MacDowell Tests Virtual Residencies

Thea Prieto

In the midst of COVID-19, the country’s oldest arts residency is reimagining itself after 113 years. In August, MacDowell launched its first Virtual MacDowell “residency,” a fully online program intended to support artists and foster a sense of connection during the time of social distancing.

The decision has pushed organizers to reconsider what makes a residency valuable to artists. Since its inception MacDowell has strived to give artists a space away from their daily lives to pursue their work in the dynamic company of talented peers. Founded by composer Edward MacDowell and pianist Marian MacDowell, the program has hosted more than eight thousand artists on a former farm in Peterborough, New Hampshire, since 1907. Formerly known as the MacDowell Colony—earlier this year, the organization officially dropped the word colony from its name to, as the organization’s press release states, “remove terminology with oppressive overtones”—MacDowell has hosted writers such as Louise Erdrich, Audre Lorde, Ann Pachett, Mary Ruefle, Alice Walker, and Colson Whitehead, in its thirty-two studios. “It has now become a place in my mind that is holy, a place for true artistic exploration and discovery,” says poet Brenda Shaughnessy, a seven-time MacDowell resident. “When I feel like I’m in that free space, even in my mind…that’s when flow happens.”

With its studios closed for the foreseeable future, MacDowell staff have focused on cultivating that sense of free space and the stimulating conversations its residency offers on virtual platforms. “We knew it wouldn’t be a residency in the same way, but it would be able to create a community,” says Philip Himberg, MacDowell’s executive director, reappraising what residencies offer beyond physical space for work. “Anyone who has been to MacDowell will say that even though they spent 80 percent of their time in their studio and maybe 20 percent of their time socially interacting, that the actual, visceral experience is fifty-fifty, that the time at dinner—which is the meal where everyone gathers formally—the exchange of ideas and the energy among people is really as meaningful to them as the time they spent in their studios.”

When the first Virtual MacDowell convened for the month of August, it was envisioned not as a replacement of the on-site MacDowell experience, but rather as an experiment, with the hopes that Virtual MacDowell might prove an essential supplement to regular programming. The eight fellows who participated represent a cross section of artistic disciplines. Each received a $1,000 stipend to help offset costs for taking time off at home. In lieu of the meals famously delivered to residents’ cottages, each artist was mailed a picnic basket filled with books, recipes, and even potted earth and seeds from the gardens, so that they might have a piece of Peterborough. The participants also received two dinner deliveries, to continue the sense of shared meals, and were given virtual tours of MacDowell’s James Baldwin Library and access to digital archives, and attended group film screenings. These online interactions occurred twice a week for four weeks, during which the participants had the opportunity to discuss their own artistic practices and daily concerns.

“That first day when we all got together on Zoom, we were really just talking about how it feels impossible right now to be creative,” says writer and Virtual MacDowell fellow Jacob Guajardo. “Hearing from someone like Brenda, who has been producing work for longer than I have, and a lot of the other people saying they feel stuck, or they have moments, these bouts of creativity—it felt great to hear that I wasn’t the only one.”

“It’s always lovely to talk to other artists,” says Shaughnessy, reflecting on the in-person experience versus working from home. “Usually you’re in a situation where you’re struggling with your own work, alone in a cabin, well nourished but very much solo…and it’s very lonely. So by the time you’re done with that for the whole day, you’re very, very happy to talk to another artist…I think [Virtual MacDowell] is trying to approximate that.”

Many residencies are similarly navigating closures and trying to engage artistic communities at a distance. Virtual VCCA, a COVID-19 initiative hosted by the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, is an online platform where residency fellows, staff, and supporters share a live video series, private chats, and opportunities to present their creative work. The Vermont Studio Center’s Virtual VSC, which launched in April, features online art exhibitions, readings, and artist talks from their fellows. Himberg says a version of Virtual MacDowell is likely to run again in the fall. What was developed for the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic might have staying power beyond them: These new programs may model a more inclusive residency experience for artists who are unable to attend in-person, whether for financial or family reasons, because of available accessibility accommodations at a venue, or because they live abroad.

“There are really talented artists who, for whatever reason, cannot make the trip to MacDowell,” Himberg says. “There are many different things we think this virtual version of MacDowell might make better, and I’m hopeful that it will get more responsive to the needs of the community. That’s what is most important.”

 

Thea Prieto’s fiction, reviews, and interviews have appeared in Longreads, the Masters Review, and other journals. The author of From the Caves (Red Hen Press, 2021), she writes and edits for Propeller and the Gravity of the Thing. Her website is theaprieto.com.

Save Indie Bookstores

by

Maggie Millner

6.10.20

Writers tend to have their favorite local bookstores. The one where the staff members are mostly poets. The one with the secret reading nook in which you can sit and sample the wares. The one that sells out-of-print titles from a discount bin. The one you can’t imagine your neighborhood without.

This spring, as stay-at-home orders swept the country and many such bookstores faced an uncertain financial future, best-selling novelist James Patterson partnered with the American Booksellers Association (ABA) and the Book Industry Charitable Foundation to launch Save Indie Bookstores, a campaign to support shops affected by the pandemic. The initiative, which began in early April, aimed to raise funds for direct grants to help stores stay solvent through the crisis. Reese’s Book Club, a virtual book group run by actor and producer Reese Witherspoon, championed the campaign; as part of the initiative’s rollout, the organization posted a video of Patterson on its Instagram channel—an account that reaches more than 1.6 million followers—publicizing Patterson’s personal donation of $500,000. (The donation is not Patterson’s first act of support for independent bookstores; since 2015 the author has given annual “holiday bonuses” totaling $1.35 million to hardworking booksellers at shops nationwide.) Author Rick Riordan, with his wife, Becky Riordan, also pledged to match donor contributions up to $100,000. By May 5, Save Indie Bookstores had raised $1,239,595, to be disbursed to all eligible bookstores that applied for grant funding. Privately owned businesses with a physical address in the United States or its territories, and that lost at least 50 percent of their sales and/or net income between March 15 and May 15, as compared with the same period last year, were eligible. The ABA says nearly one thousand shops will receive grants of at least $725 each.

Save Indie Bookstores is premised partially on the reality that many booksellers who closed their shops’ doors in response to the pandemic may never reopen them. “Given the razor-thin margins these stores operate on, you can imagine how devastating it is to be closed to the public for weeks and weeks,” says Allison K Hill, who became CEO of the ABA earlier this year, after working for over two decades as an independent bookseller. In addition to operating on slim profit margins, the indie bookselling industry has long faced fierce competition from corporate franchises and screen-based technologies. Still, local bookstores have gone through something of a resurgence in recent years. As e-book sales have fallen, and big chains have shuttered (like Borders) or been bought out (like Barnes & Noble), many indie bookstores have seen a sales growth over the past decade thanks to carefully curated shelves and community events and outreach. Last year the ABA reported its highest membership since 2009. Now the pandemic puts at risk not only booksellers’ individual businesses, but also the heartening broader uptick to which their hard work has contributed.

Greenlight Books in Brooklyn, New York, which had its strongest year in 2019, sent in an application for funding in April. “We had to lay off about three-quarters of our staff, which was utterly horrible,” says Jessica Stockton Bagnulo, who opened the store with co-owner Rebecca Fitting in 2009. Through the ABA’s e-commerce platform, IndieCommerce, Greenlight switched to online-only sales when New York City imposed stay-at-home orders; like many bookstores it also virtually hosted many of its scheduled readings and author interviews via Zoom. Stockton Bagnulo hopes federal aid and a grant from Save Indie Bookstores will allow Greenlight to eventually hire back all its staff and “reorganize very quickly.”

Second Star to the Right bookstore in Denver also applied for a grant. Before the spread of the coronavirus, the shop’s owners were finalizing plans to double the size of the store, adding a café and a new event space; since its closure in late March, they have started curbside pickup, adopted a new online business model, launched a GoFundMe campaign to offset staffing and occupancy costs, and begun hosting virtual story hours with authors. Britt Margit Hopkins, the store’s marketing and publicity manager, says that, even from afar, each staff member of Second Star to the Right is passionate about their work and strives to be “a good friend on the other side of the screen that continues to give back to their community, day after day.”

What the pandemic makes clear, ironically, is the abiding necessity of books, as well as the ineffable value of physical community. The local bookselling industry is facing an unprecedented trial at the very moment its services feel most starkly indispensable. Online conglomerates simply can’t meet the needs of an individual community the way an indie bookstore can; they can’t deliver books to elderly neighbors by bicycle, like Alsace Walentine, co-owner of Tombolo Books in St. Petersburg, Florida, has done, or offer a book recommendation hotline over the phone, like Deep Vellum Books in Dallas. “Indie bookstores keep jobs and taxes in their communities,” says Hill. “They also have passionate, knowledgeable booksellers who love reading and understand that bookselling transcends retail, that it’s about relationships and connection.” 

 

Maggie Millner is a poet, a 2019–2020 Stadler Fellow at Bucknell University, and a senior editor of the Yale Review. Previously she served as Poets & Writers Magazine’s Diana and Simon Raab Editorial Fellow.

Alsace Walentine, co-owner of Tombolo Books in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Credit: Andrew Harlan)

A Matter of Survival for Independent Bookstores

by

Michael Bourne

3.30.20

The waves of lockdowns and shelter-in-place orders imposed across the country to slow the spread of coronavirus infections are a potential shot to the heart of independent bookstores, which have thrived in recent years by turning their shops into community hubs featuring cafés, classes, and readings. But even as scores of indie bookstores have shut their doors to the public and laid off staff, many stores continue to serve their customers via online orders and curbside pickup programs, and for now at least readers seem to be responding by buying huge numbers of books.

At Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, owner Jamie Fiocco closed her store on March 16 and switched to online sales, along with an elaborate system of curbside delivery. After North Carolina’s Governor Roy Cooper announced a statewide stay-at-home order on March 27, however, Fiocco ended the curbside delivery program, choosing to handle all phone and online orders by mail.

For the moment, the system seems to be working. Sales at the store are in line with what they were a year ago, though the expense of having offered curbside pickup as well as below-cost shipping to her customers is eating into Fiocco’s profits. She isn’t sure how long she can hold out, despite having laid off seven of her fourteen employees.

“What I’m trying to do right now is make enough money to keep my [remaining] staff paid,” she says. “At some point, I would not be surprised if we are asked to shut down by local or state government but we will keep going until then. We’ll try to keep a trickle of revenue in, but we’re really counting on government assistance to see us through to the end of this.”

Flyleaf Books is far from alone in struggling to outlast the coronavirus outbreak. The legendary Strand Book Store, located in New York City, the epicenter of the pandemic, had to shutter all of its operations, including its website, on March 15, forcing it to temporarily lay off much of its staff. Powell’s Books in Portland also shut down its five stores, but on March 27, CEO Emily Powell announced the store had one hundred staffers working full-time to keep up with online orders. At the Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver, the physical stores are closed, but a skeleton crew is still working to fulfill online orders. 

In San Francisco, Green Apple Books closed its three stores to the public on March 17 and furloughed all but nine of its forty employees, who have stayed on to handle online orders, according to co-owner Kevin Ryan. Sales from the website are ten times higher than normal, but, Ryan says, “all that web-order fulfillment is really low margin, and at first we were doing free freight which cost us three dollars for every book right off the top. Some books we even lost money on, so it’s not a great solution.”

The fallout from the virus isn’t confined to indie bookstores. As of March 27, Barnes & Noble, the nation’s largest remaining bookstore chain, had closed roughly 400 of its 627 locations, though its website has seen a huge boost in orders. James Daunt, the chain’s newly installed CEO, says he has laid off all employees with less than six months seniority and furloughed many of the rest, though he has retained a few core employees at each location to help refurbish the stores while they’re closed. (Read “Amid Pandemic, Barnes & Noble Pauses to Improve Its Stores.”)

Whether individual bookstores can survive the extended closings depends not only on how long the social distancing orders are in effect in their area, but also on how strong their balance sheets were before the outbreak, how receptive their landlords will be to delayed or reduced rental payments, and how much they’re able to rely on their websites to sell books during the closures, booksellers say. Booksellers are also counting on relief in the form of disaster grants and low-interest loans from the massive $2.2 trillion stimulus package passed by Congress, which includes $375 billion in aid for small businesses, along with $260 billion for unemployment insurance for laid off and furloughed workers.

In the meantime, a new digital bookstore, Bookshop.org, offers a way for readers to buy books online while supporting their local indie bookstore. Each time an affiliated bookstore directs a shopper to buy books from the site, the store gets a 25 percent commission on the sale. In addition, the site is putting 10 percent of all it sales revenue into a pool that will distributed twice annually to its 550 affiliated bookstores. As of March 30, that pool had grown to just under $180,000.

In the past two weeks, sales at Bookshop.org, which only opened for business in January, have jumped by more than 1,000 percent, says CEO Andy Hunter. “I think people are rallying around their local bookstores,” he says. “They understand that indies are not only important parts of their communities but really important to literary culture and the culture around books in general.”

Still, if the shutdowns last more than a few weeks, some bookstores will surely face a reckoning, says Fiocco, the ABA president. “I haven’t heard of any permanent closings yet,” she says. “There are sure to be some. I will say this, that it is as dire a situation as it could be. 

“I think there will be a lot of closings for stores that don’t have the operating capital to continue,” she adds. 

Fiocco hopes her own store can open for business as usual by June 1, though she knows the shutdown could last much longer. If the store does reopen in June, she is guardedly optimistic that she can survive.

“It depends on a lot of communications with publishers, with our landlord, and whatever governmental assistance we get,” she says. “I feel like the will is there, but I think a lot of bookstores don’t have that good will or landlords that understand the value of bookstores or have the ability to ride this out. I believe that we will be here. I don’t see the path yet, but I feel like the players are all working together to make that happen.”

In San Francisco, Kevin Ryan, Green Apple Book’s co-owner, says he’s heartened by the federal stimulus bill, which he hopes will allow the store to delay paying rent for a few months and help his staff weather the shutdown. “If all the money comes through like it sounds like it might and we’re able to rehire them in mid April, I don’t think they’ll miss a paycheck, he says. 

Like Fiocco, Ryan believes Green Apple will eventually reopen, but he remains uncertain how robust business will be in the wake of the economic damage the pandemic is sure to leave behind. 

“We’re a pretty healthy business,” he says. “If we’re closed, it means everybody’s closed, and I just don’t see that happening. One way or another we’re going to open. The bigger question mark is what it’s going to look like on the other side, with the massive unemployment and all that, if people are going to come back and buy books. That’s a real question mark.”

 

Michael Bourne is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

Authors Reimagine Live Events During the Coronavirus Pandemic

by

Michael Bourne

3.23.20

Six years ago, when Emily St. John Mandel published Station Eleven (Knopf, 2014), her best-selling novel about a pandemic flu that decimated the world’s population, she couldn’t have known that her next novel, The Glass Hotel (Knopf, 2020), would arrive at the height of a pandemic flu outbreak that, if not as lethal as the fictional “Georgia flu” of her earlier book, is nevertheless upending the world economy—and, not incidentally, her twenty-five-city book tour.

“Yeah, irony, right?” Mandel says with a rueful chuckle. “I maintain that this is nowhere near as bad as the Georgia flu. We’re not going to end our days in traveling Shakespearean theater companies crossing a post-apocalyptic wasteland.”

Perhaps not, but the coronavirus pandemic has radically disrupted the book business, setting off waves of bookstore closures and book festival cancellations, making it nearly impossible for authors like Mandel to tour in support of their books. For now these closures and cancellations are only affecting books published this spring, but if the national lockdowns continue, it could send lasting shockwaves through the always fragile publishing ecosystem. 

Already, though, authors and booksellers are teaming up to shift canceled live events online using digital tools like Zoom and Facebook Live. Mandel herself will be participating in a live digital Q&A Tuesday, March 24, with author Isaac Fitzgerald, hosted by Brooklyn’s Greenlight Books, where Mandel was originally scheduled to launch her book in person. The same night, a new organization, A Mighty Blaze, run by writers Jenna Blum and Caroline Leavitt, will be featuring Facebook Live events for Laura Zigman’s new novel Separation Anxiety (Ecco, 2020) and Andrea Bartz’s novel The Herd (Ballantine, 2020), along with a slate of debut authors.

It remains to be seen how effective these digital book events will be, especially for smaller presses that rely on in-person events at bookstores and festivals to introduce their authors to readers, says Mary Gannon, executive director of the Community of Literary Magazine and Presses. “I think everybody is trying to pivot and reinvent as quickly as possible just to experiment with how these events might work,” she says. “So it’s hard to tell at this point if digital events can make up for canceled live ones, but there’s kind of nothing else to do.”

No matter how successful these digital events are, virus-related lockdown orders and restrictions on in-person gatherings will hurt authors and the book industry more generally, Gannon says. When fears of infection slashed attendance at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference earlier in March, she says, many of the small presses in her organization saw sales for the month drop by as much as 20 or 30 percent, just from the loss of in-person sales from that one event.

“I think there’s going to be serious negative impact on both small and large publishers, but the smaller publishers are the ones that are more at risk because they have fewer resources,” she says. “It’s especially important right now for us to support literary magazines and small presses in any way we can. They’re essential to ensuring the health and diversity of the literary arts.”

Indeed, Paul Bogaards, deputy publisher at Knopf and Pantheon Books, offers a slightly more sanguine view of the disruption to live author events. At Knopf and Pantheon, imprints of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, which is a part of Penguin Random House, Bogaards says, all book tours have been canceled or postponed through the end of April, which impacts about a dozen titles at just those two imprints. “I can’t speak for the industry, but given the CDC protocols in place, no one is touring,” he says. “Physical gatherings are kaput. Boots-on-the-ground book tours are dead for the moment.”

But, he says, critics haven’t stopped reviewing books, authors continue to sit for interviews, and publishers are able to maintain their social media campaigns. “Touring is just one spoke in the wheel of book promotion and publicity,” he says, “and, in point of fact, publishers are doing less of it than they once did.”

Bogaards is encouraged by upticks in sales of commercial fiction and topical nonfiction, along with titles that touch directly on contagious diseases like Stephen King’s The Stand (Doubleday, 1978), Albert Camus’s The Plague (Gallimard, 1947), and Mandel’s Station Eleven. Publishers are hoping the enforced down-time will spark renewed interest in their classic titles. To that end, Knopf and Pantheon are launching social media initiatives designed to prompt readers toward its backlist catalog. “I mean, if you are under a government-ordered lockdown, what better way to travel than through the pages of a book?” he says.

In the meantime, authors at small and large publishers are exploring digital alternatives to live events. Blum and Leavitt, the organizers behind A Mighty Blaze, were among the first to see the need for a hub for writers whose book tours were stranded by the pandemic. The idea for the site came about after Leavitt, author of twelve books, including With or Without You, due out in August from Algonquin, learned that the Texas Library Association Conference, where she had been invited to appear, had to cancel and move its offerings online.

“I had spent a lot of time memorizing what I thought was a funny speech, with hand movements and everything,” she says. “I made a video of it and I sent it to Algonquin just for a lark, and they liked it so much they said, ‘Ooh, we can send that out.’ So I started the ‘Nothing is Cancelled Book Tour,’ where I told authors to make little videos and I’d post them as if they were in a bookstore. All I asked is that they shout out another writer and shout out an indie bookstore.”

The site took off, and Leavitt quickly joined forces with Blum, author of The Lost Family (HarperCollins, 2018). Calling themselves “two women writers in yoga pants trying to help other writers whose book tours have been canceled,” the pair has already attracted more than fifty industry partners, including Poets & Writers and two hundred author participants.

“It’s grown exponentially every day,” says Blum. “I would say it’s been growing faster than COVID. We’ve been having so many writers join us, and so many industry people from publishers to publicists to agents to indie bookstores to literary conferences and festivals—everybody wants to help.”

Still, digital events aren’t for everyone. Poet Tess Taylor is publishing two collections this spring, Last West: Roadsongs for Dorothea Lange, commissioned by New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and Rift Zone, due from Red Hen Press in April. Taylor was able to attend a reading for Last West at MoMA in February, but most of the subsequent events for that book, along with twenty-five more events planned for Rift Zone, have all been canceled.

The two books contained a decade’s worth of poems, Taylor says, and she spent a year organizing the events to support them. “It feels like building a sandcastle,” she says. “You know, you build it up and up and up and then a wave comes and it knocks it down. I don’t know if I’m sad or angry. I’m all those things, and then sometimes I’m just humbled because what’s going on is so much bigger than just us or me.”

Living as she does in California, which is currently under a shelter-in-place order, Taylor says she will be throwing herself a digitally streamed “imaginary book party” with fellow poet Judy Halebsky, inviting friends “to have a glass of wine and watch us give our reading” online, and plans to regularly post poems by poets she admires. But she admits to feeling ambivalent about moving her live events online.

“I’m using social media because I want to be in a community right now at this moment when we can’t go out in the world, but I love people,” she says. “I love human beings. I really miss them. I love bookstores and want to support them. I love the feeling of live poetry, having it read, being in a room where someone is sharing their words and their breath with you—in the most wonderful way, not in a toxic way. Poetry is a beautiful way of sharing breath, and I miss that.”

 

 

Michael Bourne is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

From top: Emily St. John Mandel, author of Glass Hotel; Caroline Leavitt, cofounder of A Mighty Blaze and author of With or Without You; and Tess Taylor, author of Rift Zone.

(Credit: Mandel: Michel Leroy; Leavitt: Jeff Tamarkin; Taylor: Taylor Schreiner)

Resources for Writers in the Time of Coronavirus

8.11.20

As writers, teachers, publishers, booksellers, and librarians in our local, national, and international communities grapple with how to proceed in their creative, financial, professional, and personal lives during this time of uncertainty, we are compiling a list of resources we hope you will find useful. We will be updating this list as we learn of new resources and opportunities. (If you know about an opportunity, initiative, or helpful resource not on this list, please send an e-mail to editor@pw.org.) 

 

Financial Resources

The Academy of American Poets, the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses, and the National Book Foundation have established the Literary Arts Emergency Fund to help writing organizations outlast the coronavirus pandemic. With the support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the three nonprofits will administer a total of $3.5 million via one-time grants of $5,000 to $50,000. Applications were accepted through August 7.

The Poets & Writers COVID-19 Relief Fund provides emergency assistance to writers having difficulty meeting their basic needs due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the initial round of funding, Poets & Writers distributed 107 grants of $1,000 each to writers from twenty-six states. A second round of funding, in which the organization expects to be able to distribute grants of $1,000 to approximately thirty writers, closed on June 28.

The initiative Artists Relief, sponsored by a coalition of arts grantmakers—the Academy of American Poets, Artadia, Creative Capital, Foundation for Contemporary Arts, MAP Fund, National YoungArts Foundation, and United States Artists—will award a total of $10 million, half of which was contributed by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, to artists and writers “facing dire financial emergencies due to the impact of COVID-19.” Applicants who are twenty-one or older, able to receive taxable income in the United States regardless of their citizenship status, and have lived and worked primarily in the United States over the last two years are eligible to apply for $5,000 grants. Artists Relief will also serve as an informational resource, and will collaborate with Americans for the Arts to launch the “COVID-19 Impact Survey for Artists and Creative Workers.”

The Writers Emergency Assistance Fund, sponsored by the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA), helps established freelance writers “who cannot work because they are currently ill or caring for someone who is ill.” Applicants need not be members of the ASJA but must have five published articles from regional or national publications or one book published by a major publishing house.

Authors League Fund offers assistance to professional authors, journalists, and poets who “find themselves in financial need because of medical or health-related problems, temporary loss of income, or other misfortune.” 

Carnegie Fund for Authors awards “grants to published authors who are in need of emergency financial assistance as a result of illness or injury to self, spouse, or dependent child, or who has had some other misfortune that has placed the applicant in pressing and substantial pecuniary need.”

The PEN America Writers’ Emergency Fund distributes grants of $500 to $1,000 to U.S.-based professional writers, including fiction and nonfiction authors, poets, playwrights, screenwriters, translators, and journalists, who demonstrate an acute financial need, especially one resulting from the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak. 

Artist Relief Tree is “set up to collect donations from those of us with the means to help. We intend to support artists, particularly freelance artists, in a small way. Unfortunately we cannot hope to replace artists’ entire fees or lost work, but we wish to provide hope, make a small difference, and show solidarity with colleagues and Friends.” A group of artists—Andrew Crooks, Marco Cammarota, Morgan Brophy, Rachel Stanton, Tehvon Fowler-Chapman, and Thomas Morris—organized the fund. Note: This group is not taking new requests for funds at the moment.

Queer Writers of Color Relief Fund, started by Luther Hughes, founder of Shade Literary Arts, seeks to “help at least 100 queer writers of color who have been financially impacted by the current COVID-19. Priority will be given to queer trans women of color and queer disabled writers of color, but I hope this relief fund will help as many queer writers of color as it can.”

The Creator Fund, from the e-mail marketing company ConvertKit, is offering financial assistance of up to $500 for artists and small business owners—the term “creator” is loosely defined. The mini-grants can be used for groceries, childcare, rent, mortgage or medical expenses. The Fund, which will disburse $185,300 in total, is now closed to new applications after receiving more than sixteen thousand applications.

The Dramatist Guild Foundation’s Emergency Grants are available to “individual playwrights, composers, lyricists, and book writers in dire need of funds due to severe hardship or unexpected illness.” The grants, which typically range between $500 and $3,000, are intended to support expenses related to healthcare, childcare, housing, disability, natural disaster relief, and other unforeseen circumstances. Applicants will be notified in two to four weeks.

Substack, an e-mail newsletter platform, will administer a total of $100,000 to individuals “writing, or thinking about writing, on Substack” through its Independent Writer Grant Program. Individuals who are experiencing economic hardship due to the coronavirus pandemic can apply for grants from $500 to $5,000, in addition to mentorship from the Substack team. Applications are open through April 7. (It is free to join Substack and start an e-mail newsletter; if you decide to charge your audience a subscription fee, Substack takes 10 percent.) 

The Freelancers Relief Fund, organized by the Freelancers Union, will offer “financial assistance of up to $1,000 per freelance household to cover lost income and essential expenses not covered by government relief programs” including food supplies, utility payments, and cash assistance to cover lost income. Freelancers who reside in the United States, derive most of their income from freelance work, and have experienced “a sudden decrease of at least 50 percent of income as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic” are eligible. Applications have been temporarily closed due to the overwhelming response the fund received from its community.

We Need Diverse Books (WNDB) will administer emergency grants of $500 through the WNDB Emergency Fund for Diverse Creatives in Children’s Publishing to “diverse authors, illustrators, and publishing professionals who are experiencing dire financial need.” Traditionally published writers and illustrators who have lost income due to canceled festival, school, or library visits, are eligible, as are furloughed publishing professionals—editors, agents, publicists, designers, and sales positions—who work in the field of children’s literature. Only U.S. residents are eligible. Applicants should receive a response in two to three weeks.

The Maurice Sendak Foundation has dedicated $100,000 to the new Maurice Sendak Emergency Relief Fund, which will be administered by the New York Foundation for the Arts. The fund will offer grants of up to $2,500 to children’s picture book artists and writers who “have experienced financial hardship from loss of income as a direct result of the [COVID-19] crisis.”  Children’s picture book artists and/or writers who have published at least one picture book in the last five years and are residents of the United States or U.S. territories are eligible. Applications will open on April 23 and close after six hundred applications are received; grantees will be notified by May 15.

As part of its response to the COVID-19 crisis, the Economic Hardship Reporting Project (EHRP) offers emergency hardship grants of $500 to $1,500 to professional journalists based in the United States. EHRP will prioritize the unemployed, single parents, members of one-income families with young children, and people with acute medical needs over the age of fifty-five. Applications are reviewed on an ongoing basis. EHRP also accepts pitches from independent journalists for stories on “the intersection of the coronavirus and financial suffering in America, with an emphasis on writers and photographers who are themselves experiencing significant economic hardship caused by the pandemic.” EHRP typically pays reporters roughly a dollar a word or $300 to $500 a day for photojournalists.

The Foundation for Contemporary Arts (FCA) has established a temporary Emergency Grants COVID-19 Fund to “meet the needs of experimental artists who have been impacted by the economic fallout from postponed or canceled performances and exhibitions.” Individual artists who make “work of a contemporary, experimental nature,” live in the United States or U.S. territories, and have a U.S. Tax ID number are eligible to apply for grants of $1,500. FCA supports artists working in poetry, dance, music/sound, performance art/theater, and the visual arts. Applications are open through May 31.

 

Location-Specific Financial Resources

The California Relief Fund for Artists and Cultural Practitioners program, created by the California Arts Council in response to the economic crisis and impending financial needs of individual artists resulting from the coronavirus pandemic, will award a total of $920,000 via unrestricted $1,000 rapid-relief grants to more than 900 individual artists and cultural practitioners in the state of California. “Grants will be distributed to reflect the cultural and geographic diversity of the state of California—including those who are of historically underserved communities who are especially vulnerable financially due to this economic crisis.” Applicants must be current, full-time residents of the state of California, artists or cultural practitioners; and must not be eligible for or currently receiving traditional California state unemployment insurance (UI) benefits. The application deadline is August 18 at 3 PM PDT.

Literary Arts in Portland, Oregon, has created the Booth Emergency Fund for Writers “to provide meaningful financial relief to Oregon’s writers, including cartoonists, spoken word poets, and playwrights.” Awards of $1,000 each will be given to 100 writers at the end of the application period, which runs through May 13. (If additional funds are secured for this purpose, Literary Arts may open up a second round of applications later in June.) Since COVID-19 is disproportionately impacting communities of color, Literary Arts is prioritizing funding “for writers identifying as Black, Indigenous, and/or People of Color.” Funds are intended to be used for (but are not limited to) recouping financial losses due to canceled events, offsetting loss of income for teachers, and support for artists working full- or part-time in the service industry “or other professions who have lost income.” 

The Boston Artist Relief Fund “will award grants of $500 and $1,000 to individual artists who live in Boston whose creative practices and incomes are being adversely impacted by Coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19).”

The Oregon Science Fiction Convention’s Clayton Memorial Medical Fund helps professional science fiction, fantasy, horror, and mystery writers living in the Pacific Northwest states of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Alaska deal with the financial burden of medical expenses.

NC Artists Relief Fund, sponsored by Artspace, PineCone, United Arts Council, and VAE Raleigh, supports “creative individuals who have been financially impacted by gig cancellations due to the outbreak of COVID-19.” All donated funds “will go directly to artists and arts presenters in North Carolina. Musicians, visual artists, actors, DJ’s, dancers, teaching artists, filmmakers, comedians, and other creative individuals and arts presenters are experiencing widespread cancellations due to this global pandemic.”

The Safety Net Fund is offering financial support to artists who typically make their living offline, at in-person events and performances. To qualify, you must reside in the Bay Area (or near it, as some San Joaquin and Santa Cruz county zip codes are eligible), provide proof of an artistic endeavor in the last six months, cannot be eligible for unemployment insurance from the state, and must have earned less than $1,000 of income in the last thirty days.

The San Francisco Arts & Artists Relief Fund, cosponsored by the Center for Cultural Innovation, San Francisco Arts Commission, and Grants for the Arts, offers funds to “mitigate COVID-19 related financial losses that artists and small to mid-sized arts and culture organizations have suffered.” Individuals based in San Francisco who are eligible for, or currently on employment, are eligible for grants of up to $2,000. Organizations that conduct a majority of their work in San Francisco and operate on a budget of less than $2 million are eligible for grants of up to $25,000.

The Personal Emergency Relief Fund, sponsored by Springboard for the Arts, helps artists in Minnesota “recover from personal emergencies by helping pay an unanticipated, emergency expense.” Artists can request up to $500 for lost income “due to the cancellation of a specific, scheduled gig or opportunity (i.e. commissions, performances, contracts) due to coronavirus/COVID-19 precautionary measures.” 

Max Kansas City’s Emergency Grants offers grants of up to $1,000 to New York State residents who are professionals in the creative arts. “Individuals who have made their living through their art form either professionally or personally and demonstrate a financial need for medical aid, legal aid, or housing” are eligible.

The NYC Low-Income Artist/Freelancer Relief Fund, organized by Shawn Escarciga and Nadia Tykulsker, offers grants of up to $150 to “low-income, BIPOC, trans/GNC/NB/Queer artists and freelancers whose livelihoods are being affected by this pandemic in NYC.”

The New Orleans Business Alliance’s Relief Fund offers grants of $500 to $1,000 to “meet the needs of gig economy workers who have been directly impacted via loss of income.” Writers who live in New Orleans, earn more than 60 percent of their income via gig-work, and are below a certain income level are eligible.

Artist Trust’s COVID-19 Artist Trust Relief Fund offers grants of $500 to $5,000 to “artists whose livelihoods have been impacted by COVID-19” and are residents of Washington State. The grants are intended to help artists who are coping with lost wages and earnings, lost income from canceled events and performances, medical expenses, rent and mortgage payments, food, utilities, and other living expenses.

The Indy Arts & Culture COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund, sponsored by a coalition of community funders and the Arts Council of Indianapolis, offers $500 grants to “individuals working in the arts sector and impacted by the current public health crisis,” especially those working at small to mid-sized nonprofit arts and cultural organizations. Applicants must live in Marion or one of the seven surrounding counties in Indiana.

The Cultural Relief Fund offers grants of up to $2,000 to individuals in the Seattle area for “emergencies related to the COVID-19 virus and to support the creative responses cultural workers offer in times of crisis.” The first round of funding was available April 1 through May 15. Applications are reviewed weekly; applicants will be notified within ten business days. 

The Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council Emergency Fund for Artists offers grants of up to $500 to artists dealing with financial losses due to canceled events, canceled classes, or school closures. Artists who live in Pittsburgh (in Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Washington, Lawrence, Indiana, Greene, Fayette, Washington, and Westmoreland counties) are eligible. Applications are reviewed on a rolling basis.

The Canadian Writers’ Emergency Relief Fund, financed by the Writers’ Trust of Canada, the Writers’ Union of Canada (TWUC), and the Royal Bank of Canada, will distribute $150,000 to writers in Canada that have “seen contracted or projected income evaporate due to the current public health crisis.” Poets, fiction writers, nonfiction writers, and young adult writers with a track record of publication (or self-published writers who are members of TWUC) who will lose more than $1,500 between March and May 2020 are eligible to apply for grants of $1,500. The application deadline was April 9.

The Atlanta Artist Lost Gig Fund, administered by the arts nonprofit C4 Atlanta, offers grants of up to $500 to artists in the Atlanta area who “have unmet essential needs due to lost revenue from canceled upcoming events and gigs.” Artists who make their living from their practice are eligible.

The Culture Connects Coalition Artist Relief Fund, cosponsored by the City of Santa Fe Arts and Culture Department and the Lannan Foundation, will administer grants of $500 to artists who live in Santa Fe County and have suffered financial losses due to canceled events, including  readings, panels, and teaching opportunities. Priority will be given to requests from Black/Indigenous/People of Color, transgender and nonbinary artists, and/or artists with disabilities. The current round of applications is open until May 17; the next round of applications will open on June 1.

 

Resources for Working Remotely

Zoom: “How do I host a video meeting?”

Vimeo: “How to plan a virtual event: Vimeo’s live production experts tell all”

Creative Capital: “Thinking About Livestreaming as an Artist? Read This First.” Artists Yara Travieso and Brighid Greene describe how to approach livestreaming and survey platforms available to writers: Instagram, HowIRound, Vimeo, Twitch, YouTube, Facebook, and Zoom.

The Chronicle of Higher Education offers advice for teaching during the coronavirus, including Moving Online Now: How to Keep Teaching During Coronavirus, a collection of articles, advice, and opinion pieces on online learning; “The Quandary: How Do I Support a Student Who’s Sick With Covid-19?”; “Eight Ways to Be More Inclusive in Your Zoom Teaching”; and more.

The National Endowment for the Arts has put together a list of ways to create an inclusive experience for virtual and digital events. “Resources to Help Ensure Accessibility of Your Virtual Events for People with Disabilities” includes information about captioning, sign language interpretation, virtual platform accessibility features, and more. 

 

Resources for Booksellers

The American Booksellers Association’s Coronavirus Resources for Booksellers includes immediate steps to take during the outbreak, ABA initiatives during the outbreak, and opportunities for financial assistance.

Book Industry Charitable Foundation (Binc) offers assistance “for the medical expenses of booksellers and to help booksellers in specific cases where store closure and/or loss of scheduled pay leads to the inability to pay essential household bills for an individual or family.”

The #SaveIndieBookstores campaign fund—organized by James Patterson, Reese’s Book Club, the ABA, and Binc—will administer financial assistance to independent bookstores, “the hearts and souls of main streets in cities and towns all across the United States.” Applications will be open from April 10 to April 27.

 

Resources for Librarians

The Help a Library Worker Out (HALO) Fund, organized by the nonprofit EveryLibrary Institute, will administer grants of up to $250 to library workers, librarians, and library staff who are “experiencing personal or household financial difficulties during this time of crisis.” Individuals who reside in the United States or U.S. territories and have lost work or experienced a significant wage reduction—or are part of a household in which a member has lost their job or seen their income reduced—are eligible. HALO grants can be used toward personal expenses such as food, rent or mortgage payments, cell phone and internet expenses, medicine, or household needs. Grants are made on a rolling basis.

The American Library Association’s (ALA) Pandemic Preparedness page includes news on how librarians are dealing with the pandemic, professional development and training resources, and lists of federal, state, and local resources. The ALA also hosts free webinars on topics such as considering copyright during a crisis, navigating the impact of COVID-19 on library technical services, using a library’s virtual presence to reach users with disabilities, and more.

 

Resources for Readers and Writers

The New York Public Library is offering expanded access to its online research databases. Research librarians and curators are also available for online consultations.

Audible has assembled a free collection of audiobooks, including literary classics and books for young readers. 

Many university presses and other not-for-profit publishers are collaborating with Project MUSE to offer free access to books and journals. 

Independent publisher Archipelago Books is unlocking access to thirty e-books through April 2.

As usual, the Academy of American Poets and the Poetry Foundation, among other organizations, offer free-to-access poetry archives.

The editors at Brightly, a subsidiary of Penguin Random House, have assembled “Reading Through It Together,” a set of educational resources and reading exercises for children and teens.

In partnership with Simon & Schuster, the Folger Shakespeare Library is sharing resources from its video and audio recordings archive—including footage of the Folger Theatre’s 2008 production of MacBeth—through July 1. 

The Sequential Artists Workshop (SAW) in Gainesville, Florida, is making five of its most popular online courses in comics and graphic storytelling available for free.

Calamari Press has made digital copies of all its book titles, as well as back issues of Sleepingfish literary magazine, available for free.

Writer Suleika Jaouad has organized a daily creativity project, the Isolation Journals, through which she sends daily journaling prompts via e-mail from some of her favorite writers, artists, and musicians, including Elizabeth Gilbert, Erin Khar, Esmé Weijun Wang, Georgia Clark, Hallie Goodman, Ilya Kaminsky, Jen Pastiloff, Jon Batiste, Jordan Kisner, Kiese Laymon, Lily Brooks-Dalton, Mari Andrew, Melissa Febos, Nora McInerney, Rachel Cargle, Ruthie Lindsey, and more. 

The Authors Guild posted their webinar “Coronavirus Relief Programs for Authors and Freelancers,” featuring Mary Rasenberger and Umair Kazi, the Authors Guild’s executive director and director of policy and advocacy, respectively, and Marcum LLP partner Robert Pesce. The trio covers “how authors and freelancers can benefit from the government relief programs for economic assistance during the coronavirus crisis.” They discuss qualification criteria for unemployment, loan terms, and other information about the process.  

As usual, Poets & Writers offers weekly writing inspiration through The Time Is Now, which features writing prompts in poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, and Writers Recommend, through which authors share the rituals, art, books, music, movies, and habits that get them writing. 

 

Other Resources

NYC Covid Care, a volunteer network of more than 2,500 mental health professionals, life coaches, spiritual care providers, organizers, and crisis line operators based in New York City, offers free support to those in crisis. All essential workers and their families based in the New York City Metro Area are eligible to participate. Applicants will be contacted by a volunteer professional via phone or video-conference for a confidential consultation.

COVID-19 Freelance Artists Resources is “an aggregated list of FREE resources, opportunities, and financial relief options available to artists of all disciplines.”

Creative Capital’s List of Arts Resources During the COVID-19 Outbreak

Kickstarter’s COVID-19 Coronavirus Artist Resources

New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA) Emergency Grants Page

BOMB magazine’s COVID-19 Artist Resources and Closing the Distance: New Spaces for Community, an “ongoing list of online tools, workshops, and livestreams to keep you company and engaged in the time of COVID-19.”

National Endowment for the Arts COVID-19 Resources for Artists and Arts Organizations

Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts has compiled a national directory of organizations that offer legal services to artists, some of which are provided pro bono. Membership and processing fees vary by organization.

The Community of Literary Magazines and Presses COVID-19 Resources for Indie Publishers lists emergency grants and resources available to independent publishers and other literary stakeholders.

Just Shelter, a project started by Evicted author Matthew Desmond and Tessa Lowinske Desmond, offers a state-by-state directory of more than six hundred organizations that work to “preserve affordable housing, prevent eviction, and reduce family homelessness.” 

The Authors Guild posted its webinar “Coronavirus Relief Programs for Authors and Freelancers,” featuring Mary Rasenberger and Umair Kazi, the Authors Guild’s executive director and director of policy and advocacy, respectively, and Marcum LLP partner Robert Pesce. The trio covers “how authors and freelancers can benefit from the government relief programs for economic assistance during the coronavirus crisis.” They discuss qualification criteria for unemployment, loan terms, and other information about the process. 

The Whiting Foundation offers notes from financial guru and artist Amy Smith’s April webinars “Unemployment Compensation for Freelancers and Self-Employed Individuals,” “Applying for PPP and EIDL Relief as an Organization,” and “Applying for PPP and EIDL Relief as an Individual.”

 

Cancellations and Postponements: Retreats and Contests Affected by the Crisis

6.19.20

As event organizers across the literary community adapt and change plans to help keep us all well, we are compiling a list of canceled and postponed conferences, residencies, and award deadlines. (If you know about a cancellation or award not on this list, please send an e-mail to editor@pw.org.) Be sure to check back for updates.

 

Cancelled or Postponed Conferences and Festivals

The Bay Area Book Festival, originally planned for May 2 to May 3, 2020, has been rescheduled for May 1 to May 2, 2021. Beginning May 1, 2020, the festival will also offer virtual programming as the Bay Area Book Festival Unbound, featuring live and recorded events held through the festival’s YouTube channel.  Visit the festival’s website for additional information on both the rescheduled festival and this year’s virtual programming.

The Conversations & Connections conference, sponsored by Barrelhouse magazine and originally planned for April 18, 2020, has been canceled. In response to the cancellation, Barrelhouse staff have organized the Spring 2020 Read-In and Write-In, featuring an online book group and an online workshop with guest lectures from writers and editors as well as generative writing “sprint” sessions. Visit the Barrelhouse website for information on these online events, and visit the conference’s website for additional information on the conference cancellation.

The Granta & Wesleyan Writers Conference, originally planned for June 24 to June 28, 2020, has been rescheduled for June 23 to June 27, 2021. Visit the conference’s website for additional information.

The Iceland Writers Retreat, originally planned for April 29 to May 3, 2020, has been rescheduled for October 14 to October 18, 2020. Visit the conference’s website for addtional information.

The Indiana University Writers’ Conference, originally planned for May 30 to June 3, 2020, has been canceled. The conference will be held again in 2021. Visit the conference’s website for additional information.

The Iowa Summer Writing Festival, originially planned for June and July 2020, has been canceled. Visit the festival’s website for additional information, and visit its Facebook page for writing prompts from festival instructors in coming weeks. 

The Jackson Hole Writers Conference, originally planned for June 2020, has been canceled. In response to the cancellation, starting in late April 2020, select components of the originally scheduled programming will be offered online, including workshops, panels, and manuscript critiques. Visit the conference’s website for additional information on the cancellation and on alternative online programming.

The Los Angeles Festival of Books, originally planned for April 18 to April 19, 2020, has been rescheduled for October 3 to October 4, 2020. Visit the festival’s website for additional information.

The Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing Summer Writers’ Conference, originally planned for June 7 to June 13, 2020, and from June 14 to June 20, 2020, has been rescheduled for June 6 to June 12, 2021, and from June 13 to June 19, 2021. Visit the conference’s website for additional information.

The Nantucket Book Festival, originally planned for June 18 to June 21, 2020, has been canceled as an in-person event in downtown Nantucket, Massachusetts. A virtual festival featuring guest writers will be offered instead. A festival celebrating local writers will also be planned for later in the year. Visit the festival’s website for additional infomation on the cancellation as well as the virtual conference and local writers’ festival.

The North Carolina Writers’ Network Spring Conference, originally planned for April 18, 2020, has been canceled. In response to the cancellation, the North Carolina Writers’ Network will offer the North Carolina Writers’ Network Cabin Fever Conference from April 16 to April 18, 2020, a virtual conference featuring “630 minutes of high-quality, socially-distant instruction in the craft and business of writing.” Visit the organization’s website for additional information on the cancellation as well as the virtual conference. 

The NYC Writer’s Hotel Poetry Weekend, originally planned for May 21 to May 25, 2020, has been rescheduled for October 22 to October 26, 2020. Visit the conference’s website for additional information.

The NYC Writer’s Hotel All-Fiction Writers Conference, originally planned for June 3 to June 9, 2020, has been rescheduled for October 14 to October 18, 2020. Visit the conference’s website for additional information.

The Orion Enviromental Writers’ Workshop, originally planned for June 21 to June 26, 2020, has been canceled. The workshop will be offered instead in a reimagined, “more intimate” format from October 25 to October 30, 2020. Visit the workshop’s website for additional information.

The Poetry at Round Top festival, originally planned for April 24 to April 26, 2020, has been canceled. The festival will be held again from April 16 to April 18, 2021. Visit the festival’s website for additional information.

The Sarah Lawrence College Publish and Promote Your Book Conference, originally planned for June 13, 2020, has been postponed. Visit the conference’s website for additional information, including updates on rescheduling.

The Sewanee Writers’ Conference, originally planned for July 21 to August 2, 2020, has been canceled. Visit the conference’s website for additional information.

The Split This Rock Poetry Festival, originally planned for March 26 to March 28, 2020, has been canceled. In response to the cancellation, the festival will be offering online programming including a virtual bookfair, readings, and free workshops. Visit the festival’s website for additional information, including virtual event details.

The 50th anniversary Squaw Valley Writers Workshops, originally planned for July 6 to July 13, 2020, have been postponed to July 5 to July 12, 2021. The 2020 summer workshops in fiction, nonfiction, and memoir have been canceled; the 2020 summer workshop in poetry will be offered online as the “Virtual Valley” from June 20 to June 27, 2020. Visit the conference’s website for additional information.

The Tin House Summer Workshop, originally planned for July 12 to July 19, 2020, as an in-person event on the Reed College campus in Portland, Oregon, has been reimagined as a virtual workshop. The virtual program in short fiction and novel writing will be held from July 12 to July 18, 2020. The virtual program in poetry, nonfiction, and the graphic novel will be held from July 19 to July 26, 2020. Visit the workshop’s website for additional information.

The Wordplay festival, originally planned for May 9, 2020, as an in-person event at the Loft Literary Center and adjacent spaces in Minneapolis, has been reimagined as a virtual festival. The virtual festival will be offered from April 7, 2020, to May 9, 2020, and will feature events with more than 100 authors. This programming is offered in conjuction with the Boston Book Festival, Bronx Book Festival, Wisconsin Book Festival, Charleston to Charleston Literary Festival, and other festivals. Visit the festival’s website for additional information.

The Wyoming Writers Conference, originally planned for June 5 to June 7, 2020, has been canceled. Visit the conference’s website for additional information.

 

Canceled or Postponed Contest Deadlines

The deadline for the 2020 Crook’s Corner Book Prize, sponsored by the Crook’s Corner Book Prize Foundation, has been extended. The new deadline is June 1, 2020. Visit the foundation’s website for additional information.

The deadline for the 2021 Griffin Poetry Prize has been extended for books published between January 1 and June 30. Previously, books published during the first half of the year were required to be submitted by a deadline of June 30, 2020; this deadline has been waived. The deadline for all submissions is now December 31, 2020. Visit the competition’s website for additional information.

The deadline for the 2020 Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition has been extended. The new deadline is September 1, 2020. Visit the competition’s website for additional information.

The deadline for the 2020 Montreal International Poetry Prize, sponsored by McGill University, has been extended. The new deadline is June 1, 2020. Visit the competition’s website for additional information.

The deadline for the 2020 PEN/Jean Stein Grant for Literary Oral History, sponsored by PEN America, has been extended. Thew new deadline is August 1, 2020. Visit PEN America’s website for additional information.

The 2020 Troubadour International Poetry Prize, sponsored by Coffee-House Poetry, has been rescheduled. The prize, originally scheduled this year as a spring contest, has been rescheduled with a deadline of September 28, 2020; visit the Coffee-House Poetry website for additional information.

 

Amid Pandemic, Barnes & Noble Pauses to Improve Its Stores

by

Michael Bourne

3.30.20

Can a pandemic that shutters nearly two-thirds of a nationwide bookstore chain’s locations have a silver lining? If that bookstore chain is Barnes & Noble, quite possibly it could.

The chain, which was bought out last year by New York–based hedge fund Elliot Management, was in the process of overhauling its stores before the coronavirus hit this spring, says CEO James Daunt. Now, with roughly 400 of the chain’s 627 stores temporarily closed to help slow the spread of the pandemic, that work can continue in relative peace.

“Our stores are pretty terrible, we know that,” Daunt says. “We don’t shy away from that fact and certainly I don’t shy away from articulating that fact. To make them better bookstores, we really have to do a lot of work and some of that is physical work, moving the interiors around and changing the layout and the presentation of the stores, making them more open, easier to navigate, and frankly just better looking bookstores. And that, ironically, is a lot easier to do when you don’t have any customers in the way.”

Not that Daunt looks upon the wave of temporary closures at Barnes & Noble as good news. He has had to lay off all employees with less than six months seniority and furlough many others, actions he calls “traumatic” but necessary to trim costs while the stores are closed to the public.

“It’s desperately difficult. None of us have any idea how long this will go on for. If President Trump is correct and we’re back in business by Easter, then really, we don’t have a particular problem. It’s a nasty shock, but it’s not a problem, and very few people, if any, will ultimately lose their jobs. If it extends further, then evidently they will,” he says. (Trump has since extended social-distancing guidelines through April 30.) “If you have no money coming in, then your liabilities become a significant issue and we have to cut costs to ensure the survival of the business, and that will include unfortunately our staff as well as all the other discretionary expenditures that we have available to cut back on.”

But Daunt, who also runs the bookstore chain Waterstones as well as his own smaller independent chain, Daunt Books, in the U.K., has retained a core team of experienced booksellers at many shuttered Barnes & Noble locations and plans to use the time provided by the enforced closures to spruce up the stores and improve the selection of books on the shelves.

“The backlist at Barnes & Noble has really deteriorated over the last decade and the cumulative impact is that we have pretty shockingly poorly stocked stores,” he says. “Before this crisis, we had already embarked on a process of using the holiday sales to empty them out to a degree just to give us space, and what we were intending to do with that liberation of space is then pile back in the backlist that was missing and start to re-curate the stores.”

This work has been seen by book-industry observers as desperately overdue for Barnes & Noble, which had to close 150 stores in the decade leading up to the buyout last summer in the face of competition from Amazon and newly resurgent independent bookstores. The enormous selection of books at its larger stores, which helped spur the chain’s growth in the 1980s and 1990s, had become a liability in an era when customers can buy books from a warehouse by clicking a few buttons on their smartphones.

Daunt, who oversaw a similar overhaul at Waterstones over the past decade, strenuously denies the make-over at Barnes & Noble will entail abandoning a large number of under-performing locations. 

“If I could get a dollar for every time I was told I would close a hundred stores I would be a very rich man, but in fact I have a huge motivation to keep as many bookstores open as possible,” he says. “I believe in the profession, I believe in the vocation, I believe in the purpose and worth of bookstores within communities. That said, there is a clear case for closing a reasonably large number of stores because they’re just too big or too old, too this, too that, but we’d only do that if we could relocate. What we’ve done at Waterstones is actually close a very substantial number of stores but open up a larger number of stores. We haven’t deserted any locations. We’ve just moved.”

Over time, Daunt hopes the chain can find new locations that will better reflect the market for books in a given area. “So often it’s driven by the property—what’s the right size of store for a particular location, and certainly there are a number of Barnes & Noble stores which are either in the wrong place and they should be down the freeway or across the mall or in a slightly better location, or they’re just too big,” he says. “We’ve got a 25,000-square-foot store when a 20,000-square-foot store would be a much better size to have.”

While the widespread closures will eat into Barnes & Noble’s revenues in the short run, Daunt says the chain’s deep-pocketed ownership group will help it weather the crisis. It helps, he says, that business was unusually brisk at many of the chain’s locations before the shutdowns and that sales via the company’s website are currently running three or four times higher than normal.

“Our financing is not as bleak as perhaps our financial situation might have led one to think,” he says. “We just have to be pragmatic and sensible and we need an owner who’s prepared to let us continue to invest.”

Michael Bourne is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

James Daunt was named Barnes & Noble’s CEO in August 2019.

The Future of Barnes & Noble

by

Michael Bourne

8.14.19

Can James Daunt save Barnes & Noble? This is the question on the minds of publishing insiders in the wake of news earlier this summer that a hedge fund had bought Barnes & Noble for $683 million and installed Daunt, who oversaw the successful turnaround of the British book chain Waterstones, as the new CEO of the largest surviving bookstore chain in the United States.

Daunt will certainly have his work cut out for him. Facing withering competition from the online retailer Amazon as well as from newly resurgent independent bookstores, Barnes & Noble has shuttered 150 stores over the past decade—at its peak, in 2008, the chain operated 726 stores nationwide—and seen its stock price plummet from $30 a share in 2006 to just $4 a share before it was bought in June by New York City–based Elliott Management.

But Madeline McIntosh, CEO of Penguin Random House in the United States, says she is heartened that the chain will now be helmed by Daunt, a former JP Morgan banker who founded Daunt Books, a small British bookstore chain, before taking over at Waterstones in 2011. “He was an independent bookseller in the U.K. and then became the head of Waterstones, and I think that having that depth of experience should give us all a sense of optimism,” McIntosh says.

Once pilloried for crowding out quirky independent bookstores with its mall-based superstores, Barnes & Noble is now viewed by writers and publishing industry experts as a bulwark against Amazon, the online behemoth that now claims more than half of all sales of books in the United States and has opened nearly twenty brick-and-mortar stores in the past four years. The survival of Barnes & Noble is doubly important to authors of literary novels and children’s books, whose success depends largely on the kind of leisurely browsing that is hard to do on a screen.

Online platforms like Amazon, where sales are largely driven by web searches and by algorithms designed to direct customers to books similar to ones they’ve already bought, can be hostile to debut fiction or creative nonfiction, which often isn’t in any obvious way similar to books a reader has already purchased. 

Novelist and journalist Douglas Preston, president of the Authors Guild, likens Amazon’s curation to “a kind of censorship of the market” that threatens to drown out unpopular opinions and underrepresented voices. “You walk into a physical bookstore, unlike Amazon, and you see all these books together, some of which you’re going to agree with and some you’re not,” Preston says. “With Amazon, they have algorithms. They’ll only show you the books they think you want to see, and that’s a serious problem because we’re becoming balkanized in our thinking. When you go into a bookstore, there’s no balkanization. All the books are right there.” 

Independent bookstores, which have thrived in recent years by tailoring their book selection to their local areas, emphasizing a personalized approach to curation, as well as adding cafés and wine bars and hosting readings and book talks, have picked up some of the slack created by the closure of Barnes & Noble locations and the 2011 bankruptcy of its onetime rival Borders. The American Booksellers Association now claims 1,887 members, who run 2,524 stores, up 53 percent from the 1,651 stores ABA members owned ten years ago, according to figures compiled in May of this year.

At Waterstones, Daunt seemed to draw on his experience as an independent bookseller, shuttering underperforming locations and giving store managers the power to order books that might not appeal to customers at other locations. In interviews earlier this summer, Daunt suggested he may try a similar approach at Barnes & Noble. “The main thing is that there isn’t a template; there’s not some magic ingredient,” he told the New York Times. “The Birmingham, Alabama, bookshop, I imagine, will be very different from the one in downtown Boston. They don’t need to be told how to sell the exact same things in the exact same way.” (Barnes & Noble directed press inquiries to Elliott Management, which did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

But such a strategy can take the chain only so far, industry experts warn. Indie booksellers are local entrepreneurs who in many cases are choosing a pleasant working life among books over a potentially more lucrative career in another field, notes Mike Shatzkin, coauthor of The Book Business: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2019). Barnes & Noble, on the other hand, is a national corporation with more than six hundred retail locations, most of them large and built for a mass audience. “That’s not going to change because they made the store look sprucier or because they changed the selection of books somewhat,” Shatzkin says.

Barnes & Noble’s core problem, Shatzkin says, is that its business model—drawing customers by having more books at better prices than smaller shops could possibly manage—has been outmoded by the e-tailing revolution, which allows shoppers to carry the world’s largest mall in their hip pocket. “I think the large store is a dinosaur,” he says. “It was built for another paradigm. It was built for, ‘I want to find what I need and I don’t want to go six places looking for it,’ which is not something anyone under thirty relates to.”

Still, authors and publishing houses alike have good reason to hope Daunt can make a nationwide bookstore chain work in an online shopping era. Barnes & Noble is a key player in the publishing ecosystem, industry experts say, because it has an efficient supply chain and sells books in parts of the country where indies may not thrive. At the same time, because its stores are brick-and-mortar, it encourages serendipitous purchases that help publishers break out new authors.

“We all want Barnes & Noble to continue and to be a thriving bookseller,” says McIntosh, the CEO of Penguin Random House in the United States. “When any location closes, whether it’s a single store or a set of stores, you lose a portion of sales. There’s no way to say exactly how many sales are lost, so our goal is to ensure there is a diversity of retail options and physical locations where a consumer could choose to go.” 

