Andy Unger would use his college years to lay the groundwork for the LGBTQ+ bookstore he longed to open. But buying inventory and finding a space in which to sell it – the classics major figured all that would have to wait until after he graduated.
Except it didn’t.
Unger is spending his senior year at the University of Mary Washington manning Andy and Elliot’s, his very own pop-up bookstore inside Katora Coffee in downtown Fredericksburg. You can find him there between classes and on weekends selling specially-selected titles that represent the LGBTQ+ community he belongs to.
“I couldn’t have done this without UMW,” Unger said.
It was at UMW that Unger realized he could solve a problem he’d first noticed as a high school student: Books about the LGBTQ+ community were hard to find. And it was UMW that gave Unger the tools to tackle it.
StartUp UMW, a student entrepreneur education program, taught him the skills and strategies for starting a business. A litany of professors offered advice, support and mentorship. A summer job as a UMW orientation leader even paid for his first batch of merchandise.
“I could go on and on about the people UMW has put into my life,” he said.
Unger’s family moved around a lot when he was growing up, so he considers himself from a little bit of everywhere. He first heard about Mary Washington from his fiancée’s parents.
“I came here and I was immediately blown away,” Unger said. “It was homey and welcoming and beautiful. It sounds so cliché. But it’s true.”
So much that he considers Fredericksburg home.
Unger has loved books as long as he can remember. He’d fill a basket full of them during weekly trips to the library.
“As a teenager, though, something changed,” Unger writes on his website, andyandelliots.com. “The books directed at me were suddenly full of love stories, and I couldn’t relate to their experiences at all.”
Unger, who is transgender, said that was around the time he realized he wasn’t a girl. He began going by “Andy” and using “he/him” pronouns.
“I lost my love of reading for years, and only rediscovered it when a friend recommended to me, of all things, a book about queer wizards. I had known I was queer, but hadn’t made the connection between my sexuality and the books I read,” Unger writes. “Now I’m trying to give more people the same gift I was given: a return to reading, full of stories that they can really relate to.”
At UMW, Unger signed up for business courses. He met with Susan Ball, director of the UMW Small Business Development Center, who took note of his passion and vision. Under the center’s guidance, he wrote a business plan and a cash flow forecast.
He picked his professors’ brains. He made a list of the hard-to-find titles he hoped to sell at Andy and Elliot’s, named for himself and his fiancée. He spent a lot of his free time hanging out at Katora Coffee on Caroline Street, where he got to know owners Christian and April Zammas who would offer up a space in their shop for Unger’s pop-up bookstore.
“The LGBTQ community … needs to be represented more openly in our town. Taking this chance to showcase Andy’s concept was really a no-brainer,” Christian Zammas said. “He is passionate and extremely knowledgeable about every one of the books he has selected, and he is receptive to discussing the topics that most people shy away from but have the desire to know more about.”
Within a week of opening, Unger said he’d already sold enough books to cover his first month’s rent. Almost everyone who stops in has, at the very least, taken one of his business cards.
It’s important for people to see themselves in the books they read, he said. “Here are some books about you or the people you love so that you can understand them or yourself better.”
Unger plans to operate his pop-up bookstore through the end of the year. He’ll save every cent he makes.
“I want to have my own location by the end of next semester,” he said. “I can’t imagine doing anything that’s not this.”
Those who have watched Unger make it this far are confident he’ll succeed.
“It is such a delight to witness Andy Unger’s dream of owning and operating a bookstore come true – not through good fortune alone, but through an exacting, determined and relentless commitment to the grueling, quotidian work that alone makes the seemingly impossible come to life,” said Classics Professor Angela Pitts, who is also Unger’s advisor. “Plenty of small and large obstacles have put themselves in Andy’s way. But, he has worked hard, he has worked smart, and he has transformed life’s inevitable difficulties into learning opportunities.”