Are Bookstores an Essential Business?

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Photo by Tuur Tisseghem on Pexels.com

The coronavirus has changed the landscape of bookselling. At a time when indie bookstores have been growing in popularity and Barnes & Noble is trying to reinvent itself, bookselling is suddenly in a precarious position. In my state, as many others, we have “stay-at-home” mandates in place that also only allow essential businesses and services to remain open. Grocery and hardware stores, gas stations, repair shops, as well as critical medical facilities, utilities, first responders, and repair services like plumbers continue to work, but must practice infection control and social distancing measures.

From what I can tell, all our bookstores are closed. Some tried to arrange curbside pick up services, but most, other than Barnes and Noble for online orders, have eliminated this. As with other businesses, it has led to the layoff of bookstore personnel, and if this goes very long, could sink many operations.

In some places, bookstores are raising the question of whether they might be considered an essential business. For some bibliophiles, this is a no-brainer. Of course, they would say! Sure, there are some of us who are well prepared to wait this out with high TBR piles and books squirreled away in every room of the house. We may need toilet paper, but not books, and in a pinch…

But seriously, an extended stay at home poses the challenge of how we spend the time. Many have observed the precedent of Boccaccio’s Decameron, in which a group of friends (who can afford it) flee to the country and tell each other stories. I suppose with online tools, we might pass the time similarly. But for many who aren’t into endless video, books may be a critical essential for filling at least some of those hours. With libraries also closed, some readers may run out of books.

From a public health point of view, and in the eyes of many who don’t have the luxury of buying books in any season, this may be the frivolous complaint of the elite, or even a dangerous practice if it results in additional spread of infection. Justifying bookstores would probably support the argument that a variety of other businesses might be justified in staying open.

So, while I don’t think it is essential to keep bookstores open, I think it is essential to keep them alive. They serve as an important “third place” in normal times, they play a critical role in helping authors get the word out about their books, they offer whole families the chance to have books of their own, from children to young adults to moms and dads to grandparents. They are an important lifeline for our publishing industry. And there is a serendipity of browsing the shelves that online shopping can never duplicate. So, what can be done? Here are a few ideas:

  • Many stores still allow you to do phone and/or online orders. Some are waiving shipping. It might be easier to order them online (although Amazon has had to limit its book business for more “essentials”). Figure out the bookstore you love and buy from them. Yet also realize, for many stores, this alone will not be enough.
  • Buy audiobooks from them as well through Libro.Fm. If they are a partner, they can get a cut. At indiebound.org you can find similar options for buying e-books. One caveat is that these won’t work on your Kindle.
  • You can also buy gift cards from the store to use yourself or give away. This gives the store an immediate cash infusion and you a nice gift for friends (and hopefully, new customers for the store).
  • Some stores have turned to online funding tools like GoFundMe to raise needed funds to stay alive. Literati Bookstore, in Ann Arbor, a store which has received national recognition, is faced with the challenge of having enough funds to re-open. They set a goal of raising $100,000 through a GoFundMe campaign, and exceeded it in two days time. Do you love your bookstore? You might consider doing this, or even organizing a campaign for them.

In the U.S., it appears many of us will be receiving checks from Uncle Sam. Some who are unemployed desperately need these funds. But for some of us, this is a bonus. As you think of how you use this, if you are a bibliophile, you might think of how you might help your favorite bookseller. There are a number of critical needs of course, including many who were on the edge even before all this. There are other businesses we want to see survive as well. But as readers, we are the people who care for and know the value of bookstores better than any. This is the time to act, as we are able, on what we know.

My Ideal Bookstore

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The religion and theology alcove at Blue Jacket Books, Xenia, Ohio, now closed. © Bob Trube, 2015.

There is a graphic of a tweet doing the rounds as I write that says:

“Escape room idea:

Just a well-stocked bookstore with clearly marked exits. You have one hour to get out. Good luck.”

For most of us who are bibliophiles, the outcome would be no escape. And we’d be perfectly happy with that.