 

Michael Bourne is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

Inside Indie Bookstores: The Complete Series

by

Jeremiah Chamberlin

4.28.17

Inside Indie Bookstores, a series of interviews with the entrepreneurs who represent the last link in the chain that connects writers with their intended audience, ran in all six issues of 2010, celebrating the passion, ingenuity, determination, creativity, and resourcefulness of the entrepeneurs who run the institutions that mean so much to the literary community. Below we revisit the unique personalities, the expert perspectives, and that intoxicating new- and used-book atmosphere of Inside Indie Bookstores.

 

Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi
by Jeremiah Chamberlin
1.01.10
In the inaugural installment of Inside Indie Bookstores, a new series of interviews with independent booksellers across the country, contributor Jeremiah Chamberlin talks with Richard Howorth about his initial vision for Square Books, how a bookstore can stay relevant in the twenty-first century, and the future of independent bookselling.

Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon
by Jeremiah Chamberlin
3.01.10
In the second installment of our series Inside Indie Bookstores, Jeremiah Chamberlin travels to Portland, Oregon, to talk with Michael Powell, owner of Powell’s Books. The “City of Books,” as the four-story flagship store on West Burnside is known, occupies an entire city block, and carries more than one million books. The sixty-eight-thousand-square-foot space is divided into nine color-coded rooms, which together house more than 3,500 sections. From the moment you walk in, it feels as if you could find anything there.

Women & Children First in Chicago

by Jeremiah Chamberlin
5.01.10
In the third installment of our series Inside Indie Bookstores, Jeremiah Chamberlin travels to Chicago to talk with Linda Bubon and Ann Christophersen, co-owners of Women & Children First, which was conceived as a feminist bookstore three decades ago and has grown into a neighborhood shop popular with families and young professionals. Still, books related to women and women’s issues—whether health, politics, gender and sexuality, literature, criticism, childrearing, or biography—are clearly the store’s focus. 

Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee
by Jeremiah Chamberlin
7.01.10
In the fourth installment of our series Inside Indie Bookstores, Jeremiah Chamberlin travels to Milwaukee to talk with Daniel Goldin, owner of Boswell Book Company, which is named after James Boswell, the eighteenth-century British biographer, and is located on Downer Avenue in a diverse area of the city—close to both the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee and Lake Michigan. 

Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver
by Jeremiah Chamberlin
9.01.10
In the fifth installment of our series Inside Indie Bookstores, contributor Jeremiah Chamberlin travels to Denver to speak with Joyce Meskis, owner of Tattered Cover Book Store, which as become as much a destination for the local community as it has for writers. From the moment you walk in, you feel a sense of ease and peacefulness. The guiding aesthetic is a wonderful mix of the old (worn hardwood floors downstairs, exposed rafters and hand-hewn support beams) and the new (forest green carpet upstairs, a selection of organic and local options at the café). The place feels vital, vigorous.

McNally Jackson Books in New York City
by Jeremiah Chamberlin
11.01.10
In the sixth installment of our series Inside Indie Bookstores, contributor Jeremiah Chamberlin travels to New York City to speak with Sarah McNally, owner of McNally Jackson Books, located in a vibrant area of lower Manhattan—though technically in NoLita (North of Little Italy), it’s also on the eastern fringe of SoHo (South of Houston)—that is filled with boutiques, hip coffee shops, and trendy restaurants.

How to Make a Life, Maybe Even a Living

by

Jeremiah Chamberlin

1.1.14

In the spring of 2009, Michael Gustafson’s cousin e-mailed him to say she was granting him permission to date her best friend, Hilary Lowe. He was grateful, but there was one problem: He had never heard of Lowe, let alone met her. “I had no idea who this person was, but I e-mailed her and said, ‘I’ve been given permission to date you,’” Gustafson recalls.

“That was your opening line?” I ask. It’s February 2013, and Gustafson, Lowe, and I are sitting in a café in downtown Ann Arbor, Michigan, just up the block from the gutted storefront that the couple is trying to turn into a new community-minded independent venture: Literati Bookstore.

“Pretty much,” Lowe replies. Gustafson smiles, a bit bashful behind his glasses. She continues: “It was weird and goofy. What was I going to say? I loved it!”

At the time, Gustafson was living with his parents in Michigan, just outside Grand Rapids, having decided to leave Los Angeles, where he’d worked as an assistant on several television programs after finishing a film degree at Northwestern. But a few seasons in the business made him realize that his future wasn’t in Hollywood. Lowe, meanwhile, was living in New York City, working as a sales rep for Simon & Schuster. After their initial contact they began corresponding by e-mail, and within a few weeks they were sending each other books.

“That was our way of courting,” Lowe says. “We would just send each other books. I had never read Harry Potter, and so he sent me Harry Potter. And my favorite book was Too Loud a Solitude. It’s by Bohumil Hrabal—a book about loving books.” Six weeks passed before they ever spoke on the phone, while the words of authors—from Kittredge to Camus—passed back and forth between them.

“I fell in love with the way we communicated before I even knew what you looked like,” Gustafson says, the conversation shifting away from me and settling between the two of them.

“And it was never small talk,” Lowe tells him. “It was always just weird, nerd rants to each other.” She laughs. It’s a laugh that makes Gustafson smile again.

Sitting in a cozy café, a swirl of snow outside the 
frost-glazed windows and this young couple across the table from me, I suddenly feel as though I’ve stumbled into a Nora Ephron movie. The casting and plot are spot-on: Attractive, intellectual twentysomethings—of the earnest, nonhipster variety—fall for each other via an epistolary romance. Cue the film montage: Gustafson arrives in Manhattan a few months later, he and Lowe spend a romantic fall dating in New York City, and the following year they move in together. In November 2011 they get engaged (close-up of the ring), in July 2012 they move to Ann Arbor with the sole purpose of opening a bookstore together (long shot of a U-Haul on the highway heading west), and in January 2013 they sign a lease and begin construction (dial up the sounds of saws and hammers).

There’s also plenty of dramatic tension to this tale. Remember that Ann Arbor is the birthplace of Borders, which brothers Tom and Louis Borders opened in 1971, while students at the University of Michigan. In 2011, when the company went bankrupt, it closed hundreds of stores, including the forty-thousand-square-foot flagship in Ann Arbor. The city was also home to iconic independent bookstore Shaman Drum—the Drum, as it’s known to the locals—which closed in the summer of 2009 after nearly thirty years in business. Six years earlier, a small plaque had been erected by the membership of the State Street Area Improvement Project to honor the Drum’s owner, Karl Pohrt, stating with simple thanks: “He kept our eyes on the prize….” The plaque still remains, a bittersweet reminder that Pohrt was able to help revitalize this downtown, but unable to weather the increasingly harsh climate of bookselling, which over the course of the past two decades has swept away nearly 75 percent of the seven thousand independent bookstores that once existed nationwide—more than a thousand of which closed between 2000 and 2007. In the years since, hundreds more have gone out of business, including the Drum.

Perhaps the economic tide of the country as a whole has turned. Or perhaps, more likely, Lowe and Gustafson have chosen exactly the right city at exactly the right time with exactly the right sort of store to succeed. As of Literati’s six-month anniversary, they seem to be making a go of it. But for the couple, whose initial meeting and blossoming relationship seemed somehow preordained, the success of their store up to this point has been no accident. The owners of Literati Bookstore are filled not only with exuberant optimism and staunch idealism, but also with practical determination. And most important, they have a business model to back up each step of the process.

Last February, however, Lowe and Gustafson’s vision of the bookstore was still forming, and the success of Literati Bookstore, much less its opening, was far from certain. After finishing our coffee, we hike through the snow to check out the progress on the renovation of the twenty-six-hundred-square-foot storefront at 124 East Washington Street—most recently the 2010 campaign offices for Republican Governor Rick Snyder—a space split equally between two floors: street-level and basement. Prior to Gustafson and Lowe’s negotiating their lease, the building stood empty for several years. (When they first showed it to me, in mid-January 2013, it was a wreck—particularly the basement, which was to account for half their floor space. Torn-up carpeting lay heaped in piles of debris, an exposed gas meter poked out of the fieldstone wall by the stairwell, and the uneven concrete floor looked like something you’d find in an old barn. No matter how long I listened to the couple describe their vision for this space, when I looked around all I saw was a basement.)

When we arrive at the store a month after that first visit, kicking the snow off our boots, the changes are dramatic. The basement joists are painted a fresh matte black, recessed lighting is in place along with new ductwork, and installation has begun on the first bookcases of the fifty such units they salvaged from the downtown Borders. The look is urban and chic, and I realize that these two not only have a precise dream for their store, but also a healthy dose of the midwestern work ethic needed to make it happen.  

Of course, not everything is going according to plan. The wood floors upstairs have had to be torn out and are being replaced. Not only does this represent a significant cost that Gustafson and Lowe haven’t budgeted, but it’s also meant they’re having to push back their early-March opening. And with each delay, the complex calculus of how long they can stretch their seed money until the first book sales begin to provide even a modest cash flow is enough to make the most seasoned businessperson a bit fidgety. Inventory alone will account for more than a hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars of their start-up costs—which they are paying for with a significant loan from Ann Arbor State Bank plus smaller, but no less significant, loans from family and friends—and that’s a modest number of books for a store this size (a number they will try to nearly double over the summer as they begin to sell and are able to increase their stock), to say nothing of the overall costs associated with building out the store.

The couple is also aware of the fact that in addition to trying to make a go of it in a town where neither Borders nor Shaman Drum was able to succeed, it’s not as though it’s an open market. Ann Arbor is home to specialty bookshops like Common Language Bookstore, Aunt Agatha’s Mystery Bookshop, Vault of Midnight, Bookbound, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room; used-book stores like Dawn Treader, West Side Book Shop, and Motte & Bailey Booksellers; and even a general indie bookstore, Nicola’s Books, on the west side of town. Plus, there’s a Barnes & Noble. Each of these stores has loyal customers. So despite months of outreach to the local community, there’s no guarantee that, as a general (albeit well-curated) bookshop, their enterprise will see customers materialize when the doors open.

What, then, does Literati hope to be known for? How will it distinguish itself from these other places of business? “The goal is that every book in our store is carefully selected,” Gustafson says. “And that it would be a great book for whatever it is: a great kids’ tale, or a great biography, whatever. I often ask Hilary, ‘Do you want to read this?’ And if she says no, I’ll say, ‘Well, why are we ordering it then?’”

“Of course it’s not just my taste,” Lowe clarifies. “It’s balancing what’s selling and what I think the community would want with what I like. Those are the three things I base my decisions on. I’ve tried to go through every single title that we’re going to have.” When I ask how many titles they’ve ordered so far, Lowe estimates seven or eight thousand. It’s still only February.

Over the next month and a half I visit periodically to chat about progress and to take pictures of some of the milestones: the day the new floors are put in, the day the bookcases arrive upstairs, even the night Lowe and Gustafson paint the black-and-white checkerboard pattern on the floor, the two of them, in stocking feet, stepping carefully between each square they’ve mapped using blue painter’s tape, as they cover the entire grid, foot by square foot. When I drop in I typically find them in the basement: Lowe working on a laptop, placing orders, in what will one day be a sitting area; Gustafson in their small, six-by-eight-foot office in the back corner, working on the website or dealing with other business issues, such as the botched order of fifteen thousand book-marks that need to be returned. Or their proposal for an exterior sign for the storefront that was denied by Ann Arbor’s Historic District Commission, sending them back to the drawing board. But worst of all, they are informed by the city that their entire street will be torn up and closed for sewer and utility repairs during the month of June and part of July.

Despite these setbacks, by mid-March they’re excited about their progress—staffing, in particular. More than one hundred fifty people applied to work at the store, and they’ve brought in a range of talents and experience: several longtime Borders employees, one of whom, Jeanne Joesten, worked for the company for nearly twenty-five years; the former manager of Shaman Drum; two recent grads from the University of Michigan’s MFA program; and the executive director of the Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association, who plans to work part-time so as to stay in touch with what’s happening day-to-day in independent stores.

“Every employee is doing something extra,” Lowe says—from finding used furniture at nearby Treasure Mart, to helping write store policies and procedures addressing issues such as shoplifting.

“Apparently you can’t tackle [people] until they get out of the store,” Gustafson says.

“You can’t even accuse them!” Lowe adds. “That was news to us.”

On March 26 Literati passes the city inspection, and a few days later, on March 30, the store debuts with a private party for members of the literary community. Despite the long hours, on this night Gustafson and Lowe both glow. She wears a black-and-white checked sleeveless dress with a black, bolero-style shrug, and her hair up in a bun. He wears a blue oxford. And the two never stop smiling. The store, too, has the soft, yellowed warmth that you imagine a bookstore having. Like burnished oak. Like varnished maple.

The vibe is equally homey. Writers and members of the university community, as well as local business owners and supporters, arrive for their first glimpse of the new bookstore. There is food and wine and good spirits. There are bright books filling the shelves. And for the first time, the community that Gustafson and Lowe have spent so much time talking with me about—a community of book lovers and readers—is no longer an abstract concept. It is here. I’m not sure what might be going through people’s minds, but all I can envision is the fact that a little over two months ago this space was vacant, and in the ensuing weeks it has been utterly transformed.

The following day is Easter, which comes early this year, as does the unexpected spring weather. It was forecast to be cool and rainy, but instead the day dawns feeling more like May. That evening I drop by Literati to check on preparations for next week’s opening, and when I arrive I encounter another surprise: a store full of people. Gustafson and Lowe have decided at the last minute to have a “soft opening” today. I find them in the downstairs office, ordering more books, and they are positively giddy. I ask what prompted this decision. “At noon we opened a bottle of Dom Pérignon that was dropped off last night,” Gustafson tells me, “and we had a toast with the employees who were here. Then we just decided to flip the sign to Open to see what would happen. We figured we could get some practice swiping a credit card or two. But in a minute and a half there were three people in here. In just ninety seconds! It’s been a steady stream of people since.”

“I’m just so happy we’re open and talking to people,” Lowe tells me.

“Today was absolutely incredible,” Gustafson says.

“Making recommendations, talking about books,” Lowe adds. “That’s why I wanted to do this.” I haven’t seen the two so energized since January, when they first showed me around the empty space and were explaining the vision of the store. The last few months have been hard ones for them, filled with endless financial calculations and guesses. They’ve been living on energy bars and take-out, leaving the store most nights after midnight. But here, finally, their business is a reality.

Gustafson says, “My favorite thing that happened today? Two college girls walked in. One of them said, ‘This is the best day.’ She didn’t say ‘of the week,’ or ‘of the year.’ She just said, ‘This is the best day.’ I loved that.”

It didn’t hurt that within the first six hours of being open, without any advertising whatsoever, the store sold more than two hundred books, bringing in over thirty-four hundred dollars in sales. In the middle of it all they ran out of receipt paper and Gustafson had to drive to OfficeMax.

A little more than a week later, however, Literati would come close to nearly losing the entirety of its first week’s sales—more than twenty thousand dollars—an amount far exceeding the figures for a normal week, as it includes the revenue from the grand opening and the store’s inaugural event with poet Keith Taylor, a reading that drew more than a hundred people. Such a loss would have almost certainly forced it to close.

Nine days after opening for business the store’s Internet went down. Thinking the router simply needed to be reset, Gustafson did so. But in the process he knocked out both the cash registers, causing the credit card processing machines to malfunction. Worried they might have lost that morning’s sales in the process, Gustafson called their credit card authorization company to double-check that the previous day’s transactions had cleared and were successfully deposited. What he learned was that there had been no deposits the previous night; in fact, there hadn’t been a single deposit since the store had opened.

“We’re engaged. So this isn’t just the business, it’s our relationship—and Hilary is furious,” Gustafson recalls.

“Meanwhile,” Lowe says, “customers are coming in, and regulars are coming down to chat.” They both laugh about trying to keep up a good front, about Lowe sobbing in the bathroom at one point, about Gustafson envisioning them bankrupt and on the street. It’s clear just how terrifying this moment must have been after nearly a year of solid work, how fragile the entire endeavor must have suddenly felt. 

It all turned out to be, of course, a simple mistake. The credit card company discovered that Literati had failed to complete the protocol necessary to send the transactions in for processing at the end of each night. “The directions were at the bottom of an ALL-CAPS e-mail that had no punctuation, something you could totally miss,” Gustafson explains. And the instructions had come in an account-set-up 
e-mail they’d received from the company nearly two months before they’d even opened.

But despite the ease with which the problem was solved, it was nearly an irrevocable loss. The credit card processing company explained that any transactions not submitted within ten days are void. They were on Day Nine.

“If you don’t batch out within ten days…” Gustafson begins.

“You lose everything,” Lowe finishes.

There are other missteps and disappointments throughout the summer—the books that don’t arrive for an author event, forcing Gustafson to drive to Barnes & Noble to pick up copies; the occasional angry customer who writes on Literati’s Facebook page that the store is “snooty”; the unexpected bust of football Saturdays—yet when we sit down in mid-October for our final talk, just after the six-month anniversary of the store’s opening, things are going pretty well. Although Lowe admits to being conservative with the business plan, sales have exceeded expectations. Both are realistic in acknowledging that some of this might have to do with the novelty of the store, that the goodwill from the community might not last. But already they have a solid community of regulars whose tastes in reading and whose personalities they’ve begun to get to know. And publishers are starting to reach out to them about events with notable authors.

They’re also aware that this is a particular cultural moment they’ve found themselves in. The independent bookstore dovetails nicely with the craft movement currently afoot in cities like Ann Arbor. It’s not simply because books are crafted, physical objects, but because in addition to a hand-selected inventory, quite literally everything in Literati has been touched by human hands. The hand-lettered window signs were drawn by a local artist, the chalkboard’s painted section headings were done by Gustafson’s mother, the shopping bags bearing the Literati logo were hand-stamped by employees, and the secondhand tables were picked up at thrift stores by the staff.

Perhaps nothing exemplifies this cultural moment more than the manual typewriter in the sitting area in the basement. Each morning Gustafson adds paper to it, and throughout the day people come down to type. Some come to the store to type. They leave love notes, dirty jokes, and the occasional anonymous plea for help. They leave poems and to-do lists and affirmations. One woman even proposed to her partner using it. Here, again, it’s about something tangible—something we can feel with our hands. And though the notes are seemingly ephemera, Gustafson reads them all and saves many, posting them on their basement wall—a record of the store’s days.

So the practice of curation at Literati is about more than just picking books. It’s about handcrafting an experience, from selecting the people who work for you and who bring their personalities and tastes to the store to the look and feel of the place. When I speak with Lori Tucker-Sullivan, the executive director of the Independent Booksellers Consortium, about why Literati is succeeding, she points to two factors: “First, they came into the market not only willing to work in the midst of other booksellers in town, but also actually reaching out to them and structuring their business in light of what those already established bookstores do well. Second, Hilary and Mike have a remarkable understanding of the Ann Arbor market, and it is well reflected in their inventory and events, which are a near-perfect mix of literary, scholarly, and popular titles. When bookstore owners are that smart it shows, and they tend to be successful. They also have a very good understanding of what they can be—and online cannot—in terms of the shopping experience, and they’ve done a wonderful job of developing that sense of discovery and adventure in a small space.”

In a sense, Literati is the opposite of Amazon: Lowe and Gustafson don’t carry everything, intentionally; their selectivity is a service. By carefully curating their selection, they save their customers the toil of having to wade upstream through an endless torrent of book marketing and hyperbole. After all, can every novel really be a tour de force? The recommendations here are genuine as well; there’s no algorithm that can determine what book you might like. Instead, each book appears on the shelf because someone believes it’s worth reading.

When I ask Lowe and Gustafson what additional advice they have for someone thinking about opening a bookstore, their suggestions range from the practical (make sure you have enough money; the cheapest option is not always the best; be tough on lease negotiations) to the more esoteric (maximize the talent of your employees; invest in what will pay off for the life of your business; trust your gut).

“Anybody who tries to open a business is going to be called a fool,” Lowe says, “no matter the endeavor. Yeah, a bookstore is risky. But if you’ve done your homework, you should feel comfortable with what you’re doing.”

Gustafson elaborates on Lowe’s extensive research into the bookselling market, the months she volunteered at Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn, New York, in exchange for shadowing the owners, her extensive business plan, and her unwavering vision for the store. There’s pride in his voice, and I watch her watching him as he tries to convey the scope of this to me. They’ve been married three months. The two days they took for their honeymoon in June were the first consecutive days away from the business since beginning this process a year ago.

Then, after a pause, Gustafson says, “We were talking recently about whether we would do this again, knowing—”

“God, no!” Lowe interrupts. “You couldn’t pay me enough.”

Both of them are roaring with laughter now.

“Neither of us would ever go through this again,” Gustafson says.

“Nope,” Lowe says. “I’d work as a waitress.”

“The nerves, the anxiety…we really did feel like we had one shot. We still do feel like we have just one shot. And we know we’re not out of the woods yet.”

But they both admit they’re happy. “We’re not ever going to have a lot of money,” Lowe says. “But that’s fine. I love our regulars. Just having conversations with them brightens my day. I wouldn’t have had these sorts of interactions with people sitting at my desk at Simon & Schuster.”

On my way out, I linger for a bit, browsing the fiction section. Two employees have finished their shift and are headed out. I watch Lowe come around the side of the cash register to hug each of them, thanking them for their work that day. It seems obvious that the employees are just as thankful to be there, to have found their bookstore.

Jeremiah Chamberlin teaches at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he is the assistant director of the English Department Writing Program. He is the editor of the online journal Fiction Writers Review as well as a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.
 

Literati Bookstore

Beginning in January 2013, Michael Gustafson and Hilary Lowe spent nearly three months renovating a twenty-six-hundred-square-foot storefront in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to prepare for the grand opening of Literati Bookstore. Not everything went according to plan: Unforeseen expenses and delays, a botched order of fifteen thousand bookmarks, and a near total loss of their first week’s sales threatened the bookstore’s success. But over a hundred members of the Ann Arbor community turned up for Literati’s inaugural reading, and now, more than eight months after the store’s grand opening, Gustafson and Lowe have built a successful community around their literary dream. The following images offer a behind the scenes look at the couple’s journey, which contributing editor Jeremiah Chamberlin chronicles in “How to Make a Life, Maybe Even a Living: Opening an Independent Bookstore” in the current issue of Poets & Writers Magazine.

1. Basement of Literati Bookstore Pre-Renovation

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January 2013: The basement, which accounts for half the store’s floor space, covered in torn-up carpeting and debris prior to renovations. “No matter how long I listened to the couple describe their vision for this space,” Jeremiah Chamberlin writes, “when I looked around all I saw was a basement.”

3. Painting the Floor

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Gustafson and Lowe paint the black-and-white checkerboard pattern on the top floor of the store by hand, stepping carefully between each square they’ve mapped using blue painter’s tape.

4. The Store Makes its Debut

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March 2013: The store debuts with a private party. Writers, members of the University of Michigan community, as well as local business owners and supporters, arrive for their first glimpse of the new bookstore.

5. Literati’s Inaugural Event

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Over a hundred people show up to hear Michigan-based poet Keith Taylor read at Literati Bookstore, the first of what the owners hope will be many future readings and events.

6. Gustafson and Lowe Glow

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Despite the long hours, Gustafson and Lowe never stop smiling at the Literati Bookstore’s debut party for members of the community.

7. The Bookstore’s Manual Typewriter

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Each morning Gustafson adds paper to the manual typewriter in the basement’s sitting area, and throughout the day people come down to type. They leave love notes, dirty jokes, pleas, poems, to-do lists, affirmations, even marriage proposals.

8. Literati Bookstore Open For Business

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April 2013: The bookstore officially opens. A local artist draws the hand-lettered window signs, Gustafson’s mother paints section headings, and the employees hand-stamp the Literati logo on shopping bags. Chamberlin writes, “Quite literally everything in Literati has been touched by human hands.”

9. Gustafson and Lowe Outside Literati

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After many long and difficult months filled with endless financial calculations and guesses, overwhelming challenges, and a lot of hard work, Gustafson and Lowe stand outside their bookstore looking happy, energized, and inspired.

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Inside Indie Bookstores: Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee

by

Jeremiah Chamberlin

7.1.10

In 1927 Harry Schwartz opened Casanova Booksellers and Importers on Downer Avenue in Milwaukee. Ten years later he bought out his partner, Paul Romaine, moved the store downtown, and renamed it Harry W. Schwartz Bookshop. Over the next seventy-two years, the independent bookstore would operate as many as six branch locations in southeastern Wisconsin and northern Illinois, all the while remaining family owned and managed. In 1972, Harry’s son, A. David Schwartz, took over the business. And when David died, in 2004, David’s daughter, Rebecca Schwartz, and his wife, Carol Grossmeyer, retained ownership until the remaining four stores finally closed in March 2009.

During its many years in business, the iconic bookstore was notable not only for its longevity but also for its strong opposition to censorship. In the 1960s, under Harry’s stewardship, the store stocked titles like Ulysses and Tropic of Cancer, despite the fact that they had been deemed legally obscene. Similarly, even before David was running the business, he was an early proponent of civil rights, and years later he also took a prominent and vocal position against the section of the Patriot Act that could force bookstores to turn over customer records of book purchases to the government. Because of his long-standing advocacy, as well as his record of charitable giving, in 2004 Publishers Weekly honored Schwartz with its Bookseller of the Year Award. Yet, despite these laurels and the store’s lauded history, the business could not weather the recent economic storm.

However, the spirit of bookselling that Schwartz embodied hasn’t disappeared from the Milwaukee area. The Promethean fire has simply been passed on. Lanora Hurley, who once managed Schwartz’s Mequon, Wisconsin, branch, bought the store and reopened it as Next Chapter Bookshop in April 2009. That same month, Daniel Goldin, who worked as Schwartz’s longtime book buyer, reopened the Downer Avenue location as Boswell Book Company, named after James Boswell, the eighteenth-century British biographer, whose image graced the Schwartz logo, which Goldin retained for his store.

Downer Avenue is located in a diverse area of the city—close to both the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee and Lake Michigan. As such, it’s also home to multimillion-dollar lakefront mansions and cheap college rental houses, beautiful Arts and Crafts homes and college dorms. So the two-block commercial strip where Boswell is located—a mix of boutiques, trendy pubs, hip coffee shops, an independent theater, and a locally owned hardware store—is the hub where the lives of many different kinds of people intersect.

Goldin’s tastes as a bookseller—and the selection at Boswell—are just as eclectic. His interests range from urban planning to personal finance, fiction to photography, and he’s as comfortable talking about Cheever as children’s books. Likewise, the floor plan of the eight-thousand-square-foot store is almost completely open. There are comfortable nooks along the periphery, and the children’s room has its own area, but otherwise you can survey the broad expanse of the store from nearly any spot. This does not mean that the store feels overwhelming, however. Quite the contrary—it draws you in, and you soon find yourself winding past antique library card catalogues that display books about birds, and spindly legged side tables featuring literature about Africa. This is another characteristic of Boswell: Every part of the store feels cared for and hand selected; in every corner is an oddity or surprise you could easily miss. You come to a store like this to find what you didn’t realize you were looking for.

The same could be said for Goldin’s experience of Milwaukee. He grew up in New York City, majored in mathematics at Dartmouth College, and got interested in advertising after working at a college radio station. In the early 1980s, he took a job as a publicist for Warner Books. But after four years he felt he needed a break from Manhattan, so he decided he would move to a Midwestern city where he could spend one year learning about publishing from the other side of the business—from the booksellers themselves.

That city turned out to be Milwaukee, chosen in large part by a chance encounter that Goldin had with Schwartz’s then-manager, John Eklund, during a February 1986 visit. Eklund was putting out a new book by Andrew M. Greeley that day, and Goldin happened to be the author’s publicist. The two men struck up a conversation, which eventually led to a job offer. And in April of that year, Goldin moved. He never went back to publishing. His work as a bookseller turned into a job as David Schwartz’s assistant, and eventually he became the book buyer for the business, a position he would hold for more than two decades.

Like his store, Daniel Goldin is quirky and kinetic and whimsical. He is quick to laugh, and talks with the enthusiasm of someone who can’t wait to tell you about something new he’s discovered. For half an hour prior to our conversation, he led me through the store, pointing out changes he’s recently made and plans for those he hopes to accomplish during his second year of business. Goldin is both giddy and nervous about the future, ever aware of the tenuousness of his profession. Yet he is boundlessly hopeful, too.

But more than anything, Goldin is obsessed—a word he likes to use frequently—with books and book-selling. In particular, he is obsessed with the way in which the perfect book finds its way into the perfect person’s hands. Whether in the store or on his blog, this thought is never far from his mind. In that way, he is something of a matchmaker. And nothing makes him happier than making connections for his customers.

Prior to opening Boswell Book Company, you spent most of the twenty years of your bookselling career as a buyer. How is it different now running your own business?
In ’96 I ran our Mequon store, which is now Next Chapter. At one point David Schwartz had said to me, “You can’t really know the business until you run a store.” And it was really a great experience, though a very different experience from what I’m doing now because back then I was still sort of a faceless person. My customers didn’t really know who I was. I didn’t really meet people as much as I thought I would. But I liked doing it and I didn’t really want to go. But then they started talking about moving the downtown store here [to Downer Avenue], and John Eklund decided he wanted to be the person to open this store instead of buying. So they asked me to come back and buy full time.

What year was this?
The Downer store opened in 1997. But then John left to be a sales rep after three months, and I became disconnected from bookstores for a while. I mean, I was in the stores—I worked events, I worked Christmas, I worked sales, I pulled returns—but a lot of the time I was in an office. At one point we had six stores, and so it was just enough to get all the frontlists done. Sometimes I bought backlist, sometimes I returned. But it’s good because I did a little of everything.

Then, when David died, Mary McCarthy took over the stores and she ran them for a few years. David died in 2004; his mother died shortly afterward. He had already brought in Mary, but he didn’t know he was sick yet. I knew that I couldn’t run the stores. I couldn’t do it. I just didn’t have a broad enough skill set. I was very shaky with finance—I felt like I was very micro on the books. All I cared about was what books were coming out, how we sold them, and getting rid of the ones that didn’t work. That’s all I cared about.

I had thought about leaving Schwartz around 2000 to start a bookstore somewhere, but I thought, “I don’t know where I’m going to get financing from, and I don’t have the contacts, and I don’t have the media connections, and I don’t have the customer base.” How the hell do you build this? But by the time I knew Schwartz was closing for sure, I thought, “Maybe I’m ready to do this.”

At what point did you realize that Schwartz, as an entity, was under…
Under siege? Of course I didn’t believe it. I thought, “Maybe we can turn this around.” And the first year we cut our losses pretty substantially.

What do you mean by that?
I think we cut about a hundred thousand off our losses. We got rid of things like 401k matching, we got out of a partnership we’d gone into where we were managing the inventory for a hospital off-site gift shop, and we had to close the Bay View store. You know, we did various things to save money.

But when did this trouble begin? When did you start to see that you would have to start making serious changes?
I think we all knew when a Barnes & Noble closed for a year in Bayshore and we had a better year. Then, when they reopened, we were losing more money again.

Were they remodeling?
Yeah. The mall where the store was located went from a mall to a “style center.” They sunk maybe twenty million, thirty million—it could be two hundred million, three hundred million, for all I know—into the project. Whatever it was, it was a huge amount of money! It doesn’t even matter how many zeroes. It was so many zeroes that it was just unfathomable to me, a person who has to worry about, you know, a hundred dollars. I had to replace our accounting computer for a thousand dollars recently and I cried myself to sleep over it. [Laughter.]

So when they reopened and your sales fell once more, the writing was on the wall.
Right. We couldn’t compete with them. We used to discount books pretty aggressively, but we weren’t winning that war. And even though Barnes & Noble had cut most of their in-store discounting, between the Internet and the mass merchandisers we knew we had to get out of that side of the business. Because any customer who cared only about price would go somewhere else.

Speaking of costs, has the American Booksellers Association ever considered becoming a distributor for its members? If so, they’d be able to get the same discount structure as these big competitors. Or would the discount that you gain be lost in the administrative process?
Absolutely. It’s not big enough for it to be worth the while. And they’re not flush with cash; they have to decide what their mission is too. The number of stores has gone down in the last few years, and they have to see what gets the most bang for their buck.

And what is that right now? Where is the ABA focusing their efforts?
They seem to focus a good amount of attention on Winter Institute. It’s about three years old. They bring a minimal amount of people, they bring a minimal amount of authors, and there’s three days of workshops on topics like technology, profitable magazines, social networking, renegotiating a lease, buying strategies, etcetera.

Does it help your store?
The workshops really help us. And certainly the connections. I have a lot of booksellers that I’ve met at these events who I regularly email. In the last day I’ve talked to Marie at Vroman’s [in Pasadena, California]; I’ve talked to Kathy at Tattered Cover [in Denver, Colorado]; and I got an email from Miriam at Powell’s [in Portland, Oregon]. I also talked to Linda at Galaxy [in Hartwick, Vermont].

What do you discuss?
What books are working for us, mostly.

So there really is a lot of communication going on between booksellers.
Much more than there used to be. I don’t know if there’s more with Facebook than there was with e-mail, but—

But you definitely do make in-store decisions based on these conversations.
Absolutely. I always want to know what people are reading and what’s working. And that’s partly me. I just like being a connector. At Schwartz one of my favorite things to do was find out what everyone was reading and send that information to the publisher. Also, to tell people in one store what somebody else in another store was doing. We had become very, very successful at selling huge quantities of weird books.

For example, we helped make Elegance of the Hedgehog. There were four or five independent stores that just started selling the book like crazy, and pushing it. Newsletters and blogs and stuff like that. It’s really interesting how you can see some of these books move if you work really hard. If the book’s right, and it really delivers, and you’ve got enough people behind it, you can make this book jump to another market.

To me, that’s the whole idea behind a bookstore. I know that several of my friends at other independent bookstores don’t like this, but I feel like we’re a lab. We have to be ahead of the game; we have to move on to the next thing when everybody else is still selling it; we have to find the next thing. For the publisher to pay attention to us we have to be the specialty electronics store instead of Best Buy. We have to be the place where, you know, people say, “Wow! I have to go there because they’re going to tell me what to read. Because two years from now I’m going to hear from everybody about Water for Elephants, but I heard it from my independent bookstore first.”

What is the most exciting part of bookselling for you?
I have to say, focusing on a book you really love and think that other people will love is really cool. My favorite book of 2008 was Wrack and Ruin by Don Lee. I loved the book, but it was so hard to sell in hardcover. It’s still a slightly difficult book to sell in paperback, but I’m thrilled every time we do. I want to take the books I really love—that are offbeat—and make a difference with them. It’s a little harder now because I have too few booksellers on my staff to be reading broadly. But I love discovering a book that two or three people liked, especially when, say, this person reads this way [points to the left] and that person reads that way [points to the right].

Yet they both liked the same book.
Exactly. In the Woods by Tana French is a great example. We were one of its top sellers. It was on the best-seller list for about a year in paperback, but in hardcover there were only about five stores selling it. And the thing that was so cool was that mystery people liked it and fiction people liked it. I always look for things that are “high” and “middle.”

Do you think most people come into a bookstore knowing exactly what they want—or wanting something but not knowing what it is?
I think bookstores have really changed in that a much higher percentage of the customers who are left don’t know what they’re coming in for. The people who know exactly what they want are more likely to jump to the Internet. The Internet doesn’t browse that well compared with a bookstore. So my feeling in the store is that you have to find a lot of ways to sell people books that you like.

My other feeling is that customers need confirmation that this is a book they should buy. They don’t want to hear from just one person. They want to hear maybe two or three different ways that this is a book that’s important. This is one of the reasons that in the front of the store I have a book club section; I have the IndieBound best-sellers; I have my staff picks; I have Boswell’s Best, which is really like a buyer’s pick; and I have prizewinners and what’s in the media. My idea is that—especially with hardcover—I will put the same book in two or three different places if it belongs there. That way maybe someone will get confirmation from three different sources that this is the book that they want to buy.

Are there any recent books that were crossovers like this?
I love Chris Cleave’s novel Little Bee. I said, “I’m going to do anything to make this book work.” I got to read it really early, and I really liked the book. I think it’s the perfect book in that it allows you to read it to the level of your interest. You can be a middle reader and read it, or you can be a high-end reader and read it. And because the book leaves some things unsaid, you can interpret the ending in several different ways, which makes people obsess about it. Everything was perfect about it for me. I loved the jacket. Loved the jacket. I was so worried, you know, because the book has another name in England. It’s called The Other Hand. And I loved the cover of The Other Hand in hardcover, but I despised the cover of The Other Hand in paperback.

So you can judge a book by its cover? Or does this prove that you can’t?
A really good book with a really bad jacket is just 
really hard to sell. It gives the customer the wrong message.

Was there ever a book you’ve loved that you couldn’t sell because of the cover?
We were just talking about that. One of my booksellers just showed me one, and it had a very “merchy” cover.

What do you mean by that?
The British book business—the merchandise part of the business—is not driven by Walmart or Target. It’s driven by supermarkets. Tesco and Sainsbury’s do the big quantities. So when you sell lots and lots and lots of copies of a book in Great Britain, you sell them in the supermarket. They have bookstores, basically, within the supermarkets. The point being, I looked at that book jacket and I said, “That’s a very Tesco cover.” Then, when the author came for an event, he admitted that they’d just placed a really big order. [Laughter.]

So the cover is a bigger part of book buying than we’d like to admit.
Oh, I think publishers would say that it’s a big part of the decision-making process.

What about digital books, which don’t have covers?
I don’t know. Good luck! [Laughter.] But they have free downloads! Honestly, I have no idea. I hope to be getting some of the business. I hope so. I have customers who really want to do downloads through us. They want to come here and browse and then download the books from us. Just like they’re buying the books, in spite of the fact that they could buy them online. They like the space, they like the browsing, and because Schwartz just closed they get the idea that their purchases are connected to the store’s staying in business.

But I don’t take that goodwill for granted. And I feel that the way I can keep that goodwill is to continually try to make things better. I have to have very personal relationships with my customers, and I try to keep my personality very heavily in the store. I have a very distinct personality. I think I have a good sense of humor and I’m very quirky and I’m very respectful of differences and of people who like different things. I know what I like and I know what my customers like.

What about people who just moved to Milwaukee and have never heard of Schwartz? How will you bring them into the store?
It’s a tough thing. I feel like the store is interesting enough and there are fewer and fewer independent bookstores like this around, and so I feel I just have to keep it in the public eye. That’s why I do a lot of publicity. I throw out a lot of press releases. I do a lot of events. I try to do an offbeat spin on the events. For my first event last year I had the woman who owned the bookstore here [before Schwartz took over the space] introduce Jane Hamilton. She talked about what it was like being one of the first booksellers to discover Jane Hamilton, and how she’d once put together a bus tour to the apple orchard where The Book of Ruth took place.

There’s also a memoir about knitting coming out and I’m trying to get one of the knitting stores to come in and set up a table. We’ve talked about having some craft people come in too for something like that. For example, we had Scott Buer, who runs Bolzano Artisan Meats, the first dry-cured meat company in Wisconsin, come to the store and he did a sampling of his pancetta.

In addition to events and the eclectic selection of the books themselves, what do you offer customers that online booksellers, chain stores, and big-box retailers cannot? Is customer service what matters most?
People have pretty neutral feelings about the service at Amazon. It’s okay. Last year, in the customer surveys of chain stores, both Barnes & Noble and Borders came out in the top ten. Even if some of my customers think the service isn’t so good and complain that the booksellers there don’t know the books, it’s not terrible. Is my service spectacular? It could be better. I never overestimate my service abilities. Do I think I’m good at that sort of stuff, and do I think my booksellers are? Absolutely. Do I think I am effective 100 percent of the time? Nooo. I’m not.

This then brings me to the most important question. In this economic climate—
Yes.

Where a business with eighty-two years of history has already gone bankrupt—
Out of business. Schwartz didn’t go bankrupt. Don’t say we went bankrupt. [Laughter.]

And in the very same space that that iconic store has gone out of business, you thought it would be a good idea to open a bookstore. Care to explain?
I looked at the business and I said, “There is business here; it’s not like we’re not doing business. We just have a problematic cost structure.” And I thought a really nimble single-store business might work, because you don’t have that infrastructure level. Small chains are neither fish nor fowl. They’re not small enough to make decisions quickly, but not big enough to benefit from their size. When something’s not working here, I can just say, “Well, let’s not do that anymore.” But at Schwartz we had to go through committee meetings.

So it was hard to adapt quickly.
Right. And I thought, “If I don’t open right away, I’m going to lose that business because people are going to change their shopping habits. So I have to do this as quickly as possible.” And now we’ve gotten rid of the whole office infrastructure, which means that the costs to pay for another space, a dedicated marketing department, a lot of buyers, a working owner who got paid, and a percentage of rent—that all went away. I’m still me. I’m now doing the work that probably two or three people were doing before. Not as well! [Laughter.] And I took a pretty substantial pay cut to do it. But there are lots of little changes that I squeak through to try to cut costs, and I think we’re doing an okay job with that.

I also knew what my gross profit margin was at Schwartz, and I knew if I was really careful and watched everything and played with some of the things we were doing, that I could increase that a little. That was one of the problems with Schwartz—it wasn’t just the expenses, it was that our gross margin was on the low side.

Why was that?
I don’t really know. [Laughter.] But I know that I have friends with substantially higher gross profit margins. There’s all sorts of stuff I’m watching: damaged merchandise, throwing away things that can’t be used anymore, overly aggressive discounting—all that stuff. And so I worked on my business plan for three or four months, and I have to tell you, if I hadn’t gotten the numbers to work in a reasonable way…when I looked at my sales, I basically said, “I’m going to keep 75 percent of the Downer business, and then I will add to that 25 percent of the business in Shorewood [the neighborhood directly north].”

What has happened, in fact, is that more of the Downer business has gone away than I expected, because more of it was involved in the schools than I realized. They are in very bad shape, and they just changed the bidding process so we’re not getting quite as much Milwaukee public school business. On the other hand, we picked up more Shorewood business than I expected. So we’re close to where we want to be.

And you knew the numbers when you put together your business plan.
I knew the numbers and I also knew—

What you could do as an individual.
What I could do. Like I said, I feel like I have a very passionate personality; I can talk about books in a very nonthreatening way.

But it’s still a huge financial risk, especially considering the economy.
Yes. I had to bring my own money to the table. I had saved some money, but I am a bookseller—I didn’t save that much money! However, my family pulled together enough money so that with what I had saved, the bank would give me a loan. Actually, I still got rejected. I went to three banks: I was rejected by the first one, I got a provisional no from the second one, and then I got a yes from the third bank. The terms were very tough, but I got a yes. I took the yes and I went to the second bank and the second bank beat the other bank’s terms.

Did you ever say to yourself, “I had a good run, I enjoyed being a bookseller, but that phase of my life is over?”
What would I have done? What could I possibly do? [Laughter.]

So you haven’t second-guessed your decision.
I second-guess my decision every waking moment! I second-guess every decision.

Then perhaps I’ll close by asking this: What has made you happiest about this first year of owning your own bookstore?
Danny Meyer, who is a restaurateur, once said, “It’s not about service, it’s about hospitality. I don’t want to be the best restaurant, I want to be the favorite.” My favorite thing about Boswell is the emotional connection that people have with this store. Right before the holidays a pair of regular customers—loyal customers—came up to me and said, “When you first opened, the place was only so-so. At the time we said it was nice just to be polite, but now it really is great.” [Laughter.] I love that! I love that the place matters as much to them as it does to me. And I love that we’re headed in the right direction.

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INSIDE BOSWELL BOOK COMPANY

On average, how many books do you carry in your store?
Bookstores have been fibbing about this question since Gutenberg. I recently saw a new store that opened say they have fifty thousand titles. We have twenty thousand individual titles, though it looks like we have three times as many books. The quest for having the most books is over. Amazon won, with virtual numbers. In short, I’m not telling, though I sort of already did.

What are the best-selling sections in your store?
We’re a general bookstore, so, like just about every general bookstore, we mostly sell general fiction. We’ve been able to improve sales of mysteries and science fiction since taking over Schwartz as well. We sell about as many books from our humor section as we do from our philosophy section. That seems funny, but really, what is funny?

What were some of the best-selling books at Boswell in 2009?
It should not be a surprise to any indie bookseller that we sold huge amounts of Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Probably our best-selling offbeat paperback fiction title was David Rhodes’s Driftless, which is a wonderful, prizewinning novel, as well as being quintessentially Wisconsin. In cloth, our most popular books were Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs, and Sherman Alexie’s War Dances. The latter two were helped by very high-profile events.

Are there any books you’re particularly looking forward to this summer or fall?
I’m hoping that my two spring faves, Brady Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist and Frederick Reiken’s Day for Night, turn out to be books that we can sell well through the holidays. I’ve already got booksellers clamoring for Great House, the new novel from Nicole Krauss.

How do you think the rise of e-books and digital reading devices will affect your future
I’m not an ostrich—of course it will cut into my sales. I think they will affect airport and textbook stores first. I also am hoping our smaller size will make us more nimble. Some folks think e-books will kill the hardcover, but I think the mass market is more at risk—it’s a short jump from disposable to virtual. It’s not all worry—advances in technology have brought down the cost of short-run printing, making it cheaper for publishers to adjust prints as the numbers change. I also believe that the trend will not mirror music. Our audience is older, and because you don’t need to keep a device for traditional books, I think there will be more crossing over between e and non-e. I’m hoping that publishers will get the message and improve the quality of their traditional books. There’s no better advertisement for an e-book than a book whose pages are so thin that I can see through them.

What is the most unique or defining aspect of Boswell Book Company?
People who don’t know me sometimes refer to me as Daniel Boswell. That’s of course not the case, but in a sense it is. The store is close to a half-century of my book and idea obsessions, plus the brainstorms and hard work of my booksellers, together with the whims of my customers. It’s very much me, but I hope it will also live on after me. All you have to do is say to yourself, “This is the most important thing you will ever do,” and it should fall into place.

What do you think most people would be surprised to learn about bookselling?
It’s no surprise that many of the details are like any other job. Paying book invoices is like paying clothing invoices. Opening boxes of books is like opening boxes of groceries. Satisfying your regular book customers is not dissimilar to satisfying your customers as a lawyer. Wait, it is different. Most other businesses have figured out how to sell information, but we still give it away.

What has been the single biggest challenge in your first year of business?
It’s a variation of the eyes are bigger than the stomach. I couldn’t get done as much as I hoped. There’s always year two.

Where would you like to see Boswell in five years?
I’d like to be in business, culturally relevant, and anchoring a somewhat thriving, traditional urban neighborhood. Not too thriving, of course, or all the indie stores will be replaced by chains. And I’d like the store to have expanded somehow, but not with more branch stores. I did that for the first half of my career.

Jeremiah Chamberlin teaches writing at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He is also the associate editor of the online journal Fiction Writers Review.

Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee

For the fourth installment of our ongoing series of interviews, Inside
Indie Bookstores, Jeremiah Chamberlin travelled to Milwaukee to speak
with Daniel Goldin, owner of Boswell Book Company.

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Boswell Book Company opened in April 2009 in the Downer Avenue location of Harry W. Schwartz Bookshop, a beloved Milwaukee bookstore that had closed a month earlier after seventy-two years in business. Boswell’s owner, Daniel Goldin, was the long-time book buyer for Schwartz.

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The floor plan of the eight-thousand-square-foot store is almost completely open. You can survey the broad expanse of the store from nearly any spot.

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There are comfortable nooks along the periphery of the store’s open floor plan, and the children’s room has its own area.

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Visitors to Boswell Book Company soon find themselves winding past antique library card catalogues that display books about birds, and spindly legged side tables featuring literature about Africa.

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Every part of the store feels card for and hand selected; in every corner is an oddity or suprise you could easily miss. You come to a store like this to find what you didn’t realize you were looking for.

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“I do a lot of events,” Goldin says. “I try to do an offbeat spin on the events. For my first event last year I had the woman who owned the bookstore here [before Schwartz took over the space] introduce Jane Hamilton. She talked about what it was like being one of the first booksellers to discover Jane Hamilton, and how she’d once put together a bus tour to the apple orchard where The Book of Ruth took place.”

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Goldin’s interests as a bookseller range from urban planning to personal finance, fiction to photography, and he’s as comfortable talking about Cheever as children’s books.

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“In the front of the store I have a book club section; I have the IndieBound best-sellers; I have my staff picks; I have Boswell’s Best, which is really like a buyer’s pick; and I have prizewinners and what’s in the media,” says Goldin. “My idea is that—especially with hardcover—I will put the same book in two or three different places if it belongs there. That way maybe someone will get confirmation from three different sources that this is the book that they want to buy.”

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“People who don’t know me sometimes refer to me as Daniel Boswell,” Goldin says. “That’s of course not the case, but in a sense it is. The store is close to a half-century of my book and idea obsessions, plus the brainstorms and hard work of my booksellers, together with the whims of my customers. It’s very much me, but I hope it will also live on after me. All you have to do is say to yourself, ‘This is the most important thing you will ever do,’ and it should fall into place.”

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Inside Indie Bookstores: Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon

by

Jeremiah Chamberlin

3.1.10

Few independent bookstores are more iconic than Powell’s Books. Even readers who’ve never been to Portland, Oregon, know about the store from its ads in places like the New Yorker, or from its prominent online presence, or from its reputation as the largest new- and used-book store in the world. The “City of Books,” as the four-story flagship store on West Burnside is known, occupies an entire city block, and carries more than one million books. The sixty-eight-thousand-square-foot space is divided into nine color-coded rooms, which together house more than 3,500 sections. From the moment you walk in, it feels as if you could find anything there. (And if you can’t, try one of the seven branch stores in five other locations throughout Portland, specializing in everything from technical books to home and garden.)

I was early for my interview with owner Michael Powell, so I decided to get a coffee in the attached café. Like the bookstore itself, the guiding aesthetic is simplicity—no overstuffed chairs, no fireplace, no decorations on the salmon-colored walls other than some taped-up flyers for local bands and a Buddhist meditation group. Not that anyone seems to notice. While I was there, every single person I encountered was reading. At the table nearest me a high school girl in cat-eye glasses and a ski cap read Lucy Knisley’s French Milk (Epigraph Publishing, 2000), with a stack of David Sedaris waiting at her elbow. A well-dressed elderly woman flipped through the Oregonian not too far away. And on the other side, near the windows, a young woman with black hair and piercings through both her cheeks was making a list of recipes from The Garden of Vegan (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2003). Filling the rest of the tables were hipsters in zip-up sweatshirts and Chuck Taylor All Stars, a young father in a shirt and tie with his two children, construction workers wearing Carhartt overalls, and women with trendy bags and knee-high leather boots. All were reading. Here was a microcosm of the store: A diversity of people and interests, sure, but what’s most important in Powell’s is neither image nor decor but the books themselves.

This is not to say that the store doesn’t have a unique vibe. Like Michael Powell himself, there is a straightforwardness to Powell’s that puts a person at ease. When the owner and I met, he was dressed casually in jeans and a pullover sweater. And though he had to attend a black-tie community event later that night, he was generous with his time, walking me through both the history of the business and the store itself—how the portion of the building with terrazzo floors had originally been an American Motors dealership; how when they built the newer sections of the store, more than a decade ago, they’d intentionally left the concrete floors bare because the industrial feel not only complemented the plain, pine bookcases but also added to the laid-back atmosphere; and how proud he is that their foreign-language section alone accommodates more than thirty thousand titles.

Michael Powell’s philosophy on bookselling is simple: He wants to provide people with books. He has no interest in telling people what to read. Nor would he ever judge a person by the type of books she purchases. New or used, dime-store paperback or first-edition hardcover, manga or metaphysics, all are equally at home on his shelves.

This sense of equality permeates every aspect of the Powell’s business model, from the practice of shelving used and new books side by side in each section, to the store’s long-standing advocacy on free-speech issues, to the fact that its five hundred employees are unionized and have a matching 401(k) plan. Likewise, Powell may be the boss, but it’s clear that he also sees himself as a fellow employee. When we left the downtown location and he drove me across town to the former ball-bearing warehouse that is now the site of the online bookselling operations, no one had to “look busy” when the owner arrived. Instead, they chatted with him as we walked through the facility, offering updates on their various ongoing projects, including ideas for how best to recycle used packaging materials. The warehouse, which feels like an airplane hangar but with the sound of jazz floating in the air, processes up to three thousand online orders daily. And 70 percent of those are single-title orders, a fact that amazes Powell, a logical man who never ceases to be surprised or impressed by his customers, even when they pay more than twenty dollars to have a four-
dollar book shipped overnight. It makes him wonder aloud how he can better meet their needs.

This, then, might be the trait that best characterizes Michael Powell: curiosity. He is endlessly curious about the world, about his employees’ ideas, about what his customers want to read, and about innovative ways to do business. It is a trait that has served him well during his last four decades of bookselling. And though he’ll officially hand over the reins of the business to his daughter, Emily, in July, when he turns seventy, one gets the sense that Powell will always be dreaming of how to connect books and people. Because it’s clear that he loves them both.  

How did you become a bookseller?
In the mid-sixties I ran a little student co-op [at the University of Chicago] where students could sell textbooks and other books on consignment. I also rode my bike around to various thrift shops in the general area and went to the Sunday morning flea market called Maxwell Street—which was very famous in its day in Chicago—to buy books and put them on consignment. Then I sold books by catalogue for a couple years to university libraries, mostly out-of-print social science and history, before I opened my first store in 1970, in Chicago.

Early on, I was thinking of opening a store in Santa Fe, New Mexico, because my wife and I had traveled to Santa Fe and saw it for the first time and everybody falls in love with Santa Fe the first time. She was being offered a job as a Montessori teacher there and I was going to open a bookstore when I got a phone call from a mentor in Hyde Park, in Chicago. He wanted to move his store because he’d been attacked by a customer.

He’d found a new location that was closer to campus, and the reason it was currently vacant was that the Weathermen had firebombed its previous occupant out of existence and he didn’t want to go back into it, he was too nervous. And the university—well, not exactly the university, but whoever was in charge of organizing these things—had approached my friend. However, the space was too big for him; he wanted to take only half of it. So he said to me, “You take half and do mostly paperbacks, and I’ll do hardbacks.” And I said, “I could do that, but I don’t have the money.” My wife says I was always good for twenty bucks but never for a hundred. And he said, “There are some professors who would like to talk to you about that; they’re kind of the patron saints of bookstores.” There were three of them: Morris Janowitz, Edward Shils, and the third one was Saul Bellow. Morris Janowitz, who was the lead, came to me and said, “What would you need?” I had no idea. So I said—and this is, remember, 1970—I said, “Probably three thousand dollars.” And he said, “We can do that. We can loan you three thousand dollars.” Then I said, “But, you know, I’ve got a problem. I don’t know how quickly this will get up and running. And there’s all the rent.” So he said, “We can help with rent, too, for a little while.” Rent was, I think, a hundred dollars a month. So, okay, now they’re rehabbing the building and there’s some time before I can occupy it. So my wife and I take a thousand of the three thousand and we travel across the country to Oregon to visit my folks. [Laughter.]

When we were back in Chicago, I took the remaining two thousand dollars and bought some books. A friend and I built some shelves, and we opened. Like I was saying, it was a small, small store. But we did well. The students, of course, liked used paperbacks. They thought that was great. At some point my neighbor moved away and I took his space. Then there was another business in the back…and when they went away I took that space. So, ultimately, it was about four thousand square feet.

And then my dad [who had come to Chicago to work in the bookstore] went back to Portland in 1971. He opened his shop, moved once into a space of about ten thousand square feet, and had begun to introduce new books into the mix, shelving them side by side with used books. In 1979 he said, “You know, now wouldn’t be a bad time if you’re interested in coming back.” I always thought I would come back. I always thought of myself as an Oregonian, always kept my Oregon driver’s license. And I said, “Yeah, I’d like to do that.” There had been a huge snowstorm in Chicago that winter; we’d had an infant—she was born in November—and we had to get out of the neighborhood we were in. It wasn’t suitable for raising a family, and I’d had it with the weather. So coming back to Oregon sounded great to me.

Well, the night before we left Chicago, my dad called. He said, “I’ve got some news: We’ve lost our lease.” Our landlord, which was a brewery, had wanted to take the space back and had given us a year to find a new location. So we spent that year searching, and we found the space that is currently Powell’s Books. In the mid-eighties, we started opening branch stores. I was always curious about new ways to do things with books; I didn’t want just to replicate anything. And one of the questions was if we could do our new-used mix and do it in the suburbs, where everybody’s perception was that it would have to be Borders or Barnes & Noble or something.

By that you mean nice carpeting and polished wood, soft lighting—
The whole nine yards. We weren’t getting women to our downtown location in the proportions that most people have women as shoppers, perhaps because our area was a little bit edgy.

It was a developing neighborhood?
It was an undeveloped neighborhood—mostly warehouses, wholesalers, and auto repair shops. Kind of funky stuff, but not retail. Not restaurants and bars. Now it’s all high-end national and local boutiques, and dozens and dozens of restaurants and bars. It’s quite fashionable, I suppose.

In any case, I wanted to see if we could capture a different audience if we opened the store in a suburb, and that went well. And each year for about six years we opened a store. First, we did a travel bookstore downtown in about 1985. Then the Hawthorne District stores in about 1986. Then the cookbook store…somewhere in there we opened a store in the airport, and a technical bookstore. So I was both interested in segmenting books like technical and travel and cooking, and I was also interested in demographics, like urban centers, suburbs, and airports. It sounds like it was planned, but it wasn’t. It was just opportunity and impulse. The only one of those that we don’t have any longer is the travel store. The Internet took that business away enough to justify not keeping a whole store solely focused on the subject. And the cookbook store sort of morphed into a lifestyle store, with gardening and cooking and interior design. And now we have three stores at the airport.

What did you find with the suburban store that you built to look like Borders or Barnes & Noble?
Well, we were going to build a fairly fancy store in the suburbs—nice white shelving, a tile floor, banners over the aisles, and colors, and so forth and so on. But the aesthetics weren’t right. So the first chance we got to get rid of all that, we did.

