a large part of the business is special orders. We are a source for the community." Being a valued member of the community means more than selling books. Mazzariello is a dedicated volunteer and ambassador for all things literary. That includes promotion and planning of northeastern Wisconsin book festivals and assistance with the local Give a Kid a Book Campaign.
It was her involvement in the Fox Cities Book Festival, where she served on the author's committee, that she learned how to approach authors. She had worked at the Reader's Loft since 2006 and had years of experience prior to that working at big box book stores. An early love for reading turned into a passion for books and a future dream.
"I had been thinking about owning my own bookstore for a long time. In 2015, I really started to think I could do it and shared that with the owner (Virginia Kress) of Reader's Loft. She was very hands-off and had allowed me to spread my wings as a bookseller," Mazzariello said.
The thought was never far from her, and three years later, Mazzariello put pen to paper and started to write a business plan. At that point, she thought that she and Kress would be competitors, but that changed. Kress was looking at retirement, and a deal was negotiated for the purchase of the shop.
During planning, she met with the UW-Green Bay Small Business Development Center, a partner of SCORE, and her mentor, David Stauffacher, helped with projections. She took the plan to lenders but decided to self-finance.
"I didn't need to do that, but looking back, every step I took might not have been positive, but it was necessary," she said. "I needed to go through those experiences."
With the purchase agreement and funding in place, the next challenge was deciding on a location. She had decided to move from the Reader's Loft location and liked the idea of a downtown area. Her first choice was De Pere, but when that didn't work out, she was drawn to downtown Green Bay and found a home on Washington Street.
For some of her customers, parking was an issue, but the greatest challenge came in March. She had been looking ahead to downtown events like the Fourth of July and Artstreet, and being part of the "riverwalk experience." Then the pandemic struck.
"It was terrifying," she said. "When the shelter at home order came down on March 20, I laid off my employee and went right into offering delivery. But the community support was fantastic. They jumped right on to help and they let us know that they wanted us here and wanted us to survive."
Mazzariello's strength as an entrepreneur led her to face the situation with an optimistic outlook. She did frequent postings on social media and pivoted her planned events like poetry readings and a book club to online. Those events are now a combination, and the store is open with all of the new social distancing and sanitation procedures in effect.
Those changes should encourage customers to come in. With holiday shopping in full force, Mazzariello offers the opportunity to support the bookstore and local artists with a selection of art and gifts that include jewelry, puzzles, lotions, cards, games, and more. Otherwise, there is free, noncontact delivery in Brown County. There is always that one major benefit of reading, especially now.
"Are you looking to escape to another planet?" she asks. "We have you covered."
Tina Dettman-Bielefeldt is co-owner of DB Commercial Real Estate in Green Bay and past district director for SCORE, Wisconsin.