But it got me thinking. What is my idea of the ideal bookstore? I came to an interesting conclusion, thinking of the various bookstores I’ve visited. There is no single ideal. I’ve visited “hole in the wall” bookstores that I have really loved, bookstores in houses, bookstores in converted storage buildings, indie stores, and chain stores and liked them all. I think of a tiny paperback store in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan that had a stash of great vintage science fiction. I’ve visited great new book stores, used book stores, and some that sell both. Probably my best answer would be: they have books!

But if you pressed me, here are a some things that make a store one to which I want to return:

  • It is distinctive, even if part of a chain.
  • It has engaging booksellers who actually seem interested in helping you find the next great book. I still remember the booksellers at Acorn Books, now closed, as some of the best. By the same token, I’ve interacted with a number of Barnes & Noble booksellers who went to great lengths to track down books their online site says are available but I could not find–in one case locating a book in a stockroom that had not yet been placed on the sales floor.
  • They have a selection that goes beyond the popular books that I either have or don’t want.
  • In my case they have strong sections in science, history and biography, crime fiction, science fiction and literary fiction, and religion and philosophy. I always remember my first visit to a Borders that had all of these. I thought I was in book heaven.
  • Sometimes, it is the unique vibe of the bookstore. I think of one small store in a college town that is incredibly well curated, both in terms of new titles, and “consigned” titles, many from college professors. My kind of place!
  • A bookstore cat adds to the ambiance of any store. This might be something for Barnes and Noble to consider as they try to reinvent themselves!
  • I love used bookstores of any time, but the ones where the books are actually organized in some semblance of order, and where stock has been dusted some time in living memory is a plus.
  • I think of stores that are great family places, where you, your spouse, and your children of different ages can all find interesting books.
  • While cafés are nice, some are pricy and make me choose between that frappuccino and that book. Just give me comfortable seating scattered around the store where I can browse books I’m considering purchasing.
  • I enjoy stores where the booksellers have made recommendations, either in sections or on notecards by the books. I’ve bought books for on the basis of that.
  • Of course, because I read a lot, I always like finding books at a discount. I have found how much they depreciate when I try to sell them. I’ve also come to appreciate that only sales of new books provide royalties to the author.

I could go on but I suspect you have come up with some other qualities of great stores. I hope you will add them to this post in the comments

Airport Bookstores

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Renaissance Books Used Book Store location in General Mitchell International Airport; Milwaukee, WI. Photo by Captison [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve been writing about books and bookstores for over five years, and I have to confess that until the other day, I’d never thought about writing about bookstores in airports. It’s not for lack of experience in airports during that time.

This crossed my radar in the form of an article about W.H. Smith opening its largest The Bookshop at Gathwick Airport in the UK. The company won a British Book Awards “Book Retailer of the Year” for 2019. The store sells everything from mass market best sellers to children’s books and features destination country books on their “Read Around the World Shelves.”

I started thinking about this and asked the Bob on Books gang over at Facebook about their experiences at airport bookstores. First of all, there are a number like me who come prepared to the airport with their own books, including having loaded some on their e-readers, which save weight when you travel. One person observed, “I figure if I have time to browse an airport bookstore, I have time to browse the Kindle store on my tablet.” Others remarked that airport bookstores are over-priced (like most things at airports) and mainly seem to have the mass-market best-sellers (which often aren’t bad airport or plane reads). One exception I found on my travels was Book People’s store in the Austin-Bergstrom airport in Austin near Gate 20, a reflection of the cool place the main Book People store is.

Others have had some great experiences. Some airports apparently have stores where you can purchase and return books for a discount on other books. Sky Harbor in Phoenix Airport is reported to have a store that does this. Some have found some great books in these stores: The Art of Racing in the Rain, The Dovekeepers, Gunslinger Dark Tower: Book One, Salt and Cod by Mark Kurlansky, The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium – An Englishman’s World by Danny Danziger and Robert Lacey. Another wrote: “I found a book on heroes from WWII who saved many from the Holocaust at a bookstore in Brussels recently. They had separate sections for books in English, French and Flemish.”