You shut the whole store down?
We moved it. And when we moved it, we moved it into a larger space. And at that point we went back to wood shelves. Pine wood, cement floor, more of an industrial look. That has always worked for us well downtown. That was my misreading of the 
suburbs—that I had to sort of pretty it up, and I was wrong. We’ve more recently moved that store into a space double the size—thirty-two thousand square feet. And once again we have a cement floor. In fact, the ceiling has exposed insulation as a sort of architectural touch. It looks very industrial.

Why do you think that works?
People want a calm background for the books. I don’t think they need…I think Borders’s and Barnes & Noble’s message is “Buy the book and get the hell out of here” in some subliminal way. It’s too bright, the shelves are low so everybody’s watching everybody. You feel very exposed. Our shelves are about twelve feet high. You live in these little alleys, and there’s a kind of cozy feel in that that makes it comfortable for customers. And you can sit on the floor, you know, you can spill something on the floor. It’s not a big disaster.

You don’t have to worry about messing up someone’s living room.
No. And the used books look more comfortable in that environment, because they look a little shabbier when they’re too exposed. So, that’s where we are. In 1994 we went on the Internet with the only inventory we had in the database at that point, which was the technical bookstore. I’d only been up for about a month when I got a letter from England from someone saying, “I was looking for this technical book, and I was told in England it would take six weeks to deliver and would cost me the equivalent of a hundred dollars. So I thought, ‘Well, I’ll just check out the Internet and see.’ You had the book for forty-five dollars and you could get it to me in three days.”

When I read this, I thought, “Holy hell! Here’s an opportunity.” So we got all our books into a database. We had what we called “the river” and “the lake”—there were all the new books coming every day that had to get entered, but we also had to back enter everything that was currently on the shelves. So it took a year.

Is that lake dried up now?
The lake is now part of the river. And we built up the Internet business to where it was about a fourth of our sales. So we were an early adopter for selling books online. Amazon came along, of course, and blew right past us. But we sell a lot of books via Amazon, and we sell books via eBay and Alibris and AbeBooks in addition to on our own site. We also carry inventories from England and Germany—our books are drop shipped to the customer. We do what we can.

I imagine that most people think of you as being in direct competition with Amazon. But, in fact, you’re actually doing a lot of partnership with Amazon?
Well, I don’t know. We are in competition at one level, certainly. I’m sure some of our business has turned over to Amazon. But I’m not foolish about it. If there’s an opportunity to sell books, I’m going to sell them. Amazon is my opportunity. And we sell some new books there, but mostly used.

So you ship to Amazon and then they repackage and ship them?
No, we package and ship. We can ship in our boxes with our materials inside. So we can brand that shipment. They’re good with that. And if somebody just orders a new book from us, we’ll usually have a wholesaler fill that order. Ingram or Baker & Taylor drop ship for us in our boxes, so it cuts out shipping to us. That works well. We do the same thing with Gardner Books in England and Lieber in Germany, both wholesalers. And it works. Some of it is hard. It’s not easy—a lot of infrastructure crossed with the Internet.

What are some of its particular challenges?
I think everybody, me included, thought the Internet was going to be this miracle way of making money, because for not very much money you could make all these books available around the whole world. Well, people didn’t count on all the software writers you need to keep your Web site hot and current, or the editorial work that has to go into maintaining a Web site both in terms of the tracking game and also making it sticky for people to visit and to find value there so that they’ll shop with us. Because we don’t discount the books, you know. It’s a small number—twenty, thirty books—otherwise it’s retail. You would think we’d have no business, that people are nuts for ordering books from us.

Because there are cheaper places?
There are cheaper places. And yet, the brand, the interest, whatever…we maintain a good new book sale. I won’t say it’s growing, but it’s steady. There’s a lot of price competition in both the used book world and in the new book world. So it’s been hard to build that business, but we think we can. We have a lot of people who visit the site but don’t stay, and we have to find a way to encourage them to stay. A small percentage of these customers mean a lot to our business. My daughter’s working with some consultants to redesign and redeploy our Web strengths. 

The site certainly has a wonderful array of resources—interviews with authors, blogs…
We Tweet; we do everything. We do everything we possibly can with the resources we have. I always say that the people I have working on our Web site are a rounding error for Amazon. Amazon would have thousands of employees dedicated to what I have twenty dedicated to. On the other hand, I have to say we go toe-to-toe with them. They have things we don’t have, but we have things they don’t have. Sometimes they have them pretty fast after we have them, but we think of ourselves as innovators.

One of these recent innovations is our online buyback. Anyone in the U.S. can go to our Web site, check via a book’s ISBN number to see whether or not we want to buy it, and then find out how much we want to pay for it. We’ll pay the freight; all you have to do is box it, print out our label and packing list, and ship it in. Once it’s received and we’ve checked the condition, we’ll pay you via PayPal, or you can get virtual credit, which you can spend as you will. That has given us a pretty hefty flow of books.

So even after paying shipping costs it’s still worthwhile for you to buy these books?

 

Yeah. In order to maintain our inventory, we can’t rely only on books bought in Portland. We’ve always relied on a certain number of books being bought elsewhere in the country, whether they’re from store inventories or private collections. Well, that’s an expensive way to buy books. You have to fly people there to look at them, then you have to fly people there to box them, and then you have to pay the shipping in. Also, you usually have to take everything, which means you’re handling a lot of books you don’t want. So the online buyback is great because theoretically we want all those books. And you don’t have to go anywhere to get them. And the customer boxes everything up. At the moment, Amazon doesn’t do that. There are some people who do, but they’re not major players. So that’s given us at least a temporary advantage in source of books.

 

I’d like to go back and talk a little bit about the operation of the main store. In addition to the industrial look and feel of the space, another way that Powell’s is different from most bookstores is that you mix new and used books on the shelves. Why did you decide to do this?
Well, we started as a used books company. My dad introduced new books in the late seventies, and his mantra was two of everything and three of nothing. So when a local writer like Jean M. Auel published her first book, we had just two copies. Then we bought a bunch of tables from Dalton’s, and they asked, “What are you going to put on these tables?” And I said, “Stacks of…something.” So that’s when we got into the new arrival business.

But now we have about three hundred thousand volumes in the main store, as well as however many in the other stores. It’s a substantial part of our business. In dollars, roughly 50 percent of our total business is new books, about 40 percent is used books, and then 10 percent is magazines, cards, and sidelines.

On average, bookstores make about 40 percent on each book they sell. Yet you’ve managed to nudge that up to nearly 44 percent. Considering that these percentages are before operational expenses, a small difference like this can mean the difference between staying open and going bankrupt. How did you achieve this?
You know, when you’re done, you’re always plus or minus. Your minus can be a lot, but your plus is hardly ever more than 2 percent after costs. And that’s before you make any capital reinvestment. Because we’re a larger business, we tend to order in volumes that allow us to get the maximum discount. And we do one other thing: We ship all our books to a central warehouse and then we distribute. I don’t know if it’s Borders or Barnes & Noble, but whatever the discount those stores got for shipping to a central warehouse, the publishers had to match that for us.

I’m sure that being your own distributor also makes things more efficient.
Yeah. We do all central receiving. Once the books are received, they’re labeled and then distributed out to each of the stores. So we have our own truck fleet that runs our books around.

With used books, on the other hand, you’ve said that your average is closer to 65 percent. Is that also something you’ve been able to nudge up in similar ways, or is that number static?
We have slowly, over time, pushed that up about five points, either by paying less or controlling inventory better, and by making fewer buying mistakes. In the used-book world the risk is that you’re going to buy something that you already have too many copies of, or that sales have evaporated for, or it’s a book you had once and never sold. Now computers can tell you all that, so while we don’t check every book we buy at the moment we buy it, if there’s any doubt about the book we can scan it and see its history, the current inventory level, sales history, and make a judgment based on that. So I think our rate of having to pull things from the shelves has dropped considerably.

What’s hurting us at the moment is this move away from people buying new hardbacks. You’ve probably heard this elsewhere, but in this downturn many people are avoiding a twenty-five-dollar book and moving, in our case, to used books. This has meant that we can try to keep our dollar volume up by boosting the units we’re selling, because used books are cheaper, but of course the labor involved doesn’t go away.

Or the overhead or the cost of the building.
Right. But the overall dollars have dropped because you’re not selling that twenty-five-dollar book. Fewer dollars are coming in. So it’s been a challenge. And we’ve had to do several things in the course of the last year to accommodate that.

Such as?
Well, we had to reduce the number of people working in the company, which we did through not filling positions when people left.

But no one was let go?
No one was let go, no. At one moment we were within two weeks of seriously considering it, but then the numbers looked like they maybe didn’t require it, so we backed off. You don’t do that casually. You don’t turn people loose in this economic environment. I really didn’t want to do it, and fortunately we didn’t have to. We had twelve months of down business. But [last] September we had our first up month, so that was certainly good news.

What do you think accounted for that?
People are buying more books! I don’t know what to say.

Are you a bellwether for the economic recovery?
Well, I hope so. It’s not like spending money on cars or houses, but if they’re feeling comfortable enough to do that…I mean, listen, they have an alternative. First of all, they can choose not to read. They can go to the library, they can buy fewer books, whatever. But the fact that the customers are back feels great.

Some people have suggested that it’s not the fact that Amazon or big-box stores like Walmart and Target are selling books that accounts for many independent stores’ losing their footing, but rather it’s a lack of readers. Do you feel that’s the case?
No, I’m not a subscriber to that. I understand the theory. The theory is that there are only so many hours in the day, and so if you’re playing computer games or tweeting or searching the Internet or going to a movie or watching TV, you haven’t got time left over for reading. And, yeah, that makes perfectly good sense. Yet we are selling more books. [Last] September we sold more books than we did a year [earlier] by a fairly sensational number. They were cheaper books, but there were more of them.

Long run? I’m not a predictor of the future. I don’t know. Will the Kindle and the Sony Reader, or print on demand, or some other phenomenon we haven’t thought of yet, erode our business? It’s certainly possible. Nothing is forever. And there’s no way to say that somebody’s new vision of the future won’t force us to reshape our vision. But I think as long as we’re alert and pay attention and find ways to adapt, then we’ll be okay.

Let’s talk specifically about electronic books. Do they affect your business?
We sell them. Been doing that for the better part of ten years.

Really?
Yeah. There just weren’t very many books and they weren’t great and we didn’t sell a lot of them, though there have been people trying to do this for a long time. And, you know, it’s a small part of our business. But we’re positioned to make it a bigger part if that happens.

Now, I want to go back a minute. People always say, “Well, there’s this way of doing business and then there’s Powell’s way of doing business.” But I want to point out that I got on the Internet because there was one guy on my staff who came to me and said, “I can put the technical books on the Internet. I need ten thousand dollars to do that.” The money wasn’t for himself, but for the technology. And I said, “Seems good to me.” At the time, Barnes & Noble and Borders were opening stores all around me. My wagons were circled and they attacked from the suburbs, these giant stores. And I thought, “If there’s any way to leap over those stores and reach a broader audience, there’s nothing better than this thing called the Internet.” And I was very enthusiastic. And so for ten thousand dollars—which is a lot of money, I appreciate that—and his time, we got to play. But it’s not like somebody handed me ten million dollars and said, “Here, go invest this in the book business.” We have built every brick, every stone—every element of the system is a result of organic growth.

In addition to building this business from the ground up, your family has always played an important role in the process. Your father came to Chicago to work in the first store, and now your daughter Emily is involved.
Yes. Emily is going to take over in July.

How long has she been moving into this role?
Probably four years now. She was director of used books for a while, and she worked to get our minds back into the used book world. 

What do you mean?
Well, when the economy started to go bad, we told ourselves that we needed to get more used books on the shelves. That meant changing some of the ways of channeling books to the stores and also boosting the volume. For the last year she’s been in charge of the Internet marketing world, with the goal of taking a fairly flat Internet business and seeing it grow. She just finished an executive MBA, and one of the faculty members from her program, along with another fellow he knows, are acting as consultants. So she’s been working with them to redirect the energies of staff, reorganize staff, and redesign the Web site, and to do things that make it easier to use, more intuitive. We’ve always won awards for the content on our site, but I don’t think anybody would ever give us an award for the smoothness, or the use of the page. Now we’re trying to make it a more intuitive process to use, and that always involves a fair amount of rewrite on software, so you can’t do it overnight. But you can do it. So she’s been working on that and doing a great job.

Having grown up in a bookstore, she must have a familiarity with this world that few people possess. To say nothing of her commitment, since it’s a family business.
There’s a great story about Emily. When she was about eight or nine, she and I were doing Christmas cash register work. I would open the book and read the price, and then she would key it in the cash register and make change while I bagged the book. A lady came up who was trying to be nice to Emily and said, “When you grow up, are you going to be a cashier?” And Emily, counting out her change, says, “When I grow up, I’m going to own this place.” [Laughter.] And by God, she is.

That was never in my mind, as a given. In this day and age, the world beckons. I just told her, “You’d be a damn fool not to kick the tires that had been good to us. I don’t ask or expect you to go in this direction, but I think you’d be foolish not to give it a shot.” And out of the blue one day she called from San Francisco and said, “You know, I’m ready to take that shot if you’re ready.”

Was she in college at the time?
No, she was working in San Francisco. She had a boyfriend down there and she was in a variety of things—she was an apprentice to a maker of wedding cakes, then worked as an assistant to the head of a law firm for a couple years. And, you know, she enjoyed San Francisco very much, but I think that gave her the motivation to say, “Well, I think it’s time to try the book business.” She had worked here for a year earlier, right out of college, but she needed to really get out and try something else in the world for a while.

How hands on or off will you be once you retire?
Well, I’ll tell you a story. I had someone like you come to interview me and he said, “So when you retire, what will you do?” And I said, “Well, you know, I’ll probably go out to the warehouse and process books, get them out of boxes. I like doing that.” And he laughed. So I said, “What’s funny about that? You don’t think I can do that?” And he said “No, no. I was out on the floor interviewing one of your employees and I said, ‘What will Michael Powell do when his daughter takes over?’ And he said, ‘He’ll go over to the warehouse and process books.'” So I guess I’m known for my limited talents.

Somehow I’d like to stay involved. You know, you learn a lot, and business is complex, and you can’t know everything and you can’t be everywhere. Just walking around you see things and you say, “I wonder why they’re doing it that way? That doesn’t seem as efficient.” Or, “Do they know that people in the other store are doing it differently?” So I think it’ll be helpful to have someone with an educated eye watching the business from the inside, to see where those opportunities are. For example, there are several things we’re doing by hand that we ought to be doing in a more automated way. At the moment, those are opportunities. You’re always working for productivity efficiencies because your costs go up and you’ve got to keep your costs and revenues in balance. The casual approach we had to the business fifteen years ago just doesn’t work. Certainly with the high investment in technology we have and the high investment in inventory, we better be very grounded in what we’re doing, and alert.

You came into this neighborhood when it was mostly just car repair shops and warehouses, and now it’s become more of a boutique area. Do you think Powell’s had a hand in that transition? I imagine that most people must think of you as an anchor in this community.
Well, I think we’re an anchor for the city. That may sound immodest, but somebody’s got to say it. If you have a relative come into town, or a friend come into town, and they say “What is there to do in Portland?” If you name three things, one of them is going to be Powell’s. Because the city’s proud of it. You don’t even have to be a reader—you just want to show it off. Biggest bookstore in America, maybe the biggest in the world. You know, if you’ve got the biggest ball of string, people think you’re kooky. But if you have the biggest bookstore, it says something positive about the community—that it supports a store that large—and people like that message. And we try to then earn the respect of the community by not just running a good business, but also being involved in the community. I spend a lot of my time on boards and commissions and planning efforts. I chair the streetcar board. We just created what will now be about eight miles of streetcar. We’re the first city in America to put new streetcars back in.

Like old-style trolleys?
No, they’re modern-looking streetcars, and they’re European built. They’re not San Francisco cute; they’re modern, sleek streetcars. And we move four million people each year. I’ve also been involved in dozens and dozens of committees and commissions, some in the arts and some in social services and some in politics. Not partisan politics, but political efforts to do things or to stop things from happening, all aimed at trying to fulfill the vision of a city that is a twenty-four-hour-a-day city, that works, that’s attractive and great to do business in, and great to live in. I think people respect the work that we do in that area. People will stop me and say, “I love your store,” but sometimes they’ll stop me and say, “I love what you do for the community,” and they’re referring to a broader level of involvement. People ask me if it ever gets tiring, being stopped by people. But I think no; when they stop, that’s problematic. That means we’re doing something that’s not working. I get involved in political things, but they’re almost always around censorship or involved with access to books. Oregon has a very strong constitutional defense of books, but we also have the same element of the population that would like to, for a variety of reasons, control that flow. You know: “Don’t put gay books in schools, don’t let anyone under the age of eighteen be exposed to bad books.” But we win those fights.

Still, they usually take a lot of energy and some money, and with the first anti-gay measure in Portland—Proposition 9—businesses were very closely involved. I have gay staff, of course, and friends who are gay, and they challenged me. There was an element of that legislation that involved not letting libraries, specifically school libraries, have gay-related materials. But we just turned the store into a poster board for that issue, and we won it, and we were very proud of that.

So you helped defeat it at the ballot.
Yep. There were two efforts and we won both of those. Not by overwhelming numbers, but we won. If we can define the issue as one of censorship, and they can define the issue as perversity, and you let that go in a challenge, they’ll win. But Oregonians don’t like censorship, and again I say not by overwhelming numbers, but we do win. And so we get involved in those issues and they seem to come along with certain regularity, every four or five years. Otherwise most of the stuff I get involved in is more planning. I don’t get involved in partisan politics as a company. In fact I keep the company very separate from that. Personally I do get involved, but I try to keep it as separate as I possibly can.

As a citizen, not an owner.
Yeah, yeah.

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What do you think people are most surprised to learn about independent bookselling?
I think they’re surprised to know how hard it is. I think everybody—or the uneducated person who doesn’t know much about the business—thinks that as a bookseller you sit in a store, read books, and when someone comes in you have a nice conversation and then recommend and sell some things to that person. That you have a stock of books you believe in and know intimately. That you wear patches on the elbows of your sport jacket, and there’s a cat somewhere in the window, and there’s a fire burning in a fireplace, and there’s the smell of coffee and all that. That it’s a very relaxed and low-key kind of thing. The reality is that it’s extremely intense, whether it’s a small store or a huge store. You’re always pushing the rock up the hill, and it’s relentless, and an awful lot of people get ground down by it. That’s why you see stores close with the frequency they have. People give five or ten years of their lives and realize it’s not going anywhere. And that’s hard. It’s hard to be in an industry that takes so many casualties and that much stress.

The good news is you still get to work with books. And you get to work with people who really love books, both as customers and as staff. I’m sure people who love hardware love their hardware, but, you know, I wouldn’t. There’s a high level of gratification. I was trying to calculate how many books I had sold during my life under the Powell’s name. I’d like to think it’s coming close to a hundred million. You know, in chaos theory there’s this idea that a butterfly flapping its wings on one side of the globe can create a storm in Africa. Well, what about a hundred million butterfly wings? What has it done? You don’t know. People hardly ever tell you, “I read a book and it changed my life.” Most books are probably sold for entertainment, some are sold for information, and some are sold for inspiration. Certainly some are sold for all three at the same time. But I say to myself, “Well, at least when you’re reading a book it’s hard to rob a bank.” I like to think that some of those books have had a positive impact on people’s lives.

Jeremiah Chamberlin teaches writing at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He is also the associate editor of the online journal Fiction Writers Review.

INSIDE POWELL’S BOOKS
How many book sales are you processing a day as online orders?
About 2,500. Upward to 3,000. It spikes at Christmas, and it spikes when the school year starts, but otherwise it’s fairly steady.

How many books do you have in your warehouse for online sales?
About 380,000 in [the main] warehouse, and then there’s about 125,000 in another warehouse.

And how many books do you carry in your stores?
About a million in the flagship store, and probably another six hundred thousand scattered around the other stores. And then we support another two million in Europe. So online we support upward of 4.5 million titles.

How do you determine the price you pay for used books that you buy from online customers? Do you use an algorithm, or is there a person who works on each order?
No, it’s an algorithm. We have several million books in our database to match against, so we just take a percent of either the imprint price or the in-store resale price and pay that amount.

Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon

For the second installment of our ongoing series of interviews, Inside Indie Bookstores, Jeremiah Chamberlin travelled to Portland, Oregon, to speak with Michael Powell, owner of Powell’s Books.

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The “City of Books,” as the four-story flagship store in Portland, Oregon, is known, occupies an entire city block, and carries more than one million books. 

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The sixty-eight-thousand-square-foot space is divided into nine color-coded rooms, which together house more than 3,500 sections. “From the moment you walk in,” writes Chamberlin, “it feels as if you could find anything there.”

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“People want a calm background for the books,” Michael Powell says. “Our shelves are about twelve feet high. You live in these little 
alleys, and there’s a kind of cozy feel in that that makes it comfortable for customers. And you can sit on the floor, you know, you can spill something on the floor. It’s not a big disaster.”

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When the newer sections of the store were built more than a decade ago, the concrete floors were left bare because the industrial feel not only complemented the plain, pine bookcases but also added to the laid-back atmosphere. 

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Among the 3,500 sections within the main store, one is devoted to literary journals and books published by small presses.

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“We started as a used books company. My dad introduced new books in the late seventies, and his mantra was two of everything and three of nothing,” Michael Powell says. “It’s a substantial part of our business. In dollars, roughly 50 percent of our total business is new books, about 40 percent is used books, and then 10 percent is magazines, cards, and sidelines.”

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Michael Powell is “endlessly curious about the world, about his employees’ ideas, about what his customers want to read, and about innovative ways to do business,” Chamberlin writes.

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The main warehouse, “which feels like an airplaine hangar but with the sound of jazz floating in the air,” Chamberlin writes, processes as many as three thousand online orders daily. And 70 percent of those are single-title orders.

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“I think we’re an anchor for the city,” Michael Powell says. “That may sound immodest, but somebody’s got to say it. If you have a relative come into town, or a friend come into town, and they say “What is there to do in Portland?” If you name three things, one of them is going to be Powell’s. Because the city’s proud of it. You don’t even have to be a reader—you just want to show it off. Biggest bookstore in America, maybe the biggest in the world… It says something positive about the community—that it supports a store that large—and people like that message.”

An Interview With Poet and Independent Bookseller J. W. Marshall

by

Lisa Albers

6.16.08

For more than twenty years, J. W. Marshall has been recommending poetry to his customers while writing it himself. He and his wife, poet Christine Deavel, own Seattle’s Open Books: A Poem Emporium, one of only a couple bookstores in the United States devoted exclusively to poetry and a fixture in the city’s literary community.

In March, Oberlin College Press published Marshall’s first full-length collection of poetry, Meaning a Cloud, winner of the 2007 FIELD Poetry Prize. The collection includes poems that previously appeared in the letterpress chapbooks Taken With (2005) and Blue Mouth (2001), both published by Wood Works, an independent press in Seattle, and named finalists for the Washington State Book Award.

The poems in Meaning a Cloud reflect Marshall’s ecumenical knowledge of poetry, a boon to his work as a purveyor of literature in verse. Informed by poetic tradition but shaped by delirious risk-taking, his writing is unabashedly autobiographical, yet stoically refrains from mere confession. Marshall’s poetic gaze into the interior is motivated not by a need to define his own self so much as by a desire to understand all selfhood.

Marshall’s cultivation of poetic presence extends beyond Open Books, as he and his wife cosponsor the Seattle Arts and Lectures poetry series, which brings top-notch poets—Li-Young Lee, Lucille Clifton, and Edward Hirsch, to name a few—to read in the city’s Intiman Theater, often to a packed house. The couple also participates in poetry festivals and conferences and host readings at their shop, which, they say, pays for itself.

Marshall spoke with Poets & Writers Magazine at Open Books, located in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood. While Deavel readied the place to open at noon on an overcast Sunday earlier this month, Marshall described what it’s like to take part in both the creation and the dissemination of poetry.

Poets & Writers Magazine: After so many years of supporting the work of poets in a very direct way—by selling their books to readers—you now have a book of your own. How did you transition from bookseller to poet?

J. W. Marshall: Is it easy? No, it’s not. The one thing I’m very aware of is book sales, and so I get to look to see if Ingram is stocking my book, how many copies, and has anybody bought it. It’s a curse. You know, it isn’t a transition; in a way, it’s just two different worlds. They have this intersection. I’m glad to have the bookstore because it keeps my mind off my own book.

P&W: How so?

JWM: I come here, and I’m trying to sell books to people. I’m not trying to sell my book to people because that would get old pretty quickly, and you don’t want to bore folks with credit cards in their hands.

P&W: Did you learn things in the process of being a bookseller that you’re using now as an author yourself?

JWM: Oh, sure. There are connections I have through the bookstore that I very gently tug on to see if I can get readings or offer the book to people who’ve written reviews. I certainly do that. The thing that I’ve done that may be the most worthwhile, honestly [has to do with] Oberlin Press—God bless them; they’ve been very good to work with. David Young is a terrific guy, Linda in the office too. I like them a lot. But they offered their books at a 30 percent discount when the industry standard is 40 or better, and, through Ingram, they offered them at only a 10 percent discount. While I like my book, I was kind of heartbroken thinking that bookstores are not going to order it at 10 percent. So I politicked with them for months. Now [Oberlin has] changed. With next season, they will hit the standard 40.

P&W: It sounds like you reasoned with them on the basis of understanding the business.

JWM: It was the dreaded confluence of bookseller and author. Watch out, publishers! That’s an ugly one.

P&W: What has changed for you with the publication of Meaning a Cloud?

JWM: It’s changed my writing, I think, because now I know what it looks like in a book. The chapbooks were one thing, and those helped a lot, but to see it in a book that has some national distribution makes it seem more real somehow, less ethereal. It actually stopped me from writing for about two months. I try to write every day and was doing a pretty good job of that for years, and once the book came out, I don’t know; I guess there was this shadow cast over the typewriter. I couldn’t quite get there.

P&W: I’ve heard other people talk about that same phenomenon.

JWM: Yes, and you know, I have a counseling degree, and I can’t psychologize it. It’s post-partum something.

P&W: The first section, “Blue Mouth,” is about an accident you had that landed you in the hospital. I’m guessing that happened quite a while ago.

JWM: 1972.

P&W: The third section, “Taken With,” is about your mother’s death. More recent?

JWM: Right.

P&W: You and your mother inhabit parallel worlds during your time in the hospital and her time in a care facility, and the juxtaposition is remarkable, to have the poems bookended in that way. The two sections, beginning and end, had previous lives as chapbooks. What was your process for writing them in the first place for the chapbooks and then bringing them together for this collection?

JWM: In neither case were they written to be chapbooks. The hospital poems were published in 2001, and some of those were written in about 1984. It’s just a matter of writing a lot and then pawing back through and saying, “This goes with this.” I give credit to Paul Hunter, who was the publisher of both chapbooks, because he heard a reading and wanted to publish—there’s a prose poem in the hospital series, “The Nightshift Nurse Brought Her Shoes to Work in a Paper Bag”—he wanted to do that as a broadside. I said, “Of course.” He knew I had other hospital poems he’d heard at readings, and he said he wanted to see a manuscript, so I put one together for him. He gave me an idea about narrative arc; he gets good credit for that. The mom poems just came; she was in a nursing home, and I would visit once a week or more often, and it would spill over into the daily writing. After she died, at one point I just took two years’ worth of pieces of paper and pulled out everything that related to her, and tried to find another chapbook because I thought Paul would publish it.

P&W: The middle section, “Where Else,” is a cogent bridge between those two. The beginning and ending sections deal with inner battles, very personal battles, and then the one in the middle seems to contain echoes of the outside world at battle. In your poems, war filters in through the radio and news or manifests itself in a dream you’re having. Did you write “Where Else” later than the other two sections? How did the poems in that section come together?

JWM: Because I’m writing every day, some things just speak more loudly and ask to be followed up on. It’s probably true for some books that people actually sit down to write them with a set idea in mind. Unless it’s a verse novel or something, that’s not how I would write. But you’re right on it; those other two sections are internal, and I didn’t want to be just internal—I wanted to be part of the public. I wanted a voice that was with and among, not so interior.

P&W: When you’re writing daily, are you writing full poems, do you keep a journal, or do you just write whatever comes?

JWM: Whatever comes. More and more, the important part is, whatever’s in should come out. I don’t want to write the same poem. I could give all these other people’s descriptions, which is kind of cheating I guess. Mary Ruefle at Seattle Arts and Lectures said that she used to think writing was about speaking, and then she realized it is about listening. In a way, I’m up for that. I have language going in my head all the time, so I sit at the typewriter and press the keys.

P&W: It sounds like you weren’t necessarily seeking publication as much as publication sought you.

JWM: I sent to magazines for twenty years. The great thing about the Oberlin is, they publish FIELD magazine, and it’s a magazine I have liked a great deal since I started taking poetry seriously—that would be about 1980. I used to keep little index cards of submissions and rejections, and before I got into FIELD, I had been rejected by them for almost twenty years. Then they took one, they took three, they took another, so I thought, well, I should enter the contest. I’d been trying to get published before, just not rabidly. I was daintily trying to get published.

P&W: How did you get from chapbooks to Meaning a Cloud?

JWM: It was [Oberlin’s] competition, and it was Alice James, another good publisher. I’d put the two chapbooks together, with nothing in the middle, and sent that in for the FIELD prize four years ago. I got a nice e-mail back from David Young saying, “You’re a high finalist,” and that was very encouraging because it was the first time I’d entered a contest. I entered Alice James, and I was a finalist there. In each case, I felt a little guilty because they’d already been chapbooks. I had other work I liked, so I put it in the middle and tried Alice James again but didn’t get anything. Then I tried FIELD again and got it.

P&W: You said you have a degree in counseling—do you have formal training as a poet?

JWM: I have a BA and an MFA in poetry.

P&W: From the University of Washington?

JWM: The BA was here. The MFA is from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I came back and got a degree in rehab therapy at Seattle University, which was the best education of them all. They were tough. Creative writing programs are not.

P&W: They’re tough in a different way.

JWM: Yes. Right. Socially. [Laughs.] At the UW, the person who got me to really love poetry was Nelson Bentley. Two times a week, he’d encourage us to write a formal poem. He’d say, “Write a villanelle; write a sestina.” As an impressionable, somewhat young person, I tried that, and I liked it a lot. I still look for some kind of iambic progression. I want to bust it up, but I want to know it’s there.

P&W: How would you compare those formal experiences with the informal experiences you’ve had since you’ve been able to read a lot of poetry and support poetry over the years?

JWM: That’s the best education, the bookstore and the customers and the books. I went through school just like everybody else, attending the classes but also attending to my fellow students and my ego and all of that stuff. Reading is by far the best education. We have some great customers who come in and say wonderfully profound, off-the-cuff things that make me look at other writers who I’ve never looked at. I was just reading an interview with Nathaniel Tarn, and he was talking about Language poetry and how he saw Language poetry against the “workshop” poem and the lyric and talked about people who are doing both. As I’m sure you know, [poetry] is a fairly balkanized art, probably all arts are. What’s good about the bookstore is we can’t be balkanized or we wouldn’t be in business. We each read fairly widely and think widely and don’t get into one school or another. That I hope comes through in the writing.

P&W: It does. Even though you’re writing daily and you’re running the bookstore, you have time to read books of poetry as well?

JWM: You have to in order to sell them. Much less reading just for pleasure: People want to know, “Is this like his first book?” “How is she compared to so-and-so?” If I don’t know, then they might as well go to any of our major competitors. We’d rather they didn’t.

P&W: That gets me to the next question, too, because you’re not just running the shop; you’re also supporting poetry in other ways. You’ve been involved with the Seattle Arts and Lecture series and the local poetry festival. Yours sounds like a dream job to many people, but especially for a poet. Is it all silver lining, or are there any clouds?

JWM: It’s retail. There are clouds. This is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but I was just having a discussion with a wonderful customer, a great guy who was throwing flowers everywhere, telling us what great things we do for the poetry community, and I said, “You know, I’m a clerk. I could be at Les Schwab selling you tires.” There’s a hint of that that’s true. The Seattle Arts and Lectures work is great for us, but it’s economically great for us. While that’s supporting the community, it’s supporting the bookstore. Anything that supports the bookstore to some degree supports the community. At least it means that people can come here and find a relatively obscure book and find people willing to talk about aspects of poetry when it’s difficult to find people who will do that outside the academy, or even inside the academy in some cases.

P&W: Does that ever feel like a drag, the retail aspect: selling, staying profitable?

JWM: Once in a while. In a slow month. There needs to be income. There are clouds to the silver lining. But the silver lining: It’s lovely to be surrounded by poetry. And to have the customers who come in have an interest in poetry. That’s a godsend.

P&W: How do you choose the inventory?

JWM: That comes from two directions. If we have some knowledge about the writer. Some publishers we trust introduce people to us. We listen to our customers. I guess it’s just attentiveness. We’re open to failure. On the other hand, we’ve been in the bookselling business for more than twenty years, and there’s a learning curve. We’ve definitely learned some things.

P&W: Which poets have had the most influence on your own work?

JWM: Because of his love of poetry more than for his own poetry, Nelson Bentley. Bill Knott, and again, partially out of his poetry, which is just wild and liberating in its wildness, and he, too, was a teacher. He at one point asked me in a conference, “So what?” about a poem. That was devastating and was a great question. It’s a great question for all art. I’m afraid a lot of art doesn’t pass that question, not that there’s an answer you could know in advance. Bill was quite important. Then there are people I read, like Dickinson. Early James Tate. White guy American poets in the seventies and eighties.

P&W: What’s next for the poet J. W. Marshall?

JWM: I get to do readings in Michigan and Ohio in the fall. I’m still writing every day and liking some of the things I’m writing, and now, I fantasize about a second book. At the rate that I’m liking what I write, it will be a ways off.

Indie Bookstores Face Uphill Battle

by

Kevin Smokler

11.1.06

When fiction writer Barry Eisler heard last summer that Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park, California, would close after fifty years in business, his first reaction was a loud expletive. His second was an e-mail to owner Clark Kepler with an offer to help. “I used to see those big author photos in the window…and I was working on what would become my first novel,” says Eisler, the author of the Jain Rain series of thrillers. “My fantasies of literary success were all based on doing book signings at Kepler’s.”

Eisler was part of a cadre of Bay Area authors who offered to give benefit readings and drive as much business as they could to the bookstore. Their efforts, combined with an alarmed customer base and a group of Silicon Valley investors, helped Kepler’s reopen to cheering crowds last October.

Kepler, whose father Roy founded the store in the spring of 1955, expressed both delight and gratitude for the community’s generosity, but warned that Kepler’s future was far from secure. “I think we were like frogs in hot water,” he says. “The old way of buying books, putting them on shelves, and waiting for someone to come in isn’t working anymore.”

What will? Faced with increased overhead, diversified retail competition, and a dwindling reading population, venerable booksellers once thought invincible are changing locations (Denver’s Tattered Cover), downsizing (Cody’s in Berkeley, California, which was sold in September to Yohan Inc., a book distributor based in Tokyo), or closing altogether (San Francisco’s A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books). And while the American Booksellers Association (ABA) reports that its membership has held steady over the last few years, dramatic rescues like those of Kepler’s and Brazos Books in Houston, which owner Karl Kilian sold to a group of community investors in March, are becoming increasingly visible.

“When you run an independent bookstore, someone inevitably starts a conversation: ‘How do you compete? How do you stay in business?’ As if things weren’t bad enough with the chains, now you’ve got Amazon,” says Kilian from his new post as director of programs for the Menil Collection, a Houston art museum. Several years ago Kilian wrote a letter to friends and patrons of Brazos warning that the store might be in trouble. Rick Bass, Richard Ford, Susan Sontag, and other authors each wrote back with an offer to give benefit readings. While it turned out not to be necessary, Kilian says that Brazos’s reputation for first-rate author events was a significant part of what made the store’s potential closing “a loss the community would not tolerate.”

One of the less fortunate independent bookstores was Bristol Books in Wilmington, North Carolina, which hosted many readings by students attending the University of North Carolina in nearby Chapel Hill. Bristol Books closed last year after fifteen years in business. A rescue effort, says manager Nicki Leone, was neither possible nor practical.

“I think what happened to Kepler’s Books is great, but has it proved its case yet? Is it a working business model?” asks Leone. That question weighs heavily on the owners of bookstores who have been given a second chance. Jane Moser, who ran a successful children’s bookshop in Houston in the 1980s, was recently hired as the manager of Brazos Books. She says she plans on expanding the store’s hours, increasing its children’s book and cookbook sections, and improving its online presence, as well as deepening the store’s relationship with schools, universities, and area corporations. “Brazos was already an institution,” says Moser. “But times change. You can always do more.”

The seventy-nine-year-old Grolier Poetry Book Shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is one of the two remaining all-poetry bookstores in the United States. In April poet and Wellesley College professor Ifeanyi Menkiti bought the store when its previous owner fell ill. Knowing that his teaching job both enabled the purchase of the store and prevented him from working there full-time, Menkiti hired a manager and declared that Grolier could not remain economically viable based solely on its reputation.

“It’s a wonderful little place, filled with great conversation, tradition,” Menkiti says. “Our goal is to move that cultural vision forward but still pay our bills and keep books on the shelves. Then the enterprise will have been worthwhile.”

Before closure looms, booksellers say, writers can help. Hut Landon, the executive director of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association, recommends that authors include links to Booksense.com, the e-commerce arm of the ABA’s Book Sense program, on their Web sites. Kepler adds that authors can underscore the difference independent bookstores have played in their success when they give lectures and readings. Tracy Wynne, the owner of Cover to Cover Books in San Francisco, which was saved from closure by community activism and author donations in 2003, reports that many local children’s authors now use only Cover to Cover as their bookseller for events and school visits.

Just as authors can no longer publish and then wait for the sales to roll in, more and more booksellers have begun actively finding readers instead of waiting for readers to show up. “If the question is, ‘Can independent bookstores survive?’ part of the answer has to speak to finances,” says Dave Weich, director of marketing and development for the thirty-five-year-old Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon. “We have to deliver more value than an ethical shopping experience and a community gathering place.… That might mean reaching out to local businesses or working closely with regional schools and authors.”

“You have to be really scrappy,” Weich says. “It is all about being proactive.”

Kevin Smokler is the editor of Bookmark Now: Writing in Unreaderly Times (Basic Books, 2005). He lives in San Francisco.

Faced with increased overhead, diversified retail competition, and a dwindling reading population, venerable booksellers once thought invincible are changing locations, downsizing, or closing altogether.

NJIT Grads Launch Bookswim: Think Netflix Without the Flix

5.25.07

George Burke and Shamoon Siddiqui recently launched Bookswim, an online operation that allows readers to rent books much the same way Netflix allows people to rent movies. The two graduates of the New Jersey Institute of Technology posted a beta version of the Web site at www.bookswim.com.

Readers can choose from five rental plans that range in cost from twenty-four to thirty-six dollars per month. Once an account is set up, a customer can choose books from more than two dozen categories and place them in a queue. Bookswim then sends three to eleven books, depending on the chosen plan, to the reader, who can keep them indefinitely. When the customer is ready, books can be returned in a prepaid envelope and the next titles in the queue are mailed.

The new venture comes at a time when independent bookstores are struggling, Bertelsmann is cutting jobs at Bookspan, and voters in Oregon are choosing to shut down libraries. “Could the price of books possibly have gotten any more expensive?” Burke and Siddiqui ask on Bookswim’s Web site. “During any given week, the average bestseller lists for more than $20. Read three of these in a month and you’re spending over $60! What you’re paying for is the right to own the book…but is ownership what you really want?”

Bookswim members can review the books they rent and even rate them on a five-star scale. The “best rental” is currently The Tenth Circle by Jodi Picoult.

 

So Much Depends Upon a New Bookstore: Postcard From Paris

by

Ethan Gilsdorf

11.2.01

On the evening of October 29, more than seventy-five people crammed into The Red Wheelbarrow, a newly opened Anglophone bookshop, to inaugurate a reading series and celebrate two literary magazines: Upstairs at Duroc, published at the Anglo cultural center WICE, and Pharos, edited collectively by poet Alice Notleys workshop at the British Institute in Paris. The enthusiastic crowd spilled onto the cobblestone street, smoking cigarettes and craning their necks for a view of the proceedings.

The reading series, A Blue Monday, featured sturdy and in some cases spectacular readings by six writers-some Paris fixtures, others new to the scene, and all relatively unknown outside of the literary expat community. Highlights included Laure Millets The Crying Bowler, a side-splitting short story about suburban family disorder, and Amy Hollowels poems about September 11, which she prefaced by saying that a poets voice is more essential now than ever before. Srikanth Reddy, a fresh arrival in Paris thanks to Harvards Whiting Fellowship, read his poem Corruption (II), which features the following lines:

Lately I have found some comfort in words like here. Here was a chapel for instance. Here is a footprint filling with rain. Here might be enough.

An international crowd of English-language lovers, including students and professors from the Paris VII university across the street, had found its own here, a place to call home, at least for the evening. The Red Wheelbarrow is my act against globalism, my anti-matrix, said Penelope Fletcher Le Masson, the bookstores Canadian proprietor. Bookstores will become shrines. She expects her new venture to complement the existing competition. After two months in business, The Red Wheelbarrow has found its niche among Pariss half-dozen Anglo bookshops-not as high-brow as The Village Voice, and less bohemian than Shakespeare and Company.

Later, at a nearby wine bar, a post-reading gathering brought together six writers, one teacher, a dancer, two artists, and four magazine editors. A zealous activist named Mark Feurst peddled his new anti-war rag The First Amendment. A sighting of the just-released Frank magazine was rumored, and two representatives from Kilometer Zero-after huddling at a private table to plan their Paris-based art and literary center-promised a new issue by the end of November. Their KMZ Venue, a series of six Sunday night variety shows in a bistro basement, kicks off November 4.

The whole [Blue Monday] event was a confirmation that a bookstore makes itself, Le Masson said the next day. People are thirsty to hear what people have written. I especially welcome unknown writers to read, even if they dont have books to sell. Upcoming readings at The Red Wheelbarrow include British novelist Rupert Morgan, American poet Kathleen Spivak and, Le Masson hopes, Canadian-Parisian Nancy Huston.

Inside Indie Bookstores: Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi

by

Jeremiah Chamberlin

1.1.10

This is the inaugural installment of
Inside Indie Bookstores, a new series of interviews with the entrepreneurs who
represent the last link in the chain that connects writers with their intended audience.
Once the authors, agents, editors, publishers, and salespeople have finished
their jobs, it’s up to these stalwarts to get books where they belong: into the
hands of readers. News of another landmark bookstore closing its doors has
become all too common, so now is the perfect time to shine a brighter light on
the institutions that mean so much to the literary community. Post a comment
below to share your thoughts about a favorite indie bookstore.

The first thing customers notice when
they enter Square Books—apart from the customary shelves and tables
overflowing with hardcovers and paperbacks—is the signed author photographs.
There are hundreds of them, occupying nearly every vertical surface not already
taken up by bookcases. They cover the walls and trail up the narrow staircase
to the second floor, framing windows and reaching all the way to the
fourteen-foot-high tongue-and-groove ceiling. Most of the photos are
black-and-white publicity shots, the kind publishers send with press kits, but there
are also large-format, professional ones—of Larry Brown, Barry Hannah, Richard
Ford, and others. Many have that spare yet beautiful quality of something
Eudora Welty might have taken. Collectively, they comprise an archeological
record of this place’s luminous history—all the authors have passed through
these doors—as well as a document of the important role that this particular
institution has had in promoting writers and writing.

Richard Howorth,
the store’s owner, would modestly deny having had a hand in any of the number
of literary careers that have sprung from the fertile soil in this part of the
country, but the honest truth is that Square Books has served as a nurturing
place for writers—as a “sanctuary,” to borrow a word from William Faulkner,
another Oxford 
native—for more than thirty years now. He and his wife,
Lisa, opened the first store in 1979. Seven years later they moved into their
current location, formerly the Blaylock Drug Store, after buying the building.
Since then, they’ve opened two other shops: in 1993, Off Square Books, which
specializes in used books, remainders, and rare books and serves as the
venue for store events and the Thacker Mountain Radio program; and, in 2003,
Square Books, Jr., a children’s bookstore. Howorth also helped establish the
Oxford Conference for the Book, which brings together writers, editors, and
other representatives from the publishing world each spring for public
readings, roundtables, and panel discussions on writing and literacy. This
year, as part of the seventeenth annual event, the conference will celebrate
the legacy of Barry Hannah.

I made my first
literary pilgrimage to Oxford nearly a decade ago. At the time, I was running
Canterbury Booksellers, a small independent bookshop in Madison, Wisconsin.
Invariably, whenever authors visited our store, one of the topics we’d end up
discussing was where they were headed next or where they’d just been. Square
Books was always mentioned as a place they one day hoped to go, were looking
forward to going, or couldn’t wait to get back to. Partly this has to do with
its lineage, for few places can claim to have hosted readings for such varied
and important authors as Etheridge Knight, Toni Morrison, Allen Ginsberg, Alice
Walker, Alex Haley, George Plimpton, William Styron, Peter Matthiessen, and
others. And partly it has to do with the Howorths themselves, who, despite the
cliché about Southern hospitality, make all authors feel as if they were the
first to visit the store.

This was certainly
the case for me. Even though I wasn’t reading, and even though I hadn’t been
back to town in almost ten years, I was welcomed with enormous generosity when
I arrived. For two days I was given the grand tour, including a dinner with
local writers at the Howorths’ house, a walk through Faulkner’s home, a trip to
the Ole Miss campus to see the bronze statue of James Meredith under a marble
archway in which the word courage is carved into the stone, as well as an oral history of what took place
in Oxford during the Civil War as we drove through the shady neighborhoods of
town.

No person could
have been a better guide to the literary and historical roots of Oxford.
Howorth grew up across the street from Faulkner’s home (in the house where the
bookseller’s father, a retired doctor, still lives). Faulkner’s
sister-in-law used to chase Richard and his brothers off the property
for pestering her cow and causing mischief. All the Howorth brothers still
reside in town—one a judge, one a retired lawyer, one an architect, and one a
retired admissions director at the University of Mississippi. In addition to
his thirty years as a local bookseller, Richard, the middle brother, also just
finished his second term as mayor of Oxford.

It was with this
same generosity of spirit that Howorth agreed to talk with me at Square Books
one afternoon. We sat upstairs, at a small table in an out-of-the-way corner. I
chose the spot because it seemed secluded—though, coincidentally, we were
between the Faulkner and Southern Literature sections. Howorth commandeered the
espresso machine and made us cappuccinos before we settled in to chat, fixing
us our drinks himself. He is a man quick to laugh, and despite having spent the
past three decades as a bookseller and the last eight years in public office,
seems largely optimistic about the world. Or, rather, has learned to appreciate
life’s quirks, mysteries, and small pleasures.

How did you come to bookselling?
Deliberately. I wanted to open a
bookstore in my hometown, so I sought work in a bookstore in order to learn the
business and see whether it was something that I would enjoy doing, and would
be capable of doing.

The apprentice model.
Yes. Lisa and I both worked in the
Savile Bookshop, in Georgetown, for two years. In the fifties and sixties it
was a Washington institution. It was a great old store. The founder died about
ten years before we arrived. It had been through a series of owners and
managers, and by the time we were working there it was on its last leg. It was
also at the time that Crown Books was first opening in the Washington
suburbs—it was the first sort of chain deep-discounter. The Savile had this
reputation as a great store, but it was obviously slipping. We were on credit
hold all over the place. So it ended up being a great learning experience.

Then you came back here with the
intention of opening Square Books?

Sure. We opened the first store in the
upstairs, over what was, I think, the shoe department of Neilson’s Department
Store. Back then the town square was so much different from what it is today,
and commerce was not so terribly vital. It was certainly viable, but the
businesses didn’t turn over very much because the families that owned the
businesses usually owned the buildings. Old Mr. Denton at his furniture store
didn’t care if he sold a stick of furniture all day; it was just what he did,
run his store. So when I came home I knew I wanted to be on the square, and I
just couldn’t find a place. My aunt owned the building where Neilson’s had a
long-term lease on the ground floor, but there were three offices
upstairs—rented to an insurance agent, a lawyer, and a real estate agent who
were paying forty dollars, thirty dollars, and thirty dollars a month,
respectively, for a total of a hundred dollars. So my initial rent was a hundred
dollars a month.

Did you have a particular vision
for this store from the beginning, or did it change over time?

The initial vision is still very much
what the store is today. I wanted it to serve the community. Because of
Mississippi’s distinct history and character, as well as social disruptions,
the state—and Oxford, in particular, due to the desegregation of the
university in 1962, when there was a riot and two people were killed—was
regarded as a place of hatred and bigotry. And I knew that this community was not that. I knew that there were a lot of other
people here who viewed the world the same way my family did, and my instinct
was that people would support the store not just because they wanted to buy
books or wanted a bookstore here, but because they knew—not to overstate
it—that a bookstore would send a message. That we’re not all illiterate, we’re
not all…it said something about both the economic and cultural health of the
community.

Has that happened?
The university, for instance, has made
a lot of progress—there’s now a statue of James Meredith; there’s now an
institute for racial reconciliation at the university. And most young people
today know what the civil rights movement was, but they don’t know the specific
events and how tense and dramatic and difficult all of that was at that time.

You grew up in the midst of
that.

Correct. I was thirteen when
Goodman and Chaney and Schwerner were murdered [in 1964] and buried in Neshoba
County, Mississippi, and I was eleven when the riots at Ole Miss occurred. I
remember my mother crying when that happened. Her father taught English at the
university for years, and she knew that it was a tragic event.

As someone who’s spent most of
his life in this town, how did you see the place after having been the mayor?

My view of the community is
essentially no different from what it was before I was mayor. Except, I would
say, I really appreciate all the people who work
for the city. A lot of good public servants.

When you talk with writers about
places they hope to visit someday, they always name Oxford. Partly that’s
because this is Faulkner country—
his house is here, and his grave is here, and
so on—
but how did this place become such a literary destination in the last
several decades?

You know, it’s a lot of things. Beginning with Faulkner. But there were
people preceding Faulkner connected to the university, mostly. Stark
Young
was a novelist and a New York Times drama critic and an editor at the New Republic who helped Faulkner a little bit. Phil Stone was
a lawyer here, educated at Yale, who introduced Faulkner to Swinburne and Joyce
and a lot of the reading that was so influential to him when he was very young.
And primarily because of the presence of the university, there’s always been
something of a literary environment. But I think because Faulkner’s major work
dealt with this specific geography and culture so intimately, and because of the mythology he created, that
makes for a very particular kind of literary tourism. Hemingway didn’t quite do
that with Oak Park. It wasn’t a little native postage stamp of soil. And in
Mississippi in general there were also Richard Wright, Tennessee Williams,
Eudora Welty—these great writers of the twentieth century.

More recently,
Willie Morris moved to Oxford in 1980, within a year after we opened the store.
He was from Yazoo City, Mississippi. He was the editor of the [University of]
Texas student newspaper, and from there got a job with the Texas Observer, where he became editor at a very young age. He
was hired by Harper’s Magazine to
be an editor, and a few years later, in 1967, became its youngest editor in
chief. And while at Harper’s,
he really changed the magazine and was on the ground floor of New Journalism.
He published David Halberstam and Larry L. King; he published Norman Mailer’s
“Armies of the Night” [originally titled “Steps of the Pentagon”], the longest
magazine piece ever to have been published; and he published Walker Percy.

He also wrote a
book called North Toward Home,
which was his autobiography, published in 1967, that kind of dealt with this
whole ambivalence of the South and being from here and loving so much about
it—stuff about growing up in Yazoo City, and his friends, and his baseball
team, and his dog, and his aunt Minnie who lived next door—but also the
racism. The murders and the civil rights movement. And he had to get out of the
South ’cause he loved it too much and hated so much of everything that was
going on.

That sense of conflictedness.
Right, right. The book expressed all
that and was a touchstone for a lot of people my age. Then he got fired from or
quit Harper’s, depending on
the story. He got in a fight with the publisher and submitted his resignation,
believing that he wouldn’t accept it. But he did. [Laughter.] So he continued to write, but none of his
subsequent books were quite as big as North Toward Home. And Willie was a big drinker and he had kind of
run out of gas in the black hole, which is what he called Manhattan. But Dean
Faulkner Wells, William Faulkner’s niece, and her husband, Larry, raised money
to give Willie a visiting spot here at the university. So he came here that
spring as a writer-in-residence. And he immediately befriended us and the
bookstore. He said, “Richard, I’m going to bring all these writers, all my
friends. I’m going to bring them down here and they’re going to do book
signings at your store and we’re going to have a great time.”

The summer I came
back to open the store was also about the same time that Bill Ferris, who was
the first full-time director at the newly established Center for the Study of
Southern Culture at the university, came here. Bill was originally from
Vicksburg; he’d been to Davidson [College in North Carolina] and got a PhD in
folklore under Henry Glassy at Penn, taught at Yale. Bill was a tremendous guy
and very charismatic and bright and enthusiastic and full of ideas. Bill had a
tremendous influence on the university and the community and our store. On the
South as a whole. What he did was, despite this whole business of the South’s
being known for racism and bigotry and poverty and illiteracy and teen
pregnancy and all the things we’re still sort of known for [laughter], he took Creole cooking and quilt making and basketry and storytelling
and literature and the blues—all these aspects of Southern culture—and made
it fascinating to the public. So Bill had a tremendous influence on the
community and the bookstore. He also knew a lot of writers. The first book
signing we did was with Ellen Douglas, the second month we were open, October
1979. She had a new novel coming out called The Rock Cried Out. The second person to do a book signing at the
store was a black poet who was originally from Corinth, who had taught himself
to write while doing time at the Indiana State Prison: Etheridge Knight. [Laughter.] Bill knew Etheridge and he got Etheridge to come
here. Bill also knew Alice Walker, got her to come here. Knew Alex Haley, got
him to come here. And Willie got George Plimpton and William Styron and Peter
Matthiessen. All these people were coming and doing events in the bookstore.
So, really, from the time that we opened, we had this incredible series of
events. Then the store kind of became known. And in those days the whole author
tour business was nothing like what it soon thereafter became. In the seventies
and early eighties, publishers would send an author to San Francisco and Denver
and Washington and Atlanta. Maybe. But primarily they were there to do
interviews with the press and go on radio and television. Publicity tours, not
a book-signing tour. They didn’t go to bookstores. We weren’t by any means the
first store to do this, but there weren’t many who were doing this at the same
time as we were. The Tattered Cover [Denver] and Elliott Bay [Seattle] and the
Hungry Mind [Saint Paul]. I think that’s kind of how the circuit business got
started.

Then Barry Hannah
moved here in 1983 to teach creative writing. And his personality and writing
style particularly contrasted with Willie’s. Because Willie, he was kind of a
journalist. And even though he could be critical of the south, part of his
method in being critical was to get to a point where he could also be a
cheerleader for the south. And Barry I think kind of looked down his nose at
that sort of writing. You know, Barry was the Miles Davis of modern American
letters at that point. There would’ve been kind of a rivalry with any writer,
any other writer in town, I suppose. Plus, both of them had to struggle with
Faulkner’s ghost—there was that whole thing. But it was an immensely fertile
period in the community’s literary history.

So that convergence of events
helped create the foundation you would build the store upon.

Right, right. And then, you know,
Larry Brown emerged from the soil. His first book came out in 1988. John
Grisham: His first book was published in 1989.

Had John been living here the
whole time too?

No, he’d been living in north
Mississippi, by South Haven. He was in the state legislature. But when he was
in law school at Ole Miss, he heard William Styron speak. Willie had invited
Styron down for the first time, and that was when he got the bug. That’s when
John said, “Wow, I’m gonna do something with this.”

And now he endows a great
fellowship for emerging southern writers here at Ole Miss.

Correct. And he did that because he
wanted to try to build on what Willie did with all the people he brought in.

Speaking of nurturing young writers,
I once heard that when Larry
Brown was working as a firefighter he came into the store and asked you whom he
should read.

Nah.

Is that not correct?
No. [Laughter.]

Was he already writing on his own?
Firemen work twenty-four hours and
then they’re off for forty-eight hours. And then they’re back on for
twenty-four and they’re off for forty-eight. So all firemen have other jobs.
They’re usually painters or carpenters or builders or something. Larry worked
at a grocery store. He was also a plasterer; he was a Sheetrock guy; he was a
painter; he was a carpenter. He did all of this stuff. And he’d always been a
pretty big reader. Larry’s mother, especially, was a really big reader of
romance novels. So Larry had this idea that he could supplement his income by
writing a book that would make money. And he would go to the Lafayette County
Public Library and check out books on how to be a writer, how to get your book
published. He went through all of those. And I think he read that you start by
getting published in magazines, so then he began to read magazines—fiction
especially. He would read Harper’s and Esquire. Larry was
a complete omnivore of music and film and literature.

He took it all in.
Took it all in and he had an
incredible memory. You would talk about a movie; he knew the producer, the
director, the actor, the actresses, the location; music, the song, the group,
who was on bass, the drums. On and on and on. And at some point, yes, early on,
he came into the store. When I first opened the store, I was the only person
who worked there. So I was talking to everyone who came in. And we started
talking and, you know, I didn’t give him a reading list and say, “Read these
ten books and that’ll make you a writer.” Larry was already reading Raymond
Carver and Harry Crews. Cormac McCarthy very early, long before Cormac broke
out. Flannery O’Connor. So we talked about those authors, but Larry completely
found his own way. He was completely self-taught. And I did later on help him
in a specific way when he was kind of stuck. But he would’ve gotten out of the
jam that he thought he was in at the time.

