Dave Pedersen, a third-generation Army veteran, never imagined he’d open an independent bookstore in downtown Rockford, Illinois, where he grew up.
But with the help of his wife, Pedersen opened Maze Books in June 2022. One year later, the bookstore continues to evolve, and Pedersen continues to be happy about his decision.
“There is always stress, but the big difference with stress when you work for yourself is that there is a payoff,” he said. “There’s no middleman to intercept my hard work. It’s all me — and that goes the same for failures.”
Maze Books carries up to 2,000 titles with a weekly rotation – out of a total inventory of more than 10,000 books – including 10% in new books. Best sellers include used and new books in the “banned and challenged” category, such as “1984,” “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Color Purple.”
His is the only independent store in Rockford to carry new titles, Pedersen said, adding that his goal is to reach 20% in new inventory. The name “Maze Books” derives from the notion of meandering through stacks in search of knowledge, said Pedersen, who’s been an avid reader since he was a little boy.
Pedersen credits his participation in Dog Tag’s five-month fellowship program with allowing him to take the plunge and open the bookstore.
“It was absolutely one of the most beneficial things that could happen (to me),” he said. “There are so many things you don’t think about when you’re starting a business.”
Following four years of service in the Army, the path that led 41-year-old Pedersen to become a small business owner was meandering and, at times, difficult.
Pedersen enlisted at 19 years old in 2001 and was stationed in South Korea with the 552nd Military Police Company, then in Germany with the Army criminal investigation division drug suppression team. His last role was as a public affairs operations noncommissioned officer. He’d sustained a debilitating knee injury while performing riot control in South Korea. When surgery didn’t help, he was medically discharged, he said.
For years after that, Pedersen said, he struggled to find his path.
“I definitely felt lost,” he said. “I had a handful of miserable jobs, especially after the 2008 recession. There was a period in my life when I didn’t own a car. Work was so scarce. At one point my G.I. Bill was so backed up, I couldn’t afford rent or food.”
He worked as a cab driver, customer service rep and process server. He walked two hours each way to a job inspecting car seats. He even worked as site technician for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR), in charge of raising pheasants in Wilmington, Illinois.
Meeting his wife in 2012 prompted him to start working toward stability, said Pedersen, who at the time lived in Kankakee, Illinois.
“Having a partner who wants to really push you to do your best, instead of just being by yourself, I think that was the big difference,” he said.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in 2017 and now is a student in Northwestern University’s master of fine arts program.
After earning his degree, he worked in administration at IDNR and then for the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs as director of volunteers at a veterans’ home. The COVID-19 pandemic took a toll, so he quit in 2021 to take classes at Northwestern while substitute teaching.
Eventually, Pedersen and his wife, who works in marketing for a local college, decided to move to his native city to be near family and friends. That’s when they came up with the idea of a bookstore, he said.
Based in Washington D.C., Dog Tag “equips veterans with service-connected disabilities, military spouses and caregivers with the education and tools needed to find renewed purpose and community outside of the military,” its website states.
That can mean opening a business, starting a nonprofit or even becoming engaged in volunteering, Dog Tag CEO Meghan Ogilvie said.
“Success is defined by the individual,” she said. “Dog Tag is there to meet them where they are and support them through it.”
Pedersen attended Dog Tag’s fellowship program in early 2022, when it expanded to Chicago in collaboration with Loyola University Chicago’s Executive and Professional Education Center.
The program delved into things like forming an LLC, hiring an accountant, getting business insurance, and dealing with inventory, sales, transportation, competition and more, Pedersen said. There was plenty of sound advice, he said, like how it’s best to focus on a tight business plan, rather than a grander plan to open a coffee shop and bookstore at the same time.
The fellowship program has a rigorous application process with three rounds of interviews, and Pedersen stood out, Ogilvie said.
“He was very serious in a lot of ways,” she said. “He was trying to feel us out. He was like, ‘Is this real?’ I value someone being open enough to ask questions versus just trusting in a program.”
Pedersen also had a vision, Ogilvie said.
“Obviously he’s very passionate about books,” Ogilvie said. “But it was very much like, ‘How can I make sure this is for the community?”
Every neighborhood needs an independent bookstore, said Pedersen, currently the sole employee.
“My wife helps when she can and she’s been crucial to my success,” he said.
“The great thing about owning your own business is that every day, when you’re closing shop and you’re looking at the receipts, you know that was all you. You’re going to have days that aren’t the best, but some days, you’re going to have days that make up for it threefold.”
Pedersen hopes to expand the bookstore, and eventually buy a building in downtown Rockford and live there with his wife, above their business.