I heard from three different people about a great store at the Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee. Renaissance Books, located in the main terminal, features an extensive selection of used books as well as new, packed into 1,000 square feet, so like some classic used book stores, things can be stacked up. There is literary fiction, non-fiction, and even some antiquarian books near the checkout counter. One customer on Yelp wrote about spotting a whole shelf on Churchill. I’ll have to try to schedule a flight through here just to check it out!

The major bookseller in the US market is Hudsons, which may be found in many of the major airports, sometimes in multiple locations in different terminals, three for example in the Seattle-Tacoma airport. Hudsons also has a healthy online site, including downloads of audio books in Libro.FM. My sense is that Hudson’s tries for a wide selection of books for different audiences, focusing on the more popular in each topic area, as well as current bestsellers. For someone with a long layover or stranded due to delayed flights, this can be a lifesaver, if you haven’t come prepared.

Most of us don’t go the airport to buy books (except maybe in Milwaukee), but most of us who love books sooner or later wander into one of these stores. I’d love to hear about your experiences, particularly if you’ve found a really good store!

Memo: To the New CEO of Barnes & Noble

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Shawn Rossi, “Barnes & Noble” [CC BY 2.0] via Flickr

Last week, Elliott Management agreed to buy Barnes & Noble for $683 million. Elliott owns Waterstones in the UK, with James Daunt as its CEO. He would become CEO of Barnes & Noble. Many hailed this move because under Daunt, Waterstone’s has experienced a significant turnaround, and Daunt came up through the ranks as a bookseller and has spoken about reclaiming the “honourable profession” of bookselling. The picture became a bit murkier when Readerlink announced that it is pursuing a counteroffer to that of Elliott Management. Readerlink supplies books to retail outlets like Walmart and Target. If deeds done may predict the future, I think most booklovers would appreciate the approach of Daunt and Elliott Management to Readerlink. Many think Barnes & Noble has already suffered as it has been “Walmart-ized.”

I asked the question at my Bob on Books Facebook page of what advice my followers would give the new CEO at Barnes & Noble, either Daunt or someone else. The page has a number of dedicated readers, and they gave a dedicated response. Here are some of the areas they commented on:

The “vibe” of the store: People like the comfortable atmosphere, want to keep the coffee shop, and would like stores to offer more comfortable seating.

The bookseller: This was one of the most significant areas where a number noted decline. In earlier years, people found the booksellers interesting to talk to and knowledgeable. Some noted that in recent years, the booksellers have been replaced by fewer, and more part-time people, still trying to be helpful and polite, but under more pressure. Hopefully the new CEO will realize that the greatest asset in these stores that set them apart from online sellers is the bookseller and allocate funds accordingly. What makes every successful indie successful are booksellers who love books, and cater to readers who love and want to buy books.

Selection:  Readers lamented the declines they’ve seen in the selection of books, particularly in the area of fiction. One reader offered this example: “The fiction selection there is horrible now. For example, if you’re looking for Herman Melville, you’ll get several editions of Moby Dick, but no Typee, Billy Budd, etc.” Another reader said, “In short, try to appeal to a more discerning crowd instead of all the formulaic, mainstream crap.” Some would like more international periodicals and newspapers as well. Several readers made the point one reader made succinctly: “More books, less toys.” (However one reader pointed out that educators find the toys and games section an important part of the shopping experience.) One reader suggested QR codes on shelves to link readers to the Barnes & Noble website for other books by an author, or similar books, a feature that might discourage them from “showrooming” with that online retailer.

Price: Most readers are aware of how retail sales of new books are critical to supporting authors. However price is an issue, especially for those who read many books. At $30 or more for a hardcover, new books are out of reach for some, who choose the library or second-hand stores and charity sales instead. But people don’t want Barnes & Noble to become a Walmart of books: low prices on a limited, mainstream selection. One wonders if a discount could be scaled to the number of books or amount spent by a customer a year.