What was that?
Well, he had had one or two stories
published and then he kind of couldn’t get anything else published. He kept
sending off these short stories and they kept coming back. Then he called me
one day—and, you know, I hadn’t read anything he’d written, hadn’t asked to; I
don’t go there with writers unless they ask me. It was a Sunday. He said, “I
don’t know what else to do. I’m sorry I’m calling you, I don’t mean to bother
you, but I think I must be doing something wrong. Everything’s coming back.” I
said, “Larry, I’d be happy to read them. Bring me a few of your stories. I’m no
editor or agent or anything, but I’d be willing to read them.”

So he came over
with a manila folder. It was raining outside. We sat down at the dining room
table and I opened this folder. He was sitting right across from me, and I just
started reading. The first story was “Facing the Music.” You know, I read maybe
four pages and I said, “Larry, this is an incredible story. You’re not doing
anything wrong.” And then I finished reading it and chills went down my spine.
Because I knew that it was a great story. It still is a great story. And I told
him, “This is going to be published. I don’t know when, I don’t know where,
just don’t despair.” Actually I was looking the other day at a note he’d sent
me. He thanked me for helping to make it better, that specific story. But I
don’t remember what that was. I may have said, “You might move this sentence
from here to here,” or something like that.

But mostly you were telling him
to keep the faith.

Exactly. Also, I suggested he
contact Frederick Barthelme and Rie Fortenberry at the Mississippi Review, who’d published his first serious publication, a
story called “The Rich.” I said, “What about this story? Where have you sent it? Have you sent it to the
Mississippi Review
?” And he said, “No,
‘cause they’ve already published me.”

That’s a good thing! [Laughter.]
So he sent it to them and they
published it and he dedicated that story to me. And then later on I helped him
meet Shannon Ravenel, who published his first book.

It seems like so many of the greatest writers of American letters have
come out of the south: Tennessee Williams, Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Flannery
O’Connor. And, more recently, Tom Franklin, Larry Brown, Barry Hannah. All these
people whose work I deeply admire. They share something…an intimacy with place
perhaps?

It often gets explained in phrases
like that, but I think that for the moderns…well, Faulkner was a genius. But I
think he also realized early on what he could do and in contrast to the many
things that he could not do.

What do you mean by that?
Well, he was a failure as a
student. But I think with someone like Eudora Welty, who was an intelligent and
independent woman of that time, there were limited opportunities for things
that she could do. But writing, writing was one of them. And photography was
one. So I think it’s tied to economics in some way, but I also think that all
of the rich and conflicted history of the South has a lot to do with it, all
the various tensions. Because literature is built on conflict. There’s also the
whole war thing, the Civil War. Being the loser in that war makes us akin to
other literature-producing places—Ireland, Russia.

Do you see any collective
project happening as a trend in writing right now, in the same way that, say,
the modernists were trying to make sense of a new world?

No, but I think there are always
different schools in the same way that Updike focused on the suburban married
life, and I think other writers operate in certain other niches.

How about southern writers
specifically? How are they trying to make sense of what the south looks like
right now?

I think Southerners are mostly
concerned with just telling a good story.

The tale?
Yeah.

Since we’re talking about
contemporary southern writers, let’s discuss the Conference of the Book. How
did that start?

The Faulkner conference is held
every summer. I think it started in 1974. It’s always drawn a crowd—people
come from California, Japan, Canada, wherever. And over the years, people would
come in the store and say, “I heard about that Faulkner conference and I’d love
to come back here and go to that, but I don’t think I want to do Faulkner for a
whole week.” These are people who aren’t necessarily Faulkner fans or scholars,
but who want to come for the experience.

A literary pilgrimage.
Right. And at the same time, I was
going to conferences like ABA [American Booksellers Association] and BEA
[BookExpo America] and SIBA [Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance], where
you would hear not just writers but also publishers and agents and editors
talking about the process of publishing a book—all these great stories which
typically were not available to the public. And I thought, “What if we had a
conference in Oxford where people could get the local experience, but also a
more general thing about books?”

So I talked to Ann
Abadie, who was a founding director of the Faulkner conference. I told Ann,
who’s been a good friend for a long time, “I’ve got this idea. Instead of just
having the Faulkner conference, why don’t we do another kind of literary
conference? We can just talk about books and what’s going on with The Book and how it’s doing today. We’ll invite editors and
agents and people who have these conversations, but make it for the public.”
And Ann said, “Yeah, maybe soon.” Then, after about three or four years, she
said, “Let’s do this book conference thing.” And so we did.

Is it focused specifically on
Southern writers?

No. I was trying for it not to be just a Southern thing.

That would be too insular?
Yeah, and frankly I get tired of
all this stuff about the South all the time. And I thought that the university
and the community had the opportunity to create a one of a kind conference.

Where would you like to see this
conference five years from now? Ten years from now?

In an ideal world it would have a
larger budget to bring people in. For instance, Nicholson Baker wrote that
article in the New Yorker about the
Kindle. You know, that’s a timely thing. He could come and do a lecture,
perhaps even be on a panel with other people from the industry, people like
[Amazon founder] Jeff Bezos.

So you want it to explore all
the different intersections, not just publishing.

Right. Everything that’s going on
that affects books. We want to put this thing called The Book on the operating
table and cut into it and see what’s going on.

With developments like the Kindle
and Japanese cell-phone novels and Twitter stories, how does a bookstore stay
relevant in the twenty-first century?

I
think there are a couple of things. There are the technological developments,
which are interesting and positive in that they offer opportunities for reading
and the dissemination of literature and ideas in a way that might be greater than
the way we’ve historically done before. As Nicholson Baker pointed out in that New
Yorker
article, digital
transference of text is much cheaper than disseminating literature through
books. So you have that, which in many ways, properly conceived, is a positive
development.

But the question
we need to ask is, How does the technology threaten this thing that we love so
much, and has been so critical to the development of civilization for so long?
And how do we, in terms of that threat, deal with and understand it? There’s
also the cultural threat of younger people who are growing up not reading
books. The way I see it, though, I think that digital technology will go on, on
its own path, no matter what. But in terms of books, I maintain that a book is
like a sailboat or a bicycle, in that it’s a perfect invention. I don’t care
what series number of Kindle you’re on, it is never going to be better than
this. [Holds up a book.] I
don’t see how it could be. I could be wrong. Who knows? But this thing is
pretty wonderful—and irreplaceable.

I think they can
coexist is what I’m saying. And by the same token, I think bookstores offer an experience to book consumers that is
unique. To be able to go into a place physically, to experience a sensation
that is the precise opposite of all that is digital, and to talk to people
about books in a business that has as one of its objectives a curatorial
function and the presentation of literature as another—that is, I believe,
irreplaceable. Of course, the question we all recognize is how the development
of technology, in reducing the industry that creates the physical book, will
change bookselling. Because there won’t be as many of these [books], and
therefore the cost will go up.

page_5: 

So what is the future for
independent bookstores? If their role is curatorial, will they become more like
art galleries? Should they have public funding? Or will bookstores become
nonprofit entities?

I don’t know. I hope not, though. It’s
a very difficult business. But in many ways, I like the fact that it’s a
difficult business. Otherwise, people who want to make money—by selling
crap—would be trying to get into the book business. [Laughter.]

This store specializes in
literature, especially southern literature, as well as books about this region
and this place. Do you think that specialization is part of the reason for your
success?

I don’t really think of it in terms
of specializing. I think of it in terms of giving our customers what they want.
If Nietzsche had been born here, our philosophy section would probably look a
little different. [Laughter.]

So what are bookstores that are
succeeding doing right?

Well, I think a lot of it has to do
with adaptation. The business’s ability to adapt in all kinds of ways to its
own market, to be innovative, to not ignore the technological developments and,
in some cases, take advantage of them. Thacker Mountain Radio was kind of an
innovation.

How did that come to be?
Ever since the bookstore opened,
there’ve always been people coming in wanting to have their art exhibit in the
bookstore, or to stage a play, or do a music performance.

So that really meets your vision
of a community place.

Yeah, except that I learned fairly
early on that you have to make it relate to selling books. You can’t just be an
all-purpose community center; you’ve got to make it conform to the mission of
selling books and promoting writers and literature. Because I did have art
exhibits and it was just sort of a pain. So I kind of got away from that. What
happened, then, was two graduate students who had been trying to develop a
little kind of a music radio show that wasn’t really working at one of the
local bars, came and wanted to use Off Square Books as a venue. I told them
that I’d done enough of this kind of messing around to know that I wasn’t going
to do something like that unless it could promote writers. I said, “Maybe if we
did a radio show that incorporated both music and writers it could be
something.” And that’s how that got started.

It’s been good for
our book business, mainly because writers really want to be on the show. And a
lot of publishers want their writers to be on the show because it’s broadcast
on Mississippi Public Broadcasting, so it reaches a large audience. Which is
always appealing, as you know, to publicists.

Do they just read? Do they do
interviews?
Depends on what the book is and how they
want to present it. They can read; they can talk about it. We’ve had a lot of
writers come up there and just tell stories. It’s performed, recorded, and
broadcast live on local commercial radio. Then we edit stuff for time, do all
the production work on the disc, and send it down to Jackson where they
rebroadcast the show.

It’s often really
great. And a lot of times we have musicians who’ve written books come on the
show, or we have writers who are musicians who like to play on the show.
There’s almost no writer who, given the choice early in their career, wouldn’t
have rather been a rock musician. [Laughter.]

Now that you’ve finished your
two terms as mayor, you’re returning to the bookstore full time again. What are
you most looking forward to? What did you most miss
?
I just missed being here. I missed
being around the books, going down to the receiving room and seeing what’s come
in each day, talking to the customers, knowing which books are coming out,
being able to snag an advance reading copy of something that I know I’m gonna
be interested in. The whole shooting match. So what I’m doing now is really
kind of returning to my roots. I’m just going to be on the floor. I’m not going
to resume buying; I’m not going to be doing all the business stuff; I’m not
going to go running around to every store trying to control staff schedules and
training. I just want to—

Be around the customers and the
books.

Yeah. There may come a point when I
want to do something else. I don’t know. But that’s the plan now.

Where would you like to see the
store ten years from now? Is there anything you still want to achieve with it?

No. But returning to that whole
future of books conversation, one of the things that I should’ve added has to
do with what’s happened at Square Books, Jr. We’re selling more children’s
books than ever. The level of enthusiasm and excitement about books from
toddlers to first readers to adolescents and teens…if you go in there and hang
around for a few hours, you would never even think that there might be such a
thing as a digital book.

Jeremiah Chamberlin teaches writing at
the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He is also the associate editor of the
online journal Fiction Writers Review.

INSIDE SQUARE BOOKS
What were your best-selling books in
2009?

John Grisham signs books
for us—lots of them—every year, so his book is usually our number one seller.
Our best-seller list is dominated by local and regional titles—books about
Oxford or Mississippi or about or by Mississippians. Other than Grisham’s The Associate, I think our top 2009 sellers are The Help by Kathryn Stockett, The Devil’s Punchbowl by Greg Iles, and In the Sanctuary of Outcasts by Neil White. All three writers are from
Mississippi, and Neil lives here in Oxford. Two of the books are set in
Mississippi.

What
books did you most enjoy selling in 2009?

Lark and
Termite
by Jayne Anne Phillips, A
Gate at the Stairs
by Lorrie Moore, The
Missing
by Tim Gautreaux, and Waveland
by Frederick Barthelme.

How do you compile your Staff Picks section?
There are no constraints
on staff picks, except the book has to be in print, of course. And, after a
time, the recommendation has to have made at least a sale or two. Doesn’t have
to be paperback, but they always seem to be. Anybody can recommend anything
using any language, although I recently made one staffer change his
recommendation because he’d written in big letters, “It’s great! I’m serious!
Just buy it!” It was the exclamation points that really did it. I told him to
see Strunk and White.

Any
books you’re particularly excited about in 2010?

I’m excited about Jim Harrison’s new book, The Farmer’s Daughter; that
big, wonderful new novel The
Swan Thieves
by Elizabeth Kostova, who has agreed to come to our
store; and Brad Watson’s new book of short stories, Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives, which has
one of the best stories I’ve read in years, “Vacuum.”

Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi

For the first installment of our new series Inside Indie Bookstores, Jeremiah Chamberlin travelled to Oxford, Mississippi, to interview Richard Howorth, owner of Square Books. For the past thirty years, the independent bookstore has been a cornerstone of Oxford’s literary community. 

Square Books 1

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Richard Howorth and his wife, Lisa, opened the first store in 1979. Seven years later they moved into their current location, formerly the Blaylock Drug Store, after buying the building.

 

Square Books 2

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The first thing customers notice when they enter Square Books is the signed author photographs. There are hundreds of them, occupying nearly every vertical surface not already taken up by bookcases. They cover the walls and trail up the narrow staircase to the second floor, framing windows and reaching all the way to the fourteen-foot-high tongue-and-groove ceiling.

Square Books 3

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The names of sections, grouped by topic, are painted on the stairs leading to the second floor of the stoor.

Square Books 4

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Most of the photos are black-and-white publicity shots, the kind publishers send with press kits, but there are also large-format, professional ones—of Larry Brown, Barry Hannah, Richard Ford, and others. Collectively, they comprise an archaeological record of this place’s luminous history—all the authors have passed through these doors—as well as a document of the important role that this particular institution has had in promoting writers and writing.

 

Square Books 5

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Jeremiah Chamberlin sat with Richard Howorth upstairs, at a small table in an out-of-the-way corner. “I chose the spot because it seemed secluded—though, coincidentally, we were between the Faulkner and Southern Literature sections,” Chamberlin writes. “Howorth commandeered the espresso machine and made us cappuccinos before we settled in to chat, fixing us our drinks himself.”

Square Books 7

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A bronze statue of Oxford native William Faulkner in front of the city hall, which is located near Square Books.

Square Books 8

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In addition to Square Books, Richard Howorth and his wife, Lisa, have opened two other shops: Off Square Books, which specializes in used books, remainders, and rare books and serves as the venue for store events and the Thacker Mountain Radio program, in 1993; and, in 2003, Square Books, Jr., a children’s bookstore.

Square Books 9

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“To be able to go into a place physically, to experience a sensation that is the precise opposite of all that is digital, and to talk to people about books in a business that has as one of its objectives a curatorial function and the presentation of literature as another—that is, I believe, irreplaceable,” Howorth says.

 

Inside Indie Bookstores: Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi

by

Jeremiah Chamberlin

1.1.10

This is the inaugural installment of
Inside Indie Bookstores, a new series of interviews with the entrepreneurs who
represent the last link in the chain that connects writers with their intended audience.
Once the authors, agents, editors, publishers, and salespeople have finished
their jobs, it’s up to these stalwarts to get books where they belong: into the
hands of readers. News of another landmark bookstore closing its doors has
become all too common, so now is the perfect time to shine a brighter light on
the institutions that mean so much to the literary community. Post a comment
below to share your thoughts about a favorite indie bookstore.

The first thing customers notice when
they enter Square Books—apart from the customary shelves and tables
overflowing with hardcovers and paperbacks—is the signed author photographs.
There are hundreds of them, occupying nearly every vertical surface not already
taken up by bookcases. They cover the walls and trail up the narrow staircase
to the second floor, framing windows and reaching all the way to the
fourteen-foot-high tongue-and-groove ceiling. Most of the photos are
black-and-white publicity shots, the kind publishers send with press kits, but there
are also large-format, professional ones—of Larry Brown, Barry Hannah, Richard
Ford, and others. Many have that spare yet beautiful quality of something
Eudora Welty might have taken. Collectively, they comprise an archeological
record of this place’s luminous history—all the authors have passed through
these doors—as well as a document of the important role that this particular
institution has had in promoting writers and writing.

Richard Howorth,
the store’s owner, would modestly deny having had a hand in any of the number
of literary careers that have sprung from the fertile soil in this part of the
country, but the honest truth is that Square Books has served as a nurturing
place for writers—as a “sanctuary,” to borrow a word from William Faulkner,
another Oxford 
native—for more than thirty years now. He and his wife,
Lisa, opened the first store in 1979. Seven years later they moved into their
current location, formerly the Blaylock Drug Store, after buying the building.
Since then, they’ve opened two other shops: in 1993, Off Square Books, which
specializes in used books, remainders, and rare books and serves as the
venue for store events and the Thacker Mountain Radio program; and, in 2003,
Square Books, Jr., a children’s bookstore. Howorth also helped establish the
Oxford Conference for the Book, which brings together writers, editors, and
other representatives from the publishing world each spring for public
readings, roundtables, and panel discussions on writing and literacy. This
year, as part of the seventeenth annual event, the conference will celebrate
the legacy of Barry Hannah.

I made my first
literary pilgrimage to Oxford nearly a decade ago. At the time, I was running
Canterbury Booksellers, a small independent bookshop in Madison, Wisconsin.
Invariably, whenever authors visited our store, one of the topics we’d end up
discussing was where they were headed next or where they’d just been. Square
Books was always mentioned as a place they one day hoped to go, were looking
forward to going, or couldn’t wait to get back to. Partly this has to do with
its lineage, for few places can claim to have hosted readings for such varied
and important authors as Etheridge Knight, Toni Morrison, Allen Ginsberg, Alice
Walker, Alex Haley, George Plimpton, William Styron, Peter Matthiessen, and
others. And partly it has to do with the Howorths themselves, who, despite the
cliché about Southern hospitality, make all authors feel as if they were the
first to visit the store.

This was certainly
the case for me. Even though I wasn’t reading, and even though I hadn’t been
back to town in almost ten years, I was welcomed with enormous generosity when
I arrived. For two days I was given the grand tour, including a dinner with
local writers at the Howorths’ house, a walk through Faulkner’s home, a trip to
the Ole Miss campus to see the bronze statue of James Meredith under a marble
archway in which the word courage is carved into the stone, as well as an oral history of what took place
in Oxford during the Civil War as we drove through the shady neighborhoods of
town.

No person could
have been a better guide to the literary and historical roots of Oxford.
Howorth grew up across the street from Faulkner’s home (in the house where the
bookseller’s father, a retired doctor, still lives). Faulkner’s
sister-in-law used to chase Richard and his brothers off the property
for pestering her cow and causing mischief. All the Howorth brothers still
reside in town—one a judge, one a retired lawyer, one an architect, and one a
retired admissions director at the University of Mississippi. In addition to
his thirty years as a local bookseller, Richard, the middle brother, also just
finished his second term as mayor of Oxford.

It was with this
same generosity of spirit that Howorth agreed to talk with me at Square Books
one afternoon. We sat upstairs, at a small table in an out-of-the-way corner. I
chose the spot because it seemed secluded—though, coincidentally, we were
between the Faulkner and Southern Literature sections. Howorth commandeered the
espresso machine and made us cappuccinos before we settled in to chat, fixing
us our drinks himself. He is a man quick to laugh, and despite having spent the
past three decades as a bookseller and the last eight years in public office,
seems largely optimistic about the world. Or, rather, has learned to appreciate
life’s quirks, mysteries, and small pleasures.

How did you come to bookselling?
Deliberately. I wanted to open a
bookstore in my hometown, so I sought work in a bookstore in order to learn the
business and see whether it was something that I would enjoy doing, and would
be capable of doing.

The apprentice model.
Yes. Lisa and I both worked in the
Savile Bookshop, in Georgetown, for two years. In the fifties and sixties it
was a Washington institution. It was a great old store. The founder died about
ten years before we arrived. It had been through a series of owners and
managers, and by the time we were working there it was on its last leg. It was
also at the time that Crown Books was first opening in the Washington
suburbs—it was the first sort of chain deep-discounter. The Savile had this
reputation as a great store, but it was obviously slipping. We were on credit
hold all over the place. So it ended up being a great learning experience.

Then you came back here with the
intention of opening Square Books?

Sure. We opened the first store in the
upstairs, over what was, I think, the shoe department of Neilson’s Department
Store. Back then the town square was so much different from what it is today,
and commerce was not so terribly vital. It was certainly viable, but the
businesses didn’t turn over very much because the families that owned the
businesses usually owned the buildings. Old Mr. Denton at his furniture store
didn’t care if he sold a stick of furniture all day; it was just what he did,
run his store. So when I came home I knew I wanted to be on the square, and I
just couldn’t find a place. My aunt owned the building where Neilson’s had a
long-term lease on the ground floor, but there were three offices
upstairs—rented to an insurance agent, a lawyer, and a real estate agent who
were paying forty dollars, thirty dollars, and thirty dollars a month,
respectively, for a total of a hundred dollars. So my initial rent was a hundred
dollars a month.

Did you have a particular vision
for this store from the beginning, or did it change over time?

The initial vision is still very much
what the store is today. I wanted it to serve the community. Because of
Mississippi’s distinct history and character, as well as social disruptions,
the state—and Oxford, in particular, due to the desegregation of the
university in 1962, when there was a riot and two people were killed—was
regarded as a place of hatred and bigotry. And I knew that this community was not that. I knew that there were a lot of other
people here who viewed the world the same way my family did, and my instinct
was that people would support the store not just because they wanted to buy
books or wanted a bookstore here, but because they knew—not to overstate
it—that a bookstore would send a message. That we’re not all illiterate, we’re
not all…it said something about both the economic and cultural health of the
community.

Has that happened?
The university, for instance, has made
a lot of progress—there’s now a statue of James Meredith; there’s now an
institute for racial reconciliation at the university. And most young people
today know what the civil rights movement was, but they don’t know the specific
events and how tense and dramatic and difficult all of that was at that time.

You grew up in the midst of
that.

Correct. I was thirteen when
Goodman and Chaney and Schwerner were murdered [in 1964] and buried in Neshoba
County, Mississippi, and I was eleven when the riots at Ole Miss occurred. I
remember my mother crying when that happened. Her father taught English at the
university for years, and she knew that it was a tragic event.

As someone who’s spent most of
his life in this town, how did you see the place after having been the mayor?

My view of the community is
essentially no different from what it was before I was mayor. Except, I would
say, I really appreciate all the people who work
for the city. A lot of good public servants.

When you talk with writers about
places they hope to visit someday, they always name Oxford. Partly that’s
because this is Faulkner country—
his house is here, and his grave is here, and
so on—
but how did this place become such a literary destination in the last
several decades?

You know, it’s a lot of things. Beginning with Faulkner. But there were
people preceding Faulkner connected to the university, mostly. Stark
Young
was a novelist and a New York Times drama critic and an editor at the New Republic who helped Faulkner a little bit. Phil Stone was
a lawyer here, educated at Yale, who introduced Faulkner to Swinburne and Joyce
and a lot of the reading that was so influential to him when he was very young.
And primarily because of the presence of the university, there’s always been
something of a literary environment. But I think because Faulkner’s major work
dealt with this specific geography and culture so intimately, and because of the mythology he created, that
makes for a very particular kind of literary tourism. Hemingway didn’t quite do
that with Oak Park. It wasn’t a little native postage stamp of soil. And in
Mississippi in general there were also Richard Wright, Tennessee Williams,
Eudora Welty—these great writers of the twentieth century.

More recently,
Willie Morris moved to Oxford in 1980, within a year after we opened the store.
He was from Yazoo City, Mississippi. He was the editor of the [University of]
Texas student newspaper, and from there got a job with the Texas Observer, where he became editor at a very young age. He
was hired by Harper’s Magazine to
be an editor, and a few years later, in 1967, became its youngest editor in
chief. And while at Harper’s,
he really changed the magazine and was on the ground floor of New Journalism.
He published David Halberstam and Larry L. King; he published Norman Mailer’s
“Armies of the Night” [originally titled “Steps of the Pentagon”], the longest
magazine piece ever to have been published; and he published Walker Percy.

He also wrote a
book called North Toward Home,
which was his autobiography, published in 1967, that kind of dealt with this
whole ambivalence of the South and being from here and loving so much about
it—stuff about growing up in Yazoo City, and his friends, and his baseball
team, and his dog, and his aunt Minnie who lived next door—but also the
racism. The murders and the civil rights movement. And he had to get out of the
South ’cause he loved it too much and hated so much of everything that was
going on.

That sense of conflictedness.
Right, right. The book expressed all
that and was a touchstone for a lot of people my age. Then he got fired from or
quit Harper’s, depending on
the story. He got in a fight with the publisher and submitted his resignation,
believing that he wouldn’t accept it. But he did. [Laughter.] So he continued to write, but none of his
subsequent books were quite as big as North Toward Home. And Willie was a big drinker and he had kind of
run out of gas in the black hole, which is what he called Manhattan. But Dean
Faulkner Wells, William Faulkner’s niece, and her husband, Larry, raised money
to give Willie a visiting spot here at the university. So he came here that
spring as a writer-in-residence. And he immediately befriended us and the
bookstore. He said, “Richard, I’m going to bring all these writers, all my
friends. I’m going to bring them down here and they’re going to do book
signings at your store and we’re going to have a great time.”

The summer I came
back to open the store was also about the same time that Bill Ferris, who was
the first full-time director at the newly established Center for the Study of
Southern Culture at the university, came here. Bill was originally from
Vicksburg; he’d been to Davidson [College in North Carolina] and got a PhD in
folklore under Henry Glassy at Penn, taught at Yale. Bill was a tremendous guy
and very charismatic and bright and enthusiastic and full of ideas. Bill had a
tremendous influence on the university and the community and our store. On the
South as a whole. What he did was, despite this whole business of the South’s
being known for racism and bigotry and poverty and illiteracy and teen
pregnancy and all the things we’re still sort of known for [laughter], he took Creole cooking and quilt making and basketry and storytelling
and literature and the blues—all these aspects of Southern culture—and made
it fascinating to the public. So Bill had a tremendous influence on the
community and the bookstore. He also knew a lot of writers. The first book
signing we did was with Ellen Douglas, the second month we were open, October
1979. She had a new novel coming out called The Rock Cried Out. The second person to do a book signing at the
store was a black poet who was originally from Corinth, who had taught himself
to write while doing time at the Indiana State Prison: Etheridge Knight. [Laughter.] Bill knew Etheridge and he got Etheridge to come
here. Bill also knew Alice Walker, got her to come here. Knew Alex Haley, got
him to come here. And Willie got George Plimpton and William Styron and Peter
Matthiessen. All these people were coming and doing events in the bookstore.
So, really, from the time that we opened, we had this incredible series of
events. Then the store kind of became known. And in those days the whole author
tour business was nothing like what it soon thereafter became. In the seventies
and early eighties, publishers would send an author to San Francisco and Denver
and Washington and Atlanta. Maybe. But primarily they were there to do
interviews with the press and go on radio and television. Publicity tours, not
a book-signing tour. They didn’t go to bookstores. We weren’t by any means the
first store to do this, but there weren’t many who were doing this at the same
time as we were. The Tattered Cover [Denver] and Elliott Bay [Seattle] and the
Hungry Mind [Saint Paul]. I think that’s kind of how the circuit business got
started.

Then Barry Hannah
moved here in 1983 to teach creative writing. And his personality and writing
style particularly contrasted with Willie’s. Because Willie, he was kind of a
journalist. And even though he could be critical of the south, part of his
method in being critical was to get to a point where he could also be a
cheerleader for the south. And Barry I think kind of looked down his nose at
that sort of writing. You know, Barry was the Miles Davis of modern American
letters at that point. There would’ve been kind of a rivalry with any writer,
any other writer in town, I suppose. Plus, both of them had to struggle with
Faulkner’s ghost—there was that whole thing. But it was an immensely fertile
period in the community’s literary history.

So that convergence of events
helped create the foundation you would build the store upon.

Right, right. And then, you know,
Larry Brown emerged from the soil. His first book came out in 1988. John
Grisham: His first book was published in 1989.

Had John been living here the
whole time too?

No, he’d been living in north
Mississippi, by South Haven. He was in the state legislature. But when he was
in law school at Ole Miss, he heard William Styron speak. Willie had invited
Styron down for the first time, and that was when he got the bug. That’s when
John said, “Wow, I’m gonna do something with this.”

And now he endows a great
fellowship for emerging southern writers here at Ole Miss.

Correct. And he did that because he
wanted to try to build on what Willie did with all the people he brought in.

Speaking of nurturing young writers,
I once heard that when Larry
Brown was working as a firefighter he came into the store and asked you whom he
should read.

Nah.

Is that not correct?
No. [Laughter.]

Was he already writing on his own?
Firemen work twenty-four hours and
then they’re off for forty-eight hours. And then they’re back on for
twenty-four and they’re off for forty-eight. So all firemen have other jobs.
They’re usually painters or carpenters or builders or something. Larry worked
at a grocery store. He was also a plasterer; he was a Sheetrock guy; he was a
painter; he was a carpenter. He did all of this stuff. And he’d always been a
pretty big reader. Larry’s mother, especially, was a really big reader of
romance novels. So Larry had this idea that he could supplement his income by
writing a book that would make money. And he would go to the Lafayette County
Public Library and check out books on how to be a writer, how to get your book
published. He went through all of those. And I think he read that you start by
getting published in magazines, so then he began to read magazines—fiction
especially. He would read Harper’s and Esquire. Larry was
a complete omnivore of music and film and literature.

He took it all in.
Took it all in and he had an
incredible memory. You would talk about a movie; he knew the producer, the
director, the actor, the actresses, the location; music, the song, the group,
who was on bass, the drums. On and on and on. And at some point, yes, early on,
he came into the store. When I first opened the store, I was the only person
who worked there. So I was talking to everyone who came in. And we started
talking and, you know, I didn’t give him a reading list and say, “Read these
ten books and that’ll make you a writer.” Larry was already reading Raymond
Carver and Harry Crews. Cormac McCarthy very early, long before Cormac broke
out. Flannery O’Connor. So we talked about those authors, but Larry completely
found his own way. He was completely self-taught. And I did later on help him
in a specific way when he was kind of stuck. But he would’ve gotten out of the
jam that he thought he was in at the time.

What was that?
Well, he had had one or two stories
published and then he kind of couldn’t get anything else published. He kept
sending off these short stories and they kept coming back. Then he called me
one day—and, you know, I hadn’t read anything he’d written, hadn’t asked to; I
don’t go there with writers unless they ask me. It was a Sunday. He said, “I
don’t know what else to do. I’m sorry I’m calling you, I don’t mean to bother
you, but I think I must be doing something wrong. Everything’s coming back.” I
said, “Larry, I’d be happy to read them. Bring me a few of your stories. I’m no
editor or agent or anything, but I’d be willing to read them.”

So he came over
with a manila folder. It was raining outside. We sat down at the dining room
table and I opened this folder. He was sitting right across from me, and I just
started reading. The first story was “Facing the Music.” You know, I read maybe
four pages and I said, “Larry, this is an incredible story. You’re not doing
anything wrong.” And then I finished reading it and chills went down my spine.
Because I knew that it was a great story. It still is a great story. And I told
him, “This is going to be published. I don’t know when, I don’t know where,
just don’t despair.” Actually I was looking the other day at a note he’d sent
me. He thanked me for helping to make it better, that specific story. But I
don’t remember what that was. I may have said, “You might move this sentence
from here to here,” or something like that.

But mostly you were telling him
to keep the faith.

Exactly. Also, I suggested he
contact Frederick Barthelme and Rie Fortenberry at the Mississippi Review, who’d published his first serious publication, a
story called “The Rich.” I said, “What about this story? Where have you sent it? Have you sent it to the
Mississippi Review
?” And he said, “No,
‘cause they’ve already published me.”

That’s a good thing! [Laughter.]
So he sent it to them and they
published it and he dedicated that story to me. And then later on I helped him
meet Shannon Ravenel, who published his first book.

It seems like so many of the greatest writers of American letters have
come out of the south: Tennessee Williams, Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Flannery
O’Connor. And, more recently, Tom Franklin, Larry Brown, Barry Hannah. All these
people whose work I deeply admire. They share something…an intimacy with place
perhaps?

It often gets explained in phrases
like that, but I think that for the moderns…well, Faulkner was a genius. But I
think he also realized early on what he could do and in contrast to the many
things that he could not do.

What do you mean by that?
Well, he was a failure as a
student. But I think with someone like Eudora Welty, who was an intelligent and
independent woman of that time, there were limited opportunities for things
that she could do. But writing, writing was one of them. And photography was
one. So I think it’s tied to economics in some way, but I also think that all
of the rich and conflicted history of the South has a lot to do with it, all
the various tensions. Because literature is built on conflict. There’s also the
whole war thing, the Civil War. Being the loser in that war makes us akin to
other literature-producing places—Ireland, Russia.

Do you see any collective
project happening as a trend in writing right now, in the same way that, say,
the modernists were trying to make sense of a new world?

No, but I think there are always
different schools in the same way that Updike focused on the suburban married
life, and I think other writers operate in certain other niches.

How about southern writers
specifically? How are they trying to make sense of what the south looks like
right now?

I think Southerners are mostly
concerned with just telling a good story.

The tale?
Yeah.

Since we’re talking about
contemporary southern writers, let’s discuss the Conference of the Book. How
did that start?

The Faulkner conference is held
every summer. I think it started in 1974. It’s always drawn a crowd—people
come from California, Japan, Canada, wherever. And over the years, people would
come in the store and say, “I heard about that Faulkner conference and I’d love
to come back here and go to that, but I don’t think I want to do Faulkner for a
whole week.” These are people who aren’t necessarily Faulkner fans or scholars,
but who want to come for the experience.

A literary pilgrimage.
Right. And at the same time, I was
going to conferences like ABA [American Booksellers Association] and BEA
[BookExpo America] and SIBA [Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance], where
you would hear not just writers but also publishers and agents and editors
talking about the process of publishing a book—all these great stories which
typically were not available to the public. And I thought, “What if we had a
conference in Oxford where people could get the local experience, but also a
more general thing about books?”

So I talked to Ann
Abadie, who was a founding director of the Faulkner conference. I told Ann,
who’s been a good friend for a long time, “I’ve got this idea. Instead of just
having the Faulkner conference, why don’t we do another kind of literary
conference? We can just talk about books and what’s going on with The Book and how it’s doing today. We’ll invite editors and
agents and people who have these conversations, but make it for the public.”
And Ann said, “Yeah, maybe soon.” Then, after about three or four years, she
said, “Let’s do this book conference thing.” And so we did.

Is it focused specifically on
Southern writers?

No. I was trying for it not to be just a Southern thing.

That would be too insular?
Yeah, and frankly I get tired of
all this stuff about the South all the time. And I thought that the university
and the community had the opportunity to create a one of a kind conference.

Where would you like to see this
conference five years from now? Ten years from now?

In an ideal world it would have a
larger budget to bring people in. For instance, Nicholson Baker wrote that
article in the New Yorker about the
Kindle. You know, that’s a timely thing. He could come and do a lecture,
perhaps even be on a panel with other people from the industry, people like
[Amazon founder] Jeff Bezos.

So you want it to explore all
the different intersections, not just publishing.

Right. Everything that’s going on
that affects books. We want to put this thing called The Book on the operating
table and cut into it and see what’s going on.

With developments like the Kindle
and Japanese cell-phone novels and Twitter stories, how does a bookstore stay
relevant in the twenty-first century?

I
think there are a couple of things. There are the technological developments,
which are interesting and positive in that they offer opportunities for reading
and the dissemination of literature and ideas in a way that might be greater than
the way we’ve historically done before. As Nicholson Baker pointed out in that New
Yorker
article, digital
transference of text is much cheaper than disseminating literature through
books. So you have that, which in many ways, properly conceived, is a positive
development.

But the question
we need to ask is, How does the technology threaten this thing that we love so
much, and has been so critical to the development of civilization for so long?
And how do we, in terms of that threat, deal with and understand it? There’s
also the cultural threat of younger people who are growing up not reading
books. The way I see it, though, I think that digital technology will go on, on
its own path, no matter what. But in terms of books, I maintain that a book is
like a sailboat or a bicycle, in that it’s a perfect invention. I don’t care
what series number of Kindle you’re on, it is never going to be better than
this. [Holds up a book.] I
don’t see how it could be. I could be wrong. Who knows? But this thing is
pretty wonderful—and irreplaceable.

I think they can
coexist is what I’m saying. And by the same token, I think bookstores offer an experience to book consumers that is
unique. To be able to go into a place physically, to experience a sensation
that is the precise opposite of all that is digital, and to talk to people
about books in a business that has as one of its objectives a curatorial
function and the presentation of literature as another—that is, I believe,
irreplaceable. Of course, the question we all recognize is how the development
of technology, in reducing the industry that creates the physical book, will
change bookselling. Because there won’t be as many of these [books], and
therefore the cost will go up.

page_5: 

So what is the future for
independent bookstores? If their role is curatorial, will they become more like
art galleries? Should they have public funding? Or will bookstores become
nonprofit entities?

I don’t know. I hope not, though. It’s
a very difficult business. But in many ways, I like the fact that it’s a
difficult business. Otherwise, people who want to make money—by selling
crap—would be trying to get into the book business. [Laughter.]

This store specializes in
literature, especially southern literature, as well as books about this region
and this place. Do you think that specialization is part of the reason for your
success?

I don’t really think of it in terms
of specializing. I think of it in terms of giving our customers what they want.
If Nietzsche had been born here, our philosophy section would probably look a
little different. [Laughter.]

So what are bookstores that are
succeeding doing right?

Well, I think a lot of it has to do
with adaptation. The business’s ability to adapt in all kinds of ways to its
own market, to be innovative, to not ignore the technological developments and,
in some cases, take advantage of them. Thacker Mountain Radio was kind of an
innovation.

How did that come to be?
Ever since the bookstore opened,
there’ve always been people coming in wanting to have their art exhibit in the
bookstore, or to stage a play, or do a music performance.

So that really meets your vision
of a community place.

Yeah, except that I learned fairly
early on that you have to make it relate to selling books. You can’t just be an
all-purpose community center; you’ve got to make it conform to the mission of
selling books and promoting writers and literature. Because I did have art
exhibits and it was just sort of a pain. So I kind of got away from that. What
happened, then, was two graduate students who had been trying to develop a
little kind of a music radio show that wasn’t really working at one of the
local bars, came and wanted to use Off Square Books as a venue. I told them
that I’d done enough of this kind of messing around to know that I wasn’t going
to do something like that unless it could promote writers. I said, “Maybe if we
did a radio show that incorporated both music and writers it could be
something.” And that’s how that got started.

It’s been good for
our book business, mainly because writers really want to be on the show. And a
lot of publishers want their writers to be on the show because it’s broadcast
on Mississippi Public Broadcasting, so it reaches a large audience. Which is
always appealing, as you know, to publicists.

Do they just read? Do they do
interviews?
Depends on what the book is and how they
want to present it. They can read; they can talk about it. We’ve had a lot of
writers come up there and just tell stories. It’s performed, recorded, and
broadcast live on local commercial radio. Then we edit stuff for time, do all
the production work on the disc, and send it down to Jackson where they
rebroadcast the show.

It’s often really
great. And a lot of times we have musicians who’ve written books come on the
show, or we have writers who are musicians who like to play on the show.
There’s almost no writer who, given the choice early in their career, wouldn’t
have rather been a rock musician. [Laughter.]

Now that you’ve finished your
two terms as mayor, you’re returning to the bookstore full time again. What are
you most looking forward to? What did you most miss
?
I just missed being here. I missed
being around the books, going down to the receiving room and seeing what’s come
in each day, talking to the customers, knowing which books are coming out,
being able to snag an advance reading copy of something that I know I’m gonna
be interested in. The whole shooting match. So what I’m doing now is really
kind of returning to my roots. I’m just going to be on the floor. I’m not going
to resume buying; I’m not going to be doing all the business stuff; I’m not
going to go running around to every store trying to control staff schedules and
training. I just want to—

Be around the customers and the
books.

Yeah. There may come a point when I
want to do something else. I don’t know. But that’s the plan now.

Where would you like to see the
store ten years from now? Is there anything you still want to achieve with it?

No. But returning to that whole
future of books conversation, one of the things that I should’ve added has to
do with what’s happened at Square Books, Jr. We’re selling more children’s
books than ever. The level of enthusiasm and excitement about books from
toddlers to first readers to adolescents and teens…if you go in there and hang
around for a few hours, you would never even think that there might be such a
thing as a digital book.

Jeremiah Chamberlin teaches writing at
the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He is also the associate editor of the
online journal Fiction Writers Review.

INSIDE SQUARE BOOKS
What were your best-selling books in
2009?

John Grisham signs books
for us—lots of them—every year, so his book is usually our number one seller.
Our best-seller list is dominated by local and regional titles—books about
Oxford or Mississippi or about or by Mississippians. Other than Grisham’s The Associate, I think our top 2009 sellers are The Help by Kathryn Stockett, The Devil’s Punchbowl by Greg Iles, and In the Sanctuary of Outcasts by Neil White. All three writers are from
Mississippi, and Neil lives here in Oxford. Two of the books are set in
Mississippi.

What
books did you most enjoy selling in 2009?

Lark and
Termite
by Jayne Anne Phillips, A
Gate at the Stairs
by Lorrie Moore, The
Missing
by Tim Gautreaux, and Waveland
by Frederick Barthelme.

How do you compile your Staff Picks section?
There are no constraints
on staff picks, except the book has to be in print, of course. And, after a
time, the recommendation has to have made at least a sale or two. Doesn’t have
to be paperback, but they always seem to be. Anybody can recommend anything
using any language, although I recently made one staffer change his
recommendation because he’d written in big letters, “It’s great! I’m serious!
Just buy it!” It was the exclamation points that really did it. I told him to
see Strunk and White.

Any
books you’re particularly excited about in 2010?

I’m excited about Jim Harrison’s new book, The Farmer’s Daughter; that
big, wonderful new novel The
Swan Thieves
by Elizabeth Kostova, who has agreed to come to our
store; and Brad Watson’s new book of short stories, Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives, which has
one of the best stories I’ve read in years, “Vacuum.”

Inside Indie Bookstores: Women & Children First in Chicago


by

Jeremiah Chamberlin

5.1.10

When I walked into Women & Children
First, the
feminist bookstore that Linda Bubon and her business partner, Ann
Christophersen, founded more than thirty years ago, the overriding
feeling I
experienced was one of warmth. And it wasn’t because Chicago was having a
late-winter snowstorm that afternoon. From the eclectic array of books
stacked
on tables, to the casualness of the blond wood bookcases, to the
handwritten
recommendations from staff below favorite books on the shelves,
everything
feels personalized; an atmosphere of welcome permeates the place.

In the back of
the store, a
painted sign showing an open book with a child peering over the top
hangs from
the ceiling, indicating the children’s section. Not far away, a similar
sign,
this one of a rainbow with an arrow below it, points toward the GLBTQ
section.
Despite these signs—not to mention the name of the store itself—Women
&
Children First carries more than books for women and, well, children.
The
literature section stretches down one wall; there are stacks of
photography
collections; books on writing fill an entire bookcase; and disciplines
as
diverse as cooking and psychology have healthy offerings. Though
conceived as a
feminist bookstore three decades ago, since moving in 1990 to its
current
location in the Andersonville neighborhood (an area originally home to a
large
population of Swedish immigrants in the mid-nineteenth century that has
since
evolved into a multiethnic community, and one with an equally diverse
range of
locally owned businesses such as Middle Eastern cafés, an Algerian crepe
house,
and, of course, a Swedish bakery), Women & Children First has become
as
much a neighborhood shop as a specialty store. And because the area has
become
popular with families and young professionals, the clientele is just as
likely
to be made up of men as women.

Still, books
related to women
and women’s issues—whether health, politics, gender and sexuality,
literature,
criticism, childrearing, or biography—are clearly the store’s focus.
Such
lauded authors as Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, Gloria Steinem, Annie
Leibovitz,
and Hillary Rodham Clinton have all read here. Many now-famous writers
such as
Sandra Cisneros, Ana Castillo, Julia Alvarez, Margot Livesey, and Jane
Hamilton
got their start at this store. Needless to say, Women & Children
First has
a devoted audience for its events, and many who attend are well-known
writers
themselves. So on any given night you’ll be as likely to be sitting next
to
authors such as Elizabeth Berg, Carol Anshaw, Rosellen Brown, Sara
Paretsky,
Audrey Niffenegger, Aleksandar Hemon, or Nami Mun as hearing them speak
from
the podium.

Like co-owner
Bubon, Women
& Children First doesn’t take itself or its mission too seriously,
despite
its long history and literary laurels. Twinkle lights hang in the front
windows
facing Clark Street; there are jewelry displays around the front
counter; and
tacked to the community bulletin board are flyers for both theater
performances
and burlesque shows. When I met Bubon, she was wearing a simple, black,
scoop-neck sweater and a subtle, patterned scarf in shades of red,
orange, and
cream. (She also wore Ugg boots, which she unabashedly raved about for
their
comfort.) Because Christophersen had to be out of town during my visit,
Bubon
took me around the store herself—not that I needed much of a tour.
Women &
Children First is only 3,500 square feet in area, most of which is one
large
open room. Still, the store carries more than twenty thousand books, as
well as
journals, cards, and gifts. And perhaps it is this combination that adds
to its
coziness.

But nothing
captures the
laid-back feel and philosophy of the bookstore better than the wooden
kitchen
table that sits in the back, near the children’s section. Around it are
four
unmatched wooden chairs. Bubon brought us here for the interview, and it
seems
a perfect example of the spirit of openness that pervades this place.
Several
times during our conversation customers wandered over to chat with her
and I
was generously introduced. And more than once Bubon excused herself
politely to
help a nearby child pull down a book he couldn’t reach. But never did
these
interactions feel like interruptions, nor did they ever change the
course of our
conversation. Rather, it felt as though I was simply a part of the ebb
and flow
of a normal day at Women & Children First. Nothing could have made
me feel
more welcome.

When did you meet Christophersen?
We met in graduate school. We were both
getting a
master’s degree in literature, and we became very good friends.

Was that here in Chicago?
Yes, at the University of Illinois. Our
class and
the one just above us had a lot of great writers—James McManus, Maxine
Chernoff, Paul Hoover. It was a very fertile atmosphere. So as we were
finishing the program, Ann and I started talking about opening a
business
together, and the logical choice was a bookstore. There was only one
local
chain at the time, Kroch’s & Brentano’s, and there were probably
sixty or
seventy wonderful independent bookstores in the city and the suburbs of
Chicago.

That many?
Yeah. There were a lot of independent bookstores.
It was a really great environment for booksellers. I mean, we all
thought of
ourselves as competing with one another, but really there were enough
readers
to go around. By the mid-1980s, however, we were feeling crowded—after
five
years we had outgrown that first place. So we moved to a larger store,
two
blocks away, at Halsted and Armitage.

Did you decide from the beginning
that you
wanted to specialize in books for women and children?

Yes. It was what was in our hearts, and
in our
politics, to do. We were part of an academic discussion group made up of
feminist teachers from all the nearby universities that met at the
Newberry
Library. Two of our teachers were part of this group and they had asked
us to
join as grad students. They were discussing Nancy Chodorow, whose book The
Reproduction
of
Mothering
had just
come out. Also Rubyfruit Jungle. I was like, “Oh, my goodness!”
because I had never read any lesbian literature, and here was this group
of
academics discussing it. They discussed Marge Piercy and Tillie Olsen.
These
were writers whom, when I went looking for them at places like Kroch’s
&
Brentano’s or Barbara’s Bookstore, I wasn’t finding. Similarly, as an
academic,
I knew how much Virginia Woolf had written. Yet I would look for
Virginia Woolf
and there would only be To the Lighthouse. Maybe Mrs.
Dalloway.
Or A Writer’s Diary. But we envisioned a store
where everything that was in print by Virginia Woolf could be there. And
everything by outsider writers like Tillie Olsen or Rita Mae Brown would
be
there.

It’s interesting to hear you
describe these
authors as being outsiders at one time, because when I was growing up
they were
people I was reading from the beginning.

Oh, back then you had to go lookin’,
lookin’,
lookin’, lookin’ to
find these writers. And they certainly weren’t being taught. Alice
Walker had written The Third Life of Grange Copeland, and maybe Meridian
had come out. But all the
stuff that you think of as classic women’s literature—Margaret Atwood,
Toni
Morrison—they were not a part of the canon. They were just fledgling
writers.
It was much different. And, again, there was no gay and lesbian
literature.
None. I mean, it just didn’t exist. We put a little sign on the shelf
that
said, “If you’re looking for lesbian writers, try Virginia Woolf’s Orlando,
May Sarton, Willa
Cather….” You know, writers who historians had discovered had had
relations
with women. [Laughter.]
Nothing public at all. We had a little list. Back
then our vision was about this big. [She holds her hands about eight
inches
apart.
]
Now, thirty years later, it’s incredible to look back and see the
diversity of
women writers who are published, and the incredible diversity of gay and
lesbian literature, and transgender literature, that’s being published.

I
still think
women lag behind in winning the major awards, and they lag behind in
getting
critical attention. So there’s still a need for Women & Children
First and
stores like it that push the emphasis toward women writers. But, at that
time,
we had to work to fill up a store that was only a quarter of the size of
this
one. That first store was only 850 square feet, yet it was still a
challenge to
find enough serious women’s literature to stock the shelves. Because we
didn’t
want to do romances. And it’s not that we didn’t have a vision of a
bookstore
that would be filled with works by women and biographies of women and
eventually
a gay and lesbian section and all that. But I had no idea that there
would be
this renaissance in women’s writing. That it really would happen. That
women
would get published, and get published in some big numbers, and that I
would
finally be able to sell books by women who were not just white and
American or
British. I mean, the internationalizing of women’s literature has been
very
exciting, I think.

What precipitated the move to 
this
neighborhood and this bigger store, then?

In those first ten years we had
double-digit
growth every year. Ten percent up, 11 percent up, 15 percent up. I don’t
think
we even made returns until we’d been in business three years. We were
just
selling. I had no ordering budget. “Oh, new stuff by women?” I’d say.
“Great!
We need it.” Business was growing.

Was that because nobody else was
selling this
type of literature?

Yes, and because women’s studies was
developing as
a discipline. Also, I think we were good booksellers. And we had great
programming right from the beginning. Not so much big-name authors, but
interesting stuff.

So like the first store, you outgrew
the second
one.

We outgrew it. Our landlord had also
sold the
building and the new owner was going to triple our rent. So if we needed
any
more motivation to move, that was it. What was tough, however, was that
we’d
been ten years in the DePaul neighborhood, which is very central to
Chicago.
You can get there very easily from the South Side, from the West Side,
off the
highways…yet we couldn’t really afford to stay there, and we couldn’t
find a
new space that would suit us. But then we were recruited to move up here
by the
Edgewater Community Development Organization. Andersonville is a part of
Edgewater, which goes all the way to the lakefront and west to
Ravenswood. They
literally came to us and said, “The people in our community would love
to have
a bookstore in that neighborhood. There’s a lot of spaces that are being
renovated, and we wonder if you’re thinking of opening a second store,
or if we
could encourage you to.”

This happened by coincidence, while
you were
already considering a new location?

Yes! And we said, “Well, you know, we
need more
space. We’ll come up and look.” At the same time, there were two women
who were
opening a women’s arts-and-crafts store, and all their friends said, “It
doesn’t matter where you’re located as long as you’re next to or on the
same
block with Women & Children First.” So we came up to Edgewater to
look, and
they showed us this building, which had been a big grocery store. It was
being
renovated and gutted, so we could get in at the beginning and say, “We
want the
corner and we want this much space.” The arts-and-crafts store opened
next
door. They
stayed open for seven years, and when the partnership broke up, in 1997,
we
took over their space. In terms of our growth, business kicked up 20
percent
the first year we were here. We opened in July 1990, and that first year
people
came in and brought us plates of cookies and said, “Thank you for coming
to our
neighborhood.” It was just great.

But
the move itself is the best story. Remember, this was still a shoestring
operation. We had to rely on the community. So we organized seventy
volunteers.
Four different women rented or had trucks. And those seventy people
moved every
book and bookshelf out of the old space and into this space in one day.
We
organized people in groups of three or four, and we said, “Okay, you
have the
Biography section. You pack up all these books in these boxes, mark them
‘Bio,’
pull out that shelving unit, you go with that unit and those boxes to
the new
space, and there will be somebody here to help set it up.” We had other
women
who went out and bought three trays of sandwiches and fed all the
volunteers.
We started on Friday night, worked all day Saturday, and by two in the
afternoon on Sunday we were open for business. We were only really
officially
closed for one day. And women still tell me, “I remember helping you
move.”
They’ll come in and they’ll say, “That’s my section; I put this section
back together.”

Have readings and events been a part
of this
store from the beginning?

They’ve been a huge part of the store.
Getting to meet
all these wonderful writers whom I’ve read—in person—is also something
that’s
kept me motivated and excited. And, you know, the excitement of
discovering a
new writer is always great.

We have a lot
of local
politicians who shop here too. When Jan Schakowsky decided to support
Barack
Obama in his run for the U.S. Senate, she had a press conference here.
She asked if she could use
our store to make the announcement that she was throwing her support
behind him
in the primary. And I remember her saying to me, “If we can just get
people to
not call him Osama.” I mean, that’s where we were at that time. Nobody
knew who
he was.

So the store has been important for
the
community in many ways.

A political gathering place, and a
literary
gathering place, and a place where we have unpublished teen writers read
sometimes. We’ve developed four different book groups, plus a Buffy
discussion
group. And if you came on a Wednesday morning, you’d see twenty to
thirty
preschoolers here with their moms for story time, which I do. I love it.
I just
love it. It’s absolutely the best thing of the week. I have a background
in
theater and oral interpretation, so it’s just so much fun for me.

Has that grown over the years as the
neighborhood has developed?

Grown, grown, grown. For many years I
would have
nine or ten kids at story time, maybe fifteen. Then, about four or five
years
ago, it was like the neighborhood exploded, and I started getting twenty
to
thirty kids every week. In the summer, I can have fifty in here. That’s
why
everything is on rollers. For story time, the kids sit on the stage and I
sit
here. For regular readings, it’s the opposite—authors read from the
stage and
we have chairs set up down here. We can get a hundred, sometimes even a
hundred
and fifty people in here.

A year and a
half ago, we
started Sappho’s Salon. Once a month, on a Saturday night, we have an
evening
of lesbian entertainment. Sometimes it’s open mike; sometimes it’s
acoustic
music. Kathie, who does our publicity, generally runs it, and her
girlfriend,
Nikki, who is a part-time DJ, brings her DJ equipment. Then we set up
little
tables and candles, and try to make it feel like a salon. We’ve even had
strippers. [Laughter.]
But right from the beginning we conceived of having a
weekly program night. Author
readings weren’t happening much, so we decided we’d have
discussions on hot books that people were reading. We knew a lot of
teachers
from this Newberry Library group who were writing, and who were in the
process
of writing feminist criticism, so we invited them to come and do a
presentation
on an idea.

Then we
conceived of having
a topic for each month. For example, “Women in the Trades.” So every
Tuesday
night in March a woman who was working in a male-dominated trade would
come and
talk about how she got her job, or how women can get into engineering,
or what
kind of discrimination she’s experiencing on the job and what her
recourses
were. I think one of our very biggest programs in those early years was
on the
subject of sadomasochism in the lesbian community. And we had eighty or
ninety
women who would come and sit on our shag rug—we didn’t have chairs and
stuff
like that then—and listen to people who had differing viewpoints
discuss the
issue. It seems almost silly now, but it was a big issue at the time,
and
people were really torn about whether this was an acceptable practice or
not.
Also, whether we should carry books on the subject. There was one
pamphlet
available at the time: What Color Is Your Handkerchief? Because
you would put a
handkerchief of a certain color in your back pocket to indicate what
your
sexual proclivity was.

It’s amazing how subtle the coding
had to be.
It was so discreet.

I remember the first time I saw two
women walk out
of my store holding hands. I was walking to the store a little later
because
somebody else had opened that day, and when I saw them [pause] I
cried. Because it was so
rare in 1980 to see two women feel comfortable enough to just grab each
other’s
hands. And I knew that they felt that way because they’d come out of
this
atmosphere in which it was okay.

At
our thirtieth
anniversary party [last] October, the Chicago Area Women’s History
Conference
recorded people’s memories of Women & Children First. They had a
side room
at the venue where we were having the party, and people took time to go
in and
talk about, you know, the first time they came to the bookstore, or when
they
saw Gloria Steinem here, or how they met their girlfriend here, or that
when
their daughter told them she was gay and they didn’t know what to do
about it
they came here and got a book. People shared all these memories. And
that’s
going to be part of our archive too.

This celebration was
also a
benefit for the Women’s Voices Fund, which you started five years ago.
Can you
talk about its mission?

Several years ago, Ann
and I were
looking at the budget and, frankly, there wasn’t enough money coming in
for the
expenses going out. Meanwhile, we were planning the benefit for our
twenty-fifth anniversary—this party that we hoped would raise some
extra
money—and other people in the not-for-profit world who were advising us
said,
“People will pay for your programs. They will make a donation to keep
your
programming going.” So Ann sat down and calculated what it cost to print
and
mail out a newsletter, to put on these programs, to advertise the
programs, and
then to staff them. What we discovered was that is was about forty
thousand
dollars a year we were spending on programming. And we thought, “If
there’s a
way to remove that expense from the budget and use people’s donations to
fund
that, that would be a smart thing.” So that’s what we did. Now anytime
we have
an advertisement or a printing bill or expenses related to providing
refreshments at programs, that cost comes out of the Women’s Voices
Fund.

So the store’s not a
nonprofit,
but it has a nonprofit arm.

It’s not a 501c3 on its
own. We are
a part of the pool fund of the Crossroads Fund in Chicago. So you can
send
Crossroads a check, have it be tax deductible, and have it earmarked for
the
Women’s Voices Fund.

Few people realize
how expensive
readings and events can be.

Occasionally there are
readings that
are profitable. Occasionally. But very, very often, even with a nice
turnout of
twenty to fifty people, you still may only sell three or four books.
Maybe five
or six. But it’s not paying for the program. And from the beginning we
didn’t
want to look at everything we did in terms of whether it was going to
make
money: “If we have this author
we gotta
sell ten books or we’re not gonna pay for the Tribune ad, or the
freight.” No. Having the fund
means we
pass the hat at the program, and maybe we take in twenty or thirty
dollars. But
sometimes people put in twenties, you know? And we raised thirty
thousand
dollars at this benefit.

But
obviously something
changed in the bookselling industry or you wouldn’t have had to hold
this
fundraising event. You
said earlier that when you first moved into this neighborhood you had
double-digit growth. What happened?