Promotions and partnerships: People would like to see promotions to bring people into the store, whether a free beverage each month or occasional BIG booksales to draw in the community. Other readers suggest partnerships with schools and libraries, particularly in communities distant from a Barnes & Noble store (in many cases from any bookstore).

I was surprised by how many people love their Barnes & Noble store (I do too). They want to keep them open and see them do better. My sense is that they want to encounter a store run by passionate booklovers for booklovers, a store with an interesting and diverse selection, and one where the feeling is, “make yourself comfortable and stay awhile.” Is that so hard?

 

 

Review: The Bookshop on the Corner

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The Bookshop on the CornerJenny Colgan. New York: William Morrow, 2016.

Summary: Nina Redmond loses her librarian job, pursues a dream of a mobile bookshop, ending up in the Scottish Highlands, bringing joy to a cluster of small towns in her Little Shop of Happy-Ever-After, while longing for her own happy-ever-after.

I’m a sucker for books on books and so didn’t notice that this is categorized as women’s fiction, and romance, two categories I tend not to read. What is curious-er is that I actually liked it, for the most part. It was a nice break from some other heavier reads, and explored some themes I found interesting.

The story is that Nina Redmond, a librarian in Birmingham, is about to lose her job in a library consolidation. In an outplacement workshop exercise, complete with all the cliche’s of modern corporate life, she is invited to share her own dream job. And she finally admits that it is to own her own bookshop, maybe a tiny one, where she can help match up people with books they will love. The dream lingers and takes the shape of a mobile bookshop in a van. She finds the van–in rural Scotland–and finally, with the help of villagers, persuades the owner to sell it to her. They hope she will bring her little bookshop to their town, and after being turned down for vending and parking permits in Birmingham, and a near-disaster encounter with a train, she decides to stay. At last her book-beleaguered roommate Surinder will get her and her books out of the apartment.

With the help of the train engineer, a Latvian emigre by the name of Marek, boxes and boxes of books are transported from Birmingham to a train crossing near her home at Kirrinfief. She finds a beautiful converted barn to rent from a grumpy, divorcing sheep farmer, Lennox. Surinder comes up and paints the name she chooses for her little bookshop, The Bookshop of Happy-Ever-After on her van while she fits out the inside. The bookshop is a huge success and villagers who haven’t read a book in years are matched up with books they love. Some admit that when the libraries closed and no local stores were available, they just stopped reading. There is one delightful scene where she looks around the village, and sees people reading everywhere. The village embraces her and she finds she cares for them more than she would have thought–a teen girl Ainslee and her brother Ben, who are facing some trouble at home, a shopkeeper who has faced too many disappointments, and even the grumpy farmer, who she assists in delivering twin lambs that only she, with her small hands, could untangle inside the ewe.

Yes, it is a romance novel, an adult one in places. Nina strikes up this odd romantic relationship with the Latvian, Marek, who leaves books on a tree by the rail crossing for her, and she in return for him. They meet sometimes, and it nearly becomes something more. Yet, it is pretty clear to the reader that the real deal is Lennox and we all wonder what it will take to bring the two together. We wonder if Nina will find her own “happy-ever-after” or if these are just the stuff of fiction.

I loved the descriptions of the Scotland, the countryside, the short summer nights and the Northern Lights, the village life and festivals. More than this, I love the transformation that occurs both in Nina and in Kirrinfief and how books are the medium of that transformation. Nina discovers a calling in bringing people with little access to books together with books they love, books that broaden their horizons, or even books that are gateways for them into reading, as it was with Ben. In the process, we witness a village discovering what it had lost, settling for electronic media substitutes, and the joy of recovering what was lost and making the fabric of their life a bit richer. The contrast between Kirrinfief and Birmingham, with its hectic pace of life, shuttering its libraries and bookstores for an electronically mediated life, portrayed by her friend Griffin, who manages to keep his job in a technology-oriented thing called a library that has little to do with books.

None of this is heavy-handed, maybe a bit cliché at times, but an enjoyable page-turning read. This was a romance in more ways in one. Yes, there is the romantic element of Nina caught between the “puppy-eyed” Marek, and the gruff, angular Lennox. But there is also the romance of bookselling–the wonderful matchmaking work between books and their readers–as well as the practicalities of getting stock and making a living at it. More than that, we have the reminder in Nina’s rolling bookshop of how everything from Little Free Libraries to bookmobiles and libraries and village bookshops weave together to enrich the social ecology of a place.

Farewell to an Old Friend

Village Bookshop.jpgI visited the Village Bookshop the other day. It has been one of my favorite haunts during the 28 years we’ve lived on the northwest side of Columbus. Located within ten minutes of our home at 2432 Dublin Granville Rd in an old, white-sided church building, this has been one of my favorite bookstores. For nearly 50 years, the Village Bookshop, which occupies the old Linworth Methodist Church building, has served locals and visiting bookbuyers alike. I picked up my Dumas Malone’s five volume biography of Jefferson here many years ago. Recently, I read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, John Steinbeck’s Cannery Road, and C.S. Lewis’s The Personal Heresy. All of them came from  the Village Bookshop.

And now it is closing.

Owner Gary Friedlinghaus and his wife Carol, who took over the store 37 years ago, told the Columbus Dispatchthat changes in the public’s book-buying habits and a declining supplier base has made the decision necessary. He describes his decision as a “judicious retreat.”

There was no place quite like it. At one time, the store had an inventory of as many as four million books, nearly all new, and apart from some old and rare books, discounted 60 to 90 percent. The store was known for its selection of military prints and books. As a bit of a Civil War buff, I found more than a few good books there, as well as many other finds in their history section. They had a great selection of paperback classics, many for under $4, often older versions of Oxford Classics. My latest acquisition in this section was Faulkner’s The Reivers. The biographies table toward the front of the store was always a stop, as was a featured selection of books toward the middle of the store. I often stopped at the religion section just to the left of the featured books and before the passage to the back annex. Just through that passage was a four-sided set of shelves with books under $2, mostly old paperbacks. I made a few finds here over the years! Fiction occupied most of the back of the store on the ground floor. On my most recent visit, I picked up novels by Chaim Potok and Sharon Kay Penman that I haven’t read.

The upstairs was a world to itself, in the back annex of the building. One half seemed to be overflow from downstairs–more history, sociology, and fiction, including science fiction and fantasy. The other half was old books. Some were plainly there on consignment. On a recent visit, I happened into the fiction section when a customer was loading up an old set of Sir Walter Scott novels. A part of me wished I’d gotten there first (but where would I put them?).

Lori, daughter of the owner indicated that the building might be preserved and occupied by a different kind of business instead of being converted to apartments, like much of the area across the street. It is a historic building, built in 1887, for what was then Bright’s Chapel Methodist Episcopal Church. One hopes this will be the case.

The store will close its doors for the last time on August 31. When we were there, books were being discounted 20 percent off their already discounted prices. You could see the shelves were thinned a bit, but there was still a great selection of books. I might be back another time or two–but maybe not, and so it was time for this tribute of sorts.

Earlier this year, another favorite haunt, Acorn Books in Grandview closed. It is hard to see these independents going. It is sobering to realize that the number of those like me who not only love books, but the serendipitous fun of finding something you weren’t looking for on the shelves of a bookstore, seems to be dwindling. Book culture seems to be in the process of being stripped down to searching for the book we want online, ordering or downloading it, and reading and deleting it, if we read at all. For the sake of speed and convenience, we are sacrificing a richly textured culture with unique places like Village Bookshop to homogenized chains and online sites–and not only with regard to books. Will we wake up one day to realize that our local towns and villages have become banal and boring places–just like everywhere else? Or will it matter?