Well, the rest of that story is that a
year and a
half later our sales dropped 11 percent. This was 1993. And the next
year, they
fell another 3 percent. So that was a 14-percent drop in two years, for a
store
that had never seen a loss. Borders and Barnes & Noble started in
the
suburbs, but then they gradually came into the city. In 1993, when this
hit us,
Barnes & Noble and Borders had put in stores three miles to the
south of
us—right next to each other—and three miles to the north of us, in
Evanston.
Then, about seven years ago, Borders put the store in Uptown, which is
just a
mile from us, and they put another store west of us by about two miles.
More recently,
B&N closed the store three miles south of us, and Borders announced
over
two years ago that they were trying to rent all the stores around us.

They overextended themselves.
When everybody else was starting to
downsize,
Borders opened several new stores in Chicago, including this one in
Uptown.
And, you know, we’d almost gotten past the point where the chain stores
were
affecting us, because they’ve had to stop widespread discounting. But
the month
this Borders opened that close to us, our sales dropped 12 percent over
the
year before. And then over the course of that year our sales were down 5
percent. But, you know, it’s been an underperforming store. They put it
in
between two underperforming stores in a neighborhood that was more
economically
depressed than Evanston and Lincoln Park.

Do you think five years from now
they’ll be
gone?

I do. I do.

Can you wait them out?
You know, from what I can observe,
Barnes &
Noble seems to treat their employees pretty well; they seem to put
stores in
locations where there’s actually a need, and to close stores down when
needed
and redistribute employees. It seems to me Barnes & Noble plans very
carefully. Borders, on the other hand, has changed hands several times
since
1990. I just don’t see how they are going to survive. When I go in there
now
all I see is…sidelines. Candy.

I think what’s been
particularly frustrating for independent stores like ours that have
developed a
reading series over the years in Chicago—you know, attracting more and
bigger-name authors, and more interesting authors, and conducting ten to
fifteen programs a month—is when publishers take an author who has a
real base
in our store, and for whom we have a real audience, and they say, “Oh,
but the
Michigan Avenue Borders wants this author, and that’s a better
location.”

Why does that happen?
They
don’t always realize
that our location is not downtown, and that it attracts a different kind
of
clientele. And I’ve seen situations where we’ll have a local author—one
who we
have a close relationship with, and who’s done every launch with
us—whose
publisher will now say to her, “You know, two thirds of your books are
sold in
the chain stores, and so you have to do your launch at the chain store.”
But
those authors try to figure out things to do for us to get us some extra
business.

The author tour itself seems to be
waning. I
don’t blame publishers for their reluctance to send a writer out on the
road—after all, it probably seems hard to justify paying for an
author’s
travel expenses when you see only eight or nine books sold at an event.
But
people always forget the long-term sales that readings generate.

Right. Because I’ve read the book, and
so has one
of my coworkers, and we’ll both put it on our Recommends shelf. We’re
going to
keep selling this book long after the event. And we do find, when we
look at
our year-end figures, that our best-sellers for the year are almost
always
written by people who have had appearances here. Or, if not here,
they’ve done
an off-site event that we’ve been in charge of. Those books turn out to
be our
number one sellers for the year.

So what does the future look like for
you?

I’m a bookseller, but I’m a feminist
bookseller.
Would I be a bookseller if I were going to run a general bookstore? I’m
not
sure. Sometimes I think, “What will I do if the store is no longer
viable?” And
I think that rather than going into publishing or going to work for a
general
bookstore, I would rather try to figure out how to have a feminist
reading
series and run a feminist not-for-profit. Because the real purpose of my
life
is getting women’s voices out, and getting women to tell the truth about
their
lives, and selling literature that reflects the truths of girls’ and
women’s
lives. Sometimes we’re abused; we have to talk about that. Sometimes we
take
the bad road in relationships; we have to talk about that. Sometimes
we’re
discriminated against in the workplace; we have to talk about these
things.
Violence against women in the United States and worldwide has not
stopped. We don’t
have a feminist army to go rescue women in Afghanistan—would that we
did.

The goal of my
life has been
to get the word out, to understand women’s lives. We have to continue to
evolve
and change if we’re to have a full share, and if our daughters are to
have a
full share of the world.

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INSIDE WOMEN & CHILDREN FIRST WITH ANN CHRISTOPHERSEN
What were some of your best-selling
books in
2009?

Olive Kitteridge
by Elizabeth Strout; Her
Fearful Symmetry
by Audrey Niffenegger; Yes Means Yes!
Visions of Female Sexual Power and
a World Without Rape
,
edited
by Jaclyn
Friedman and Jessica Valenti; Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa
Lahiri; The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood; The
Sisters
Grimm
Book
1: Fairy-Tale Detectives
by Michael Buckley; In
Defense of Food
by Michael Pollan; Fun
Home
by
Alison Bechdel; Hardball by Sara Paretsky; The Mysterious
Benedict Society
by Trenton Lee Stewart; Everywhere
Babies
by
Susan Meyers; Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins; Mama Voted For
Obama!
by Jeremy Zilber; The Brief Wondrous Life of
Oscar Wao

by Junot Díaz; and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg
Larsson.

What is the best-selling section in
your
store?

Paperback fiction.

What do you look for in terms of an
author
event?

First we consider whether the book fits
with our
specialty—books by and about women—or ones that offer a feminist
perspective
on any subject. It is also important to us that we can provide an
audience for
the author. Finally, though we always want to host women writers with a
national reputation, we are strongly invested in supporting local
writers and
those launching their careers with debut novels, poetry, or nonfiction.

In what ways have your events
changed over the
years?

In the store’s early days, many of our
events
were feminist issue–based, sometimes with an author or book involved but
not necessarily. We were a hub of feminist and lesbian politics and
culture,
and produced feminist plays and women’s music concerts, sponsored
women’s
sports teams, and provided support for almost every women’s/lesbian
project in
our city. Over the past number of years, however, we have focused our
energies
and events on books and other written material, knowing that that was
our
unique role in the women’s movement.

What challenges do
women still
face that you hope your store can help address?

Women writers are still
vastly
under-represented in review vehicles, which means their books are less
visible.
This can be verified by keeping a gender tally of writers reviewed in
the NYTBR or the New
Yorker
, for example, during any
given month. Though women
artists working in most mediums have certainly moved forward, they still
struggle for opportunity and recognition. Women in general have also,
obviously, made many advances since the seventies, but we still have a
long way
to go. Women’s right to control our own bodies is constantly being
challenged;
we are still paid less for doing the same job as men; we still have few
good
options for childcare; married women who work—which is the majority of
us—still do more than our fair share of taking care of home and
children;
women are seriously unrepresented in political decision-making. I could
go on,
but these are some of the reasons we still need organizations—and
bookstores—that focus on women.

How does feminism in
the
twenty-first century differ from when you opened this store?

The main difference is
that the
second wave of the feminist movement in the seventies was just hitting
the
streets and was brilliantly, feverishly, and obviously active. New
organizations were being created every day to deal with issues like
incest,
domestic abuse, healthcare, job opportunities, equal pay, the absence of
political power, and many others. The work that began then has become
institutionalized over the years since. It continues to advance, but
people
don’t always notice it now since it’s become deeper, more complex, and,
some
might say, mainstream. Another significant difference is that many of
the
growing pains have been outgrown: Feminism has been able to overcome
many of
the challenges posed by race, class, and national boundaries, becoming
truly
global. 

What role does technology play in
your store?

It has played an important role since
we bought a
computer and began using POS/IM bookstore software in 1985. We had a Web
site
for marketing purposes and then took advantage of the American
Booksellers
Association’s Web solution so we could sell books online; we switched
from
print to e-newsletters several years ago; we use social media, first
MySpace
and now Facebook and Twitter. And we have the technology—and desire—to
sell
e-books.

How do you think the rise of digital
reading
devices will affect your future?

The extent to which e-books affect our
future
depends on how large that segment of the market grows and whether there
are any
real opportunities for stores our size to get a share of online sales.
There’s
little to no local advantage online, and when your competitors are large
enough
to dictate market prices, it is somewhere between extremely difficult
and
utterly impossible to get even market share to scale.

Where would you like to see Women
&
Children First in ten years?

I would like to see us still finding
ways to serve
our community and fulfill our mission of giving voice to women.

How about feminism?
Continuing to make steady
progress toward
a world in which women are free to live an unobstructed, rich, creative
life.

What do you most love
about
bookselling?
Going through my days surrounded
by books
and the people involved in writing, publishing, selling, reading, and
talking
about them. 

Jeremiah Chamberlin teaches writing at the
University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He is also the associate editor of
the
online journal Fiction Writers Review.

Ann Christophersen photo by Kat Fitzgerald.

Women & Children First in Chicago

For the third installment of our ongoing series of interviews, Inside Indie Bookstores, Jeremiah Chamberlin travelled to Chicago to speak with Linda Bubon, who, along with Ann Christophersen, owns Women & Children First.

Women & Children First 1

Image: 

Founded more than thirty years ago in Chicago, Women & Children First is only 3,500 square feet in area, most of which is one large open room. Still, the store carries more than twenty thousand books, as well as journals, cards, and gifts.

Women & Children First 2

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Twinkle lights hang in the front windows facing Clark Street; there are jewelry displays around the front counter; and tacked to the community bulletin board are flyers for both theater performances and burlesque shows.

Women & Children First 3

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“In the back of the store, a painted sign showing an open book with a child peering over the top hangs from the ceiling, indicating the children’s section,” Chamberlin writes. “Not far away, a similar sign, this one of a rainbow with an arrow below it, points toward the GLBTQ section. Despite these signs—not to mention the name of the store itself—Women & Children First carries more than books for women and, well, children.”

 

Women & Children First 4

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The literature section stretches down one wall; there are stacks of photography collections; books on writing fill an entire bookcase; and disciplines as diverse as cooking and psychology have healthy offerings.

Women & Children First 5

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“Nothing captures the laid-back feel and philosophy of the bookstore better than the wooden kitchen table that sits in the back, near the children’s section,” Chamberlin writes. “Around it are four unmatched wooden chairs. Bubon brought us here for the interview, and it seems a perfect example of the spirit of openness that pervades this place.”

Women & Children First 6

Image: 

“The goal of my life has been to get the word out, to understand women’s lives,” says co-owner Linda Bubon. “We have to continue to evolve and change if we’re to have a full share, and if our daughters are to have a full share of the world.”

Women & Children First 7

Image: 

Co-owner Ann Christophersen says what she loves most about bookselling is being “surrounded by books and the people involved in writing, publishing, selling, reading, and talking about them.”

Women & Children First 8

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“I still think women lag behind in winning the major awards, and they lag behind in getting critical attention,” says Bubon. “So there’s still a need for Women & Children First and stores like it that push the emphasis toward women writers.”

Women & Children First 9

Image: 

“Though women artists working in most mediums have certainly moved forward, they still struggle for opportunity and recognition,” Christophersen says. “Women in general have also, obviously, made many advances since the seventies, but we still have a long way to go. Women’s right to control our own bodies is constantly being challenged; we are still paid less for doing the same job as men; we still have few good options for childcare; married women who work—which is the majority of us—still do more than our fair share of taking care of home and children….I could go on, but these are some of the reasons we still need organizations—and bookstores—that focus on women.”

Inside Indie Bookstores: McNally Jackson Books in New York City

by

Jeremiah Chamberlin

11.1.10

In a recent New York magazine article about the renaissance of indie
bookstores in the city, Joe Keohane wrote, “New York’s independent bookshops
were supposed to be long gone by now. After a decade of slow financial
strangulation at the hands of the big-box stores, the web, the Kindle, and,
finally, the recession, the fact that there are still Strands and McNally
Jacksons standing seems positively miraculous.” Yet what is interesting about
this article is not just the fact that new stores are opening and thriving in
the city, but that McNally Jackson Books is likened to an institution like the
Strand, which has been in business since 1927. Although Sarah McNally’s
bookstore at 52 Prince Street in Manhattan certainly feels as though it’s
always been a part of the New York City literary scene, the truth is that it
was founded only six years ago, in December 2004.

Perhaps part of the
store’s sense of legacy has to do with the fact that McNally herself comes from
a bookselling family. Her parents own several McNally Robinson bookstores in
Canada—the flagship store in Winnipeg, and another in Saskatoon. In fact,
though always owned and operated by Sarah, the store in New York City
originally opened as a McNally Robinson. It became McNally Jackson in August
2008, both to end confusion about the store being independent from those run by
her parents and to commemorate the birth of her child with her then husband,
Christopher Jackson, executive editor at Spiegel & Grau.

It’s also clear
that this store is an integral part of the fabric of this neighborhood. It’s
located in a vibrant area of lower Manhattan—though technically in NoLita
(North of Little Italy), it’s also on the eastern fringe of SoHo (South of
Houston)—that is filled with boutiques, hip coffee shops, and trendy
restaurants. On the Thursday morning that I showed up, there were already
several people waiting for the place to open. One person sat casually on a
bench outside the bookstore’s café, others chatted together on the sidewalk,
and a few peered in the front windows at the beautiful display of arranged
books.

“Beautiful” is
perhaps the best way to describe Sarah McNally’s bookshop. The store is light
and open and modern, yet still warm. Similarly, the worn hardwood floors and
the gray slate tile in the café are a wonderful contrast to the glass and
brushed aluminum staircase that leads to the lower level, as well as the
sculptural “chandelier”—for lack of a better word—that hangs over the
staircase, a piece resembling an enormous bunch of grapes the size of beach
balls that has been constructed from bright, distorted, partially mirrored
globes. From the lighting choices to the side tables, everything feels
deliberate, unhurried.

It also feels
personal. Every display in the store has a bit of cloth and flowers, a touch
that McNally learned from her mother growing up. Similarly, the wallpaper that
decorates the café is made up entirely from pages of McNally’s own collection
of books. However, she jokes that it’s not quite as personal as she’d hoped it
would be. When she brought her books to the wallpaper company, she’d selected
specific pages that she’d written on, with the intention that after they’d been
scanned and printed her marginalia would be visible alongside the text—a
record of the conversation that she, like so many readers, has had with her
books. But company personnel, thinking they were doing her a favor, laboriously
erased every underline and scribble before they were finished printing. And
because the remodeled café was scheduled to reopen the following day, she
decided to hang the wallpaper anyway. Still, there is something comforting
about sitting in her café, surrounded by all those pages of books.

McNally herself is
a wonderful presence. When we met, she welcomed me into the store as if it were
her home. She introduced me to staff, made sure I had something to drink when
we settled at a long wooden table in the café, and asked me about my own
writing projects before we began. Her vitality and openness not only draws a
person to her, but also permeates the entire store. She is energetic yet
grounded, with a genuine excitement for new ideas. And throughout our
conversation she was quick to joke, never taking herself too seriously. Yet her
commitment to bookselling and literature itself is deeply serious. She has high
standards—for publishing, for her store, and for herself.

You grew up in a bookselling family
in Canada. Did you know you wanted to be a bookseller from a young age?

No. I moved to New York to work in
publishing, which always seemed so glamorous growing up in a Winnipeg
bookselling family. And I did that for a few years, but it didn’t ultimately
work well with my temperament. Perhaps I would be happier in an office now than
I was then, but at the time it was torture, which I think is maybe what a lot
of young people feel who work in offices. [Laughter.]

So while I was at
Basic Books and Counterpoint, I did a few African American books. I used to go
to the Harlem Book Fair every year and work at the publisher’s booth. Have you
ever been to the Harlem Book Fair? You would not believe the throngs of
people—you cannot move to get through the crowds. But people were coming up to
my booth and discussing books of mine that they’d read. And just that
electrifying moment of talking to a reader about a book that I’d edited made me
realize how far I’d traveled away from that experience.

When you’re in
publishing, your reader is so abstract. Your only readers are reviewers. Or
your sales team. In-house, as an editor, you’re often the only person to read
the book. I mean, when you get to be higher up you do books that people spend
hundreds of thousands of dollars on and other people read, but I was not at
that level. [Laughter.] So I
missed actually talking to readers about books, and I thought, “This is where I
want to be.” And I’ve never ever regretted that decision. The primary reason I
love my job is because of talking to readers.

So was it the solitary process of
editing that was difficult for that twenty-something version of yourself, or
was it the ethos of publishing that you found didn’t fit your temperament?

I always liked the editing. No, I found
the office environment very trying. Growing up I’d been working in bookstores
since I was twelve, so the thought of being stuck at a desk in an environment
where the only people you interact with are the other people who work with you
in the same office every day for years…I couldn’t imagine it! So that aspect of
it was very difficult. Also, the formality of meetings and the strict, strict
hierarchy is something I made sure that my store has never had. I never try to
make anybody feel that, just because I’m the boss, my opinion on something
stands. I always try to keep it a dialogue where everyone is putting out their
best ideas—from how a display looks, to how we’re going to take off in a whole
new direction for our Web site, or whatever it might be. I always try to have a
conversation. But in publishing, it’s a much more hierarchical environment. I
had bosses that were so high up that I’d never even met them. They’d never even
set foot in the office in all the years that I was stuck there with these
people, and yet one word from them would completely change what I had to do.
Similarly, my opinions—if I was even asked for them—would be filtered up
through three, four, or five people.

Do you think it might have actually
been harder for you to work in publishing because of your bookselling
background, considering how closely you’d been connected to readers before?

I do think so. I also came to see how
abstract the idea of a book can become around a conference table. Because that
can never happen in a bookstore—you’re constantly having readers come back to
you and say, “God, that book sucked.” Or, “God, this book was great.” And
before a person buys a book, many have to engage with it. They have to open it
up, read it. The first page has to be there.

Do you feel that publishers think
about getting books into the hands of customers differently than booksellers
do?

Hmm. They try different things with
different books, so there’s not really a single answer to that question. The
way that Algonquin gets its books into people’s hands, as with A Reliable
Wife
or Water for Elephants, is very different from the way that Random House
tried to get Yann Martel into people’s hands. It’s a completely different
route. It’s also hard for me to answer because I’m in New York, so I interact
with editors in a way that I think the rest of the country might not. I mean, I
will have editors come to the store and put a book in my hands and say, “Please
read this.”

Not just a sales rep.
Right. And so there is that
difference. But the good editors are sending notes to booksellers around the
country, saying, “This is something special.”

Putting books in the hands of
readers is also more individualized in a bookstore. As a bookseller, you learn
your regular customers so well that you know their tastes. At the store I used
to run, for example, we’d often set aside new titles for particular
individuals.

I don’t know if I know my customers
that well. In some ways I do. The way I do is that I believe every person
contains multitudes, and so I draw on the multitudes within me even more than I
do the knowledge of the customers themselves. And I feel like that is what does
not happen in publishing enough—people do not draw on the multitudes within
themselves. Paying three, four, five, or six million dollars for a second book
by a writer that’s not a good book means you’re drawing only on numbers, and
that’s not what sells books unless it’s one by James Patterson. That’s why it
was so hard for me to stay in publishing. Obviously I’m doing a very particular
kind of bookselling, but I do feel that publishers should ask the book to speak
first to their own heart. I think that’s what readers are asking, and that’s
what buyers are asking. I’m sure you hear this from every bookseller you speak
to—that they’re selling the books that speak deeply to them.

Absolutely.
Also, something that people don’t think
enough about is that the future of reading depends on the present of reading.
The future of our industry depends on a healthy present. I’ve heard it time and
again from customers—and I’ve found it in my own life—that when you read a
book that’s not very good, you don’t rush out to read another book. But when
you read a book you love, you rush back to continue the trend. So every
mediocre book that’s pushed with great blurbs—

is one more leak in the boat.
It is one more leak in the boat. [Laughter.] Great blurbs from the author’s friends when the
book is not that great is discrediting the entire experience, which is bad for
all of our futures. And there are so many ways in which I feel that publishers
are not really fostering that future. Do you know Richard Nash? Richard was the
editorial director at Soft Skull Press and he’s a consultant now. He was here
recently talking about how the paper in books gets worse and worse and worse
every year, and he called it “the endless shitification of the book.” [Laughter.] It’s so true, right? I mean, they’re publishing
on newsprint. Newsprint! Not the small presses, incidentally. Very few small
presses are doing that, despite the fact that they’re the ones that don’t have
any money. So I’m suspicious of these arguments by the mainstream that they
have to.

So it’s short-term versus long-term
thinking.

Which there is a lot of.

A few minutes ago we were talking
about multitudes. Do you consider this a general bookstore?

Yes. I mean, we are. I’m considering not being a general store anymore. I remember Karl
Pohrt [of Shaman Drum, in Ann Arbor, Michigan] saying to me once, “We sell
books. We only sell books.” And I sell all sorts of stuff—I sell wedding
planners, and I sell pet books, and I sell SAT guides. I sell self-help,
health, humor, business, sports. I sell all of this stuff. When I created my
business model, I articulated that we could be a destination bookstore in the
same way that Barnes & Noble is a destination bookstore. We would have
everything they did, but we’d simply be more selective—as a favor to the consumer, not a disservice.

And so I spent
years pushing that on the public and trying to get this idea across. But
increasingly, even in just the last five years, online retail has become
normalized. Everyone buys from eBay. And I’m sure there are regular customers
of ours who buy from Amazon.com. So I don’t even know if anyone wants that in a
bookstore anymore, if anybody wants a reliable general store.

I mean, think of
ten years ago—nobody bought online. Ten years ago my techie geek friends
bought online, and nobody else did. And twenty years ago, even fifteen years
ago, if you wanted a book you needed a bookstore. It was that simple. If you
want the book, you need the bookstore. And that seems sometimes prehistoric now
in terms of how far we’ve come.

In a city of bookstores like New
York, in an era where you don’t need a bookstore to buy a book, what was the
mission behind opening this store?

It was very much to be an event-driven
independent. I mean…my own vision is starting to seem so hackneyed and dusty at
this point. I really think I need to reimagine this store, and I’m in the
process of doing that. Imagine a community center for books that’s very event
driven. And we do still have four, five, six, seven events a week, as well as
story times and book clubs.

So it’s very much a neighborhood
bookstore.

Well, and more than that. I mean, a
place that is actually comfortable—there are chairs, it’s very spacious. That
might not seem like an important thing, but in New York it’s a big deal. We had
the radical idea of giving people chairs. [Laughter.] The chains took out all their chairs because
people were falling asleep in them, and literally dying in them. So we wanted to have a place, you know,
where you could sit and relax and look at books. It was almost like taking the
bookselling strategy that everyone else around the country had already figured
out and bringing it to New York.

Which seems so ironic.
Right, right. In retrospect I felt so
inspired, but when I look at my five-year-old or six-year-old vision, it was
really not revolutionary. [Laughter.]

And the café has been busy all
morning. Is it a part of the success of the store?

Not financially, but spiritually.

It brings people in and it adds to
the atmosphere.

And it brings so much energy. Just the
movement and the talking and the people bring real vitality to the
store—people don’t want to walk into an empty bookstore.

Why are you rethinking your mission
or your model? Is it an issue of overhead?

No, it’s an issue of staying ahead of
whatever is happening in the book industry, because right now we’re having our
best year ever. We’re doing really well. But my fear is that remaining a general
store, what people may actually want is an extraordinary literature section. So
maybe we should get rid of photography and art—because you see other places
selling it—and just have an enormous literature section. Maybe we get rid of
music and film and have an enormous poetry section. Maybe we really dedicate
ourselves to becoming the most extraordinary literary bookstore in the country.

Though remaining a more general
bookstore appeals to your mission as a neighborhood store.

Yes, exactly.

Whereas the idea of being the best
literature store in the country would perhaps be a large draw

—to tourists, to the whole city.

There would be tradeoffs either
way.

Yes! I know. I’m feeling very torn.
One of my friends is the VP of marketing at Harper, and when we went out to
lunch last week I talked to her about this idea. She said, “What does that
mean, the ‘best’ literature section in the city? What does that mean?” She
said, “You’re never going to have more books than Amazon, so are they still a
better bookstore?” So I’m feeling conflicted.

But you’re talking about hand
selecting rather than carrying everything.

Yeah, that’s the idea. That was always
the concept in this store. But if you read Ken Auletta’s recent essay about
e-books in the New Yorker [“Publish
or Perish: Can the iPad Topple the Kindle and Save the Book Business?”] he
quotes [Carolyn Reidy of] Simon & Schuster as saying that in a three-month
period, online retailers sell copies of 2,500 of their titles that aren’t
stocked in bookstores anymore. So I haven’t seen the chains as my competition
since I opened. I don’t see Barnes & Noble as my competition.

Your competition is online.
Entirely. That’s partly because there
isn’t a chain near my location, of course.

So do you feel more pressure from
online bookselling or the digital book?

Online, online.

But what about e-books? Is that something that you have any interest
pursuing?

Yes? [Pause.] Yes. In typical
Sarah McNally fashion, though, I feel like I can’t do it until I figure out a
whole new exciting revolutionary way to do it [laughter], which I
probably never will. So I’ll just end up doing it off the ABA [American
Booksellers Association] Web site. We’re setting up on the ABA site now. Though
we don’t love any of the templates, so we have to do it ourselves from scratch,
which is a big hullabaloo.

But, yes, I
definitely want to do it. It’s just very hard. I mean, talk about comparing
competition based on price! When you start getting into e-books and you’re
selling online, people are a click away from platforms like Amazon that are
already established. I’ve never felt that as a bookstore you should rely too
much on the concept of loyalty, but maybe I’m wrong. I’ve always said, “Shop
from me because I’m better, don’t shop from me because you feel sorry for me.”
But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’ve been wrong all this time and ultimately I’m
going to come back pleading for their loyalty. [Laughter.]

But if there are already
established online retailers like Amazon and Powell’s, do you think that
spending all these resources to develop a Web presence is the best use of the ABA’s
time and resources, or might Shop Local First campaigns and educational
programs like Winter Institute benefit booksellers more?

It’s an excellent question, and I don’t
know. Sometimes I look around the store and I think, “This is a good
bookstore.” We opened without knowing what the hell we were doing, but
somewhere along the line we’ve become a good bookstore. And I feel confident
that we’re a good bookstore. But who cares in 2010? Does anyone care whether
you’re a good bookstore? Is that enough? I don’t know. And if that’s enough,
then Winter Institute is more important. If that’s enough, then Shop Local is
more important. If it’s not
enough—and I don’t know whether or not it’s enough—then I think it’s
important that we at least try online bookselling.

And if loyalty is
based on some kind of chivalrous notion of sympathy with the culture, then
selling e-books is maybe irrelevant to that. I mean, you’ve seen my store. We
have seven thousand square feet in New York City. I’m obviously paying a lot of
rent. Clearly I’m not a completely incompetent businessperson, and yet every
day people come in and ask if we take credit cards. As if I’m just sitting here
stroking my cat, with my abacus. [Laughter.] So partly the idea of selling e-books is a symbol of something.

And one thing that
the ABA platform is great about is the ability to upload your whole inventory
onto its Web site every day, so you can have what I think is necessary: a
terminal in the store the customers can use to look up books themselves.

Like a kiosk.
Yeah, and from that kiosk you can buy
e-books. You can place your order or you can see whether the book is in the
store. Because I believe that for every customer who asks, there are a hundred
who get confused and leave. I mean, our literature section is broken up by
region—French literature is its own thing, as is Mediterranean, European,
African. If you can’t find the African literature section and you want The
Power of One
, nine out of ten
people will leave. But if they have a kiosk, it will give them the confidence
to go to a staff person if they can’t find something. Or they’d be able to
download it on the spot.

And I am
someone who reads books on my iPhone. I started doing this because I only had
one hand when I was breastfeeding. [Laughter.] But I only read what’s in the public domain.
This is another thing that worries me—I won’t spend a penny on e-books. So I
end up reading old British stuff. I’m reading The Woman in White right now on my phone, but I’m finally buying the
book today because I can’t stand it anymore. While it’s great to be able to
read in the dark, there’s something really depressing about going to bed with
your phone and reading a book on it. [Laughter.] Although you do have moments of immersion where
the medium is lost.

That suspension of disbelief.
You do. You come in and out of it. But
it’s still depressing. Especially because I’ve realized how deep my
relationship is with books. When things get tense in a book, I think you start
doing things like stroking the edge of the pages. When you do that on your
iPhone, the next thing you know you’ve frozen the thing. [Laughter.]

But it has made me believe in multiple platforms. I
remember publishers once suggesting that if you buy the book you also get the
e-book and maybe the audio, too. I remember thinking, “That’s stupid.” But now
I don’t think so, because I’d love The Woman in White in audio for when I’m cooking, I’d love it on my
phone for little moments when I’m waiting in line or when I’m nursing—which
is, admittedly, a very specific situation—and then to also have the book for
when I’m sitting in my reading chair or in my bed. Have you read Lee
Siegal’s book Against the Machine?

No, I haven’t.
He makes an excellent point in it that
whether you’re buying sex toys or lawn mowers or books or clothes for your kid,
the retail experience is completely the same online. Whether it’s sordid or
boring, it’s the same. And that is what is so wonderful about retail—when you
buy something from a place, the aura of that place becomes a part of the
object. I’m sure if you went through your bookshelf you could remember where
you bought every single book, and somehow it affects how you feel about that
book forever.

Absolutely.
And I would love to be able to create
an online bookstore that actually felt like a unique experience. So I do have a dream of selling e-books and having
an online store that actually has ambiance. But we’ve been so focused these
past few years on renovating the physical space that I really haven’t had the
time. For the first couple of years it was such a tremendous act of creation.
Coming from a bookselling family, I had enormous confidence that I knew how to
run a bookstore. That confidence was almost entirely misplaced. I realized how
shallowly I had inhabited my parents’ business.

You didn’t know what they were
doing, or you didn’t realize the extent of what they had to do?

The latter. And the former. [Laughter.] Because I felt like I was doing so much, but I was
merely moving snow around the tip of the iceberg. When you work for other
people, you don’t realize how much you’re passing by.

How much thought goes into every
decision.

Yeah. Every square inch of a business.

So in what ways did you either
model yourself after or consciously decide to do different from your parents’
bookstores?

What I modeled after them was their
philosophy to be event-driven. That’s the engine of their marketing and
publicity. We also use our café—like they do their restaurants—as the event
space, whether that’s a good idea or not.

But what’s funny
is that my favorite bookstores that I’ve loved shopping in are crazy junky old
used stores with books piled everywhere, with the owners smoking, and all the
books smell like cigarette smoke. I love stores like that. Yet if my staff
leaves anything lying around, I’ll say, “Get rid of this mess! We have to keep
everything clean!” It’s so funny. You can sit in the quiet of your mind and
say, “I will be this sort of spouse, I will be this sort of friend, I will be
this sort of daughter.” Then you go into daily life and you are exactly the
spouse, friend, and daughter that you have no choice but to be. The dominant
personality is indomitable, and I believe that bookselling is the exact same
way. You can say, “I will have this kind
of bookstore,” but you can no more control that than what kind of person you
are.

So is what we see here the best
or the worst of you? [Laughter
.]
It’s beyond my control. This is the
only bookstore I could have, I think. It can be no other way. It’s like when
you have to wear someone else’s shirt. Even though you think it’s a perfectly
nice shirt, somehow it’s humiliating. You wouldn’t think, “God, that person
shouldn’t leave the house in that shirt.” But your leaving the house in that shirt becomes totally
unbearable. It’s exactly like that with your bookstore. You can’t wear someone
else’s clothes and you have the only bookstore you can have.

Another thing I’d like to talk
to you about is China. In January of 2008
you
traveled to Beijing with several other American booksellers: Karl Pohrt of
Shaman Drum in Ann Arbor, Paul Yamazaki of City Lights in San Francisco, Rick
Simonson of Elliot Bay in Seattle, and Allison Hill of Vroman’s in Pasadena.
How did this come about?

Well, I’ll tell you. Mitch Kaplan
[of Books & Books in Miami] put together a bookselling panel at the 2007
Miami Book Fair and he brought us down. Allison
wasn’t a part of that, but the rest of us were. And afterward Karl said, “We
need to take this on the road!” Meanwhile, Lance Fensterman—who works for Reed
Exhibitions and who used to be the Director of BEA [BookExpo America]—was
talking to the Chinese equivalent
of BEA, which is enormous. He was asked for a list of booksellers to give an educational
panel to Chinese booksellers, and so he thought of us. He also asked Allison to
join the group because she’s an extremely impressive woman. She’s a very, very
smart businessperson. There were also several British booksellers.

So we went to
Beijing, and it was wonderful. The Chinese were so gracious and so hospitable.
We stayed for over a week, and for most of that time they had arranged every
single meal of every day, as well as tours. It was amazing. We met so many
people and we were fed so well.

In addition to the trade show,
did you also visit individual bookstores?

Yes. We met the CEO of the second
largest bookstore in the world, which is enormous—it was like ten Barnes &
Nobles. Their mandate is to stock every single book published in Chinese.
Period. I cannot give you a sense of the magnitude of this store. People had
shopping carts. You couldn’t even move in this store it was so crowded. And when
we went to the conference room to talk with the head of the store, the
conference table was so enormous that the far end of it was on the horizon
somewhere. [Laughter.] The place must
have been a hundred thousand square feet. It was enormous.

But that’s atypical.
Well, that was a state-owned store.
When you walk in, all the communist texts were right there in front—Marx and
Mao and Engles. But then we also visited the City Lights of China, which is now
state-owned but was not originally. They published all the Beats. We went to an
academic bookstore that was beautiful, run by a professor who’d been locked up
after Tiananmen Square and who now had this amazing bookstore.

Are all the bookstores
state-owned?

No, this is what is so interesting
about Chinese cultural control. Some of the publishing houses are state-owned,
some of the bookstores are state-owned, but not all of them. Still, it’s enough
that the government nudges the direction of the culture without having complete
control. We talked to the wonderful man who runs the academic bookstore, and we
said, “Why don’t you have more events? Because all of our stores use events to
get the word out about our stores.” And he said, “I have some, but I’m already
under surveillance. If I have too many then they’ll crack down.”

Other than the influence of the
state, how does Chinese bookselling compare to bookselling here in the States?

It was really like bookselling
twenty-five years ago. Remember what middle class retail used to be like? Go
back to our early teenage years. It wasn’t nice before the Banana Republicization of retail. I remember even when I
opened this store people kept coming up to me, saying, “It doesn’t feel like a
book store. It feels like a restaurant or a clothing store.” And I thought,
“Why can’t bookstores be nice?” It’s ridiculous. [Laughter.] So retail is changing in China. There are more and
more Western chains, and there’s a lot of money suddenly. So there are more and
more high-end stores that are beautiful. Retail feels very 1982 there.

So if you went back to China ten
years from now, do you think their stores will have evolved in the same way
that ours have?

I hope so. That’s what I gave my
speech about. Online retail is just now starting to impact their businesses. It really is
like a snap shot of our own history. So they are going to have to figure out
how to make their stores feel necessary. They’re about to come up against the
same challenge that we’ve been fighting. And the only way I know how to do that
is to create an attractive physical space. My customers tend to also say it’s the
staff.

What’s been the greatest challenge
in the first six years of business?

I don’t know. Everyone always asks me
that. Because it’s all gone so well, really.

For me I guess it
might be competition over author events. It’s really hard to get the A-list
authors in New York. Barnes & Noble always gets them. I also find management really a
challenge. It’s not, you know, native to my personality to tell people what to
do. I remember reading The Gospel of St. Thomas when I was quite young. There is a line in it that
says, “Jesus said, ‘Be passersby.’” And I thought, “What a wonderful idea, just
to be a passerby.” I mean, we’re all so meddlesome, you know? And I think being
raised by my mother, who was a retailer—once you’re a retailer you’re always
going into other people’s stores thinking, “Why would they choose that carpet?
Why would they have their staff do it that way?” Or constantly looking at ways
that things can be done better because that’s the only way to survive as a
store is to be always on the
lookout for any little thing
that you can do better. It’s a constant act of regeneration. If you stop,
you’re dead.

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What would be the highest compliment
you could receive from a customer?

I think it’s always the same, which is
they found and loved books that they would never have otherwise found.
Ultimately, that is my service. That can be the only service that independent
bookstores provide, because we no longer are the exclusive purveyors of these
things. That’s the only reason why we should exist.

To put good books in the hands of
people.

Yeah. Matchmaking, you know? That’s
the bookseller’s role. If we do it well, we’ll stay relevant. If we don’t do it
well, we won’t.

And what do you most want to have
achieved in the next six years of business?

I want this store to really have a
feeling of being so deeply curated. Because I don’t want to exist just for the
sake of existing, but to really feel essential to the culture.

INSIDE MCNALLY JACKSON BOOKS
On average, how many books do you
stock?

Forty thousand.

What are the best-selling sections
in your store?

Literature, art, and design.

What books did you most enjoy
selling in 2010?

Eating Animals
by Jonathan Safran Foer has brought many customers
and booksellers to vegetarianism; Just Kids by Patti Smith, as she is our neighbor and was
wonderful about signing stock, and New Yorkers loved this book; Faithful
Place
by Tana French is one of the
best mysteries we’ve read in a long time; and Nox by Anne Carson, whose writing I love deeply and
madly.

What is the most unique or defining aspect of McNally Jackson as a
bookstore for you?

Our focus on international literature,
which is part of a larger effort to create a bookstore that is as diverse as
New York City.

Is there anything special you look for in terms of an author event?
We try to avoid single-author readings
unless there is a pressing reason. We try panels, interviews, conversations,
political discussions—anything that avoids recitation and allows the spark of
creation to enter the store.

What would most people be surprised to learn about independent
bookstores?

That we don’t sit around all day
reading.

Where would you like to see McNally Jackson six years from now?
I aspire only to continue offering a
place where New Yorkers can celebrate the written word.

What do you love most about bookselling?
The customers.

Jeremiah Chamberlin teaches writing at
the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He is also the editor of the online
journal Fiction Writers Review.

McNally Jackson Books in New York City

For the sixth and final installment of our series of interviews, Inside
Indie Bookstores, Jeremiah Chamberlin travelled to New York City to speak with Sarah McNally, owner of McNally Jackson Books.

McNally Jackson 1

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McNally Jackson Books, located in the SoHo neighborhood of New York City, stocks about 40,000 books at any given time and sprawls over 7,000 square feet. Though founded by Sarah McNally in December 2004, it feels as though it’s always been a part of the city’s literary scene.

McNally Jackson 2

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The store has a sense of legacy, perhaps because McNally herself comes from a family of booksellers, and it’s clearly an integral part of the fabric of the neighborhood. It also feels personal. Every display has a bit of cloth and flowers. The wallpaper that decorates the café is made up entirely from pages of McNally’s own collection of books.

McNally Jackson 3

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“I want this store to really have a feeling of being so deeply curated,” McNally says. “Because I don’t want to exist just for the sake of existing, but to really feel essential to the culture.”

McNally Jackson 4

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The store is light and open and modern, yet still warm. From the lighting choices to the side tables, everything feels deliberate, unhurried. McNally Jackson Books is a neighborhood spot. There are plenty of places to sit, and lingering is encouraged.

McNally Jackson 5

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“When you buy something from a place, the aura of that place becomes a part of the object,” McNally says. “I’m sure if you went through your bookshelf you could remember where you bought every single book, and somehow it affects how you feel about that book forever.”

McNally Jackson 6

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“When I created my business model,” says McNally, “I articulated that we could be a destination bookstore in the same way that Barnes & Noble is a destination bookstore. We would have everything they did, but we’d simply be more selective—as a favor to the consumer, not a disservice.”

McNally Jackson 7

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The café is always busy, and while McNally admits it’s not a money maker, she says it contributes “spiritually” to the store. “It brings so much energy. Just the movement and the talking and the people bring real vitality to the store—people don’t want to walk into an empty bookstore.”

McNally Jackson 8

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“The future of our industry depends on the present of reading,” McNally says. “I’ve heard it time and again from customers—and I’ve found it in my own life—that when you read a book that’s not very good, you don’t rush out to read another book. But when you read a book you love, you rush back to continue the trend.”

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For McNally, the highest compliment is when a customer says they found and loved books that they would never have otherwise found. “Ultimately, that is my service,” she says. “That can be the only service that independent bookstores provide, because we no longer are the exclusive purveyors of these things. That’s the only real reason why we should exist…. Matchmaking, you know? That’s the bookseller’s role. If we do it well, we’ll stay relevant.”

Inside Indie Bookstores: Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver

by

Jeremiah Chamberlin

9.1.10

On the morning I visited Denver’s
Tattered Cover Book Store, the place was bustling with activity. Customers
wandered up and down the central staircase, carrying books tucked under their
arms. They stopped to browse the spacious aisles, scanning titles on the
shelves. They lingered in the downstairs café, eating as they flipped through
magazines from the enormous periodical section.

The reason for the
crowds had partly to do with the influx of writers who had traveled to Denver
this weekend for the Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference,
and partly with the fact that it was opening day of the Major League Baseball
season—the sidewalks were filled with fans headed to nearby Coors Field, home
of the Colorado Rockies, and before the game, many of them stopped at Tattered
Cover. The store’s location, in the LoDo (Lower Downtown) area of Denver, is a
success story of urban revitalization. This neighborhood is the oldest section
of Denver, and like the boom-and-bust economy of this western city, it has had
its fair share of downturns. In 1988, however, the city council created the
Lower Downtown Historic District with the mission to preserve the architectural
and historical assets of the area and to spur economic investment and growth.

Because of her
belief in this project and the need for community-oriented business districts,
Joyce Meskis, owner of Tattered Cover, purchased the warehouse building at 16th
and Wynkoop with a business partner in 1990, and subsequently moved her
administrative offices and the shipping-and-receiving operations for her Cherry
Creek store, which opened in 1974, to this location. A few years later, she
opened a second Tattered Cover store here, as well as a coffee shop and
newsstand. By 1996 the LoDo store had substantially expanded and today occupies
two floors over approximately twenty thousand square feet, including a café and
a dedicated special-events area that accommodates up to 250 people.

The store has since
become as much a destination for the local community as it has for writers.
From the moment you walk in, you feel a sense of ease and peacefulness. There
are overstuffed chairs and couches throughout both floors, as well as spacious
tables in the café area. The guiding aesthetic is a wonderful mix of the old
(worn hardwood floors downstairs, exposed rafters and hand-hewn support beams)
and the new (forest green carpet upstairs, a selection of organic and local
options at the café). The place feels vital. It feels vigorous.

The same could be
said of Meskis. Though soft spoken, she possesses an engaging and charming
personality that immediately put me at ease. She radiates a type of calm that
seems unflappable by the challenges of daily life. Yet in conversation she is
the first to poke fun at herself and the many obstacles she has faced in her
thirty-six years as a bookseller—not just in terms of running a business, but
also advocating for First Amendment rights and helping to nurture the social
and literary communities of Denver. In fact, Tattered Cover hosts more than
five hundred readings a year among its three locations. So it was fitting that
we sat down for our talk beside a fireplace at the back of Tattered Cover’s
expansive event space, surrounded by black-and-white photographs of many of the
authors who’ve read at the store during its nearly four decades of existence.

How did you come to bookselling?
I came to bookselling accidentally. I
was intent on teaching at the university level.

Here in Denver?
No, I didn’t have a place in mind. I
grew up in Chicago on the South Side, and I was very driven in terms of my
direction in life. I was determined I was going to get the zillionth degree,
and I wanted to have a life that was full of the usual things—marriage,
children. I could see myself at an excellent university teaching brilliant
students all day long, walking home with a briefcase in hand, kicking the fall
leaves as I approached my nice but not ostentatious house, hearing strains of
Chopin being played by my children through the open French doors. [Laughter.] It didn’t quite work out that way.

What year was this?
I graduated high school in 1959. Then
I went to college.

Did you go to school in Chicago?
No, I went to Purdue [in Indiana]. I
was a math major, believe it or not. It was always a toss-up, and I eventually
shifted to English. My parents didn’t have much money, but they were able to
pay for my first year. So I always had part-time jobs in the summers. But then
I married young, while we were in school, and I needed to get more work during
the school year. And soon I found myself working in bookstores to help pay the
tuition.

This was at Purdue?
Yes. But then my husband finished his
graduate degree and we moved to Colorado. All the while I was still working in
bookstores and libraries to help pay the tuition bills. And after some time—I
was in graduate school then—I woke up one morning literally staring at the
ceiling and said, “You idiot, don’t you know that you’ve been doing what you love
all these years? Why don’t you just get on with it?” So I dropped out of
graduate school and I got more serious about the book business. Around this
time the marriage ended, and I had two small children.

When was this?
1973. We were still pretty young, so
we didn’t have much savings. But I took my half and began pursuing the book
business. Fast forward a year or so and a little store in the Cherry Creek area
of Denver came up for sale. It was called the Tattered Cover, and it was three
years old. It was a small storefront—only 950 square feet—and carried only
new books, despite its name. So, I did a little business plan on an envelope
with a pencil and figured I could pull it off. The bad news was that the owner
wanted what seemed like a huge amount of money at the time. But the good news
was that he was willing to carry the note, to be the banker. And the other
piece of good news was that he didn’t want much money down. So I figured out
what I could do and I made an offer, which was promptly rejected.

Some time went by
and I decided, through the urging of a friend, to go see what was going on,
because there was no ownership transition of the store that was apparent. It
turned out that someone else had made a better offer earlier, but the deal had
fallen through. I don’t know why the owner didn’t come back to me afterward.
Who knows? But, to make a long story somewhat shorter, I made another offer. I
borrowed some money from my uncle in California and that offer was accepted in
September 1974, and ownership transferred to me.

Over the next several years you
expanded, however.

Yes, in increments.

Was this the plan from the
beginning, or did opportunities arise that allowed you to grow?

I can’t speak for every bookseller
in the world, obviously. But wouldn’t you say it’s true that every bookseller
sort of has this dream of the bookstore in the sky—what it could be, how you
would want to have so much of what you loved and what your customers
appreciated, and then also have the opportunity to pique their interest in
different areas without betting the ranch?

Of course.
So I don’t think I had a goal to
have a huge bookstore by any means. But I certainly wanted to grow it to a size
that would accommodate a fine representation of the wonderful books that are published.
So every time one of our neighbors in the building would move out, we would
take the space if it were available and if it were the right timing for us. We
were fortunate in that way. There was growth in the commercial area, there was
growth in what was possible in the book business in Denver, and we took the
opportunities.

But looking back, I think our biggest decision in
terms of growth in that first store was when we decided to move upstairs in the
original building. Quite a bit of space had become available on the second
floor and it was offered to us at a good price because second floor space—for
retail—is less desirable. So I pondered and pondered and pondered it. Because
the question was: How do you get the customers upstairs? And any time our
customers or colleagues found out that we were considering this, they thought
the sky was falling! They were very concerned and they gave me all kinds of
advice: “Don’t do it, don’t do it; your customers won’t follow you. It will be
the end of the Tattered Cover. It will be dreadful.”

Were you going to move the whole
store upstairs?

Oh, no. We were going to have both
floors. We were going to put in a staircase. And it’s not like there weren’t
stores that had tried this before. Obviously department stores were
multi-level. But it wasn’t quite the same thing. Our colleagues and sales reps
and customers were just beside themselves in their advice to me about not doing
this. And I kept thinking to myself, “Well, I’m sure they’ve got good reasons
for this, and I can see both sides to the story…” but we needed the space, we
were growing, the rent was very compelling, and I simply didn’t want to lose
that opportunity. And I thought, “We could make the staircase wider; we could
put books on the landings to draw people up the stairs; we could put
destination sections up there…” I said, “We can do this so it doesn’t feel like
an interminable journey up these stairs.”

Fast forward—we
did it. Our landlord had a charitable streak from time to time, and he loaned
me the money to put the staircase in. And the customers came upstairs. But our
colleagues were right in that it is much
harder to get people upstairs. Still, it worked. And it worked again. We took
again more space upstairs when it became available. So we grew from about 950
square feet to 6,000 square feet in that location. Then we were out of space.

Then, perhaps 1980
or so, I started looking around for space within the immediate area to move to.
And so I was looking, looking, looking, looking, nothing, nothing, nothing,
nothing. Moving a store is a serious decision, you know?

And no small undertaking.
And no small undertaking, even
though we’d become pretty used to barreling out walls and moving bookcases. In
fact, in my earliest years, after my husband and I were divorced, I lived in a
small place with the kids. I would go to the lumberyard and have my boards
pre-cut and then bring them back in the car. I had space in the alleyway, which
was next to the store, and I’d be banging away, making new bookcases. [Laughter.] I’d forgotten about that.

So, you know, we
were stuck. It didn’t seem like anything was going to work. And then I had a
visit from a developer in town who had his eye on a vacant piece of property
next to a parking garage next to a department store that was across the street
from a shopping center. It was an open field at that point, and he was planning
on putting in ground-floor retail and then a little bit of an expansion of the
parking garage next door above on the roof—a few extra stories of parking. And
so he said, “I’ll cut you a good deal. Would you like to move over here?” It
was only half a block away and it was brand new space—two floors, totaling
about 11,000 square feet. This was double what we currently had. And he was
willing to do a lot for us to get us over there, and I thought, “Okay. Let’s go
for it.”

So we got serious
about that and we were planning to sublet the old store location of 6,000
square feet. But then the bookstore grapevine came through town and we learned
that Pickwick Books was considering bringing a store to Denver. You probably
don’t remember Pickwick Books.

No, I don’t.
Pickwick Books was a new
development arm of the Dayton Hudson Corporation, which owned B. Dalton back
then. And Crown Books—do you remember Crown Books?

I do.
Well, Crown Books was very
successful opening up in the Washington D.C. area. They were one of the first major
discounters and they, were really doing a number on the independent stores, as
well as on the B. Dalton and Walden stores. So my assumption back
then—”assumption,” keep that in mind—was that when the powers that be got
together and saw what was happening with Crown in their locations, they got
nervous and started to think of ways they could counteract this trend. So B. Dalton—at
that time owned by the Dayton Hudson Corporation—decided to do an experiment.
They had purchased a small, regional chain in southern California called
Pickwick. Then they converted those stores to B. Dalton stores and they retired
the Pickwick name. But they still owned it. It’s my understanding that by still
owning that name they decided to use it for their trial run of a new bookstore
model: heavy discounting, using Crown as the model. They were going to place it
in three or four cities around the country to test market it, and one of those
cities was Denver. [Laughter.]

This was now in the 80s?
This would be the early-to-mid 80s,
because we were supposed to move in ’82 but there was construction delay. So we
moved in January ’83 into the new space. And then we learned that Crown was
doing this roll-out across the country and that one of the cities was also
going to be Denver.

Cue ominous music.
Right! [Laughter.] So I took my calculator home and tried to figure
out what they knew about bookselling that I didn’t know. And I couldn’t see how
we could maintain our position. So I thought, “Well, we can’t discount. But we
can give the bargain-conscious customer something else. We can go heavily into
bargain books—remainders.” But we needed more space to do that. So we decided
to keep the old store space and put it primarily into bargain books. That’s
also about the same time that we decided to go more heavily into periodicals and
sidelines. Anyway, it turned out that business thrived.

Tattered Cover is often cited as one of the first independent stores
to develop an author reading series. Were readings a part of Tattered Cover
from the beginning?

It happened early, but it happened in
an unusual sort of way. As I said before, I had worked in bookstores when I was
in school. And when I bought Tattered Cover we were not really seeking author
events because I had seen too often a lovely gathering where nobody came, and I
didn’t want to put the author in that kind of position. Well, one day I got a
call from our sales rep for Little, Brown and she said, “Joyce, I’ve got an
offer to make to you. Ansel [Adams] is going to be on his way to see Georgia
[O’Keeffe] in New Mexico and he’s going to stop in Denver. Would you like to
have him for a signing?” I held my breath and said, “Absolutely. We would be
delighted to have a signing.” Though I was completely terrified. I had heard
that he was very particular about the plates on the books and that he would go
to the printers about it, and so I thought he must be a difficult and demanding
personality. But when he came he couldn’t have been sweeter. Just wonderful.
And, of course, the line was out the door. I was sold at that point. The magic
of that moment—of seeing the author and his people—was just fabulous.

I remember when
Tom Wolfe came for The Right Stuff. We had a wonderful group of folks waiting for him, and events just
became a part of our community experience. Every signing—every one—is
different. To me, there are no two that are exactly the same. You can make all
the predictions you want. There are some elements, of course, that are common
to any signing. But when it comes to a particular reader meeting a particular
writer, a particular connection is made and there’s nothing like it that has
ever existed before. It cements the building blocks of the whole experience of
reading and publishing and writing. It’s just wonderful.

Are there any other authors or
events that you found particularly special?

Once we had acquired the second
floor in the original building, we did all the signings up there. And at one
point we had the opportunity to host Buckminster Fuller—a forward-looking
architect and writer of note. As it turned out, he was on his last tour. He was
quite elderly at the time. And when he walked in the door and I saw how frail
he was, I thought, “He’s never going to make those stairs.” So I said, “We’ll bring the signing table
downstairs.” But he said, “No, no, no, no, no.” He was going to go up those
stairs and sit at that table and greet his admirers. And he did so. It was a
daytime event, and his admirers almost genuflected when they came up to the
signing table. It was that type of experience. And as the line was coming to a
close, his adult grandson, who was traveling with him, said to me, “Do you have
a large pan that you could put some warm water in for granddad to soak his
hand?” It turns out that he’d broken a finger or two but he insisted on coming
to sign. That was really remarkable.

Do you also do nonliterary events here that are community oriented?
When we’re not doing signings here [in
the events space] or when there is a gap for some reason, we will rent this
space out to the community; we also have a minimal rental rate for nonprofits.
And sometimes we’ll just let some organizations use it, such as the Lighthouse
Writers Group. They meet here once in a while. So, yes, it’s a community
meeting space.

Another thing I’d like to talk with
you about—because it has to do both with the local community here in Denver
and the broader literary community—is the First Amendment case that you were
involved in. Can you talk a bit about how this came about?

In 2000 we were approached by a DEA
agent who served us with a subpoena to turn over some records. But the
subpoena—upon sending it to our attorney—turned out not to be an official
subpoena. After my attorney looked at it, he indicated to me that this type of
subpoena was not actionable. So he called the agent, informing him that in
order to obtain access to the records a proper subpoena would need to be
presented.

But the agent
indicated that he didn’t want to take that course of action. So we thought that
was the end of that. But three weeks later, my attorney, Dan Recht, called and
said, “Joyce, I got a call from an individual in the Adams County DA’s office,
saying that a search warrant is in the works on Tattered Cover, in the hopes of
getting the sales records for a particular customer.” And I said, “A search
warrant? That is immediately
actionable.” I knew that much about the law. But he said, “Don’t get excited
yet; I asked for some extra time. We have until the end of the business day
tomorrow to come up with a response. So I want you to think about this
overnight, and I’ll call you tomorrow afternoon.

The decision was whether to allow
it?

The decision was about how we were
going to respond. Because there’s no decision to be made about “allowing” a
search warrant—once issued, the authorities can act on it. So the next day I
was in the office and I got a visit from one of our floor managers. She said,
“Joyce, there are police officers here with a search warrant and they want to
see you.” I said, “That’s impossible.” And she said, “No, it isn’t; they’re
here.”

So you began shredding all your records, right?
No. [Laughter.] I said, “Okay, send them upstairs and we’ll
deal with this.” There were four or five individuals, all dressed in civvies.
They weren’t jack-booted police officers or anything like that. In fact, they
were dressed like booksellers—one had a ponytail; they wore tennis shoes. They
were all completely gentlemanly. But they had a search warrant. So I said, “May
I call my attorney?” They said, “Yes.” And when I called Dan he absolutely hit
the ceiling: “They can’t do that! They gave us until the end of the business
day today! Fax me a copy of the search warrant.”

So while the
warrant was faxing over, I was sitting with the officers and talking about the
First Amendment and the Kramerbooks case [in which independent counsel Kenneth
Starr tried unsuccessfully to obtain Monica Lewinsky’s purchase records from an
independent bookstore in Washington, D.C.]. They had a mission and the mission
was going to be accomplished. They said, “This isn’t about you.” I said, “I know it’s not about me.” They said, “You’re perfectly
legal.” I said, “I know we’re
perfectly legal.” They said, “You can sell anything that’s constitutionally
protected.” I said, “I know we
can sell anything that’s constitutionally protected—that’s what we sell.” This
went on: “But we need this information.” “Well, I see that as a First Amendment
issue.” “It’s not a First Amendment issue.” “Yes, it’s a First Amendment
issue.”

Meanwhile, Dan got
the copy of the search warrant and he asked to talk with the lead officer. So I
put him on the phone and they went at it. While Dan was talking to him, I kept
talking to the other officers. Finally, at the very end, I said, “What are the
books that you’re after, anyway? How do you even know we stock them?” And one
officer looked me right in the eye and he said, “You’ll special-order anything,
won’t you?” [Laughter.] Got
me.

Throughout this
meeting they kept saying, “We just want this one record, we just want this one
record from this one customer.” And I asked, “What if you don’t find what
you’re looking for?” And he said, “We’ll take the next step then.” Which I
translated as: The search warrant goes into effect and they look at more
records and more records.

Somehow, some way,
Dan was able to persuade them to hold off for ten days. So they left the store,
Dan and I conversed, and within a heartbeat Dan filed for a temporary
restraining order in the court, and we got it. This enabled us to file suit
against them—to get a judicial opinion on whether the search warrant could
move forward or not.

Whether it truly was an infringement of First Amendment rights?
Right. That’s what was up for debate.

Was it the individual’s right to privacy being defended, or was it
your right?

It was the individual’s right. I asked
the officer, “Why don’t you just go to the individual and get us out of the
loop?” But the officer replied, “He’s not going to tell us anything.” You see,
we didn’t know anything about the case. We assumed it had something to do with
drugs because the DEA had been involved earlier, but that was all we knew.

So they suspected that this
individual had purchased a particular title, but they needed to verify that
fact with you.