 

Bookstore Review: The Bookstore at University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary

For over twenty years, I have been coming to the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary for national conferences of the collegiate ministry with which I work. The campus is in a wooded setting on a lake in the northern suburbs of Chicago with gorgeous buildings that are a combination of Renaissance Roman and American Colonial Revival architecture. I’ve enjoyed many walks, leisurely conversations with colleagues, and rich learning experiences.

This year, I discovered one more reason to look forward to visiting. They have a new Bookstore. I learned that there had always been a bookstore in the basement of an academic building, primarily used by seminarians. Over the last couple years, the campus has completed a major renovation of its’ Refectory, renaming it Mundelein Hall after the Chicago archbishop responsible for the development of the university. Just to the left of the new front entrance, occupying one corner of the building is the new bookstore.

The store is tailored to serve the seminarians preparing for the Roman Catholic priesthood and students in other programs, prospective students, and other guests and retreatants to the campus. Unlike some religious bookstores, I found an extensive selection of works on theology, catechesis (instruction in the faith), church history, biblical studies philosophy, Christian classics, social justice, liturgy, pastoral care, and spiritual formation. Many are from a Catholic perspective, where much fine scholarship and writing is being done and that one might not come across elsewhere. There is also an extensive selection of texts in Spanish.

Like other college bookstores there are a variety of gift items including mugs, clothing, bags, and other items with the college logo. There is also a small selection of musical CDs and devotional items and what I understand is a favored blend of coffee that the students enjoy.

At this point, the store online provides online ordering of textbooks for seminarians, often paid for through vouchers from their sending diocese. The store mentioned they were working on online capabilities for other customers, so check back.

The Bookstore’s current hours and contact information are:

Monday – Friday: 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.
Saturday: 10:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.
Sunday: Closed

For more information, call 847-970-4901

Since the store is located on the campus grounds, outside visitors should observe speed limits on campus roads, park in designated areas, and respect the atmosphere of quiet and reflection on campus.

Review: Bookstore

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BookstoreLynne Tillman. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1999.

Summary: The story of Jeanette Watson and Books & Co., once one of the premier independent bookstores in New York City, connecting readers with books and their writers until their closing in 1997.

Jeanette Watson is the grand-daughter of the founder of IBM, and the daughter of Thomas Watson, Jr. who built the company into a computer industry leader. A reader from childhood, this daughter of wealth spent her early adult years working in early childhood education, mental health care, and going through one marriage and divorce. She struggled with depression, then faced hip surgery for congenital hip dysplasia. Facing surgery and a long recovery, she reached a turning point:

“I had a dream. The dream came almost immediately after I was told I needed surgery. I dreamed I was in a bookstore, surrounded by books, hundreds of books, and the place had two floors, and it was cozy. It looked like what would become Books & Co.

* * * * *

“Throughout the ordeal, the operation and the long recovery, the dream sustained me. I was determined there would be a bookstore at the end of the tunnel. One day I invited my friend Steve Aronson out for lunch. He was the only person I knew who was actually in publishing. I told Steven I wanted a bookstore that would look very old-fashioned, be like a private home, and carry wonderful books. There would be events, parties and gallery openings” (p. 13).

This book tells the story of the bookstore that came out of that dream, its twenty year run, and how Watson found her own calling in life in the process. The book, though authored by Lynne Tillman, is Jeanette Watson’s narrative of the history of Books & Co. and her own love of bookselling, interspersed with memories from publishers, writers, representatives, other booksellers, customers and celebrities about there experiences at Books & Co. The contributors anecdotes give us a sense of how Books & Co. served as kind of a literary nexus during this time.

It begins with Watson and her father investing in the startup after finding an old brownstone down the street from the Whitney, who owned the property, on Madison Avenue. She links up with Burt Britton, a book trade veteran who she signs on as a partner. The partnership lasted a year and resulted in “The Wall” representing the best of past and present literary fiction. Burt knew no limits to spending or acquiring books and eventually, Watson ended the partnership to try to meet the bottom line.