That’s right. They wanted confirmation.
When we learned more, as our case moved through the judicial process, we found
out that it had to do with a meth lab. There’d been suspicion of a meth lab in
a trailer home in a trailer park in Adams County, and so the officers had been
able to get a search warrant for the premises on probable cause that illegal
activity was happening there. As they suspected, they found a small meth lab in
the bedroom of the trailer home. They also found in the trash what they called
a “mailing envelope” from Tattered Cover. The mailing envelope had a mailing
label on it, and there was an invoice number on the label. There was also the
name of the person to whom the contents of the envelope were addressed, who
lived at the trailer home. But there was no indication what had been in the envelope.

Because there was no invoice?
Correct. Inside the trailer home, near
the meth lab, were two books on how to make meth. And so the officers said,
“Aha!” They wanted to put the two pieces of evidence together to tie it to that
specific person. They wanted to know who occupied that bedroom, because there
were four or five people who lived in that trailer.

So Tattered Cover was within its legal rights to sell that book; the
officers simply wanted to identify which individual had bought it so that that
purchase could be used as circumstantial evidence to prove who
had been making the meth.
Right. So they went to get a search
warrant for us after we were unwilling to turn the information over with the
unofficial subpoena. But because Tattered Cover is a legitimate business, the
DA’s office in Adams County may have felt there wasn’t any danger of us
destroying evidence—which is normally one of the reasons why a search would be
necessary. Instead, they wanted the officers to do more due diligence
first—dust the books for fingerprints, interview people in the trailer park to
see who lived in that trailer, and so on.

So they went and
did the fingerprinting, which yielded no results. In fact, one of the books
still had its brown wrapper around it. Hadn’t been opened, hadn’t been cracked.
And the other one looked like it hadn’t been cracked—the spine was clean.

But the officers
wanted to take the shortcut. And since they were on hold with the Adams County
DA’s office, they went to Denver for the search warrant. They could do that
because we’re located in the city and county of Denver. So now we’re in the
Denver district court and we find out that this is going to go on for a while.
Dan’s is a small office. He doesn’t have a big corporate office to absorb
costs, and he was charging us little. Meanwhile, we were getting five-dollar
donations from customers to help pay legal fees. And Chris Finan from the
American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression stepped in. And our pal
Neal Sofman in San Francisco held a fund-raiser at A Clean Well-Lighted Place
for Books with Daniel Handler, who writes as Lemony Snicket, along with some
other authors to raise money for us.

So this was becoming a national issue.
It became a national phenomenon. We
were getting calls from national press. I never saw anything like it.
Meanwhile, all we’re trying to do is sell books. [Laughter.]

Yet 90 percent of your time was spent on this issue.
And our customers—every time we’d
been involved in cases like this before there was press, and each time I
thought, “This time the customers are not going to understand and we’re going to
go out of business.” I thought for sure that would be the case with this one. I
mean, a meth lab? We don’t like meth labs. But that was not the point of the
case.

So that judge in
the district court gave half a loaf to each side. In his decision, he ruled
that authorities could not have the thirty days’ worth of material/background
on this customer that they were seeking. But the Tattered Cover would have to
turn over the record of what was mailed to that customer on that one invoice.
So then we had a decision as to whether to appeal our case to the Colorado
Supreme Court or not. And we did.

To skip to the end
of that story, we got a 6-0 decision in our favor. One judge abstained; I
have no reason why.

How long did the entire process last?
Two years. It was decided in 2002. And
once it was over, the authorities finally went out and got the guy. They put
him in prison for a number of years.

Without even needing this evidence.
Right. By the time we were into the
case we had several pro bono attorneys. And many of them were criminal
[defense] attorneys. They looked at the facts and they said, “They don’t need
this. We’ve had less evidence for some of our clients who got put away.” At
about the same time—midway through the case—a couple of local young filmmakers
asked us if they could do a documentary. So they followed us around for the
second year of the case. But when the case was over and they’d finished their
piece and were trying to sell it to PBS, they found out that they needed to get
eight or nine more minutes of film. So they came to us and said, “We would like
to have an aftermath panel with all the parties. It would be you, Dan, the lead
officer, their attorney, and someone from the University of Denver law school
who would moderate the panel. We’ll do it at the Press Club. Would you be
willing to do that?” So we were all set to go when Dan got a phone call from
the public defender who had represented the guy who was accused and convicted
of making the meth. He asked Dan to confirm what was in the package.

Because of course you had to have known what the book was this whole
time.

But the guy who’d been put in prison
hadn’t known anything about this case while it was going on. He had no idea.
They’d arrested him after the case was over. But evidently he’d told his public
defender what had been in the package, and when the police had finally
interviewed him he’d also told them. But they didn’t believe him, evidently.

So the public
defender said to Dan, “Would you confirm the title?” And Dan said, “Well, we
could if we had permission from the individual. But it’s not something we
really want to do. We feel that this is private. He can say what the book was
if he wants to, but in any case we would certainly need written permission.” So
the next thing you know a letter is delivered from the guy in prison, with his
permission to reveal the contents of the package.

After the phone
call, Dan said to me, “Maybe we should do that.” And I said, “No! We spent two
years of our lives on this thing. We’re not going to make more hay out of
this.” Meanwhile, the filmmakers have set up the panel. You can actually see
this film if you ever care to. They play it nearly every September during
Banned Book Week.

So there we are on
the panel. A whole bunch of people are in attendance. It’s a small room at the
Denver Press Club, but it’s filled up. And when we get to the
question-and-answer period, who should be in the audience but the public
defender…. [Raises eyebrows.]
He stands up, identifies himself as the attorney for the convicted individual,
and he says—I’m paraphrasing here—”Mr. Recht, you have received a letter from
my client giving you permission to identify what was in the package, haven’t
you?” Dan says, “Yes.” “And would you do so?” And Dan says, “We would never
identify what was in the package unless we had explicit permission from whoever
owned the package, whoever bought the book.” And the public defender says, “But
you have that permission, don’t you?” And Dan says, “Yes, but again I want you
to know that we would certainly never put this information out there unless we
had permission.” “Well?” the public defender asks. “Okay, then,” Dan finally
says. “The book was on Japanese calligraphy.”

That’s amazing.
It’s true. The guy was a tattoo
artist. [Smiles.]

Let’s talk a bit about the future next. You can’t open a
bookselling-related periodical and not see at least one story about e-readers
and Kindles and digital bookselling. Do you have any intention of selling
digital books?

I think it’s very apropos of the
times. We do sell digital downloads on our Web site. We can sell them for most
of the e-readers except the Kindle, which is proprietary to Amazon. There are
many issues with regard to books being produced in this way, but as far as
independent stores’ being competitive with Amazon it’s a pricing issue. Though
we can sell these digital downloads, we can’t really be competitive because
Amazon is selling below cost. We just don’t have the financial wherewithal to
sustain that.

I’ve always been a
firm believer that information will move in the most user-friendly manner
possible. And when mass-market paperbacks became a big deal in the United
States after World War II, there were a number of people who said that this was
going to be the end of good publishing. That didn’t happen. Times will change,
and we do need to face the challenges that are before us and still maintain our
care and our community service to the people who are so important to us—the
writers and the readers. And I think that ink on paper between boards, well
done, will always be, at least in the foreseeable future, part of our social
construct. Reading a book, as you well know, is more than a cerebral
experience—it’s a physical experience. And while an e-reader has its place in
many people’s lives, there’s nothing like holding a book and seeing the pages
turn in a way that is not electronic. [Laughter.]

When I think of a
book, there are many forms that it takes. When we talk about fine literature
and poetry and use that as an example, the soul of that book is its content and
the message of the author. So that’s first. What holds that message—whether it
is a computer, ink on paper, or an iPad or a Kindle or a Nook or a Sony
Reader—has more significance in some circumstances than others. I would prefer
to read my fiction and a great deal of my nonfiction in ink on paper. If I’m on
an airplane and going on vacation, I might choose something else. But if it’s a
cookbook, I need pictures. I want to be able to get a little of what I’m
cooking on the page. [Laughter.]
So, while it may be mixing metaphors a bit, you’re not going to stand in the
way of the freight train of change. However, I think it’s really important to
be up front laying the track as best you can in the right direction for the
benefit of the readers who we serve.

Finally, what is your favorite
thing about the day-to-day of bookselling?

When I’m walking through the sales
floor and a little kid goes up to the shelf and spots a book and says, “Oh,
wow! You’ve got that book!” To know you’ve played some small role in making
that happen—there’s nothing like it. I’ve been in this business a long time
and I still get chills down my back when things like this occur.

Just this morning we received a letter
from a young girl—a ten-year-old fifth grader—who wrote a poem about books,
and loving to be in this store, and the cushy chairs, and her favorite step
that she likes to sit on. “Books, books, books, books,” she wrote. “Read, read,
read, read.” That’s what she said. [Smiles.] It is a remarkable profession, trade, and way of life.

page_5: 

INSIDE TATTERED COVER BOOK STORE
What are the best-selling sections
in your stores?

Backlist and genre fiction, new
fiction, new nonfiction, and children’s books. The next tier would include
history, religion, and travel.

What for you is the most unique or
defining aspect of Tattered Cover as a bookstore?

The dedication of its booksellers to
providing a special comfortable “place,” physical and mental, where customers
can browse a vast selection of ideas in print. 

Is there anything special you look
for in terms of an author event?

The Tattered Cover offers a wide
variety of ideas presented in the form of author events—over five hundred each
year—including the very literary, thought provoking, humorous, topical,
educational, controversial, and political, to name just a few. All of this
said, first and foremost, the author’s work has to have an audience motivated
to come to hear the author speak. We can provide the venue, the publisher can
provide a few dollars to advertise the event, but in the end it’s the author
who is the draw.

What role does technology play in
your store?

If one considers the modern printing
press a technological wonder, not to mention the various elements of
production, these are the very basis of our existence as a business. However,
technology, as we tend to think of it today, plays a significant role in
database information and searches, communication, business record keeping,
marketing, and, increasingly, the presentation and download of “the book”
itself into handheld and/or computer devices.

What has been the biggest challenge
for Tattered Cover in the last decade?

Maintaining a strong customer base that
will continue to support the booksellers; offering customers a substantial inventory
in a faltering economy and a highly competitive atmosphere.

What is the most important service
that bookstores provide their communities?

The free flow of ideas in print through
a sense of place within the community, offering an opportunity for people and
ideas to come together.

Jeremiah Chamberlin teaches writing at the University of Michigan in
Ann Arbor. He is also the editor of the online journal Fiction Writers
Review
.

Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver

For the fifth installment of our ongoing series of interviews, Inside Indie Bookstores, Jeremiah Chamberlin travelled to Denver to speak with Joyce Meskis, owner of Tattered Cover.

Tattered Cover Book Store 1

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Denver’s Tattered Cover Book Store, located in the LoDo (Lower Downtown) area of the city, occupies two floors over approximately twenty thousand square feet, including a café and a dedicated special-events area that accommodates up to 250 people.

Tattered Cover Book Store 2

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From the moment you walk in, you feel a sense of ease and peacefulness. There are overstuffed chairs and couches throughout both floors, as well as spacious tables in the café area.

Tattered Cover Book Store 3

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The guiding aesthetic is a wonderful mix of the old (worn hardwood floors downstairs, exposed rafters and hand-hewn support beams) and the new (forest green carpet upstairs, a selection of organic and local options at the café). The place feels vital. It feels vigorous.

Tattered Cover Book Store 4

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Owner Joyce Meskis radiates a type of calm that seems unflappable by the challenges of daily life. Yet in conversation she is the first to poke fun at herself and the many obstacles she has faced in her thirty-six years as a bookseller—not just in terms of running a business, but also advocating for First Amendment rights and helping to nurture the social and literary communities of Denver.

Tattered Cover Book Store 5

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“I can’t speak for every bookseller in the world, obviously,” Meskis says. “But wouldn’t you say it’s true that every bookseller sort of has this dream of the bookstore in the sky—what it could be, how you would want to have so much of what you loved and what your customers appreciated, and then also have the opportunity to pique their interest in different areas without betting the ranch?”

Tattered Cover Book Store 6

Image: 

“When I’m walking through the sales floor,” says Meskis, “and a little kid goes up to the shelf and spots a book and says, “Oh, wow! You’ve got that book!” To know you’ve played some small role in making that happen—there’s nothing like it. I’ve been in this business a long time and I still get chills down my back when things like this occur.”

 

Tattered Cover Book Store 7

Image: 

“Every signing—every one—is different,” says Meskis. “To me, there are no two that are exactly the same. You can make all the predictions you want. There are some elements, of course, that are common to any signing. But when it comes to a particular reader meeting a particular writer, a particular connection is made and there’s nothing like it that has ever existed before. It cements the building blocks of the whole experience of reading and publishing and writing. It’s just wonderful.”

Tattered Cover Book Store 8

Image: 

“The Tattered Cover offers a wide variety of ideas presented in the form of author events—over five hundred each year—including the very literary, thought provoking, humorous, topical, educational, controversial, and political, to name just a few,” Meskis says. “All of this said, first and foremost, the author’s work has to have an audience motivated to come to hear the author speak. We can provide the venue, the publisher can provide a few dollars to advertise the event, but in the end it’s the author who is the draw.”

 

Tattered Cover Book Store 9

Image: 

“Times will change,” says Meskis, “and we do need to face the challenges that are before us and still maintain our care and our community service to the people who are so important to us—the writes and the readers.”

Inside Indie Bookstores: Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon

by

Jeremiah Chamberlin

3.1.10

Few independent bookstores are more iconic than Powell’s Books. Even readers who’ve never been to Portland, Oregon, know about the store from its ads in places like the New Yorker, or from its prominent online presence, or from its reputation as the largest new- and used-book store in the world. The “City of Books,” as the four-story flagship store on West Burnside is known, occupies an entire city block, and carries more than one million books. The sixty-eight-thousand-square-foot space is divided into nine color-coded rooms, which together house more than 3,500 sections. From the moment you walk in, it feels as if you could find anything there. (And if you can’t, try one of the seven branch stores in five other locations throughout Portland, specializing in everything from technical books to home and garden.)

I was early for my interview with owner Michael Powell, so I decided to get a coffee in the attached café. Like the bookstore itself, the guiding aesthetic is simplicity—no overstuffed chairs, no fireplace, no decorations on the salmon-colored walls other than some taped-up flyers for local bands and a Buddhist meditation group. Not that anyone seems to notice. While I was there, every single person I encountered was reading. At the table nearest me a high school girl in cat-eye glasses and a ski cap read Lucy Knisley’s French Milk (Epigraph Publishing, 2000), with a stack of David Sedaris waiting at her elbow. A well-dressed elderly woman flipped through the Oregonian not too far away. And on the other side, near the windows, a young woman with black hair and piercings through both her cheeks was making a list of recipes from The Garden of Vegan (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2003). Filling the rest of the tables were hipsters in zip-up sweatshirts and Chuck Taylor All Stars, a young father in a shirt and tie with his two children, construction workers wearing Carhartt overalls, and women with trendy bags and knee-high leather boots. All were reading. Here was a microcosm of the store: A diversity of people and interests, sure, but what’s most important in Powell’s is neither image nor decor but the books themselves.

This is not to say that the store doesn’t have a unique vibe. Like Michael Powell himself, there is a straightforwardness to Powell’s that puts a person at ease. When the owner and I met, he was dressed casually in jeans and a pullover sweater. And though he had to attend a black-tie community event later that night, he was generous with his time, walking me through both the history of the business and the store itself—how the portion of the building with terrazzo floors had originally been an American Motors dealership; how when they built the newer sections of the store, more than a decade ago, they’d intentionally left the concrete floors bare because the industrial feel not only complemented the plain, pine bookcases but also added to the laid-back atmosphere; and how proud he is that their foreign-language section alone accommodates more than thirty thousand titles.

Michael Powell’s philosophy on bookselling is simple: He wants to provide people with books. He has no interest in telling people what to read. Nor would he ever judge a person by the type of books she purchases. New or used, dime-store paperback or first-edition hardcover, manga or metaphysics, all are equally at home on his shelves.

This sense of equality permeates every aspect of the Powell’s business model, from the practice of shelving used and new books side by side in each section, to the store’s long-standing advocacy on free-speech issues, to the fact that its five hundred employees are unionized and have a matching 401(k) plan. Likewise, Powell may be the boss, but it’s clear that he also sees himself as a fellow employee. When we left the downtown location and he drove me across town to the former ball-bearing warehouse that is now the site of the online bookselling operations, no one had to “look busy” when the owner arrived. Instead, they chatted with him as we walked through the facility, offering updates on their various ongoing projects, including ideas for how best to recycle used packaging materials. The warehouse, which feels like an airplane hangar but with the sound of jazz floating in the air, processes up to three thousand online orders daily. And 70 percent of those are single-title orders, a fact that amazes Powell, a logical man who never ceases to be surprised or impressed by his customers, even when they pay more than twenty dollars to have a four-
dollar book shipped overnight. It makes him wonder aloud how he can better meet their needs.

This, then, might be the trait that best characterizes Michael Powell: curiosity. He is endlessly curious about the world, about his employees’ ideas, about what his customers want to read, and about innovative ways to do business. It is a trait that has served him well during his last four decades of bookselling. And though he’ll officially hand over the reins of the business to his daughter, Emily, in July, when he turns seventy, one gets the sense that Powell will always be dreaming of how to connect books and people. Because it’s clear that he loves them both.  

How did you become a bookseller?
In the mid-sixties I ran a little student co-op [at the University of Chicago] where students could sell textbooks and other books on consignment. I also rode my bike around to various thrift shops in the general area and went to the Sunday morning flea market called Maxwell Street—which was very famous in its day in Chicago—to buy books and put them on consignment. Then I sold books by catalogue for a couple years to university libraries, mostly out-of-print social science and history, before I opened my first store in 1970, in Chicago.

Early on, I was thinking of opening a store in Santa Fe, New Mexico, because my wife and I had traveled to Santa Fe and saw it for the first time and everybody falls in love with Santa Fe the first time. She was being offered a job as a Montessori teacher there and I was going to open a bookstore when I got a phone call from a mentor in Hyde Park, in Chicago. He wanted to move his store because he’d been attacked by a customer.

He’d found a new location that was closer to campus, and the reason it was currently vacant was that the Weathermen had firebombed its previous occupant out of existence and he didn’t want to go back into it, he was too nervous. And the university—well, not exactly the university, but whoever was in charge of organizing these things—had approached my friend. However, the space was too big for him; he wanted to take only half of it. So he said to me, “You take half and do mostly paperbacks, and I’ll do hardbacks.” And I said, “I could do that, but I don’t have the money.” My wife says I was always good for twenty bucks but never for a hundred. And he said, “There are some professors who would like to talk to you about that; they’re kind of the patron saints of bookstores.” There were three of them: Morris Janowitz, Edward Shils, and the third one was Saul Bellow. Morris Janowitz, who was the lead, came to me and said, “What would you need?” I had no idea. So I said—and this is, remember, 1970—I said, “Probably three thousand dollars.” And he said, “We can do that. We can loan you three thousand dollars.” Then I said, “But, you know, I’ve got a problem. I don’t know how quickly this will get up and running. And there’s all the rent.” So he said, “We can help with rent, too, for a little while.” Rent was, I think, a hundred dollars a month. So, okay, now they’re rehabbing the building and there’s some time before I can occupy it. So my wife and I take a thousand of the three thousand and we travel across the country to Oregon to visit my folks. [Laughter.]

When we were back in Chicago, I took the remaining two thousand dollars and bought some books. A friend and I built some shelves, and we opened. Like I was saying, it was a small, small store. But we did well. The students, of course, liked used paperbacks. They thought that was great. At some point my neighbor moved away and I took his space. Then there was another business in the back…and when they went away I took that space. So, ultimately, it was about four thousand square feet.

And then my dad [who had come to Chicago to work in the bookstore] went back to Portland in 1971. He opened his shop, moved once into a space of about ten thousand square feet, and had begun to introduce new books into the mix, shelving them side by side with used books. In 1979 he said, “You know, now wouldn’t be a bad time if you’re interested in coming back.” I always thought I would come back. I always thought of myself as an Oregonian, always kept my Oregon driver’s license. And I said, “Yeah, I’d like to do that.” There had been a huge snowstorm in Chicago that winter; we’d had an infant—she was born in November—and we had to get out of the neighborhood we were in. It wasn’t suitable for raising a family, and I’d had it with the weather. So coming back to Oregon sounded great to me.

Well, the night before we left Chicago, my dad called. He said, “I’ve got some news: We’ve lost our lease.” Our landlord, which was a brewery, had wanted to take the space back and had given us a year to find a new location. So we spent that year searching, and we found the space that is currently Powell’s Books. In the mid-eighties, we started opening branch stores. I was always curious about new ways to do things with books; I didn’t want just to replicate anything. And one of the questions was if we could do our new-used mix and do it in the suburbs, where everybody’s perception was that it would have to be Borders or Barnes & Noble or something.

By that you mean nice carpeting and polished wood, soft lighting—
The whole nine yards. We weren’t getting women to our downtown location in the proportions that most people have women as shoppers, perhaps because our area was a little bit edgy.

It was a developing neighborhood?
It was an undeveloped neighborhood—mostly warehouses, wholesalers, and auto repair shops. Kind of funky stuff, but not retail. Not restaurants and bars. Now it’s all high-end national and local boutiques, and dozens and dozens of restaurants and bars. It’s quite fashionable, I suppose.

In any case, I wanted to see if we could capture a different audience if we opened the store in a suburb, and that went well. And each year for about six years we opened a store. First, we did a travel bookstore downtown in about 1985. Then the Hawthorne District stores in about 1986. Then the cookbook store…somewhere in there we opened a store in the airport, and a technical bookstore. So I was both interested in segmenting books like technical and travel and cooking, and I was also interested in demographics, like urban centers, suburbs, and airports. It sounds like it was planned, but it wasn’t. It was just opportunity and impulse. The only one of those that we don’t have any longer is the travel store. The Internet took that business away enough to justify not keeping a whole store solely focused on the subject. And the cookbook store sort of morphed into a lifestyle store, with gardening and cooking and interior design. And now we have three stores at the airport.

What did you find with the suburban store that you built to look like Borders or Barnes & Noble?
Well, we were going to build a fairly fancy store in the suburbs—nice white shelving, a tile floor, banners over the aisles, and colors, and so forth and so on. But the aesthetics weren’t right. So the first chance we got to get rid of all that, we did.

You shut the whole store down?
We moved it. And when we moved it, we moved it into a larger space. And at that point we went back to wood shelves. Pine wood, cement floor, more of an industrial look. That has always worked for us well downtown. That was my misreading of the 
suburbs—that I had to sort of pretty it up, and I was wrong. We’ve more recently moved that store into a space double the size—thirty-two thousand square feet. And once again we have a cement floor. In fact, the ceiling has exposed insulation as a sort of architectural touch. It looks very industrial.

Why do you think that works?
People want a calm background for the books. I don’t think they need…I think Borders’s and Barnes & Noble’s message is “Buy the book and get the hell out of here” in some subliminal way. It’s too bright, the shelves are low so everybody’s watching everybody. You feel very exposed. Our shelves are about twelve feet high. You live in these little alleys, and there’s a kind of cozy feel in that that makes it comfortable for customers. And you can sit on the floor, you know, you can spill something on the floor. It’s not a big disaster.

You don’t have to worry about messing up someone’s living room.
No. And the used books look more comfortable in that environment, because they look a little shabbier when they’re too exposed. So, that’s where we are. In 1994 we went on the Internet with the only inventory we had in the database at that point, which was the technical bookstore. I’d only been up for about a month when I got a letter from England from someone saying, “I was looking for this technical book, and I was told in England it would take six weeks to deliver and would cost me the equivalent of a hundred dollars. So I thought, ‘Well, I’ll just check out the Internet and see.’ You had the book for forty-five dollars and you could get it to me in three days.”

When I read this, I thought, “Holy hell! Here’s an opportunity.” So we got all our books into a database. We had what we called “the river” and “the lake”—there were all the new books coming every day that had to get entered, but we also had to back enter everything that was currently on the shelves. So it took a year.

Is that lake dried up now?
The lake is now part of the river. And we built up the Internet business to where it was about a fourth of our sales. So we were an early adopter for selling books online. Amazon came along, of course, and blew right past us. But we sell a lot of books via Amazon, and we sell books via eBay and Alibris and AbeBooks in addition to on our own site. We also carry inventories from England and Germany—our books are drop shipped to the customer. We do what we can.

I imagine that most people think of you as being in direct competition with Amazon. But, in fact, you’re actually doing a lot of partnership with Amazon?
Well, I don’t know. We are in competition at one level, certainly. I’m sure some of our business has turned over to Amazon. But I’m not foolish about it. If there’s an opportunity to sell books, I’m going to sell them. Amazon is my opportunity. And we sell some new books there, but mostly used.

So you ship to Amazon and then they repackage and ship them?
No, we package and ship. We can ship in our boxes with our materials inside. So we can brand that shipment. They’re good with that. And if somebody just orders a new book from us, we’ll usually have a wholesaler fill that order. Ingram or Baker & Taylor drop ship for us in our boxes, so it cuts out shipping to us. That works well. We do the same thing with Gardner Books in England and Lieber in Germany, both wholesalers. And it works. Some of it is hard. It’s not easy—a lot of infrastructure crossed with the Internet.

What are some of its particular challenges?
I think everybody, me included, thought the Internet was going to be this miracle way of making money, because for not very much money you could make all these books available around the whole world. Well, people didn’t count on all the software writers you need to keep your Web site hot and current, or the editorial work that has to go into maintaining a Web site both in terms of the tracking game and also making it sticky for people to visit and to find value there so that they’ll shop with us. Because we don’t discount the books, you know. It’s a small number—twenty, thirty books—otherwise it’s retail. You would think we’d have no business, that people are nuts for ordering books from us.

Because there are cheaper places?
There are cheaper places. And yet, the brand, the interest, whatever…we maintain a good new book sale. I won’t say it’s growing, but it’s steady. There’s a lot of price competition in both the used book world and in the new book world. So it’s been hard to build that business, but we think we can. We have a lot of people who visit the site but don’t stay, and we have to find a way to encourage them to stay. A small percentage of these customers mean a lot to our business. My daughter’s working with some consultants to redesign and redeploy our Web strengths. 

The site certainly has a wonderful array of resources—interviews with authors, blogs…
We Tweet; we do everything. We do everything we possibly can with the resources we have. I always say that the people I have working on our Web site are a rounding error for Amazon. Amazon would have thousands of employees dedicated to what I have twenty dedicated to. On the other hand, I have to say we go toe-to-toe with them. They have things we don’t have, but we have things they don’t have. Sometimes they have them pretty fast after we have them, but we think of ourselves as innovators.

One of these recent innovations is our online buyback. Anyone in the U.S. can go to our Web site, check via a book’s ISBN number to see whether or not we want to buy it, and then find out how much we want to pay for it. We’ll pay the freight; all you have to do is box it, print out our label and packing list, and ship it in. Once it’s received and we’ve checked the condition, we’ll pay you via PayPal, or you can get virtual credit, which you can spend as you will. That has given us a pretty hefty flow of books.

So even after paying shipping costs it’s still worthwhile for you to buy these books?

 

Yeah. In order to maintain our inventory, we can’t rely only on books bought in Portland. We’ve always relied on a certain number of books being bought elsewhere in the country, whether they’re from store inventories or private collections. Well, that’s an expensive way to buy books. You have to fly people there to look at them, then you have to fly people there to box them, and then you have to pay the shipping in. Also, you usually have to take everything, which means you’re handling a lot of books you don’t want. So the online buyback is great because theoretically we want all those books. And you don’t have to go anywhere to get them. And the customer boxes everything up. At the moment, Amazon doesn’t do that. There are some people who do, but they’re not major players. So that’s given us at least a temporary advantage in source of books.

 

I’d like to go back and talk a little bit about the operation of the main store. In addition to the industrial look and feel of the space, another way that Powell’s is different from most bookstores is that you mix new and used books on the shelves. Why did you decide to do this?
Well, we started as a used books company. My dad introduced new books in the late seventies, and his mantra was two of everything and three of nothing. So when a local writer like Jean M. Auel published her first book, we had just two copies. Then we bought a bunch of tables from Dalton’s, and they asked, “What are you going to put on these tables?” And I said, “Stacks of…something.” So that’s when we got into the new arrival business.

But now we have about three hundred thousand volumes in the main store, as well as however many in the other stores. It’s a substantial part of our business. In dollars, roughly 50 percent of our total business is new books, about 40 percent is used books, and then 10 percent is magazines, cards, and sidelines.

On average, bookstores make about 40 percent on each book they sell. Yet you’ve managed to nudge that up to nearly 44 percent. Considering that these percentages are before operational expenses, a small difference like this can mean the difference between staying open and going bankrupt. How did you achieve this?
You know, when you’re done, you’re always plus or minus. Your minus can be a lot, but your plus is hardly ever more than 2 percent after costs. And that’s before you make any capital reinvestment. Because we’re a larger business, we tend to order in volumes that allow us to get the maximum discount. And we do one other thing: We ship all our books to a central warehouse and then we distribute. I don’t know if it’s Borders or Barnes & Noble, but whatever the discount those stores got for shipping to a central warehouse, the publishers had to match that for us.

I’m sure that being your own distributor also makes things more efficient.
Yeah. We do all central receiving. Once the books are received, they’re labeled and then distributed out to each of the stores. So we have our own truck fleet that runs our books around.

With used books, on the other hand, you’ve said that your average is closer to 65 percent. Is that also something you’ve been able to nudge up in similar ways, or is that number static?
We have slowly, over time, pushed that up about five points, either by paying less or controlling inventory better, and by making fewer buying mistakes. In the used-book world the risk is that you’re going to buy something that you already have too many copies of, or that sales have evaporated for, or it’s a book you had once and never sold. Now computers can tell you all that, so while we don’t check every book we buy at the moment we buy it, if there’s any doubt about the book we can scan it and see its history, the current inventory level, sales history, and make a judgment based on that. So I think our rate of having to pull things from the shelves has dropped considerably.

What’s hurting us at the moment is this move away from people buying new hardbacks. You’ve probably heard this elsewhere, but in this downturn many people are avoiding a twenty-five-dollar book and moving, in our case, to used books. This has meant that we can try to keep our dollar volume up by boosting the units we’re selling, because used books are cheaper, but of course the labor involved doesn’t go away.

Or the overhead or the cost of the building.
Right. But the overall dollars have dropped because you’re not selling that twenty-five-dollar book. Fewer dollars are coming in. So it’s been a challenge. And we’ve had to do several things in the course of the last year to accommodate that.

Such as?
Well, we had to reduce the number of people working in the company, which we did through not filling positions when people left.

But no one was let go?
No one was let go, no. At one moment we were within two weeks of seriously considering it, but then the numbers looked like they maybe didn’t require it, so we backed off. You don’t do that casually. You don’t turn people loose in this economic environment. I really didn’t want to do it, and fortunately we didn’t have to. We had twelve months of down business. But [last] September we had our first up month, so that was certainly good news.

What do you think accounted for that?
People are buying more books! I don’t know what to say.

Are you a bellwether for the economic recovery?
Well, I hope so. It’s not like spending money on cars or houses, but if they’re feeling comfortable enough to do that…I mean, listen, they have an alternative. First of all, they can choose not to read. They can go to the library, they can buy fewer books, whatever. But the fact that the customers are back feels great.

Some people have suggested that it’s not the fact that Amazon or big-box stores like Walmart and Target are selling books that accounts for many independent stores’ losing their footing, but rather it’s a lack of readers. Do you feel that’s the case?
No, I’m not a subscriber to that. I understand the theory. The theory is that there are only so many hours in the day, and so if you’re playing computer games or tweeting or searching the Internet or going to a movie or watching TV, you haven’t got time left over for reading. And, yeah, that makes perfectly good sense. Yet we are selling more books. [Last] September we sold more books than we did a year [earlier] by a fairly sensational number. They were cheaper books, but there were more of them.

Long run? I’m not a predictor of the future. I don’t know. Will the Kindle and the Sony Reader, or print on demand, or some other phenomenon we haven’t thought of yet, erode our business? It’s certainly possible. Nothing is forever. And there’s no way to say that somebody’s new vision of the future won’t force us to reshape our vision. But I think as long as we’re alert and pay attention and find ways to adapt, then we’ll be okay.

Let’s talk specifically about electronic books. Do they affect your business?
We sell them. Been doing that for the better part of ten years.

Really?
Yeah. There just weren’t very many books and they weren’t great and we didn’t sell a lot of them, though there have been people trying to do this for a long time. And, you know, it’s a small part of our business. But we’re positioned to make it a bigger part if that happens.

Now, I want to go back a minute. People always say, “Well, there’s this way of doing business and then there’s Powell’s way of doing business.” But I want to point out that I got on the Internet because there was one guy on my staff who came to me and said, “I can put the technical books on the Internet. I need ten thousand dollars to do that.” The money wasn’t for himself, but for the technology. And I said, “Seems good to me.” At the time, Barnes & Noble and Borders were opening stores all around me. My wagons were circled and they attacked from the suburbs, these giant stores. And I thought, “If there’s any way to leap over those stores and reach a broader audience, there’s nothing better than this thing called the Internet.” And I was very enthusiastic. And so for ten thousand dollars—which is a lot of money, I appreciate that—and his time, we got to play. But it’s not like somebody handed me ten million dollars and said, “Here, go invest this in the book business.” We have built every brick, every stone—every element of the system is a result of organic growth.

In addition to building this business from the ground up, your family has always played an important role in the process. Your father came to Chicago to work in the first store, and now your daughter Emily is involved.
Yes. Emily is going to take over in July.

How long has she been moving into this role?
Probably four years now. She was director of used books for a while, and she worked to get our minds back into the used book world. 

What do you mean?
Well, when the economy started to go bad, we told ourselves that we needed to get more used books on the shelves. That meant changing some of the ways of channeling books to the stores and also boosting the volume. For the last year she’s been in charge of the Internet marketing world, with the goal of taking a fairly flat Internet business and seeing it grow. She just finished an executive MBA, and one of the faculty members from her program, along with another fellow he knows, are acting as consultants. So she’s been working with them to redirect the energies of staff, reorganize staff, and redesign the Web site, and to do things that make it easier to use, more intuitive. We’ve always won awards for the content on our site, but I don’t think anybody would ever give us an award for the smoothness, or the use of the page. Now we’re trying to make it a more intuitive process to use, and that always involves a fair amount of rewrite on software, so you can’t do it overnight. But you can do it. So she’s been working on that and doing a great job.

Having grown up in a bookstore, she must have a familiarity with this world that few people possess. To say nothing of her commitment, since it’s a family business.
There’s a great story about Emily. When she was about eight or nine, she and I were doing Christmas cash register work. I would open the book and read the price, and then she would key it in the cash register and make change while I bagged the book. A lady came up who was trying to be nice to Emily and said, “When you grow up, are you going to be a cashier?” And Emily, counting out her change, says, “When I grow up, I’m going to own this place.” [Laughter.] And by God, she is.

That was never in my mind, as a given. In this day and age, the world beckons. I just told her, “You’d be a damn fool not to kick the tires that had been good to us. I don’t ask or expect you to go in this direction, but I think you’d be foolish not to give it a shot.” And out of the blue one day she called from San Francisco and said, “You know, I’m ready to take that shot if you’re ready.”

Was she in college at the time?
No, she was working in San Francisco. She had a boyfriend down there and she was in a variety of things—she was an apprentice to a maker of wedding cakes, then worked as an assistant to the head of a law firm for a couple years. And, you know, she enjoyed San Francisco very much, but I think that gave her the motivation to say, “Well, I think it’s time to try the book business.” She had worked here for a year earlier, right out of college, but she needed to really get out and try something else in the world for a while.

How hands on or off will you be once you retire?
Well, I’ll tell you a story. I had someone like you come to interview me and he said, “So when you retire, what will you do?” And I said, “Well, you know, I’ll probably go out to the warehouse and process books, get them out of boxes. I like doing that.” And he laughed. So I said, “What’s funny about that? You don’t think I can do that?” And he said “No, no. I was out on the floor interviewing one of your employees and I said, ‘What will Michael Powell do when his daughter takes over?’ And he said, ‘He’ll go over to the warehouse and process books.'” So I guess I’m known for my limited talents.

Somehow I’d like to stay involved. You know, you learn a lot, and business is complex, and you can’t know everything and you can’t be everywhere. Just walking around you see things and you say, “I wonder why they’re doing it that way? That doesn’t seem as efficient.” Or, “Do they know that people in the other store are doing it differently?” So I think it’ll be helpful to have someone with an educated eye watching the business from the inside, to see where those opportunities are. For example, there are several things we’re doing by hand that we ought to be doing in a more automated way. At the moment, those are opportunities. You’re always working for productivity efficiencies because your costs go up and you’ve got to keep your costs and revenues in balance. The casual approach we had to the business fifteen years ago just doesn’t work. Certainly with the high investment in technology we have and the high investment in inventory, we better be very grounded in what we’re doing, and alert.

You came into this neighborhood when it was mostly just car repair shops and warehouses, and now it’s become more of a boutique area. Do you think Powell’s had a hand in that transition? I imagine that most people must think of you as an anchor in this community.
Well, I think we’re an anchor for the city. That may sound immodest, but somebody’s got to say it. If you have a relative come into town, or a friend come into town, and they say “What is there to do in Portland?” If you name three things, one of them is going to be Powell’s. Because the city’s proud of it. You don’t even have to be a reader—you just want to show it off. Biggest bookstore in America, maybe the biggest in the world. You know, if you’ve got the biggest ball of string, people think you’re kooky. But if you have the biggest bookstore, it says something positive about the community—that it supports a store that large—and people like that message. And we try to then earn the respect of the community by not just running a good business, but also being involved in the community. I spend a lot of my time on boards and commissions and planning efforts. I chair the streetcar board. We just created what will now be about eight miles of streetcar. We’re the first city in America to put new streetcars back in.

Like old-style trolleys?
No, they’re modern-looking streetcars, and they’re European built. They’re not San Francisco cute; they’re modern, sleek streetcars. And we move four million people each year. I’ve also been involved in dozens and dozens of committees and commissions, some in the arts and some in social services and some in politics. Not partisan politics, but political efforts to do things or to stop things from happening, all aimed at trying to fulfill the vision of a city that is a twenty-four-hour-a-day city, that works, that’s attractive and great to do business in, and great to live in. I think people respect the work that we do in that area. People will stop me and say, “I love your store,” but sometimes they’ll stop me and say, “I love what you do for the community,” and they’re referring to a broader level of involvement. People ask me if it ever gets tiring, being stopped by people. But I think no; when they stop, that’s problematic. That means we’re doing something that’s not working. I get involved in political things, but they’re almost always around censorship or involved with access to books. Oregon has a very strong constitutional defense of books, but we also have the same element of the population that would like to, for a variety of reasons, control that flow. You know: “Don’t put gay books in schools, don’t let anyone under the age of eighteen be exposed to bad books.” But we win those fights.

Still, they usually take a lot of energy and some money, and with the first anti-gay measure in Portland—Proposition 9—businesses were very closely involved. I have gay staff, of course, and friends who are gay, and they challenged me. There was an element of that legislation that involved not letting libraries, specifically school libraries, have gay-related materials. But we just turned the store into a poster board for that issue, and we won it, and we were very proud of that.

So you helped defeat it at the ballot.
Yep. There were two efforts and we won both of those. Not by overwhelming numbers, but we won. If we can define the issue as one of censorship, and they can define the issue as perversity, and you let that go in a challenge, they’ll win. But Oregonians don’t like censorship, and again I say not by overwhelming numbers, but we do win. And so we get involved in those issues and they seem to come along with certain regularity, every four or five years. Otherwise most of the stuff I get involved in is more planning. I don’t get involved in partisan politics as a company. In fact I keep the company very separate from that. Personally I do get involved, but I try to keep it as separate as I possibly can.

As a citizen, not an owner.
Yeah, yeah.

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What do you think people are most surprised to learn about independent bookselling?
I think they’re surprised to know how hard it is. I think everybody—or the uneducated person who doesn’t know much about the business—thinks that as a bookseller you sit in a store, read books, and when someone comes in you have a nice conversation and then recommend and sell some things to that person. That you have a stock of books you believe in and know intimately. That you wear patches on the elbows of your sport jacket, and there’s a cat somewhere in the window, and there’s a fire burning in a fireplace, and there’s the smell of coffee and all that. That it’s a very relaxed and low-key kind of thing. The reality is that it’s extremely intense, whether it’s a small store or a huge store. You’re always pushing the rock up the hill, and it’s relentless, and an awful lot of people get ground down by it. That’s why you see stores close with the frequency they have. People give five or ten years of their lives and realize it’s not going anywhere. And that’s hard. It’s hard to be in an industry that takes so many casualties and that much stress.

The good news is you still get to work with books. And you get to work with people who really love books, both as customers and as staff. I’m sure people who love hardware love their hardware, but, you know, I wouldn’t. There’s a high level of gratification. I was trying to calculate how many books I had sold during my life under the Powell’s name. I’d like to think it’s coming close to a hundred million. You know, in chaos theory there’s this idea that a butterfly flapping its wings on one side of the globe can create a storm in Africa. Well, what about a hundred million butterfly wings? What has it done? You don’t know. People hardly ever tell you, “I read a book and it changed my life.” Most books are probably sold for entertainment, some are sold for information, and some are sold for inspiration. Certainly some are sold for all three at the same time. But I say to myself, “Well, at least when you’re reading a book it’s hard to rob a bank.” I like to think that some of those books have had a positive impact on people’s lives.

Jeremiah Chamberlin teaches writing at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He is also the associate editor of the online journal Fiction Writers Review.

INSIDE POWELL’S BOOKS
How many book sales are you processing a day as online orders?
About 2,500. Upward to 3,000. It spikes at Christmas, and it spikes when the school year starts, but otherwise it’s fairly steady.

How many books do you have in your warehouse for online sales?
About 380,000 in [the main] warehouse, and then there’s about 125,000 in another warehouse.

And how many books do you carry in your stores?
About a million in the flagship store, and probably another six hundred thousand scattered around the other stores. And then we support another two million in Europe. So online we support upward of 4.5 million titles.

How do you determine the price you pay for used books that you buy from online customers? Do you use an algorithm, or is there a person who works on each order?
No, it’s an algorithm. We have several million books in our database to match against, so we just take a percent of either the imprint price or the in-store resale price and pay that amount.

Inside Indie Bookstores: Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi

by

Jeremiah Chamberlin

1.1.10

This is the inaugural installment of
Inside Indie Bookstores, a new series of interviews with the entrepreneurs who
represent the last link in the chain that connects writers with their intended audience.
Once the authors, agents, editors, publishers, and salespeople have finished
their jobs, it’s up to these stalwarts to get books where they belong: into the
hands of readers. News of another landmark bookstore closing its doors has
become all too common, so now is the perfect time to shine a brighter light on
the institutions that mean so much to the literary community. Post a comment
below to share your thoughts about a favorite indie bookstore.

The first thing customers notice when
they enter Square Books—apart from the customary shelves and tables
overflowing with hardcovers and paperbacks—is the signed author photographs.
There are hundreds of them, occupying nearly every vertical surface not already
taken up by bookcases. They cover the walls and trail up the narrow staircase
to the second floor, framing windows and reaching all the way to the
fourteen-foot-high tongue-and-groove ceiling. Most of the photos are
black-and-white publicity shots, the kind publishers send with press kits, but there
are also large-format, professional ones—of Larry Brown, Barry Hannah, Richard
Ford, and others. Many have that spare yet beautiful quality of something
Eudora Welty might have taken. Collectively, they comprise an archeological
record of this place’s luminous history—all the authors have passed through
these doors—as well as a document of the important role that this particular
institution has had in promoting writers and writing.

Richard Howorth,
the store’s owner, would modestly deny having had a hand in any of the number
of literary careers that have sprung from the fertile soil in this part of the
country, but the honest truth is that Square Books has served as a nurturing
place for writers—as a “sanctuary,” to borrow a word from William Faulkner,
another Oxford 
native—for more than thirty years now. He and his wife,
Lisa, opened the first store in 1979. Seven years later they moved into their
current location, formerly the Blaylock Drug Store, after buying the building.
Since then, they’ve opened two other shops: in 1993, Off Square Books, which
specializes in used books, remainders, and rare books and serves as the
venue for store events and the Thacker Mountain Radio program; and, in 2003,
Square Books, Jr., a children’s bookstore. Howorth also helped establish the
Oxford Conference for the Book, which brings together writers, editors, and
other representatives from the publishing world each spring for public
readings, roundtables, and panel discussions on writing and literacy. This
year, as part of the seventeenth annual event, the conference will celebrate
the legacy of Barry Hannah.

I made my first
literary pilgrimage to Oxford nearly a decade ago. At the time, I was running
Canterbury Booksellers, a small independent bookshop in Madison, Wisconsin.
Invariably, whenever authors visited our store, one of the topics we’d end up
discussing was where they were headed next or where they’d just been. Square
Books was always mentioned as a place they one day hoped to go, were looking
forward to going, or couldn’t wait to get back to. Partly this has to do with
its lineage, for few places can claim to have hosted readings for such varied
and important authors as Etheridge Knight, Toni Morrison, Allen Ginsberg, Alice
Walker, Alex Haley, George Plimpton, William Styron, Peter Matthiessen, and
others. And partly it has to do with the Howorths themselves, who, despite the
cliché about Southern hospitality, make all authors feel as if they were the
first to visit the store.

This was certainly
the case for me. Even though I wasn’t reading, and even though I hadn’t been
back to town in almost ten years, I was welcomed with enormous generosity when
I arrived. For two days I was given the grand tour, including a dinner with
local writers at the Howorths’ house, a walk through Faulkner’s home, a trip to
the Ole Miss campus to see the bronze statue of James Meredith under a marble
archway in which the word courage is carved into the stone, as well as an oral history of what took place
in Oxford during the Civil War as we drove through the shady neighborhoods of
town.

No person could
have been a better guide to the literary and historical roots of Oxford.
Howorth grew up across the street from Faulkner’s home (in the house where the
bookseller’s father, a retired doctor, still lives). Faulkner’s
sister-in-law used to chase Richard and his brothers off the property
for pestering her cow and causing mischief. All the Howorth brothers still
reside in town—one a judge, one a retired lawyer, one an architect, and one a
retired admissions director at the University of Mississippi. In addition to
his thirty years as a local bookseller, Richard, the middle brother, also just
finished his second term as mayor of Oxford.

It was with this
same generosity of spirit that Howorth agreed to talk with me at Square Books
one afternoon. We sat upstairs, at a small table in an out-of-the-way corner. I
chose the spot because it seemed secluded—though, coincidentally, we were
between the Faulkner and Southern Literature sections. Howorth commandeered the
espresso machine and made us cappuccinos before we settled in to chat, fixing
us our drinks himself. He is a man quick to laugh, and despite having spent the
past three decades as a bookseller and the last eight years in public office,
seems largely optimistic about the world. Or, rather, has learned to appreciate
life’s quirks, mysteries, and small pleasures.

How did you come to bookselling?
Deliberately. I wanted to open a
bookstore in my hometown, so I sought work in a bookstore in order to learn the
business and see whether it was something that I would enjoy doing, and would
be capable of doing.

The apprentice model.
Yes. Lisa and I both worked in the
Savile Bookshop, in Georgetown, for two years. In the fifties and sixties it
was a Washington institution. It was a great old store. The founder died about
ten years before we arrived. It had been through a series of owners and
managers, and by the time we were working there it was on its last leg. It was
also at the time that Crown Books was first opening in the Washington
suburbs—it was the first sort of chain deep-discounter. The Savile had this
reputation as a great store, but it was obviously slipping. We were on credit
hold all over the place. So it ended up being a great learning experience.

Then you came back here with the
intention of opening Square Books?

Sure. We opened the first store in the
upstairs, over what was, I think, the shoe department of Neilson’s Department
Store. Back then the town square was so much different from what it is today,
and commerce was not so terribly vital. It was certainly viable, but the
businesses didn’t turn over very much because the families that owned the
businesses usually owned the buildings. Old Mr. Denton at his furniture store
didn’t care if he sold a stick of furniture all day; it was just what he did,
run his store. So when I came home I knew I wanted to be on the square, and I
just couldn’t find a place. My aunt owned the building where Neilson’s had a
long-term lease on the ground floor, but there were three offices
upstairs—rented to an insurance agent, a lawyer, and a real estate agent who
were paying forty dollars, thirty dollars, and thirty dollars a month,
respectively, for a total of a hundred dollars. So my initial rent was a hundred
dollars a month.

Did you have a particular vision
for this store from the beginning, or did it change over time?

The initial vision is still very much
what the store is today. I wanted it to serve the community. Because of
Mississippi’s distinct history and character, as well as social disruptions,
the state—and Oxford, in particular, due to the desegregation of the
university in 1962, when there was a riot and two people were killed—was
regarded as a place of hatred and bigotry. And I knew that this community was not that. I knew that there were a lot of other
people here who viewed the world the same way my family did, and my instinct
was that people would support the store not just because they wanted to buy
books or wanted a bookstore here, but because they knew—not to overstate
it—that a bookstore would send a message. That we’re not all illiterate, we’re
not all…it said something about both the economic and cultural health of the
community.

Has that happened?
The university, for instance, has made
a lot of progress—there’s now a statue of James Meredith; there’s now an
institute for racial reconciliation at the university. And most young people
today know what the civil rights movement was, but they don’t know the specific
events and how tense and dramatic and difficult all of that was at that time.

You grew up in the midst of
that.

Correct. I was thirteen when
Goodman and Chaney and Schwerner were murdered [in 1964] and buried in Neshoba
County, Mississippi, and I was eleven when the riots at Ole Miss occurred. I
remember my mother crying when that happened. Her father taught English at the
university for years, and she knew that it was a tragic event.

As someone who’s spent most of
his life in this town, how did you see the place after having been the mayor?

My view of the community is
essentially no different from what it was before I was mayor. Except, I would
say, I really appreciate all the people who work
for the city. A lot of good public servants.

When you talk with writers about
places they hope to visit someday, they always name Oxford. Partly that’s
because this is Faulkner country—
his house is here, and his grave is here, and
so on—
but how did this place become such a literary destination in the last
several decades?

You know, it’s a lot of things. Beginning with Faulkner. But there were
people preceding Faulkner connected to the university, mostly. Stark
Young
was a novelist and a New York Times drama critic and an editor at the New Republic who helped Faulkner a little bit. Phil Stone was
a lawyer here, educated at Yale, who introduced Faulkner to Swinburne and Joyce
and a lot of the reading that was so influential to him when he was very young.
And primarily because of the presence of the university, there’s always been
something of a literary environment. But I think because Faulkner’s major work
dealt with this specific geography and culture so intimately, and because of the mythology he created, that
makes for a very particular kind of literary tourism. Hemingway didn’t quite do
that with Oak Park. It wasn’t a little native postage stamp of soil. And in
Mississippi in general there were also Richard Wright, Tennessee Williams,
Eudora Welty—these great writers of the twentieth century.

More recently,
Willie Morris moved to Oxford in 1980, within a year after we opened the store.
He was from Yazoo City, Mississippi. He was the editor of the [University of]
Texas student newspaper, and from there got a job with the Texas Observer, where he became editor at a very young age. He
was hired by Harper’s Magazine to
be an editor, and a few years later, in 1967, became its youngest editor in
chief. And while at Harper’s,
he really changed the magazine and was on the ground floor of New Journalism.
He published David Halberstam and Larry L. King; he published Norman Mailer’s
“Armies of the Night” [originally titled “Steps of the Pentagon”], the longest
magazine piece ever to have been published; and he published Walker Percy.

He also wrote a
book called North Toward Home,
which was his autobiography, published in 1967, that kind of dealt with this
whole ambivalence of the South and being from here and loving so much about
it—stuff about growing up in Yazoo City, and his friends, and his baseball
team, and his dog, and his aunt Minnie who lived next door—but also the
racism. The murders and the civil rights movement. And he had to get out of the
South ’cause he loved it too much and hated so much of everything that was
going on.

That sense of conflictedness.
Right, right. The book expressed all
that and was a touchstone for a lot of people my age. Then he got fired from or
quit Harper’s, depending on
the story. He got in a fight with the publisher and submitted his resignation,
believing that he wouldn’t accept it. But he did. [Laughter.] So he continued to write, but none of his
subsequent books were quite as big as North Toward Home. And Willie was a big drinker and he had kind of
run out of gas in the black hole, which is what he called Manhattan. But Dean
Faulkner Wells, William Faulkner’s niece, and her husband, Larry, raised money
to give Willie a visiting spot here at the university. So he came here that
spring as a writer-in-residence. And he immediately befriended us and the
bookstore. He said, “Richard, I’m going to bring all these writers, all my
friends. I’m going to bring them down here and they’re going to do book
signings at your store and we’re going to have a great time.”

The summer I came
back to open the store was also about the same time that Bill Ferris, who was
the first full-time director at the newly established Center for the Study of
Southern Culture at the university, came here. Bill was originally from
Vicksburg; he’d been to Davidson [College in North Carolina] and got a PhD in
folklore under Henry Glassy at Penn, taught at Yale. Bill was a tremendous guy
and very charismatic and bright and enthusiastic and full of ideas. Bill had a
tremendous influence on the university and the community and our store. On the
South as a whole. What he did was, despite this whole business of the South’s
being known for racism and bigotry and poverty and illiteracy and teen
pregnancy and all the things we’re still sort of known for [laughter], he took Creole cooking and quilt making and basketry and storytelling
and literature and the blues—all these aspects of Southern culture—and made
it fascinating to the public. So Bill had a tremendous influence on the
community and the bookstore. He also knew a lot of writers. The first book
signing we did was with Ellen Douglas, the second month we were open, October
1979. She had a new novel coming out called The Rock Cried Out. The second person to do a book signing at the
store was a black poet who was originally from Corinth, who had taught himself
to write while doing time at the Indiana State Prison: Etheridge Knight. [Laughter.] Bill knew Etheridge and he got Etheridge to come
here. Bill also knew Alice Walker, got her to come here. Knew Alex Haley, got
him to come here. And Willie got George Plimpton and William Styron and Peter
Matthiessen. All these people were coming and doing events in the bookstore.
So, really, from the time that we opened, we had this incredible series of
events. Then the store kind of became known. And in those days the whole author
tour business was nothing like what it soon thereafter became. In the seventies
and early eighties, publishers would send an author to San Francisco and Denver
and Washington and Atlanta. Maybe. But primarily they were there to do
interviews with the press and go on radio and television. Publicity tours, not
a book-signing tour. They didn’t go to bookstores. We weren’t by any means the
first store to do this, but there weren’t many who were doing this at the same
time as we were. The Tattered Cover [Denver] and Elliott Bay [Seattle] and the
Hungry Mind [Saint Paul]. I think that’s kind of how the circuit business got
started.

Then Barry Hannah
moved here in 1983 to teach creative writing. And his personality and writing
style particularly contrasted with Willie’s. Because Willie, he was kind of a
journalist. And even though he could be critical of the south, part of his
method in being critical was to get to a point where he could also be a
cheerleader for the south. And Barry I think kind of looked down his nose at
that sort of writing. You know, Barry was the Miles Davis of modern American
letters at that point. There would’ve been kind of a rivalry with any writer,
any other writer in town, I suppose. Plus, both of them had to struggle with
Faulkner’s ghost—there was that whole thing. But it was an immensely fertile
period in the community’s literary history.

So that convergence of events
helped create the foundation you would build the store upon.

Right, right. And then, you know,
Larry Brown emerged from the soil. His first book came out in 1988. John
Grisham: His first book was published in 1989.

Had John been living here the
whole time too?

No, he’d been living in north
Mississippi, by South Haven. He was in the state legislature. But when he was
in law school at Ole Miss, he heard William Styron speak. Willie had invited
Styron down for the first time, and that was when he got the bug. That’s when
John said, “Wow, I’m gonna do something with this.”

And now he endows a great
fellowship for emerging southern writers here at Ole Miss.

Correct. And he did that because he
wanted to try to build on what Willie did with all the people he brought in.

Speaking of nurturing young writers,
I once heard that when Larry
Brown was working as a firefighter he came into the store and asked you whom he
should read.

Nah.

Is that not correct?
No. [Laughter.]

Was he already writing on his own?
Firemen work twenty-four hours and
then they’re off for forty-eight hours. And then they’re back on for
twenty-four and they’re off for forty-eight. So all firemen have other jobs.
They’re usually painters or carpenters or builders or something. Larry worked
at a grocery store. He was also a plasterer; he was a Sheetrock guy; he was a
painter; he was a carpenter. He did all of this stuff. And he’d always been a
pretty big reader. Larry’s mother, especially, was a really big reader of
romance novels. So Larry had this idea that he could supplement his income by
writing a book that would make money. And he would go to the Lafayette County
Public Library and check out books on how to be a writer, how to get your book
published. He went through all of those. And I think he read that you start by
getting published in magazines, so then he began to read magazines—fiction
especially. He would read Harper’s and Esquire. Larry was
a complete omnivore of music and film and literature.

He took it all in.
Took it all in and he had an
incredible memory. You would talk about a movie; he knew the producer, the
director, the actor, the actresses, the location; music, the song, the group,
who was on bass, the drums. On and on and on. And at some point, yes, early on,
he came into the store. When I first opened the store, I was the only person
who worked there. So I was talking to everyone who came in. And we started
talking and, you know, I didn’t give him a reading list and say, “Read these
ten books and that’ll make you a writer.” Larry was already reading Raymond
Carver and Harry Crews. Cormac McCarthy very early, long before Cormac broke
out. Flannery O’Connor. So we talked about those authors, but Larry completely
found his own way. He was completely self-taught. And I did later on help him
in a specific way when he was kind of stuck. But he would’ve gotten out of the
jam that he thought he was in at the time.

What was that?
Well, he had had one or two stories
published and then he kind of couldn’t get anything else published. He kept
sending off these short stories and they kept coming back. Then he called me
one day—and, you know, I hadn’t read anything he’d written, hadn’t asked to; I
don’t go there with writers unless they ask me. It was a Sunday. He said, “I
don’t know what else to do. I’m sorry I’m calling you, I don’t mean to bother
you, but I think I must be doing something wrong. Everything’s coming back.” I
said, “Larry, I’d be happy to read them. Bring me a few of your stories. I’m no
editor or agent or anything, but I’d be willing to read them.”