Watson realized her dream. She created a two story bookstore that included a green sofa on the second floor, and a curated collection of books centered on literature, philosophy, art, and children’s literature. She became renown for the authors who appeared and did readings in her stores. The list of those who did readings which appears at the back of the book is a snapshot of the literary world in New York in the from the late 1970’s to the late 1990’s. She was an aspiring writer’s friend, and introduced writers, and works she liked to the literary world, and underscored the important role booksellers play in promoting great writing.

Perhaps her greatest joy was connecting people with books, everyone from Woody Allen and Michael Jackson to ordinary residents of the city. Watson comments:

“There’s a significance too–almost a drama–in introducing readers to books. Dramatic because books can and do change people’s lives. I’ve felt that importance as much as I’ve felt it about introducing new writers to readers. Burt used to say, ‘It’s just as easy to read a good book as a bad book.’ If people were given the right book, they could experience something wonderful. One woman told me that she wasn’t a reader until the bookstore opened, but because of my suggestions, she was reading Balzac. It’s what I’m most proud of doing over the years” (p.52).

The book chronicles not only the joys but the struggles of bookselling. Apart from a few boom years in the 1980’s, it was a constant struggle to break even and Watson put a lot of her own money into the store. We get a glimpse behind the scenes of working with publishers representatives and making decisions about book acquisitions, working with distributors and staff, paying bills and making returns.

We also see the beginnings of a transformation of the book trade. Readers interested in the serious works sold by a store like this seemed to be aging and their numbers declining. The advent of the big chains like Barnes and Noble and Borders (!) began to erode sales as people turned to booksellers who discounted. Amazon was just new, and not yet perceived as the force that would threaten them all. E-books were still in the future. But the internet was dawning and cable and video were supplanting reading.

The death knell of this great indie was rent. For many years the Whitney and Books & Co. enjoyed a symbiotic relationship, with people often visiting both. The Whitney was landlord, and as Madison Avenue rents were rising, it became necessary for the Whitney to raise rents on its properties to attend to their own bottom line. These rents became increasingly difficult to meet. There were negotiations, explorations of a merger with the Whitney, all coming to nought. After Christmas in 1996, Jeanette Watson announced the closing of the store on May 31, 1997. Some attempted to save the store, but it was not to happen. The last part of the book is painful in some ways, as the attempts to sustain the life of a dying patient.

Reading the book brought to mind the wonderful encounters I’ve had with great bookstores over the year, especially the ones where the booksellers knew their books and loved connecting their customers with books they would love. I wish I had visited this one. It also reminded me of the passing of so many of these, each like the death of a friend.

At the same time, the pronounced death of the indie bookstores seems premature. Their number is actually growing while Borders is no more and Barnes and Noble is struggling. People are still reading Jane Austin and Dostoevsky, and so much else.

This autobiography, of Watson and her bookstore gives a glimpse into what it takes to make a great bookstore. There is one wrinkle in the book that may be off-putting to some. Watson, like so many bibliophiles, has a curiosity for everything and writes with more fascination than some might find comfortable of inter-species sex and every form of human sexuality, as well as an author’s study of cannibalism. Clearly, this is written in the progressive (and transgressive?) literary milieu of New York City. At the same time, we see the power of books to introduce us to so much of the world beyond just our own experience and the wonderful gift bookstores like Books & Co can be to writers and readers.

Jeanette Watson’s new memoir, It’s My Partywas released October 10, 2017. A video interview with Watson on her book is available on YouTube.

An Amazing Bookstore

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One of the many alcoves at Blue Jacket Books, an amazing store in Xenia, Ohio

Have you had the experience of discovering an amazing bookstore, one that seemed to have any book about anything? There seemed to be miles of shelves, cubby holes where you could curl up with a book, and great bargains on remaindered books–ones you wanted to read when they were full price, except you hadn’t gotten around to it.

In a Literary Hub article I discovered that we have James Lackington to thank for all of this. Lackington opened a store in 1774 in London that revolutionized bookselling to this day. His store, The Temple of Muses, eventually stocked 500,000 volumes. He bought large quantities of remaindered titles and, instead of destroying most of them to drive up the price, he passed the savings on to customers. He had four floors of books with “lounging rooms” for customers. It sounds like it was an incredible place.