So he came over
with a manila folder. It was raining outside. We sat down at the dining room
table and I opened this folder. He was sitting right across from me, and I just
started reading. The first story was “Facing the Music.” You know, I read maybe
four pages and I said, “Larry, this is an incredible story. You’re not doing
anything wrong.” And then I finished reading it and chills went down my spine.
Because I knew that it was a great story. It still is a great story. And I told
him, “This is going to be published. I don’t know when, I don’t know where,
just don’t despair.” Actually I was looking the other day at a note he’d sent
me. He thanked me for helping to make it better, that specific story. But I
don’t remember what that was. I may have said, “You might move this sentence
from here to here,” or something like that.

But mostly you were telling him
to keep the faith.

Exactly. Also, I suggested he
contact Frederick Barthelme and Rie Fortenberry at the Mississippi Review, who’d published his first serious publication, a
story called “The Rich.” I said, “What about this story? Where have you sent it? Have you sent it to the
Mississippi Review
?” And he said, “No,
‘cause they’ve already published me.”

That’s a good thing! [Laughter.]
So he sent it to them and they
published it and he dedicated that story to me. And then later on I helped him
meet Shannon Ravenel, who published his first book.

It seems like so many of the greatest writers of American letters have
come out of the south: Tennessee Williams, Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Flannery
O’Connor. And, more recently, Tom Franklin, Larry Brown, Barry Hannah. All these
people whose work I deeply admire. They share something…an intimacy with place
perhaps?

It often gets explained in phrases
like that, but I think that for the moderns…well, Faulkner was a genius. But I
think he also realized early on what he could do and in contrast to the many
things that he could not do.

What do you mean by that?
Well, he was a failure as a
student. But I think with someone like Eudora Welty, who was an intelligent and
independent woman of that time, there were limited opportunities for things
that she could do. But writing, writing was one of them. And photography was
one. So I think it’s tied to economics in some way, but I also think that all
of the rich and conflicted history of the South has a lot to do with it, all
the various tensions. Because literature is built on conflict. There’s also the
whole war thing, the Civil War. Being the loser in that war makes us akin to
other literature-producing places—Ireland, Russia.

Do you see any collective
project happening as a trend in writing right now, in the same way that, say,
the modernists were trying to make sense of a new world?

No, but I think there are always
different schools in the same way that Updike focused on the suburban married
life, and I think other writers operate in certain other niches.

How about southern writers
specifically? How are they trying to make sense of what the south looks like
right now?

I think Southerners are mostly
concerned with just telling a good story.

The tale?
Yeah.

Since we’re talking about
contemporary southern writers, let’s discuss the Conference of the Book. How
did that start?

The Faulkner conference is held
every summer. I think it started in 1974. It’s always drawn a crowd—people
come from California, Japan, Canada, wherever. And over the years, people would
come in the store and say, “I heard about that Faulkner conference and I’d love
to come back here and go to that, but I don’t think I want to do Faulkner for a
whole week.” These are people who aren’t necessarily Faulkner fans or scholars,
but who want to come for the experience.

A literary pilgrimage.
Right. And at the same time, I was
going to conferences like ABA [American Booksellers Association] and BEA
[BookExpo America] and SIBA [Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance], where
you would hear not just writers but also publishers and agents and editors
talking about the process of publishing a book—all these great stories which
typically were not available to the public. And I thought, “What if we had a
conference in Oxford where people could get the local experience, but also a
more general thing about books?”

So I talked to Ann
Abadie, who was a founding director of the Faulkner conference. I told Ann,
who’s been a good friend for a long time, “I’ve got this idea. Instead of just
having the Faulkner conference, why don’t we do another kind of literary
conference? We can just talk about books and what’s going on with The Book and how it’s doing today. We’ll invite editors and
agents and people who have these conversations, but make it for the public.”
And Ann said, “Yeah, maybe soon.” Then, after about three or four years, she
said, “Let’s do this book conference thing.” And so we did.

Is it focused specifically on
Southern writers?

No. I was trying for it not to be just a Southern thing.

That would be too insular?
Yeah, and frankly I get tired of
all this stuff about the South all the time. And I thought that the university
and the community had the opportunity to create a one of a kind conference.

Where would you like to see this
conference five years from now? Ten years from now?

In an ideal world it would have a
larger budget to bring people in. For instance, Nicholson Baker wrote that
article in the New Yorker about the
Kindle. You know, that’s a timely thing. He could come and do a lecture,
perhaps even be on a panel with other people from the industry, people like
[Amazon founder] Jeff Bezos.

So you want it to explore all
the different intersections, not just publishing.

Right. Everything that’s going on
that affects books. We want to put this thing called The Book on the operating
table and cut into it and see what’s going on.

With developments like the Kindle
and Japanese cell-phone novels and Twitter stories, how does a bookstore stay
relevant in the twenty-first century?

I
think there are a couple of things. There are the technological developments,
which are interesting and positive in that they offer opportunities for reading
and the dissemination of literature and ideas in a way that might be greater than
the way we’ve historically done before. As Nicholson Baker pointed out in that New
Yorker
article, digital
transference of text is much cheaper than disseminating literature through
books. So you have that, which in many ways, properly conceived, is a positive
development.

But the question
we need to ask is, How does the technology threaten this thing that we love so
much, and has been so critical to the development of civilization for so long?
And how do we, in terms of that threat, deal with and understand it? There’s
also the cultural threat of younger people who are growing up not reading
books. The way I see it, though, I think that digital technology will go on, on
its own path, no matter what. But in terms of books, I maintain that a book is
like a sailboat or a bicycle, in that it’s a perfect invention. I don’t care
what series number of Kindle you’re on, it is never going to be better than
this. [Holds up a book.] I
don’t see how it could be. I could be wrong. Who knows? But this thing is
pretty wonderful—and irreplaceable.

I think they can
coexist is what I’m saying. And by the same token, I think bookstores offer an experience to book consumers that is
unique. To be able to go into a place physically, to experience a sensation
that is the precise opposite of all that is digital, and to talk to people
about books in a business that has as one of its objectives a curatorial
function and the presentation of literature as another—that is, I believe,
irreplaceable. Of course, the question we all recognize is how the development
of technology, in reducing the industry that creates the physical book, will
change bookselling. Because there won’t be as many of these [books], and
therefore the cost will go up.

page_5: 

So what is the future for
independent bookstores? If their role is curatorial, will they become more like
art galleries? Should they have public funding? Or will bookstores become
nonprofit entities?

I don’t know. I hope not, though. It’s
a very difficult business. But in many ways, I like the fact that it’s a
difficult business. Otherwise, people who want to make money—by selling
crap—would be trying to get into the book business. [Laughter.]

This store specializes in
literature, especially southern literature, as well as books about this region
and this place. Do you think that specialization is part of the reason for your
success?

I don’t really think of it in terms
of specializing. I think of it in terms of giving our customers what they want.
If Nietzsche had been born here, our philosophy section would probably look a
little different. [Laughter.]

So what are bookstores that are
succeeding doing right?

Well, I think a lot of it has to do
with adaptation. The business’s ability to adapt in all kinds of ways to its
own market, to be innovative, to not ignore the technological developments and,
in some cases, take advantage of them. Thacker Mountain Radio was kind of an
innovation.

How did that come to be?
Ever since the bookstore opened,
there’ve always been people coming in wanting to have their art exhibit in the
bookstore, or to stage a play, or do a music performance.

So that really meets your vision
of a community place.

Yeah, except that I learned fairly
early on that you have to make it relate to selling books. You can’t just be an
all-purpose community center; you’ve got to make it conform to the mission of
selling books and promoting writers and literature. Because I did have art
exhibits and it was just sort of a pain. So I kind of got away from that. What
happened, then, was two graduate students who had been trying to develop a
little kind of a music radio show that wasn’t really working at one of the
local bars, came and wanted to use Off Square Books as a venue. I told them
that I’d done enough of this kind of messing around to know that I wasn’t going
to do something like that unless it could promote writers. I said, “Maybe if we
did a radio show that incorporated both music and writers it could be
something.” And that’s how that got started.

It’s been good for
our book business, mainly because writers really want to be on the show. And a
lot of publishers want their writers to be on the show because it’s broadcast
on Mississippi Public Broadcasting, so it reaches a large audience. Which is
always appealing, as you know, to publicists.

Do they just read? Do they do
interviews?
Depends on what the book is and how they
want to present it. They can read; they can talk about it. We’ve had a lot of
writers come up there and just tell stories. It’s performed, recorded, and
broadcast live on local commercial radio. Then we edit stuff for time, do all
the production work on the disc, and send it down to Jackson where they
rebroadcast the show.

It’s often really
great. And a lot of times we have musicians who’ve written books come on the
show, or we have writers who are musicians who like to play on the show.
There’s almost no writer who, given the choice early in their career, wouldn’t
have rather been a rock musician. [Laughter.]

Now that you’ve finished your
two terms as mayor, you’re returning to the bookstore full time again. What are
you most looking forward to? What did you most miss
?
I just missed being here. I missed
being around the books, going down to the receiving room and seeing what’s come
in each day, talking to the customers, knowing which books are coming out,
being able to snag an advance reading copy of something that I know I’m gonna
be interested in. The whole shooting match. So what I’m doing now is really
kind of returning to my roots. I’m just going to be on the floor. I’m not going
to resume buying; I’m not going to be doing all the business stuff; I’m not
going to go running around to every store trying to control staff schedules and
training. I just want to—

Be around the customers and the
books.

Yeah. There may come a point when I
want to do something else. I don’t know. But that’s the plan now.

Where would you like to see the
store ten years from now? Is there anything you still want to achieve with it?

No. But returning to that whole
future of books conversation, one of the things that I should’ve added has to
do with what’s happened at Square Books, Jr. We’re selling more children’s
books than ever. The level of enthusiasm and excitement about books from
toddlers to first readers to adolescents and teens…if you go in there and hang
around for a few hours, you would never even think that there might be such a
thing as a digital book.

Jeremiah Chamberlin teaches writing at
the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He is also the associate editor of the
online journal Fiction Writers Review.

INSIDE SQUARE BOOKS
What were your best-selling books in
2009?

John Grisham signs books
for us—lots of them—every year, so his book is usually our number one seller.
Our best-seller list is dominated by local and regional titles—books about
Oxford or Mississippi or about or by Mississippians. Other than Grisham’s The Associate, I think our top 2009 sellers are The Help by Kathryn Stockett, The Devil’s Punchbowl by Greg Iles, and In the Sanctuary of Outcasts by Neil White. All three writers are from
Mississippi, and Neil lives here in Oxford. Two of the books are set in
Mississippi.

What
books did you most enjoy selling in 2009?

Lark and
Termite
by Jayne Anne Phillips, A
Gate at the Stairs
by Lorrie Moore, The
Missing
by Tim Gautreaux, and Waveland
by Frederick Barthelme.

How do you compile your Staff Picks section?
There are no constraints
on staff picks, except the book has to be in print, of course. And, after a
time, the recommendation has to have made at least a sale or two. Doesn’t have
to be paperback, but they always seem to be. Anybody can recommend anything
using any language, although I recently made one staffer change his
recommendation because he’d written in big letters, “It’s great! I’m serious!
Just buy it!” It was the exclamation points that really did it. I told him to
see Strunk and White.

Any
books you’re particularly excited about in 2010?

I’m excited about Jim Harrison’s new book, The Farmer’s Daughter; that
big, wonderful new novel The
Swan Thieves
by Elizabeth Kostova, who has agreed to come to our
store; and Brad Watson’s new book of short stories, Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives, which has
one of the best stories I’ve read in years, “Vacuum.”

Inside Indie Bookstores: Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver

by

Jeremiah Chamberlin

9.1.10

On the morning I visited Denver’s
Tattered Cover Book Store, the place was bustling with activity. Customers
wandered up and down the central staircase, carrying books tucked under their
arms. They stopped to browse the spacious aisles, scanning titles on the
shelves. They lingered in the downstairs café, eating as they flipped through
magazines from the enormous periodical section.

The reason for the
crowds had partly to do with the influx of writers who had traveled to Denver
this weekend for the Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference,
and partly with the fact that it was opening day of the Major League Baseball
season—the sidewalks were filled with fans headed to nearby Coors Field, home
of the Colorado Rockies, and before the game, many of them stopped at Tattered
Cover. The store’s location, in the LoDo (Lower Downtown) area of Denver, is a
success story of urban revitalization. This neighborhood is the oldest section
of Denver, and like the boom-and-bust economy of this western city, it has had
its fair share of downturns. In 1988, however, the city council created the
Lower Downtown Historic District with the mission to preserve the architectural
and historical assets of the area and to spur economic investment and growth.

Because of her
belief in this project and the need for community-oriented business districts,
Joyce Meskis, owner of Tattered Cover, purchased the warehouse building at 16th
and Wynkoop with a business partner in 1990, and subsequently moved her
administrative offices and the shipping-and-receiving operations for her Cherry
Creek store, which opened in 1974, to this location. A few years later, she
opened a second Tattered Cover store here, as well as a coffee shop and
newsstand. By 1996 the LoDo store had substantially expanded and today occupies
two floors over approximately twenty thousand square feet, including a café and
a dedicated special-events area that accommodates up to 250 people.

The store has since
become as much a destination for the local community as it has for writers.
From the moment you walk in, you feel a sense of ease and peacefulness. There
are overstuffed chairs and couches throughout both floors, as well as spacious
tables in the café area. The guiding aesthetic is a wonderful mix of the old
(worn hardwood floors downstairs, exposed rafters and hand-hewn support beams)
and the new (forest green carpet upstairs, a selection of organic and local
options at the café). The place feels vital. It feels vigorous.

The same could be
said of Meskis. Though soft spoken, she possesses an engaging and charming
personality that immediately put me at ease. She radiates a type of calm that
seems unflappable by the challenges of daily life. Yet in conversation she is
the first to poke fun at herself and the many obstacles she has faced in her
thirty-six years as a bookseller—not just in terms of running a business, but
also advocating for First Amendment rights and helping to nurture the social
and literary communities of Denver. In fact, Tattered Cover hosts more than
five hundred readings a year among its three locations. So it was fitting that
we sat down for our talk beside a fireplace at the back of Tattered Cover’s
expansive event space, surrounded by black-and-white photographs of many of the
authors who’ve read at the store during its nearly four decades of existence.

How did you come to bookselling?
I came to bookselling accidentally. I
was intent on teaching at the university level.

Here in Denver?
No, I didn’t have a place in mind. I
grew up in Chicago on the South Side, and I was very driven in terms of my
direction in life. I was determined I was going to get the zillionth degree,
and I wanted to have a life that was full of the usual things—marriage,
children. I could see myself at an excellent university teaching brilliant
students all day long, walking home with a briefcase in hand, kicking the fall
leaves as I approached my nice but not ostentatious house, hearing strains of
Chopin being played by my children through the open French doors. [Laughter.] It didn’t quite work out that way.

What year was this?
I graduated high school in 1959. Then
I went to college.

Did you go to school in Chicago?
No, I went to Purdue [in Indiana]. I
was a math major, believe it or not. It was always a toss-up, and I eventually
shifted to English. My parents didn’t have much money, but they were able to
pay for my first year. So I always had part-time jobs in the summers. But then
I married young, while we were in school, and I needed to get more work during
the school year. And soon I found myself working in bookstores to help pay the
tuition.

This was at Purdue?
Yes. But then my husband finished his
graduate degree and we moved to Colorado. All the while I was still working in
bookstores and libraries to help pay the tuition bills. And after some time—I
was in graduate school then—I woke up one morning literally staring at the
ceiling and said, “You idiot, don’t you know that you’ve been doing what you love
all these years? Why don’t you just get on with it?” So I dropped out of
graduate school and I got more serious about the book business. Around this
time the marriage ended, and I had two small children.

When was this?
1973. We were still pretty young, so
we didn’t have much savings. But I took my half and began pursuing the book
business. Fast forward a year or so and a little store in the Cherry Creek area
of Denver came up for sale. It was called the Tattered Cover, and it was three
years old. It was a small storefront—only 950 square feet—and carried only
new books, despite its name. So, I did a little business plan on an envelope
with a pencil and figured I could pull it off. The bad news was that the owner
wanted what seemed like a huge amount of money at the time. But the good news
was that he was willing to carry the note, to be the banker. And the other
piece of good news was that he didn’t want much money down. So I figured out
what I could do and I made an offer, which was promptly rejected.

Some time went by
and I decided, through the urging of a friend, to go see what was going on,
because there was no ownership transition of the store that was apparent. It
turned out that someone else had made a better offer earlier, but the deal had
fallen through. I don’t know why the owner didn’t come back to me afterward.
Who knows? But, to make a long story somewhat shorter, I made another offer. I
borrowed some money from my uncle in California and that offer was accepted in
September 1974, and ownership transferred to me.

Over the next several years you
expanded, however.

Yes, in increments.

Was this the plan from the
beginning, or did opportunities arise that allowed you to grow?

I can’t speak for every bookseller
in the world, obviously. But wouldn’t you say it’s true that every bookseller
sort of has this dream of the bookstore in the sky—what it could be, how you
would want to have so much of what you loved and what your customers
appreciated, and then also have the opportunity to pique their interest in
different areas without betting the ranch?

Of course.
So I don’t think I had a goal to
have a huge bookstore by any means. But I certainly wanted to grow it to a size
that would accommodate a fine representation of the wonderful books that are published.
So every time one of our neighbors in the building would move out, we would
take the space if it were available and if it were the right timing for us. We
were fortunate in that way. There was growth in the commercial area, there was
growth in what was possible in the book business in Denver, and we took the
opportunities.

But looking back, I think our biggest decision in
terms of growth in that first store was when we decided to move upstairs in the
original building. Quite a bit of space had become available on the second
floor and it was offered to us at a good price because second floor space—for
retail—is less desirable. So I pondered and pondered and pondered it. Because
the question was: How do you get the customers upstairs? And any time our
customers or colleagues found out that we were considering this, they thought
the sky was falling! They were very concerned and they gave me all kinds of
advice: “Don’t do it, don’t do it; your customers won’t follow you. It will be
the end of the Tattered Cover. It will be dreadful.”

Were you going to move the whole
store upstairs?

Oh, no. We were going to have both
floors. We were going to put in a staircase. And it’s not like there weren’t
stores that had tried this before. Obviously department stores were
multi-level. But it wasn’t quite the same thing. Our colleagues and sales reps
and customers were just beside themselves in their advice to me about not doing
this. And I kept thinking to myself, “Well, I’m sure they’ve got good reasons
for this, and I can see both sides to the story…” but we needed the space, we
were growing, the rent was very compelling, and I simply didn’t want to lose
that opportunity. And I thought, “We could make the staircase wider; we could
put books on the landings to draw people up the stairs; we could put
destination sections up there…” I said, “We can do this so it doesn’t feel like
an interminable journey up these stairs.”

Fast forward—we
did it. Our landlord had a charitable streak from time to time, and he loaned
me the money to put the staircase in. And the customers came upstairs. But our
colleagues were right in that it is much
harder to get people upstairs. Still, it worked. And it worked again. We took
again more space upstairs when it became available. So we grew from about 950
square feet to 6,000 square feet in that location. Then we were out of space.

Then, perhaps 1980
or so, I started looking around for space within the immediate area to move to.
And so I was looking, looking, looking, looking, nothing, nothing, nothing,
nothing. Moving a store is a serious decision, you know?

And no small undertaking.
And no small undertaking, even
though we’d become pretty used to barreling out walls and moving bookcases. In
fact, in my earliest years, after my husband and I were divorced, I lived in a
small place with the kids. I would go to the lumberyard and have my boards
pre-cut and then bring them back in the car. I had space in the alleyway, which
was next to the store, and I’d be banging away, making new bookcases. [Laughter.] I’d forgotten about that.

So, you know, we
were stuck. It didn’t seem like anything was going to work. And then I had a
visit from a developer in town who had his eye on a vacant piece of property
next to a parking garage next to a department store that was across the street
from a shopping center. It was an open field at that point, and he was planning
on putting in ground-floor retail and then a little bit of an expansion of the
parking garage next door above on the roof—a few extra stories of parking. And
so he said, “I’ll cut you a good deal. Would you like to move over here?” It
was only half a block away and it was brand new space—two floors, totaling
about 11,000 square feet. This was double what we currently had. And he was
willing to do a lot for us to get us over there, and I thought, “Okay. Let’s go
for it.”

So we got serious
about that and we were planning to sublet the old store location of 6,000
square feet. But then the bookstore grapevine came through town and we learned
that Pickwick Books was considering bringing a store to Denver. You probably
don’t remember Pickwick Books.

No, I don’t.
Pickwick Books was a new
development arm of the Dayton Hudson Corporation, which owned B. Dalton back
then. And Crown Books—do you remember Crown Books?

I do.
Well, Crown Books was very
successful opening up in the Washington D.C. area. They were one of the first major
discounters and they, were really doing a number on the independent stores, as
well as on the B. Dalton and Walden stores. So my assumption back
then—”assumption,” keep that in mind—was that when the powers that be got
together and saw what was happening with Crown in their locations, they got
nervous and started to think of ways they could counteract this trend. So B. Dalton—at
that time owned by the Dayton Hudson Corporation—decided to do an experiment.
They had purchased a small, regional chain in southern California called
Pickwick. Then they converted those stores to B. Dalton stores and they retired
the Pickwick name. But they still owned it. It’s my understanding that by still
owning that name they decided to use it for their trial run of a new bookstore
model: heavy discounting, using Crown as the model. They were going to place it
in three or four cities around the country to test market it, and one of those
cities was Denver. [Laughter.]

This was now in the 80s?
This would be the early-to-mid 80s,
because we were supposed to move in ’82 but there was construction delay. So we
moved in January ’83 into the new space. And then we learned that Crown was
doing this roll-out across the country and that one of the cities was also
going to be Denver.

Cue ominous music.
Right! [Laughter.] So I took my calculator home and tried to figure
out what they knew about bookselling that I didn’t know. And I couldn’t see how
we could maintain our position. So I thought, “Well, we can’t discount. But we
can give the bargain-conscious customer something else. We can go heavily into
bargain books—remainders.” But we needed more space to do that. So we decided
to keep the old store space and put it primarily into bargain books. That’s
also about the same time that we decided to go more heavily into periodicals and
sidelines. Anyway, it turned out that business thrived.

Tattered Cover is often cited as one of the first independent stores
to develop an author reading series. Were readings a part of Tattered Cover
from the beginning?

It happened early, but it happened in
an unusual sort of way. As I said before, I had worked in bookstores when I was
in school. And when I bought Tattered Cover we were not really seeking author
events because I had seen too often a lovely gathering where nobody came, and I
didn’t want to put the author in that kind of position. Well, one day I got a
call from our sales rep for Little, Brown and she said, “Joyce, I’ve got an
offer to make to you. Ansel [Adams] is going to be on his way to see Georgia
[O’Keeffe] in New Mexico and he’s going to stop in Denver. Would you like to
have him for a signing?” I held my breath and said, “Absolutely. We would be
delighted to have a signing.” Though I was completely terrified. I had heard
that he was very particular about the plates on the books and that he would go
to the printers about it, and so I thought he must be a difficult and demanding
personality. But when he came he couldn’t have been sweeter. Just wonderful.
And, of course, the line was out the door. I was sold at that point. The magic
of that moment—of seeing the author and his people—was just fabulous.

I remember when
Tom Wolfe came for The Right Stuff. We had a wonderful group of folks waiting for him, and events just
became a part of our community experience. Every signing—every one—is
different. To me, there are no two that are exactly the same. You can make all
the predictions you want. There are some elements, of course, that are common
to any signing. But when it comes to a particular reader meeting a particular
writer, a particular connection is made and there’s nothing like it that has
ever existed before. It cements the building blocks of the whole experience of
reading and publishing and writing. It’s just wonderful.

Are there any other authors or
events that you found particularly special?

Once we had acquired the second
floor in the original building, we did all the signings up there. And at one
point we had the opportunity to host Buckminster Fuller—a forward-looking
architect and writer of note. As it turned out, he was on his last tour. He was
quite elderly at the time. And when he walked in the door and I saw how frail
he was, I thought, “He’s never going to make those stairs.” So I said, “We’ll bring the signing table
downstairs.” But he said, “No, no, no, no, no.” He was going to go up those
stairs and sit at that table and greet his admirers. And he did so. It was a
daytime event, and his admirers almost genuflected when they came up to the
signing table. It was that type of experience. And as the line was coming to a
close, his adult grandson, who was traveling with him, said to me, “Do you have
a large pan that you could put some warm water in for granddad to soak his
hand?” It turns out that he’d broken a finger or two but he insisted on coming
to sign. That was really remarkable.

Do you also do nonliterary events here that are community oriented?
When we’re not doing signings here [in
the events space] or when there is a gap for some reason, we will rent this
space out to the community; we also have a minimal rental rate for nonprofits.
And sometimes we’ll just let some organizations use it, such as the Lighthouse
Writers Group. They meet here once in a while. So, yes, it’s a community
meeting space.

Another thing I’d like to talk with
you about—because it has to do both with the local community here in Denver
and the broader literary community—is the First Amendment case that you were
involved in. Can you talk a bit about how this came about?

In 2000 we were approached by a DEA
agent who served us with a subpoena to turn over some records. But the
subpoena—upon sending it to our attorney—turned out not to be an official
subpoena. After my attorney looked at it, he indicated to me that this type of
subpoena was not actionable. So he called the agent, informing him that in
order to obtain access to the records a proper subpoena would need to be
presented.

But the agent
indicated that he didn’t want to take that course of action. So we thought that
was the end of that. But three weeks later, my attorney, Dan Recht, called and
said, “Joyce, I got a call from an individual in the Adams County DA’s office,
saying that a search warrant is in the works on Tattered Cover, in the hopes of
getting the sales records for a particular customer.” And I said, “A search
warrant? That is immediately
actionable.” I knew that much about the law. But he said, “Don’t get excited
yet; I asked for some extra time. We have until the end of the business day
tomorrow to come up with a response. So I want you to think about this
overnight, and I’ll call you tomorrow afternoon.

The decision was whether to allow
it?

The decision was about how we were
going to respond. Because there’s no decision to be made about “allowing” a
search warrant—once issued, the authorities can act on it. So the next day I
was in the office and I got a visit from one of our floor managers. She said,
“Joyce, there are police officers here with a search warrant and they want to
see you.” I said, “That’s impossible.” And she said, “No, it isn’t; they’re
here.”

So you began shredding all your records, right?
No. [Laughter.] I said, “Okay, send them upstairs and we’ll
deal with this.” There were four or five individuals, all dressed in civvies.
They weren’t jack-booted police officers or anything like that. In fact, they
were dressed like booksellers—one had a ponytail; they wore tennis shoes. They
were all completely gentlemanly. But they had a search warrant. So I said, “May
I call my attorney?” They said, “Yes.” And when I called Dan he absolutely hit
the ceiling: “They can’t do that! They gave us until the end of the business
day today! Fax me a copy of the search warrant.”

So while the
warrant was faxing over, I was sitting with the officers and talking about the
First Amendment and the Kramerbooks case [in which independent counsel Kenneth
Starr tried unsuccessfully to obtain Monica Lewinsky’s purchase records from an
independent bookstore in Washington, D.C.]. They had a mission and the mission
was going to be accomplished. They said, “This isn’t about you.” I said, “I know it’s not about me.” They said, “You’re perfectly
legal.” I said, “I know we’re
perfectly legal.” They said, “You can sell anything that’s constitutionally
protected.” I said, “I know we
can sell anything that’s constitutionally protected—that’s what we sell.” This
went on: “But we need this information.” “Well, I see that as a First Amendment
issue.” “It’s not a First Amendment issue.” “Yes, it’s a First Amendment
issue.”

Meanwhile, Dan got
the copy of the search warrant and he asked to talk with the lead officer. So I
put him on the phone and they went at it. While Dan was talking to him, I kept
talking to the other officers. Finally, at the very end, I said, “What are the
books that you’re after, anyway? How do you even know we stock them?” And one
officer looked me right in the eye and he said, “You’ll special-order anything,
won’t you?” [Laughter.] Got
me.

Throughout this
meeting they kept saying, “We just want this one record, we just want this one
record from this one customer.” And I asked, “What if you don’t find what
you’re looking for?” And he said, “We’ll take the next step then.” Which I
translated as: The search warrant goes into effect and they look at more
records and more records.

Somehow, some way,
Dan was able to persuade them to hold off for ten days. So they left the store,
Dan and I conversed, and within a heartbeat Dan filed for a temporary
restraining order in the court, and we got it. This enabled us to file suit
against them—to get a judicial opinion on whether the search warrant could
move forward or not.

Whether it truly was an infringement of First Amendment rights?
Right. That’s what was up for debate.

Was it the individual’s right to privacy being defended, or was it
your right?

It was the individual’s right. I asked
the officer, “Why don’t you just go to the individual and get us out of the
loop?” But the officer replied, “He’s not going to tell us anything.” You see,
we didn’t know anything about the case. We assumed it had something to do with
drugs because the DEA had been involved earlier, but that was all we knew.

So they suspected that this
individual had purchased a particular title, but they needed to verify that
fact with you.

That’s right. They wanted confirmation.
When we learned more, as our case moved through the judicial process, we found
out that it had to do with a meth lab. There’d been suspicion of a meth lab in
a trailer home in a trailer park in Adams County, and so the officers had been
able to get a search warrant for the premises on probable cause that illegal
activity was happening there. As they suspected, they found a small meth lab in
the bedroom of the trailer home. They also found in the trash what they called
a “mailing envelope” from Tattered Cover. The mailing envelope had a mailing
label on it, and there was an invoice number on the label. There was also the
name of the person to whom the contents of the envelope were addressed, who
lived at the trailer home. But there was no indication what had been in the envelope.

Because there was no invoice?
Correct. Inside the trailer home, near
the meth lab, were two books on how to make meth. And so the officers said,
“Aha!” They wanted to put the two pieces of evidence together to tie it to that
specific person. They wanted to know who occupied that bedroom, because there
were four or five people who lived in that trailer.

So Tattered Cover was within its legal rights to sell that book; the
officers simply wanted to identify which individual had bought it so that that
purchase could be used as circumstantial evidence to prove who
had been making the meth.
Right. So they went to get a search
warrant for us after we were unwilling to turn the information over with the
unofficial subpoena. But because Tattered Cover is a legitimate business, the
DA’s office in Adams County may have felt there wasn’t any danger of us
destroying evidence—which is normally one of the reasons why a search would be
necessary. Instead, they wanted the officers to do more due diligence
first—dust the books for fingerprints, interview people in the trailer park to
see who lived in that trailer, and so on.

So they went and
did the fingerprinting, which yielded no results. In fact, one of the books
still had its brown wrapper around it. Hadn’t been opened, hadn’t been cracked.
And the other one looked like it hadn’t been cracked—the spine was clean.

But the officers
wanted to take the shortcut. And since they were on hold with the Adams County
DA’s office, they went to Denver for the search warrant. They could do that
because we’re located in the city and county of Denver. So now we’re in the
Denver district court and we find out that this is going to go on for a while.
Dan’s is a small office. He doesn’t have a big corporate office to absorb
costs, and he was charging us little. Meanwhile, we were getting five-dollar
donations from customers to help pay legal fees. And Chris Finan from the
American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression stepped in. And our pal
Neal Sofman in San Francisco held a fund-raiser at A Clean Well-Lighted Place
for Books with Daniel Handler, who writes as Lemony Snicket, along with some
other authors to raise money for us.

So this was becoming a national issue.
It became a national phenomenon. We
were getting calls from national press. I never saw anything like it.
Meanwhile, all we’re trying to do is sell books. [Laughter.]

Yet 90 percent of your time was spent on this issue.
And our customers—every time we’d
been involved in cases like this before there was press, and each time I
thought, “This time the customers are not going to understand and we’re going to
go out of business.” I thought for sure that would be the case with this one. I
mean, a meth lab? We don’t like meth labs. But that was not the point of the
case.

So that judge in
the district court gave half a loaf to each side. In his decision, he ruled
that authorities could not have the thirty days’ worth of material/background
on this customer that they were seeking. But the Tattered Cover would have to
turn over the record of what was mailed to that customer on that one invoice.
So then we had a decision as to whether to appeal our case to the Colorado
Supreme Court or not. And we did.

To skip to the end
of that story, we got a 6-0 decision in our favor. One judge abstained; I
have no reason why.

How long did the entire process last?
Two years. It was decided in 2002. And
once it was over, the authorities finally went out and got the guy. They put
him in prison for a number of years.

Without even needing this evidence.
Right. By the time we were into the
case we had several pro bono attorneys. And many of them were criminal
[defense] attorneys. They looked at the facts and they said, “They don’t need
this. We’ve had less evidence for some of our clients who got put away.” At
about the same time—midway through the case—a couple of local young filmmakers
asked us if they could do a documentary. So they followed us around for the
second year of the case. But when the case was over and they’d finished their
piece and were trying to sell it to PBS, they found out that they needed to get
eight or nine more minutes of film. So they came to us and said, “We would like
to have an aftermath panel with all the parties. It would be you, Dan, the lead
officer, their attorney, and someone from the University of Denver law school
who would moderate the panel. We’ll do it at the Press Club. Would you be
willing to do that?” So we were all set to go when Dan got a phone call from
the public defender who had represented the guy who was accused and convicted
of making the meth. He asked Dan to confirm what was in the package.

Because of course you had to have known what the book was this whole
time.

But the guy who’d been put in prison
hadn’t known anything about this case while it was going on. He had no idea.
They’d arrested him after the case was over. But evidently he’d told his public
defender what had been in the package, and when the police had finally
interviewed him he’d also told them. But they didn’t believe him, evidently.

So the public
defender said to Dan, “Would you confirm the title?” And Dan said, “Well, we
could if we had permission from the individual. But it’s not something we
really want to do. We feel that this is private. He can say what the book was
if he wants to, but in any case we would certainly need written permission.” So
the next thing you know a letter is delivered from the guy in prison, with his
permission to reveal the contents of the package.

After the phone
call, Dan said to me, “Maybe we should do that.” And I said, “No! We spent two
years of our lives on this thing. We’re not going to make more hay out of
this.” Meanwhile, the filmmakers have set up the panel. You can actually see
this film if you ever care to. They play it nearly every September during
Banned Book Week.

So there we are on
the panel. A whole bunch of people are in attendance. It’s a small room at the
Denver Press Club, but it’s filled up. And when we get to the
question-and-answer period, who should be in the audience but the public
defender…. [Raises eyebrows.]
He stands up, identifies himself as the attorney for the convicted individual,
and he says—I’m paraphrasing here—”Mr. Recht, you have received a letter from
my client giving you permission to identify what was in the package, haven’t
you?” Dan says, “Yes.” “And would you do so?” And Dan says, “We would never
identify what was in the package unless we had explicit permission from whoever
owned the package, whoever bought the book.” And the public defender says, “But
you have that permission, don’t you?” And Dan says, “Yes, but again I want you
to know that we would certainly never put this information out there unless we
had permission.” “Well?” the public defender asks. “Okay, then,” Dan finally
says. “The book was on Japanese calligraphy.”

That’s amazing.
It’s true. The guy was a tattoo
artist. [Smiles.]

Let’s talk a bit about the future next. You can’t open a
bookselling-related periodical and not see at least one story about e-readers
and Kindles and digital bookselling. Do you have any intention of selling
digital books?

I think it’s very apropos of the
times. We do sell digital downloads on our Web site. We can sell them for most
of the e-readers except the Kindle, which is proprietary to Amazon. There are
many issues with regard to books being produced in this way, but as far as
independent stores’ being competitive with Amazon it’s a pricing issue. Though
we can sell these digital downloads, we can’t really be competitive because
Amazon is selling below cost. We just don’t have the financial wherewithal to
sustain that.

I’ve always been a
firm believer that information will move in the most user-friendly manner
possible. And when mass-market paperbacks became a big deal in the United
States after World War II, there were a number of people who said that this was
going to be the end of good publishing. That didn’t happen. Times will change,
and we do need to face the challenges that are before us and still maintain our
care and our community service to the people who are so important to us—the
writers and the readers. And I think that ink on paper between boards, well
done, will always be, at least in the foreseeable future, part of our social
construct. Reading a book, as you well know, is more than a cerebral
experience—it’s a physical experience. And while an e-reader has its place in
many people’s lives, there’s nothing like holding a book and seeing the pages
turn in a way that is not electronic. [Laughter.]

When I think of a
book, there are many forms that it takes. When we talk about fine literature
and poetry and use that as an example, the soul of that book is its content and
the message of the author. So that’s first. What holds that message—whether it
is a computer, ink on paper, or an iPad or a Kindle or a Nook or a Sony
Reader—has more significance in some circumstances than others. I would prefer
to read my fiction and a great deal of my nonfiction in ink on paper. If I’m on
an airplane and going on vacation, I might choose something else. But if it’s a
cookbook, I need pictures. I want to be able to get a little of what I’m
cooking on the page. [Laughter.]
So, while it may be mixing metaphors a bit, you’re not going to stand in the
way of the freight train of change. However, I think it’s really important to
be up front laying the track as best you can in the right direction for the
benefit of the readers who we serve.

Finally, what is your favorite
thing about the day-to-day of bookselling?

When I’m walking through the sales
floor and a little kid goes up to the shelf and spots a book and says, “Oh,
wow! You’ve got that book!” To know you’ve played some small role in making
that happen—there’s nothing like it. I’ve been in this business a long time
and I still get chills down my back when things like this occur.

Just this morning we received a letter
from a young girl—a ten-year-old fifth grader—who wrote a poem about books,
and loving to be in this store, and the cushy chairs, and her favorite step
that she likes to sit on. “Books, books, books, books,” she wrote. “Read, read,
read, read.” That’s what she said. [Smiles.] It is a remarkable profession, trade, and way of life.

page_5: 

INSIDE TATTERED COVER BOOK STORE
What are the best-selling sections
in your stores?

Backlist and genre fiction, new
fiction, new nonfiction, and children’s books. The next tier would include
history, religion, and travel.

What for you is the most unique or
defining aspect of Tattered Cover as a bookstore?

The dedication of its booksellers to
providing a special comfortable “place,” physical and mental, where customers
can browse a vast selection of ideas in print. 

Is there anything special you look
for in terms of an author event?

The Tattered Cover offers a wide
variety of ideas presented in the form of author events—over five hundred each
year—including the very literary, thought provoking, humorous, topical,
educational, controversial, and political, to name just a few. All of this
said, first and foremost, the author’s work has to have an audience motivated
to come to hear the author speak. We can provide the venue, the publisher can
provide a few dollars to advertise the event, but in the end it’s the author
who is the draw.

What role does technology play in
your store?

If one considers the modern printing
press a technological wonder, not to mention the various elements of
production, these are the very basis of our existence as a business. However,
technology, as we tend to think of it today, plays a significant role in
database information and searches, communication, business record keeping,
marketing, and, increasingly, the presentation and download of “the book”
itself into handheld and/or computer devices.

What has been the biggest challenge
for Tattered Cover in the last decade?

Maintaining a strong customer base that
will continue to support the booksellers; offering customers a substantial inventory
in a faltering economy and a highly competitive atmosphere.

What is the most important service
that bookstores provide their communities?

The free flow of ideas in print through
a sense of place within the community, offering an opportunity for people and
ideas to come together.

Jeremiah Chamberlin teaches writing at the University of Michigan in
Ann Arbor. He is also the editor of the online journal Fiction Writers
Review
.

Inside Indie Bookstores: Women & Children First in Chicago


by

Jeremiah Chamberlin

5.1.10

When I walked into Women & Children
First, the
feminist bookstore that Linda Bubon and her business partner, Ann
Christophersen, founded more than thirty years ago, the overriding
feeling I
experienced was one of warmth. And it wasn’t because Chicago was having a
late-winter snowstorm that afternoon. From the eclectic array of books
stacked
on tables, to the casualness of the blond wood bookcases, to the
handwritten
recommendations from staff below favorite books on the shelves,
everything
feels personalized; an atmosphere of welcome permeates the place.

In the back of
the store, a
painted sign showing an open book with a child peering over the top
hangs from
the ceiling, indicating the children’s section. Not far away, a similar
sign,
this one of a rainbow with an arrow below it, points toward the GLBTQ
section.
Despite these signs—not to mention the name of the store itself—Women
&
Children First carries more than books for women and, well, children.
The
literature section stretches down one wall; there are stacks of
photography
collections; books on writing fill an entire bookcase; and disciplines
as
diverse as cooking and psychology have healthy offerings. Though
conceived as a
feminist bookstore three decades ago, since moving in 1990 to its
current
location in the Andersonville neighborhood (an area originally home to a
large
population of Swedish immigrants in the mid-nineteenth century that has
since
evolved into a multiethnic community, and one with an equally diverse
range of
locally owned businesses such as Middle Eastern cafés, an Algerian crepe
house,
and, of course, a Swedish bakery), Women & Children First has become
as
much a neighborhood shop as a specialty store. And because the area has
become
popular with families and young professionals, the clientele is just as
likely
to be made up of men as women.

Still, books
related to women
and women’s issues—whether health, politics, gender and sexuality,
literature,
criticism, childrearing, or biography—are clearly the store’s focus.
Such
lauded authors as Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, Gloria Steinem, Annie
Leibovitz,
and Hillary Rodham Clinton have all read here. Many now-famous writers
such as
Sandra Cisneros, Ana Castillo, Julia Alvarez, Margot Livesey, and Jane
Hamilton
got their start at this store. Needless to say, Women & Children
First has
a devoted audience for its events, and many who attend are well-known
writers
themselves. So on any given night you’ll be as likely to be sitting next
to
authors such as Elizabeth Berg, Carol Anshaw, Rosellen Brown, Sara
Paretsky,
Audrey Niffenegger, Aleksandar Hemon, or Nami Mun as hearing them speak
from
the podium.

Like co-owner
Bubon, Women
& Children First doesn’t take itself or its mission too seriously,
despite
its long history and literary laurels. Twinkle lights hang in the front
windows
facing Clark Street; there are jewelry displays around the front
counter; and
tacked to the community bulletin board are flyers for both theater
performances
and burlesque shows. When I met Bubon, she was wearing a simple, black,
scoop-neck sweater and a subtle, patterned scarf in shades of red,
orange, and
cream. (She also wore Ugg boots, which she unabashedly raved about for
their
comfort.) Because Christophersen had to be out of town during my visit,
Bubon
took me around the store herself—not that I needed much of a tour.
Women &
Children First is only 3,500 square feet in area, most of which is one
large
open room. Still, the store carries more than twenty thousand books, as
well as
journals, cards, and gifts. And perhaps it is this combination that adds
to its
coziness.

But nothing
captures the
laid-back feel and philosophy of the bookstore better than the wooden
kitchen
table that sits in the back, near the children’s section. Around it are
four
unmatched wooden chairs. Bubon brought us here for the interview, and it
seems
a perfect example of the spirit of openness that pervades this place.
Several
times during our conversation customers wandered over to chat with her
and I
was generously introduced. And more than once Bubon excused herself
politely to
help a nearby child pull down a book he couldn’t reach. But never did
these
interactions feel like interruptions, nor did they ever change the
course of our
conversation. Rather, it felt as though I was simply a part of the ebb
and flow
of a normal day at Women & Children First. Nothing could have made
me feel
more welcome.

When did you meet Christophersen?
We met in graduate school. We were both
getting a
master’s degree in literature, and we became very good friends.

Was that here in Chicago?
Yes, at the University of Illinois. Our
class and
the one just above us had a lot of great writers—James McManus, Maxine
Chernoff, Paul Hoover. It was a very fertile atmosphere. So as we were
finishing the program, Ann and I started talking about opening a
business
together, and the logical choice was a bookstore. There was only one
local
chain at the time, Kroch’s & Brentano’s, and there were probably
sixty or
seventy wonderful independent bookstores in the city and the suburbs of
Chicago.

That many?
Yeah. There were a lot of independent bookstores.
It was a really great environment for booksellers. I mean, we all
thought of
ourselves as competing with one another, but really there were enough
readers
to go around. By the mid-1980s, however, we were feeling crowded—after
five
years we had outgrown that first place. So we moved to a larger store,
two
blocks away, at Halsted and Armitage.

Did you decide from the beginning
that you
wanted to specialize in books for women and children?

Yes. It was what was in our hearts, and
in our
politics, to do. We were part of an academic discussion group made up of
feminist teachers from all the nearby universities that met at the
Newberry
Library. Two of our teachers were part of this group and they had asked
us to
join as grad students. They were discussing Nancy Chodorow, whose book The
Reproduction
of
Mothering
had just
come out. Also Rubyfruit Jungle. I was like, “Oh, my goodness!”
because I had never read any lesbian literature, and here was this group
of
academics discussing it. They discussed Marge Piercy and Tillie Olsen.
These
were writers whom, when I went looking for them at places like Kroch’s
&
Brentano’s or Barbara’s Bookstore, I wasn’t finding. Similarly, as an
academic,
I knew how much Virginia Woolf had written. Yet I would look for
Virginia Woolf
and there would only be To the Lighthouse. Maybe Mrs.
Dalloway.
Or A Writer’s Diary. But we envisioned a store
where everything that was in print by Virginia Woolf could be there. And
everything by outsider writers like Tillie Olsen or Rita Mae Brown would
be
there.

It’s interesting to hear you
describe these
authors as being outsiders at one time, because when I was growing up
they were
people I was reading from the beginning.

Oh, back then you had to go lookin’,
lookin’,
lookin’, lookin’ to
find these writers. And they certainly weren’t being taught. Alice
Walker had written The Third Life of Grange Copeland, and maybe Meridian
had come out. But all the
stuff that you think of as classic women’s literature—Margaret Atwood,
Toni
Morrison—they were not a part of the canon. They were just fledgling
writers.
It was much different. And, again, there was no gay and lesbian
literature.
None. I mean, it just didn’t exist. We put a little sign on the shelf
that
said, “If you’re looking for lesbian writers, try Virginia Woolf’s Orlando,
May Sarton, Willa
Cather….” You know, writers who historians had discovered had had
relations
with women. [Laughter.]
Nothing public at all. We had a little list. Back
then our vision was about this big. [She holds her hands about eight
inches
apart.
]
Now, thirty years later, it’s incredible to look back and see the
diversity of
women writers who are published, and the incredible diversity of gay and
lesbian literature, and transgender literature, that’s being published.

I
still think
women lag behind in winning the major awards, and they lag behind in
getting
critical attention. So there’s still a need for Women & Children
First and
stores like it that push the emphasis toward women writers. But, at that
time,
we had to work to fill up a store that was only a quarter of the size of
this
one. That first store was only 850 square feet, yet it was still a
challenge to
find enough serious women’s literature to stock the shelves. Because we
didn’t
want to do romances. And it’s not that we didn’t have a vision of a
bookstore
that would be filled with works by women and biographies of women and
eventually
a gay and lesbian section and all that. But I had no idea that there
would be
this renaissance in women’s writing. That it really would happen. That
women
would get published, and get published in some big numbers, and that I
would
finally be able to sell books by women who were not just white and
American or
British. I mean, the internationalizing of women’s literature has been
very
exciting, I think.

What precipitated the move to 
this
neighborhood and this bigger store, then?

In those first ten years we had
double-digit
growth every year. Ten percent up, 11 percent up, 15 percent up. I don’t
think
we even made returns until we’d been in business three years. We were
just
selling. I had no ordering budget. “Oh, new stuff by women?” I’d say.
“Great!
We need it.” Business was growing.

Was that because nobody else was
selling this
type of literature?

Yes, and because women’s studies was
developing as
a discipline. Also, I think we were good booksellers. And we had great
programming right from the beginning. Not so much big-name authors, but
interesting stuff.

So like the first store, you outgrew
the second
one.

We outgrew it. Our landlord had also
sold the
building and the new owner was going to triple our rent. So if we needed
any
more motivation to move, that was it. What was tough, however, was that
we’d
been ten years in the DePaul neighborhood, which is very central to
Chicago.
You can get there very easily from the South Side, from the West Side,
off the
highways…yet we couldn’t really afford to stay there, and we couldn’t
find a
new space that would suit us. But then we were recruited to move up here
by the
Edgewater Community Development Organization. Andersonville is a part of
Edgewater, which goes all the way to the lakefront and west to
Ravenswood. They
literally came to us and said, “The people in our community would love
to have
a bookstore in that neighborhood. There’s a lot of spaces that are being
renovated, and we wonder if you’re thinking of opening a second store,
or if we
could encourage you to.”

This happened by coincidence, while
you were
already considering a new location?

Yes! And we said, “Well, you know, we
need more
space. We’ll come up and look.” At the same time, there were two women
who were
opening a women’s arts-and-crafts store, and all their friends said, “It
doesn’t matter where you’re located as long as you’re next to or on the
same
block with Women & Children First.” So we came up to Edgewater to
look, and
they showed us this building, which had been a big grocery store. It was
being
renovated and gutted, so we could get in at the beginning and say, “We
want the
corner and we want this much space.” The arts-and-crafts store opened
next
door. They
stayed open for seven years, and when the partnership broke up, in 1997,
we
took over their space. In terms of our growth, business kicked up 20
percent
the first year we were here. We opened in July 1990, and that first year
people
came in and brought us plates of cookies and said, “Thank you for coming
to our
neighborhood.” It was just great.

But
the move itself is the best story. Remember, this was still a shoestring
operation. We had to rely on the community. So we organized seventy
volunteers.
Four different women rented or had trucks. And those seventy people
moved every
book and bookshelf out of the old space and into this space in one day.
We
organized people in groups of three or four, and we said, “Okay, you
have the
Biography section. You pack up all these books in these boxes, mark them
‘Bio,’
pull out that shelving unit, you go with that unit and those boxes to
the new
space, and there will be somebody here to help set it up.” We had other
women
who went out and bought three trays of sandwiches and fed all the
volunteers.
We started on Friday night, worked all day Saturday, and by two in the
afternoon on Sunday we were open for business. We were only really
officially
closed for one day. And women still tell me, “I remember helping you
move.”
They’ll come in and they’ll say, “That’s my section; I put this section
back together.”

Have readings and events been a part
of this
store from the beginning?

They’ve been a huge part of the store.
Getting to meet
all these wonderful writers whom I’ve read—in person—is also something
that’s
kept me motivated and excited. And, you know, the excitement of
discovering a
new writer is always great.

We have a lot
of local
politicians who shop here too. When Jan Schakowsky decided to support
Barack
Obama in his run for the U.S. Senate, she had a press conference here.
She asked if she could use
our store to make the announcement that she was throwing her support
behind him
in the primary. And I remember her saying to me, “If we can just get
people to
not call him Osama.” I mean, that’s where we were at that time. Nobody
knew who
he was.

So the store has been important for
the
community in many ways.

A political gathering place, and a
literary
gathering place, and a place where we have unpublished teen writers read
sometimes. We’ve developed four different book groups, plus a Buffy
discussion
group. And if you came on a Wednesday morning, you’d see twenty to
thirty
preschoolers here with their moms for story time, which I do. I love it.
I just
love it. It’s absolutely the best thing of the week. I have a background
in
theater and oral interpretation, so it’s just so much fun for me.

Has that grown over the years as the
neighborhood has developed?

Grown, grown, grown. For many years I
would have
nine or ten kids at story time, maybe fifteen. Then, about four or five
years
ago, it was like the neighborhood exploded, and I started getting twenty
to
thirty kids every week. In the summer, I can have fifty in here. That’s
why
everything is on rollers. For story time, the kids sit on the stage and I
sit
here. For regular readings, it’s the opposite—authors read from the
stage and
we have chairs set up down here. We can get a hundred, sometimes even a
hundred
and fifty people in here.

A year and a
half ago, we
started Sappho’s Salon. Once a month, on a Saturday night, we have an
evening
of lesbian entertainment. Sometimes it’s open mike; sometimes it’s
acoustic
music. Kathie, who does our publicity, generally runs it, and her
girlfriend,
Nikki, who is a part-time DJ, brings her DJ equipment. Then we set up
little
tables and candles, and try to make it feel like a salon. We’ve even had
strippers. [Laughter.]
But right from the beginning we conceived of having a
weekly program night. Author
readings weren’t happening much, so we decided we’d have
discussions on hot books that people were reading. We knew a lot of
teachers
from this Newberry Library group who were writing, and who were in the
process
of writing feminist criticism, so we invited them to come and do a
presentation
on an idea.

Then we
conceived of having
a topic for each month. For example, “Women in the Trades.” So every
Tuesday
night in March a woman who was working in a male-dominated trade would
come and
talk about how she got her job, or how women can get into engineering,
or what
kind of discrimination she’s experiencing on the job and what her
recourses
were. I think one of our very biggest programs in those early years was
on the
subject of sadomasochism in the lesbian community. And we had eighty or
ninety
women who would come and sit on our shag rug—we didn’t have chairs and
stuff
like that then—and listen to people who had differing viewpoints
discuss the
issue. It seems almost silly now, but it was a big issue at the time,
and
people were really torn about whether this was an acceptable practice or
not.
Also, whether we should carry books on the subject. There was one
pamphlet
available at the time: What Color Is Your Handkerchief? Because
you would put a
handkerchief of a certain color in your back pocket to indicate what
your
sexual proclivity was.

It’s amazing how subtle the coding
had to be.
It was so discreet.

I remember the first time I saw two
women walk out
of my store holding hands. I was walking to the store a little later
because
somebody else had opened that day, and when I saw them [pause] I
cried. Because it was so
rare in 1980 to see two women feel comfortable enough to just grab each
other’s
hands. And I knew that they felt that way because they’d come out of
this
atmosphere in which it was okay.

At
our thirtieth
anniversary party [last] October, the Chicago Area Women’s History
Conference
recorded people’s memories of Women & Children First. They had a
side room
at the venue where we were having the party, and people took time to go
in and
talk about, you know, the first time they came to the bookstore, or when
they
saw Gloria Steinem here, or how they met their girlfriend here, or that
when
their daughter told them she was gay and they didn’t know what to do
about it
they came here and got a book. People shared all these memories. And
that’s
going to be part of our archive too.

This celebration was
also a
benefit for the Women’s Voices Fund, which you started five years ago.
Can you
talk about its mission?

Several years ago, Ann
and I were
looking at the budget and, frankly, there wasn’t enough money coming in
for the
expenses going out. Meanwhile, we were planning the benefit for our
twenty-fifth anniversary—this party that we hoped would raise some
extra
money—and other people in the not-for-profit world who were advising us
said,
“People will pay for your programs. They will make a donation to keep
your
programming going.” So Ann sat down and calculated what it cost to print
and
mail out a newsletter, to put on these programs, to advertise the
programs, and
then to staff them. What we discovered was that is was about forty
thousand
dollars a year we were spending on programming. And we thought, “If
there’s a
way to remove that expense from the budget and use people’s donations to
fund
that, that would be a smart thing.” So that’s what we did. Now anytime
we have
an advertisement or a printing bill or expenses related to providing
refreshments at programs, that cost comes out of the Women’s Voices
Fund.

So the store’s not a
nonprofit,
but it has a nonprofit arm.

It’s not a 501c3 on its
own. We are
a part of the pool fund of the Crossroads Fund in Chicago. So you can
send
Crossroads a check, have it be tax deductible, and have it earmarked for
the
Women’s Voices Fund.

Few people realize
how expensive
readings and events can be.

Occasionally there are
readings that
are profitable. Occasionally. But very, very often, even with a nice
turnout of
twenty to fifty people, you still may only sell three or four books.
Maybe five
or six. But it’s not paying for the program. And from the beginning we
didn’t
want to look at everything we did in terms of whether it was going to
make
money: “If we have this author
we gotta
sell ten books or we’re not gonna pay for the Tribune ad, or the
freight.” No. Having the fund
means we
pass the hat at the program, and maybe we take in twenty or thirty
dollars. But
sometimes people put in twenties, you know? And we raised thirty
thousand
dollars at this benefit.

But
obviously something
changed in the bookselling industry or you wouldn’t have had to hold
this
fundraising event. You
said earlier that when you first moved into this neighborhood you had
double-digit growth. What happened?

Well, the rest of that story is that a
year and a
half later our sales dropped 11 percent. This was 1993. And the next
year, they
fell another 3 percent. So that was a 14-percent drop in two years, for a
store
that had never seen a loss. Borders and Barnes & Noble started in
the
suburbs, but then they gradually came into the city. In 1993, when this
hit us,
Barnes & Noble and Borders had put in stores three miles to the
south of
us—right next to each other—and three miles to the north of us, in
Evanston.
Then, about seven years ago, Borders put the store in Uptown, which is
just a
mile from us, and they put another store west of us by about two miles.
More recently,
B&N closed the store three miles south of us, and Borders announced
over
two years ago that they were trying to rent all the stores around us.

They overextended themselves.
When everybody else was starting to
downsize,
Borders opened several new stores in Chicago, including this one in
Uptown.
And, you know, we’d almost gotten past the point where the chain stores
were
affecting us, because they’ve had to stop widespread discounting. But
the month
this Borders opened that close to us, our sales dropped 12 percent over
the
year before. And then over the course of that year our sales were down 5
percent. But, you know, it’s been an underperforming store. They put it
in
between two underperforming stores in a neighborhood that was more
economically
depressed than Evanston and Lincoln Park.

Do you think five years from now
they’ll be
gone?

I do. I do.

Can you wait them out?
You know, from what I can observe,
Barnes &
Noble seems to treat their employees pretty well; they seem to put
stores in
locations where there’s actually a need, and to close stores down when
needed
and redistribute employees. It seems to me Barnes & Noble plans very
carefully. Borders, on the other hand, has changed hands several times
since
1990. I just don’t see how they are going to survive. When I go in there
now
all I see is…sidelines. Candy.

I think what’s been
particularly frustrating for independent stores like ours that have
developed a
reading series over the years in Chicago—you know, attracting more and
bigger-name authors, and more interesting authors, and conducting ten to
fifteen programs a month—is when publishers take an author who has a
real base
in our store, and for whom we have a real audience, and they say, “Oh,
but the
Michigan Avenue Borders wants this author, and that’s a better
location.”