I remember my first visit to a Borders store while we were house hunting in Columbus. This was when they were still owned by the Borders brothers. I couldn’t believe the depth of selection in each topic area, there was an amazing sale table, and lots of places to sit and browse your finds, as well as a cafe so that you could do it all drink in hand. All the things Lackington figured out made a great bookstore were present.

Now Borders is gone. There is only one major brick and mortar bookseller to speak of. More and more, the selection is limited to either the most significant or most current books in a genre. The only “everything” store is online. But there are still some great stores around the country such as Powell’s or BookPeople who still approximate this ideal. And the second hand stores, particularly some of the Half Price Books stores provide the opportunity for finding great bargains and unusual books. There are some independents as well, some in out of the way places like Blue Jacket Books in Xenia, Ohio that approximate this ideal.

I find myself wondering if a generation from now, people will still have the jaw-dropping experience of walking into a huge bookstore that seems to stock everything, where there are miles of aisles and shelves to explore on every conceivable topic. I also wonder if we will foster a culture that values such places. But there is the wonderful experience of finding your favorite section, and leisurely reading down the shelves of books and making those serendipitous finds that a logarithm or a heuristic might not predict because it only goes off your past history, and not your future interests, the ones that may be awakened by a title, a book cover, or a table of contents. It is a cultural good I hope we do not lose.

I do feel fortunate because in our city, Columbus, while we don’t have any “temples” to books, we have some pretty interesting stores. Some, like the Book Loft in German Village, with its 32 rooms over a couple floors, or the Half Price store on Lane Ave that sprawls and winds through a couple connected buildings get kind of close to Lackington’s ideal. A while back I wrote a post about bookstore crawling in Columbus. If you ever come through, I hope you will come visit some of my favorite places and help keep them alive!

I’d love to hear about your amazing bookstore experiences, so I can visit if I ever come through your town!

Bookstores as Safe Spaces

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Publishers Weekly posted an article yesterday titled When a Bookstore is Also a Safe HavenThe writer, an independent bookstore owner proposed the idea that for many, bookstores serve as safe havens during times of national or personal crisis. She wrote about the instinctive sense during 9/11 that her store in Utah be open, and it was packed. It’s not always that people want to buy books, but they want some place where it is safe to process, with oneself or others–patrons and booksellers.

I hadn’t thought of bookstores in this way until I remembered that on 9/11 I was in Cleveland for a funeral of a friend and between gatherings, and after the news broke, I had a few free hours. Where did I go? A bookstore. I drank coffee, followed the news, called home, and tried along with the others who I’d never met to wrap my mind around the truth that our world had changed on that sunny September day.

I’ve noticed that some of my favorite stores are those where the booksellers and many of the patrons know each other. It’s kind of like Cheers where everybody knows your name. Yet I hesitate with this as well. I don’t go to bookstores for a social life, or a confessional. I go for books. Sometimes, I’m a bit creeped out if a stranger gets too friendly, and as an older guy, I don’t want to be that person either! I ordinarily find my social life with family, work, and my church, and some other long time friends.

The article writer notes how stores, particular those who cater to particular communities, may serve as a hub at a time of crisis, as was an LGBTQ store during the Orlando club shootings. For others, there is a greater safety than in a church or a bar. I do find that some stores, particularly if they provide places to read or work with a beverage in hand, often develop a regular clientele who form a kind of community.

They also provide a place to help us try to make sense of what has happened, both in conversations and with books (a way us readers often try to make sense of the world.) As you know, I’ve been an advocate for the value of brick and mortar stores as “third places” as well as for the level of service they provide, particularly as they become to their patrons tastes. This article took it a step further, suggesting they provide a vital public service in times of crisis. In our scary times, perhaps that is something we should value and preserve. I’m glad there was a place like that on 9/11.