Why does that happen?
They
don’t always realize
that our location is not downtown, and that it attracts a different kind
of
clientele. And I’ve seen situations where we’ll have a local author—one
who we
have a close relationship with, and who’s done every launch with
us—whose
publisher will now say to her, “You know, two thirds of your books are
sold in
the chain stores, and so you have to do your launch at the chain store.”
But
those authors try to figure out things to do for us to get us some extra
business.

The author tour itself seems to be
waning. I
don’t blame publishers for their reluctance to send a writer out on the
road—after all, it probably seems hard to justify paying for an
author’s
travel expenses when you see only eight or nine books sold at an event.
But
people always forget the long-term sales that readings generate.

Right. Because I’ve read the book, and
so has one
of my coworkers, and we’ll both put it on our Recommends shelf. We’re
going to
keep selling this book long after the event. And we do find, when we
look at
our year-end figures, that our best-sellers for the year are almost
always
written by people who have had appearances here. Or, if not here,
they’ve done
an off-site event that we’ve been in charge of. Those books turn out to
be our
number one sellers for the year.

So what does the future look like for
you?

I’m a bookseller, but I’m a feminist
bookseller.
Would I be a bookseller if I were going to run a general bookstore? I’m
not
sure. Sometimes I think, “What will I do if the store is no longer
viable?” And
I think that rather than going into publishing or going to work for a
general
bookstore, I would rather try to figure out how to have a feminist
reading
series and run a feminist not-for-profit. Because the real purpose of my
life
is getting women’s voices out, and getting women to tell the truth about
their
lives, and selling literature that reflects the truths of girls’ and
women’s
lives. Sometimes we’re abused; we have to talk about that. Sometimes we
take
the bad road in relationships; we have to talk about that. Sometimes
we’re
discriminated against in the workplace; we have to talk about these
things.
Violence against women in the United States and worldwide has not
stopped. We don’t
have a feminist army to go rescue women in Afghanistan—would that we
did.

The goal of my
life has been
to get the word out, to understand women’s lives. We have to continue to
evolve
and change if we’re to have a full share, and if our daughters are to
have a
full share of the world.

page_5: 

INSIDE WOMEN & CHILDREN FIRST WITH ANN CHRISTOPHERSEN
What were some of your best-selling
books in
2009?

Olive Kitteridge
by Elizabeth Strout; Her
Fearful Symmetry
by Audrey Niffenegger; Yes Means Yes!
Visions of Female Sexual Power and
a World Without Rape
,
edited
by Jaclyn
Friedman and Jessica Valenti; Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa
Lahiri; The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood; The
Sisters
Grimm
Book
1: Fairy-Tale Detectives
by Michael Buckley; In
Defense of Food
by Michael Pollan; Fun
Home
by
Alison Bechdel; Hardball by Sara Paretsky; The Mysterious
Benedict Society
by Trenton Lee Stewart; Everywhere
Babies
by
Susan Meyers; Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins; Mama Voted For
Obama!
by Jeremy Zilber; The Brief Wondrous Life of
Oscar Wao

by Junot Díaz; and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg
Larsson.

What is the best-selling section in
your
store?

Paperback fiction.

What do you look for in terms of an
author
event?

First we consider whether the book fits
with our
specialty—books by and about women—or ones that offer a feminist
perspective
on any subject. It is also important to us that we can provide an
audience for
the author. Finally, though we always want to host women writers with a
national reputation, we are strongly invested in supporting local
writers and
those launching their careers with debut novels, poetry, or nonfiction.

In what ways have your events
changed over the
years?

In the store’s early days, many of our
events
were feminist issue–based, sometimes with an author or book involved but
not necessarily. We were a hub of feminist and lesbian politics and
culture,
and produced feminist plays and women’s music concerts, sponsored
women’s
sports teams, and provided support for almost every women’s/lesbian
project in
our city. Over the past number of years, however, we have focused our
energies
and events on books and other written material, knowing that that was
our
unique role in the women’s movement.

What challenges do
women still
face that you hope your store can help address?

Women writers are still
vastly
under-represented in review vehicles, which means their books are less
visible.
This can be verified by keeping a gender tally of writers reviewed in
the NYTBR or the New
Yorker
, for example, during any
given month. Though women
artists working in most mediums have certainly moved forward, they still
struggle for opportunity and recognition. Women in general have also,
obviously, made many advances since the seventies, but we still have a
long way
to go. Women’s right to control our own bodies is constantly being
challenged;
we are still paid less for doing the same job as men; we still have few
good
options for childcare; married women who work—which is the majority of
us—still do more than our fair share of taking care of home and
children;
women are seriously unrepresented in political decision-making. I could
go on,
but these are some of the reasons we still need organizations—and
bookstores—that focus on women.

How does feminism in
the
twenty-first century differ from when you opened this store?

The main difference is
that the
second wave of the feminist movement in the seventies was just hitting
the
streets and was brilliantly, feverishly, and obviously active. New
organizations were being created every day to deal with issues like
incest,
domestic abuse, healthcare, job opportunities, equal pay, the absence of
political power, and many others. The work that began then has become
institutionalized over the years since. It continues to advance, but
people
don’t always notice it now since it’s become deeper, more complex, and,
some
might say, mainstream. Another significant difference is that many of
the
growing pains have been outgrown: Feminism has been able to overcome
many of
the challenges posed by race, class, and national boundaries, becoming
truly
global. 

What role does technology play in
your store?

It has played an important role since
we bought a
computer and began using POS/IM bookstore software in 1985. We had a Web
site
for marketing purposes and then took advantage of the American
Booksellers
Association’s Web solution so we could sell books online; we switched
from
print to e-newsletters several years ago; we use social media, first
MySpace
and now Facebook and Twitter. And we have the technology—and desire—to
sell
e-books.

How do you think the rise of digital
reading
devices will affect your future?

The extent to which e-books affect our
future
depends on how large that segment of the market grows and whether there
are any
real opportunities for stores our size to get a share of online sales.
There’s
little to no local advantage online, and when your competitors are large
enough
to dictate market prices, it is somewhere between extremely difficult
and
utterly impossible to get even market share to scale.

Where would you like to see Women
&
Children First in ten years?

I would like to see us still finding
ways to serve
our community and fulfill our mission of giving voice to women.

How about feminism?
Continuing to make steady
progress toward
a world in which women are free to live an unobstructed, rich, creative
life.

What do you most love
about
bookselling?
Going through my days surrounded
by books
and the people involved in writing, publishing, selling, reading, and
talking
about them. 

Jeremiah Chamberlin teaches writing at the
University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He is also the associate editor of
the
online journal Fiction Writers Review.

Ann Christophersen photo by Kat Fitzgerald.

The Amazon Conflict

by

Kevin Nance

9.30.14

They were a team, once. In the mid-1990s, the fledgling e-retailer Amazon and the major New York publishing houses—the Big Six, as they were then known—professed themselves partners in a new era of online bookselling. One senior executive recalls Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos, announcing his enthusiasm for their common cause. “I remember sitting at a conference table with Jeff telling a handful of us about what he wanted to do,” says the executive, who asked to remain anonymous. “We said, ‘That’s great.’” And for years the partnership was mutually beneficial. As Grove/Atlantic’s president and publisher Morgan Entrekin conceded back in July, at a forum at the New York Public Library (NYPL), Amazon provided “a smooth transition to digital” that kept publishers happy: “It was primarily that there was a reliable vendor; we didn’t have piracy problems, and we got paid decently.” Good times, those.

But that age of convivial cooperation seems to be over, replaced by accusations and acrimony. For much of 2014, Amazon and Hachette Book Group—one of the Big Five publishers, as they’ve been known since the 2013 merger of Penguin and Random House—have been locked in a hostile public dispute over e-book pricing that some view as threatening the fragile ecosystem of the book industry, which includes writers, readers, publishers, brick-and-mortar bookstores, and online book retailers. On the simplest and most immediate level, Amazon wants to be allowed to sell e-books more cheaply, which it argues will benefit readers and lead to increased sales and higher royalties paid to writers. Hachette, whose divisions include Little, Brown and Grand Central Publishing, among others, begs to differ. (Although Amazon and Hachette have refused to grant most media interviews about the details of their ongoing negotiation—both declined to comment for this article—they have issued statements summarizing their positions.)

Is the current dispute just about e-books, or does it have more fundamental, perhaps existential implications? “In the publishing business, people tend to think you’re either going gangbusters or you’re on your way to death, but in reality, people are just evolving,” says Edward Nawotka, editor in chief of the trade journal Publishing Perspectives. “It’s like marriage. Husbands and wives will blow up at times, and the smallest, most insignificant thing can start a fight that appears to be the be-all and end-all. But people are just evolving. It’s the small stuff that makes you crazy.” Others, however, tend to view the Amazon-Hachette fight as less of a lovers’ squabble and more of a prelude to a real crisis that could damage American literary culture by crippling traditional publishers’ ability to publish books with great artistic merit or scholarly value but far lower commercial prospects than more popular books. “Publishers don’t make a lot of money,” the megaselling thriller writer James Patterson said at the NYPL forum. “The great fear for me is that if [traditional publishers] get squeezed down any more than they’re getting squeezed now…they’re not going to have money to bring authors along, they’re not going to have money to buy [books like] Infinite Jest.”

In this way of thinking, the dispute is about far more than the price of e-books; it’s about the future of literature itself. Some fear, for example, that Amazon’s drive to increase its already dominant share of the e-book market could spill over into hardcovers, ultimately depriving traditional publishers of a sustainable business model and making it impossible for them to offer advances that many authors depend upon. And if Amazon continues to increase its market share by underselling its competitors (including chain and independent bookstores as well as other e-retailers), many believe that it will eventually become effectively a monopoly, concentrating unprecedented power in the hands of a single corporation—one that treats books as commodities rather than as intellectual capital whose intangible value to the culture transcends economics.

“Perhaps I’m biased, but I think that books are more than commodities like vacuum cleaners,” says Amy Berkower, a leading New York literary agent and a member of the board of Poets & Writers, Inc. “I don’t know the terms of the Hachette-Amazon dispute, but I suspect Amazon is seeking more than lower e-book prices, and I fear they are asking for greater discounts that will seriously affect the already slim profit margins on which publishers operate. Unlike Amazon, publishers can’t depend on other products like vacuum cleaners to pay the bills. If their profit margins are seriously diminished, they won’t be able to afford to pay the kind of advances that finance serious works of fiction and nonfiction. I’m all for self-publishing, lower prices, and higher e-book royalties, but not at the expense of destroying a model that, however faulty it may be, provides the capital for books that require years to research and write.”

Whether such a scenario comes to pass or not, only time will tell. In the short term, Amazon argues that e-books should be cheaper because they cost less than physical books to produce. Furthermore, they say, cheaper e-books will strengthen, not harm, the culture of reading. “For every copy an e-book would sell at $14.99, it would sell 1.74 copies if priced at $9.99,” the company stated in an open letter to readers. “So, for example, if customers would buy 100,000 copies of a particular e-book at $14.99, then customers would buy 174,000 copies of that same e-book at $9.99. Total revenue at $14.99 would be $1,499,000. Total revenue at $9.99 is $1,738,000. The important thing to note here is that at the lower price, total revenue increases 16 percent. This is good for all parties involved: The customer is paying 33 percent less. The author is getting a royalty check 16 percent larger and being read by an audience that’s 74 percent larger…. The total pie is bigger.”

But as book-industry observers point out, this formula is unlikely to apply to many books, such as literary novels, with great cultural importance but far lower commercial expectations than popular or genre fiction. “What Amazon says might be true for some writers, but it’s not necessarily going to be true for all writers,” says Roxana Robinson, president of the Authors Guild—the nation’s leading professional association for writers—and the author of eight books, including the novel Sparta (Sarah Crichton Books, 2013). “That means if their sales don’t increase, they’ll just get a drop in revenues. So for Amazon to say they’re doing this to benefit writers, it doesn’t ring true.” And one publishing executive at a Big Five house, who asked to remain anonymous, calls Amazon’s position on e-book pricing “disingenuous at best, not to mention a fundamental misunderstanding of the marketplace. There are costs associated with e-books. It’s true that the profit margins are better on e-books, but e-books are not published in isolation. E-books are published in tandem with physical books, which are very costly to produce.”

In August, Michael Pietsch, the former Little, Brown editor and publisher who is now Hachette’s CEO (and is also a member of the board of Poets & Writers, Inc.), responded to Amazon’s statement with his own open letter. Hachette’s e-book prices are far below those for print books, he noted, with more than 80 percent of its e-books priced at less than ten dollars, and the prices for e-books are lowered when the paperback version of the original hardcover is published. “We know by experience that there is not one appropriate price for all e-books, and that all e-books do not belong in the same $9.99 box,” he wrote. “Unlike retailers, publishers invest heavily in individual books, often for years, before we see any revenue. We invest in advances against royalties, editing, design, production, marketing, warehousing, shipping, piracy protection, and more. We recoup these costs from sales of all the versions of the book that we publish—hardcover, paperback, large print, audio, and e-book. While e-books do not have the two- to three-dollar costs of manufacturing, warehousing, and shipping that print books have, their selling price carries a share of all our investments in the book.”

For much of 2014, Amazon and Hachette Book Group…have been locked in a hostile public dispute over e-book pricing that some view as threatening the fragile ecosystem of the book industry, which includes writers, readers, publishers, brick-and-mortar bookstores, and online book retailers.

The single most controversial aspect of the current dispute has been Amazon’s tactic of using sanctions against Hachette’s writers as leverage to force concessions from their publisher. For more than six months, Amazon has targeted Hachette authors by removing preorder buttons (which is more significant than it might appear, since publishers factor in preorders to determine their print runs), slowing shipping times, refusing to discount some books and directing readers to competing titles. The move has outraged many traditionally published writers, including members of Authors United, a group led by Douglas Preston that in August purchased a full-page ad in the New York Times calling on Amazon to stop putting writers in the middle of its battle with Hachette. About nine hundred writers signed the statement, including household names such as Stephen King, James Patterson, John Grisham, Scott Turow, Nora Roberts, and Suzanne Collins, along with Sherman Alexie (who went on The Colbert Report to discuss the dispute with Stephen Colbert, a Hachette author), Paul Auster, Madison Smartt Bell, Michael Chabon, Andre Dubus III, Jennifer Egan, Mary Gaitskill, Mary Gordon, Allan Gurganus, Siri Hustvedt, Maxine Hong Kingston, Dennis Lehane, Ann Patchett, Scott Spencer, and Donna Tartt. “As writers—most of us not published by Hachette—we feel strongly that no bookseller should block the sale of books or otherwise prevent or discourage customers from ordering or receiving the books they want,” the group said. “It is not right for Amazon to single out a group of authors, who are not involved in the dispute, for selective retaliation. Moreover, by inconveniencing and misleading its own customers with unfair pricing and delayed delivery, Amazon is contradicting its own written promise to be ‘Earth’s most customer-centric company.’… Without taking sides on the contractual dispute between Hachette and Amazon, we encourage Amazon in the strongest possible terms to stop harming the livelihood of the authors on whom it has built its business. None of us, neither readers nor authors, benefit when books are taken hostage.”

The Authors Guild has also officially not taken sides in the dispute, but most of its leadership—including Robinson and co–vice president Richard Russo—deplores what Robinson calls Amazon’s “punitive and intimidating” tactics. “It’s the dirtiest kind of dirty pool,” says Russo, whose novels include the Pulitzer Prize–winning Empire Falls (Knopf, 2001). “Amazon and Hachette may both be ruthlessly pursuing their own interests, but Hachette isn’t forcing Amazon to abuse authors.”

Amazon’s treatment of Hachette writers has been widely condemned by a wide swath of authors, including Louise Erdrich, author of the National Book Award–winning The Round House (Harper, 2012) and the owner of Birchbark Books & Native Arts, an independent bookstore in Minneapolis. “This a form of blacklisting,” says Erdrich, adding that she’s particularly concerned by the prospect of Amazon becoming a monopoly in all but name. “Allowing one company to get so big that it controls all of the information is dangerous,” she says. “Do we have the freedom to speak and write as we wish? Presently. But if we allow one distribution point, we have a dangerous bottleneck. Amazon is basically holding the books, the information, the writers, the editors, and all who contribute to the book world, hostage.” Entrekin, at the NYPL forum, issued a similarly dire warning. “We’re concentrating the flow of information in our society into the fewest hands ever in the history of the world,” he said. “That’s not a healthy thing, for all the obvious reasons.” 

In its open letter, Amazon responded to criticisms of its sanctions against Hachette writers by pointing the finger back in Hachette’s direction. “We recognize that writers reasonably want to be left out of a dispute between large companies,” the company’s book team said in a letter to readers. “Hachette spent three months stonewalling and only grudgingly began to even acknowledge our concerns when we took action to reduce sales of their titles in our store. Since then Amazon has made three separate offers to Hachette to take authors out of the middle. We first suggested that we (Amazon and Hachette) jointly make author royalties whole during the term of the dispute. Then we suggested that authors receive 100 percent of all sales of their titles until this dispute is resolved. Then we suggested that we would return to normal business operations if Amazon and Hachette’s normal share of revenue went to a literacy charity. But Hachette, and parent company Lagardère, have quickly and repeatedly dismissed these offers even though e-books represent 1 percent of their revenues and they could easily agree to do so. They believe they get leverage from keeping their authors in the middle.”

And as Amazon pointed out in the letter, not all authors are united in their opposition to the retailer or its negotiating tactics. Indeed, more than eighty-five hundred people—largely self-published writers, many of whom have been rejected by the New York legacy houses but found success distributing their work on Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing platform—have signed an online petition calling on Hachette to “stop fighting low prices and fair wages.” Calling the Big Five a “collusive cartel”—a reference to the Department of Justice’s 2012 lawsuit alleging that the largest New York publishers conspired with Apple in a price-fixing scheme—the petitioners attacked Hachette and the other big publishers as greedy, elitist, and high handed, while praising Amazon for its consumer focus and willingness to help writers shut out by the New York establishment and give them a chance to find an audience. “Amazon provides us the freedom to express ourselves in more creative ways, adding to the diversity of literature,” the writers state in the petition. “Hachette believes you’ll read whatever Hachette tells you to, and rejects and dismisses many worthy writers.” With regard to Amazon’s negotiating tactics targeting Hachette writers, the petition was sanguine: “Unfortunately for Amazon, a company that prides itself on customer service, a breakdown in negotiations has meant making decisions that are hard on customers and authors in the short run in order to fight for the rights of those same customers and authors in the long run.”

One early signer of the petition was C. J. Lyons, a former emergency-room pediatrician who now writes best-selling medical thrillers published independently and by the New York houses, and who is a member of the Authors Guild board of directors. “I totally see why [Hachette] authors are upset,” she wrote in an e-mail. “Without these extras [such as preorder buttons] that Amazon used to provide, their publisher has to work harder to market and sell their books and, quite frankly, Hachette has not been able to do that. I’ve seen reports of sales dropping by 50 percent or more.” On the other hand, she wrote, “Is it Amazon’s fault that publishers have given it such a large market share or that publishers themselves have created a business model where they have become dependent on Amazon? Several years ago, the same could be said of Barnes & Noble—in fact, Simon & Schuster authors suffered when they were in negotiations with B&N [in 2013]. That’s business. And if you don’t like the business model your own company has created, change it.”

As for nonfiction books that take years to research and write, “Those authors are clearly passionate about their work, as are their readers (however limited),” Lyons says. “While I applaud that, it would be up to each publisher to decide whether a work and author should be subsidized with a large advance. I don’t think we can lay that onus on any one distributor. Perhaps the answer lies in crowd-sourcing, increased grants and endowments for the arts, as well as self-publishing models where the author recoups more of the profit as well as has the chance to connect with [the] audience and create multimedia income streams.”

For now, the health of the publishing business is “extremely important to the health of literary culture,” Nawotka says. “They’ve published a lot of books that advance our culture that will be difficult to fit into the self-publishing structure, which is largely relegated to genre fiction and self-help books. You’re not going to see a lot of self-published biographies of Abraham Lincoln.”

For more than six months, Amazon has targeted Hachette authors by removing preorder buttons (which is more significant than it might appear, since publishers factor in preorders to determine their print runs), slowing shipping times, refusing to discount some books and directing readers to competing titles. The move has outraged many traditionally published writers.

Because the details of the Amazon-Hachette negotiations are so closely held, it’s impossible to predict how much longer they will continue. One thing that does seem likely is that traditionally published authors are unlikely to back down in their adamant opposition to Amazon’s policies with regard to Hachette writers. In mid-September, Authors United took the unusual step of calling upon Amazon’s board of directors to reconsider sanctions against Hachette authors’ books, which the group says have caused some authors’ sales—including hardcover, paperback and e-books—to drop by as much as ninety percent.

“Several thousand Hachette authors have watched their readership decline, or, in the case of new authors, have seen their books sink out of sight without finding an adequate readership,” the Authors United letter stated. “These men and women are deeply concerned about what this means for their future careers…. Amazon chose to involve twenty-five hundred Hachette authors and their books. It could end these sanctions tomorrow while continuing to negotiate. Amazon is undermining the ability of authors to support their families, pay their mortgages, and provide for their kids’ college educations. We’d like to emphasize that most of us are not Hachette authors, and our concern is founded on principle, rather than self-interest. We find it hard to believe that all members of the Amazon board approve of these actions. We would like to ask you a question: Do you as an Amazon director approve of this policy of sanctioning books?”

Pressing its argument, Authors United made the case for traditional publishers as curators, guarantors of quality and champions of books ill-equipped to compete in a marketplace dominated by bestsellers. “Publishers provide venture capital for ideas,” the letter went on. “They advance money to authors, giving them the time and freedom to write their books. This system is especially important for nonfiction writers, who often must travel for research. Thousands of times every year, publishers take a chance on unknown authors and advance them money solely on the basis of an idea. By assuming the risk, publishers expect—and receive—a financial return. What will Amazon replace this process with? How, in the Amazon model, will a young author get funding to pursue a promising idea? And what about the role of editors, copy editors, designers, and other publishing staff who ensure that what ultimately ends up on the shelf is both worthy and accurate?”

Most recently, top literary agent Andrew Wylie has been successfully recruiting his stable of blue-chip clients, including Milan Kundera, V. S. Naipaul, Philip Roth, and Salman Rushdie, along with the estates of Roberto Bolaño, Joseph Brodsky, William Burroughs, John Cheever, Allen Ginsberg, Norman Mailer, and Arthur Miller, to join Authors United. That group has reportedly drafted a letter calling on the Department of Justice to begin an antitrust investigation of Amazon and its tactics.

It’s unclear whether Amazon was prepared for such vociferous opposition from traditionally published writers, a group it once counted among its most vocal supporters. “Whatever one would say of negotiating better terms from a vendor, this wasn’t the ideal way of handling it,” says Joe Regal, CEO of the start-up e-retailer and literary-curation site Zola Books, which is trying to position itself to challenge Amazon. “Everybody wants better terms—that’s the nature of business—but I don’t think Amazon was prepared for the backlash that’s happening when authors, who are innocent bystanders, are caught in the crossfire.”

Kevin Nance is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinNance1.

Everybody wants better terms—that’s the nature of business—but I don’t think Amazon was prepared for the backlash that’s happening when authors, who are innocent bystanders, are caught in the crossfire.

Amazon and Hachette Battle Gets Orwellian, Ursula K. Le Guin and Michael Cunningham Talk Genre, and More

by

Staff

8.11.14

Every day Poets & Writers Magazine scans the headlines—from publishing reports to academic announcements to literary dispatches—for all the news that creative writers need to know. Here are today’s stories:

In response to the open letter to Amazon signed by more than 900 members of the group Authors United, Amazon created a group of its own called Readers United, and wrote a letter to supporters over the weekend urging them to e-mail Hachette. In the letter, the Amazon Books team offered a number of suggested talking points including, “We have noted your illegal collusion” and “stop using your authors as leverage”; they also used a George Orwell quote out of context in an attempt to bolster their argument against publishers’ perceived reservations about e-books. Hachette CEO Michael Pietsch responded to Amazon supporters with an e-mail saying, “This dispute started because Amazon is seeking a lot more profit and even more market share, at the expense of authors, bricks and mortar bookstores, and ourselves. Both Hachette and Amazon are big businesses and neither should claim a monopoly on enlightenment, but we do believe in a book industry where talent is respected and choice continues to be offered to the reading public.” (New York Times, Digital Book World)

At the Atlantic, novelists and twin brothers Lev and Austin Grossman—whose parents were also writers—discuss family, influence, taste, and the paths that led them both to writing.

“When the characteristics of a genre are controlled, systematized, and insisted upon by publishers, or editors, or critics, they become limitations rather than possibilities.” At Electric Literature, Ursula K. Le Guin talks with Michael Cunningham about the “arbitrary division between ‘literature’ and ‘genre.'”

Flavorwire’s Emily Temple rounds up fifty novels by women writers under fifty that everyone should read.

Meanwhile, the Millions offers up a reading list for the dog days of August.

In bookstore news, a new “nerd mecca” in New Orleans, specializing in science fiction, fantasy, crime, and mystery books, will open at the end of this month. Meanwhile, a new LGBTQ bookshop, Queer Books, is in the works in Philadelphia, in an effort to fill the space that recently defunct Giovanni’s Room left behind. (Publishers Weekly)

The new musical adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s best-selling graphic memoir Fun Home will head to Broadway next spring. (New York Times)

Authors United Heads to DOJ, Banned Books That Kids Should Read, and More

by

Staff

9.26.14

Every day Poets & Writers Magazine scans the headlines—from publishing reports to academic announcements to literary dispatches—for all the news that creative writers need to know. Here are today’s stories:

In its latest move against Amazon, the group Authors United—led by best-selling thriller writer Douglas Preston—confirmed on Wednesday that it intends to contact the Department of Justice requesting an antitrust inquiry into Amazon’s tactics against publishers. Amazon has been embroiled in a months-long battle with Hachette Book Group over e-book prices, throughout which the e-retailer has removed pre-order buttons on select titles and delayed deliveries to customers. (Publishers Weekly)

In celebration of the thirty-second annual Banned Books Week, the Huffington Post has asked educators which banned books they teach their students and why. Check out more of the conversation on Twitter under the hashtag #TeachBannedBooks.

Meanwhile, the blog What Do We Do All Day? has rounded up eight banned books that kids should read, including Lois Lowry’s The Giver and Shel Silvertein’s A Light in the Attic.

In the latest installment of By the Book, the New York Times talks to science writer and linguist Steven Pinker—author of The Language Instinct, The Blank Slate, and, most recently, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century—who says he’s never gotten in trouble for reading a book, only for writing them.

NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour gets giddy about detective stories and forthcoming fall books.

Three small presses—Civil Coping Mechanisms, Broken River Books, and Lazy Fascist Press—are teaming up to start an independent bookstore and beer shop in Astoria, Oregon. (Electric Literature)

The Guardian is offering an exclusive sneak preview of Haruki Murakami’s forthcoming book, The Strange Library. The ninety-six-page illustrated novella will be published in December by Knopf.

Bluewater Productions has created a comic book profiling Lean In author and Facebook COO and Sheryl Sandberg. The new project is part of a series called Female Force, which has featured the stories of women such as Mother Teresa, Hillary Clinton, Tina Fey, and more. (GalleyCat)

Wylie Asks Authors to Unite Against Amazon, Gaiman and Palmer Celebrate Indie Bookstores, and More

by

Staff

9.29.14

Every day Poets & Writers Magazine scans the headlines—from publishing reports to academic announcements to literary dispatches—for all the news that creative writers need to know. Here are today’s stories:

Literary agent Andrew Wylie, whose client list bears some of the most well known names in literature, is asking his writers to join the group Authors United in its battle against Amazon. Among those who have agreed are heavyweights Philip Roth, Orhan Pamuk, Salman Rushdie, V. S. Naipaul, and Milan Kundera. “It’s very clear to me, and to those I represent, that what Amazon is doing is very detrimental to the publishing industry and the interests of authors,” Wylie told the New York Times. “If Amazon is not stopped, we are facing the end of literary culture in America.” As reported last week, Authors United intends to bring complaints against Amazon and its tactics against Hachette throughout the companies’ ongoing e-book pricing impasse to the Department of Justice, as early as this week. 

Meanwhile, Publishers Weekly reports that Amazon has reached a new deal with Perseus Book Group over e-book prices. The agreement will affect not only all of Perseus’s imprints, but the more than four hundred independent presses that use Constellation, the publisher’s e-book distribution service.

The American Booksellers Association has recruited author Neil Gaiman and his wife, musician Amanda Palmer, to serve as spokespeople for this year’s Indies First campaign, an initiative launched last year by Sherman Alexie that celebrates independent bookstores. As part of the event, which takes place on Saturday, November 29, authors will serve as volunteer sellers at their favorite indie shops across the country. (GalleyCat)

“You know when a novel’s done, but not so much with short stories. In fact, short stories [are] a venerable form, but it’s diabolically hard to master.” Author Paul Theroux, whose latest story collection, Mr. Bones, is released this week, talks to NPR about the short form.

Thomas Pynchon, the legendary and elusive novelist who rarely makes public appearances (and whose photo hasn’t been published in more than fifty years) might soon appear on the big screen. In the first authorized film adaptation of Pynchon’s work—Paul Thomas Anderson’s forthcoming Inherent Vice—the Gravity’s Rainbow and Mason & Dixon author could be making a cameo. (New York Times)

Last night at KGB Bar in New York City, PEN American Center hosted a reading with the five finalists for this year’s PEN/Bingham Prize, given annually for works of debut fiction. The finalists, whose readings can be heard in their entirety on the PEN website, include Anthony Marra, Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, Ian Stansel, Shawn Vestal, and Hanya Yanagihara. The winner will be announced tonight at the 2014 PEN Literary Awards ceremony.

To fight the Monday doldrums with a little literary prowess, a new Buzzfeed quiz asks, How well do you know the first lines of classic books?

An Indie Alternative to Amazon?

by

Gila Lyons

12.11.19

The past few years have been rocky for Chris Doeblin, owner and cofounder of Book Culture, four beloved independent bookstores in New York City. “Before Amazon we had a viable company. I made a decent living in New York City. We bought an apartment,” he says. “Twenty-five years later I’m on the verge of bankruptcy. Our stores can go out of business any minute.” Doeblin’s story is all too familiar to many bookstore owners, and if America’s online book-buying trends—specifically the retail dominance of Amazon—continue as they are, some industry forecasts suggest that the stress on independent bookstores will only increase. 

Entrepreneur and publisher Andy Hunter has a new idea for how to reclaim some of the ground lost to Amazon and direct it to support independent bookstores. In January, in collaboration with the American Booksellers Association and Ingram, he and a small staff will launch Bookshop (bookshop.org), a site that will offer indie bookstores, authors, and publishers a way to competitively sell their books online. Bookshop will also enable anyone—from “bookstagrammers” and celebrity book club hosts to book-review editors and authors themselves—to link to a point of purchase for a book without linking to Amazon. Hunter, who is cofounder of Literary Hub, Electric Literature, Catapult, and CrimeReads, hopes the site will provide independent bookstores with “a unified e-commerce strategy that is as fast and user-friendly as Amazon” and, with it, a means of continued survival.

Here’s how Bookshop plans to work: Interested parties will sign up as affiliates with the site. Anyone can be an affiliate, including authors, reviewers, publishers, and media sources. There will be no cost to participate. When affiliates link to a title on Bookshop, they will receive 10 percent of any sales that come from clicking through to Bookshop from their site. (Amazon gives 4.5 percent of sales to their partners). Another 10 percent of sales will go into a pool to be distributed equally among participating independent bookstores semiannually. “For example, if Bookshop’s sales are $4 million in six months, and we have two hundred partners,” Hunter says, “each partner will receive $2,000.” If independent bookstores link to Bookshop—the bigger site promises a larger audience than the shop would connect with on its own, as well as other conveniences—they will receive a 25 percent commission of a sale directly. (Most bookstores typically make 40 to 45 percent when they sell a book online themselves.)

Of the rest of the revenue on a sale, Hunter says the publisher gets about 50 percent, Bookshop gets 5 to 10 percent to cover costs, and the rest goes toward processing and shipping the book. Ingram, the country’s largest wholesaler, will fulfill all orders and provide two- or three-day shipping, customer service, and a competitive return policy. Hunter uses his own experience at Literary Hub to speak to the site’s benefits for its partners: “All publications who review books need affiliate revenue for their coverage. Literary Hub’s network has 3.5 million visitors per month,” Hunter says, “and we don’t have affiliate revenue because we won’t link the books we write about to Amazon. So we’re leaving tens of thousands of affiliate dollars on the table.” 

Bookstores with successful online sales platforms, like Powell’s in Portland, Oregon, will likely not participate, and Hunter says Bookshop will do all it can to avoid competing with them. Instead, Bookshop intends to target Amazon customers who are not currently buying from independent bookstores and to direct them there, particularly by working with major media outlets to link to their site rather than to Amazon. “We are actively doing everything we can to drive people to independent bookstores,” Hunter says, noting that every Bookshop receipt will include information about local bookstores based on zip code. When customers log in to Bookshop.org, they can choose to  subscribe to a local bookstore’s newsletter. Hunter posits that if Bookshop captures just 1 percent of the $3.1 billion in annual U.S. book sales going to Amazon, that would represent $31 million, a cut of which would represent a substantial payback to struggling brick-and-mortar stores. 

The owner of the Raven Book Store in Lawrence, Kansas, Danny Caine, says he is excited to have a centralized outlet that is not Amazon to which to link. “Anything we can do to resist Amazon and fight back, we’re going to enthusiastically participate in,” he says. “It seems like a tall order to compete with Amazon without competing with indie bookstores, but if they can do it, I’m all for it.” 

Doeblin of Book Culture is a little more cautious. “It’s a nice gesture, but I’m skeptical of their ability to produce the results they’re talking about based on the limits of the market,” he says. “Amazon has closed tens of thousands of retail stores in America, and before that, Walmart did the same thing. American consumers shop with price in mind more than anything else. Still, we struggle on because just enough people choose to shop indie and shop local.”

Hunter remains steadfast. “I’m trying to create sustainable models for advocating for the culture that I love and feel indebted to, which is the culture around books. We need to make sure the people selling books are safe and strong.” 

 

Gila Lyons writes about mental health and social justice for the New York Times; O, the Oprah Magazine; Cosmopolitan; Salon; Vox; and other publications. Find her on Twitter, @gilalyons, and on her website, gilalyons.com.

Bookshop founder Andy Hunter.

(Credit: Idris Solomon)

A New Hub for Literary Culture

by

Jonathan Vatner

4.15.15

As the Internet continues to disgorge an ever-flowing river of reviews, essays, and articles about literature, deciding where to look for intellectually stimulating content can sometimes feel like wading through a massive slush pile. And while a number of trusted arts and culture websites produce a good deal of reliable content, finding an engaging read amid a sea of click bait and 140-character links can often be overwhelming. But the hunt for serious discourse about books became a little easier with the recent launch of Literary Hub (lithub.com), a joint endeavor between independent publisher Grove Atlantic and digital publisher Electric Literature. Founder Morgan Entrekin, president and publisher of Grove Atlantic, says he long desired to create a home on the web for lovers of literature. “It’s this problem of discoverability—it’s a dreadful word—but we’re all struggling with the idea that we can produce this stuff, but how can we bring people to it?” he says. “Now, if you’re interested in literary culture, there’s one place you can go to for your news and information.”

The site curates literature-related content from all corners of the web, while also offering commissioned essays about books and the writing life, as well as excerpts from newly released and forthcoming books. “It’s a site with the best, smartest writing about the best, smartest writing,” explains editor in chief Jonny Diamond.

While other websites round up and produce daily content on literature, Literary Hub distinguishes itself through its broad network of partners. Entrekin has been busy signing those partners—including imprints of all five major trade publishers, independent and university presses, literary magazines, bookstores, literary nonprofits, even college English and creative writing departments—whose job is to submit content and promote the site on social media. When the venture was announced in February, sixty-five such partners had agreed to participate; Entrekin hopes to grow that number to well over a hundred. Partners so far include indie publishers Graywolf Press, McSweeney’s, and Melville House; literary publications AGNI, n+1, the Paris Review, and Poetry magazine; and the nonprofit arts organization PEN American Center.

Entrekin also enlisted help in creating the website. Rather than hiring a traditional web developer to build it, he looked to partner with an existing site that aligned with his mission. Electric Literature, which was established as an online magazine in 2009 and attracted 2.9 million readers last year, seemed the perfect fit. Editorial director Halimah Marcus and founder and chairman Andy Hunter agreed to partner with Entrekin; the website’s staff built Literary Hub and will help keep it running. Grove Atlantic has committed to funding the site for its first three years, and while he isn’t turning away any ads, Entrekin isn’t soliciting them either.

To oversee the content, Hunter hired Diamond, the former editor of the L Magazine and Brooklyn Magazine, as Literary Hub’s editor in chief, and John Freeman, the former editor of Granta, to be the executive editor. Writer and critic Roxane Gay, fiction writer Alexander Chee, and poets Rebecca Wolff and Adam Fitzgerald serve as contributing editors, and rounding out the masthead are about a dozen correspondents from across the country, reporting on the literary scene beyond New York City.

Each day the website’s editorial team aims to push out a significant amount of content, including a book excerpt, contributed by one of Literary Hub’s publishing partners; a critical or personal essay about books and literary culture; an e-mail roundup of interesting reading about the literary world; and quotations and other archival material aimed at drawing clicks on social media. The editors accept pitches from writers, though Diamond says a traditional book review isn’t enough to merit inclusion. “I’m looking for longer essays that discuss multiple titles, critical pieces that engage with ideas, pieces that talk about trends in the literary conversation, pieces that can take stronger positions and become conversation starters,” he says.

Hunter acknowledges that it can take years to build a loyal audience. “The average person only checks out eight websites regularly,” he says. “To become one of those websites is a very tall order. There’s a lot of tricks, with search-engine optimization and shareable headlines, but ultimately what works in the long run is putting out great content and giving people material they love and relate to—and feel at home in.”

Jonathan Vatner is a fiction writer in Brooklyn, New York. He is the staff writer for Hue, the magazine of the Fashion Institute of Technology.

 

Resources for Writers in the Time of Coronavirus

8.11.20

As writers, teachers, publishers, booksellers, and librarians in our local, national, and international communities grapple with how to proceed in their creative, financial, professional, and personal lives during this time of uncertainty, we are compiling a list of resources we hope you will find useful. We will be updating this list as we learn of new resources and opportunities. (If you know about an opportunity, initiative, or helpful resource not on this list, please send an e-mail to editor@pw.org.) 

 

Financial Resources

The Academy of American Poets, the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses, and the National Book Foundation have established the Literary Arts Emergency Fund to help writing organizations outlast the coronavirus pandemic. With the support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the three nonprofits will administer a total of $3.5 million via one-time grants of $5,000 to $50,000. Applications were accepted through August 7.

The Poets & Writers COVID-19 Relief Fund provides emergency assistance to writers having difficulty meeting their basic needs due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the initial round of funding, Poets & Writers distributed 107 grants of $1,000 each to writers from twenty-six states. A second round of funding, in which the organization expects to be able to distribute grants of $1,000 to approximately thirty writers, closed on June 28.

The initiative Artists Relief, sponsored by a coalition of arts grantmakers—the Academy of American Poets, Artadia, Creative Capital, Foundation for Contemporary Arts, MAP Fund, National YoungArts Foundation, and United States Artists—will award a total of $10 million, half of which was contributed by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, to artists and writers “facing dire financial emergencies due to the impact of COVID-19.” Applicants who are twenty-one or older, able to receive taxable income in the United States regardless of their citizenship status, and have lived and worked primarily in the United States over the last two years are eligible to apply for $5,000 grants. Artists Relief will also serve as an informational resource, and will collaborate with Americans for the Arts to launch the “COVID-19 Impact Survey for Artists and Creative Workers.”

The Writers Emergency Assistance Fund, sponsored by the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA), helps established freelance writers “who cannot work because they are currently ill or caring for someone who is ill.” Applicants need not be members of the ASJA but must have five published articles from regional or national publications or one book published by a major publishing house.

Authors League Fund offers assistance to professional authors, journalists, and poets who “find themselves in financial need because of medical or health-related problems, temporary loss of income, or other misfortune.” 

Carnegie Fund for Authors awards “grants to published authors who are in need of emergency financial assistance as a result of illness or injury to self, spouse, or dependent child, or who has had some other misfortune that has placed the applicant in pressing and substantial pecuniary need.”

The PEN America Writers’ Emergency Fund distributes grants of $500 to $1,000 to U.S.-based professional writers, including fiction and nonfiction authors, poets, playwrights, screenwriters, translators, and journalists, who demonstrate an acute financial need, especially one resulting from the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak. 

Artist Relief Tree is “set up to collect donations from those of us with the means to help. We intend to support artists, particularly freelance artists, in a small way. Unfortunately we cannot hope to replace artists’ entire fees or lost work, but we wish to provide hope, make a small difference, and show solidarity with colleagues and Friends.” A group of artists—Andrew Crooks, Marco Cammarota, Morgan Brophy, Rachel Stanton, Tehvon Fowler-Chapman, and Thomas Morris—organized the fund. Note: This group is not taking new requests for funds at the moment.

Queer Writers of Color Relief Fund, started by Luther Hughes, founder of Shade Literary Arts, seeks to “help at least 100 queer writers of color who have been financially impacted by the current COVID-19. Priority will be given to queer trans women of color and queer disabled writers of color, but I hope this relief fund will help as many queer writers of color as it can.”

The Creator Fund, from the e-mail marketing company ConvertKit, is offering financial assistance of up to $500 for artists and small business owners—the term “creator” is loosely defined. The mini-grants can be used for groceries, childcare, rent, mortgage or medical expenses. The Fund, which will disburse $185,300 in total, is now closed to new applications after receiving more than sixteen thousand applications.

The Dramatist Guild Foundation’s Emergency Grants are available to “individual playwrights, composers, lyricists, and book writers in dire need of funds due to severe hardship or unexpected illness.” The grants, which typically range between $500 and $3,000, are intended to support expenses related to healthcare, childcare, housing, disability, natural disaster relief, and other unforeseen circumstances. Applicants will be notified in two to four weeks.

Substack, an e-mail newsletter platform, will administer a total of $100,000 to individuals “writing, or thinking about writing, on Substack” through its Independent Writer Grant Program. Individuals who are experiencing economic hardship due to the coronavirus pandemic can apply for grants from $500 to $5,000, in addition to mentorship from the Substack team. Applications are open through April 7. (It is free to join Substack and start an e-mail newsletter; if you decide to charge your audience a subscription fee, Substack takes 10 percent.) 

The Freelancers Relief Fund, organized by the Freelancers Union, will offer “financial assistance of up to $1,000 per freelance household to cover lost income and essential expenses not covered by government relief programs” including food supplies, utility payments, and cash assistance to cover lost income. Freelancers who reside in the United States, derive most of their income from freelance work, and have experienced “a sudden decrease of at least 50 percent of income as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic” are eligible. Applications have been temporarily closed due to the overwhelming response the fund received from its community.

We Need Diverse Books (WNDB) will administer emergency grants of $500 through the WNDB Emergency Fund for Diverse Creatives in Children’s Publishing to “diverse authors, illustrators, and publishing professionals who are experiencing dire financial need.” Traditionally published writers and illustrators who have lost income due to canceled festival, school, or library visits, are eligible, as are furloughed publishing professionals—editors, agents, publicists, designers, and sales positions—who work in the field of children’s literature. Only U.S. residents are eligible. Applicants should receive a response in two to three weeks.

The Maurice Sendak Foundation has dedicated $100,000 to the new Maurice Sendak Emergency Relief Fund, which will be administered by the New York Foundation for the Arts. The fund will offer grants of up to $2,500 to children’s picture book artists and writers who “have experienced financial hardship from loss of income as a direct result of the [COVID-19] crisis.”  Children’s picture book artists and/or writers who have published at least one picture book in the last five years and are residents of the United States or U.S. territories are eligible. Applications will open on April 23 and close after six hundred applications are received; grantees will be notified by May 15.

As part of its response to the COVID-19 crisis, the Economic Hardship Reporting Project (EHRP) offers emergency hardship grants of $500 to $1,500 to professional journalists based in the United States. EHRP will prioritize the unemployed, single parents, members of one-income families with young children, and people with acute medical needs over the age of fifty-five. Applications are reviewed on an ongoing basis. EHRP also accepts pitches from independent journalists for stories on “the intersection of the coronavirus and financial suffering in America, with an emphasis on writers and photographers who are themselves experiencing significant economic hardship caused by the pandemic.” EHRP typically pays reporters roughly a dollar a word or $300 to $500 a day for photojournalists.

The Foundation for Contemporary Arts (FCA) has established a temporary Emergency Grants COVID-19 Fund to “meet the needs of experimental artists who have been impacted by the economic fallout from postponed or canceled performances and exhibitions.” Individual artists who make “work of a contemporary, experimental nature,” live in the United States or U.S. territories, and have a U.S. Tax ID number are eligible to apply for grants of $1,500. FCA supports artists working in poetry, dance, music/sound, performance art/theater, and the visual arts. Applications are open through May 31.

 

Location-Specific Financial Resources

The California Relief Fund for Artists and Cultural Practitioners program, created by the California Arts Council in response to the economic crisis and impending financial needs of individual artists resulting from the coronavirus pandemic, will award a total of $920,000 via unrestricted $1,000 rapid-relief grants to more than 900 individual artists and cultural practitioners in the state of California. “Grants will be distributed to reflect the cultural and geographic diversity of the state of California—including those who are of historically underserved communities who are especially vulnerable financially due to this economic crisis.” Applicants must be current, full-time residents of the state of California, artists or cultural practitioners; and must not be eligible for or currently receiving traditional California state unemployment insurance (UI) benefits. The application deadline is August 18 at 3 PM PDT.

Literary Arts in Portland, Oregon, has created the Booth Emergency Fund for Writers “to provide meaningful financial relief to Oregon’s writers, including cartoonists, spoken word poets, and playwrights.” Awards of $1,000 each will be given to 100 writers at the end of the application period, which runs through May 13. (If additional funds are secured for this purpose, Literary Arts may open up a second round of applications later in June.) Since COVID-19 is disproportionately impacting communities of color, Literary Arts is prioritizing funding “for writers identifying as Black, Indigenous, and/or People of Color.” Funds are intended to be used for (but are not limited to) recouping financial losses due to canceled events, offsetting loss of income for teachers, and support for artists working full- or part-time in the service industry “or other professions who have lost income.” 

The Boston Artist Relief Fund “will award grants of $500 and $1,000 to individual artists who live in Boston whose creative practices and incomes are being adversely impacted by Coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19).”

The Oregon Science Fiction Convention’s Clayton Memorial Medical Fund helps professional science fiction, fantasy, horror, and mystery writers living in the Pacific Northwest states of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Alaska deal with the financial burden of medical expenses.

NC Artists Relief Fund, sponsored by Artspace, PineCone, United Arts Council, and VAE Raleigh, supports “creative individuals who have been financially impacted by gig cancellations due to the outbreak of COVID-19.” All donated funds “will go directly to artists and arts presenters in North Carolina. Musicians, visual artists, actors, DJ’s, dancers, teaching artists, filmmakers, comedians, and other creative individuals and arts presenters are experiencing widespread cancellations due to this global pandemic.”

The Safety Net Fund is offering financial support to artists who typically make their living offline, at in-person events and performances. To qualify, you must reside in the Bay Area (or near it, as some San Joaquin and Santa Cruz county zip codes are eligible), provide proof of an artistic endeavor in the last six months, cannot be eligible for unemployment insurance from the state, and must have earned less than $1,000 of income in the last thirty days.

The San Francisco Arts & Artists Relief Fund, cosponsored by the Center for Cultural Innovation, San Francisco Arts Commission, and Grants for the Arts, offers funds to “mitigate COVID-19 related financial losses that artists and small to mid-sized arts and culture organizations have suffered.” Individuals based in San Francisco who are eligible for, or currently on employment, are eligible for grants of up to $2,000. Organizations that conduct a majority of their work in San Francisco and operate on a budget of less than $2 million are eligible for grants of up to $25,000.

The Personal Emergency Relief Fund, sponsored by Springboard for the Arts, helps artists in Minnesota “recover from personal emergencies by helping pay an unanticipated, emergency expense.” Artists can request up to $500 for lost income “due to the cancellation of a specific, scheduled gig or opportunity (i.e. commissions, performances, contracts) due to coronavirus/COVID-19 precautionary measures.” 

Max Kansas City’s Emergency Grants offers grants of up to $1,000 to New York State residents who are professionals in the creative arts. “Individuals who have made their living through their art form either professionally or personally and demonstrate a financial need for medical aid, legal aid, or housing” are eligible.

The NYC Low-Income Artist/Freelancer Relief Fund, organized by Shawn Escarciga and Nadia Tykulsker, offers grants of up to $150 to “low-income, BIPOC, trans/GNC/NB/Queer artists and freelancers whose livelihoods are being affected by this pandemic in NYC.”

The New Orleans Business Alliance’s Relief Fund offers grants of $500 to $1,000 to “meet the needs of gig economy workers who have been directly impacted via loss of income.” Writers who live in New Orleans, earn more than 60 percent of their income via gig-work, and are below a certain income level are eligible.

Artist Trust’s COVID-19 Artist Trust Relief Fund offers grants of $500 to $5,000 to “artists whose livelihoods have been impacted by COVID-19” and are residents of Washington State. The grants are intended to help artists who are coping with lost wages and earnings, lost income from canceled events and performances, medical expenses, rent and mortgage payments, food, utilities, and other living expenses.

The Indy Arts & Culture COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund, sponsored by a coalition of community funders and the Arts Council of Indianapolis, offers $500 grants to “individuals working in the arts sector and impacted by the current public health crisis,” especially those working at small to mid-sized nonprofit arts and cultural organizations. Applicants must live in Marion or one of the seven surrounding counties in Indiana.

The Cultural Relief Fund offers grants of up to $2,000 to individuals in the Seattle area for “emergencies related to the COVID-19 virus and to support the creative responses cultural workers offer in times of crisis.” The first round of funding was available April 1 through May 15. Applications are reviewed weekly; applicants will be notified within ten business days. 

The Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council Emergency Fund for Artists offers grants of up to $500 to artists dealing with financial losses due to canceled events, canceled classes, or school closures. Artists who live in Pittsburgh (in Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Washington, Lawrence, Indiana, Greene, Fayette, Washington, and Westmoreland counties) are eligible. Applications are reviewed on a rolling basis.

The Canadian Writers’ Emergency Relief Fund, financed by the Writers’ Trust of Canada, the Writers’ Union of Canada (TWUC), and the Royal Bank of Canada, will distribute $150,000 to writers in Canada that have “seen contracted or projected income evaporate due to the current public health crisis.” Poets, fiction writers, nonfiction writers, and young adult writers with a track record of publication (or self-published writers who are members of TWUC) who will lose more than $1,500 between March and May 2020 are eligible to apply for grants of $1,500. The application deadline was April 9.

The Atlanta Artist Lost Gig Fund, administered by the arts nonprofit C4 Atlanta, offers grants of up to $500 to artists in the Atlanta area who “have unmet essential needs due to lost revenue from canceled upcoming events and gigs.” Artists who make their living from their practice are eligible.

The Culture Connects Coalition Artist Relief Fund, cosponsored by the City of Santa Fe Arts and Culture Department and the Lannan Foundation, will administer grants of $500 to artists who live in Santa Fe County and have suffered financial losses due to canceled events, including  readings, panels, and teaching opportunities. Priority will be given to requests from Black/Indigenous/People of Color, transgender and nonbinary artists, and/or artists with disabilities. The current round of applications is open until May 17; the next round of applications will open on June 1.

 

Resources for Working Remotely

Zoom: “How do I host a video meeting?”

Vimeo: “How to plan a virtual event: Vimeo’s live production experts tell all”

Creative Capital: “Thinking About Livestreaming as an Artist? Read This First.” Artists Yara Travieso and Brighid Greene describe how to approach livestreaming and survey platforms available to writers: Instagram, HowIRound, Vimeo, Twitch, YouTube, Facebook, and Zoom.

The Chronicle of Higher Education offers advice for teaching during the coronavirus, including Moving Online Now: How to Keep Teaching During Coronavirus, a collection of articles, advice, and opinion pieces on online learning; “The Quandary: How Do I Support a Student Who’s Sick With Covid-19?”; “Eight Ways to Be More Inclusive in Your Zoom Teaching”; and more.

The National Endowment for the Arts has put together a list of ways to create an inclusive experience for virtual and digital events. “Resources to Help Ensure Accessibility of Your Virtual Events for People with Disabilities” includes information about captioning, sign language interpretation, virtual platform accessibility features, and more. 

 

Resources for Booksellers

The American Booksellers Association’s Coronavirus Resources for Booksellers includes immediate steps to take during the outbreak, ABA initiatives during the outbreak, and opportunities for financial assistance.

Book Industry Charitable Foundation (Binc) offers assistance “for the medical expenses of booksellers and to help booksellers in specific cases where store closure and/or loss of scheduled pay leads to the inability to pay essential household bills for an individual or family.”

The #SaveIndieBookstores campaign fund—organized by James Patterson, Reese’s Book Club, the ABA, and Binc—will administer financial assistance to independent bookstores, “the hearts and souls of main streets in cities and towns all across the United States.” Applications will be open from April 10 to April 27.

 

Resources for Librarians

The Help a Library Worker Out (HALO) Fund, organized by the nonprofit EveryLibrary Institute, will administer grants of up to $250 to library workers, librarians, and library staff who are “experiencing personal or household financial difficulties during this time of crisis.” Individuals who reside in the United States or U.S. territories and have lost work or experienced a significant wage reduction—or are part of a household in which a member has lost their job or seen their income reduced—are eligible. HALO grants can be used toward personal expenses such as food, rent or mortgage payments, cell phone and internet expenses, medicine, or household needs. Grants are made on a rolling basis.

The American Library Association’s (ALA) Pandemic Preparedness page includes news on how librarians are dealing with the pandemic, professional development and training resources, and lists of federal, state, and local resources. The ALA also hosts free webinars on topics such as considering copyright during a crisis, navigating the impact of COVID-19 on library technical services, using a library’s virtual presence to reach users with disabilities, and more.

 

Resources for Readers and Writers

The New York Public Library is offering expanded access to its online research databases. Research librarians and curators are also available for online consultations.

Audible has assembled a free collection of audiobooks, including literary classics and books for young readers. 

Many university presses and other not-for-profit publishers are collaborating with Project MUSE to offer free access to books and journals. 

Independent publisher Archipelago Books is unlocking access to thirty e-books through April 2.

As usual, the Academy of American Poets and the Poetry Foundation, among other organizations, offer free-to-access poetry archives.

The editors at Brightly, a subsidiary of Penguin Random House, have assembled “Reading Through It Together,” a set of educational resources and reading exercises for children and teens.

In partnership with Simon & Schuster, the Folger Shakespeare Library is sharing resources from its video and audio recordings archive—including footage of the Folger Theatre’s 2008 production of MacBeth—through July 1. 

The Sequential Artists Workshop (SAW) in Gainesville, Florida, is making five of its most popular online courses in comics and graphic storytelling available for free.

Calamari Press has made digital copies of all its book titles, as well as back issues of Sleepingfish literary magazine, available for free.

Writer Suleika Jaouad has organized a daily creativity project, the Isolation Journals, through which she sends daily journaling prompts via e-mail from some of her favorite writers, artists, and musicians, including Elizabeth Gilbert, Erin Khar, Esmé Weijun Wang, Georgia Clark, Hallie Goodman, Ilya Kaminsky, Jen Pastiloff, Jon Batiste, Jordan Kisner, Kiese Laymon, Lily Brooks-Dalton, Mari Andrew, Melissa Febos, Nora McInerney, Rachel Cargle, Ruthie Lindsey, and more. 

The Authors Guild posted their webinar “Coronavirus Relief Programs for Authors and Freelancers,” featuring Mary Rasenberger and Umair Kazi, the Authors Guild’s executive director and director of policy and advocacy, respectively, and Marcum LLP partner Robert Pesce. The trio covers “how authors and freelancers can benefit from the government relief programs for economic assistance during the coronavirus crisis.” They discuss qualification criteria for unemployment, loan terms, and other information about the process.  

As usual, Poets & Writers offers weekly writing inspiration through The Time Is Now, which features writing prompts in poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, and Writers Recommend, through which authors share the rituals, art, books, music, movies, and habits that get them writing. 

 

Other Resources

NYC Covid Care, a volunteer network of more than 2,500 mental health professionals, life coaches, spiritual care providers, organizers, and crisis line operators based in New York City, offers free support to those in crisis. All essential workers and their families based in the New York City Metro Area are eligible to participate. Applicants will be contacted by a volunteer professional via phone or video-conference for a confidential consultation.

COVID-19 Freelance Artists Resources is “an aggregated list of FREE resources, opportunities, and financial relief options available to artists of all disciplines.”

Creative Capital’s List of Arts Resources During the COVID-19 Outbreak

Kickstarter’s COVID-19 Coronavirus Artist Resources

New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA) Emergency Grants Page

BOMB magazine’s COVID-19 Artist Resources and Closing the Distance: New Spaces for Community, an “ongoing list of online tools, workshops, and livestreams to keep you company and engaged in the time of COVID-19.”

National Endowment for the Arts COVID-19 Resources for Artists and Arts Organizations

Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts has compiled a national directory of organizations that offer legal services to artists, some of which are provided pro bono. Membership and processing fees vary by organization.

The Community of Literary Magazines and Presses COVID-19 Resources for Indie Publishers lists emergency grants and resources available to independent publishers and other literary stakeholders.

Just Shelter, a project started by Evicted author Matthew Desmond and Tessa Lowinske Desmond, offers a state-by-state directory of more than six hundred organizations that work to “preserve affordable housing, prevent eviction, and reduce family homelessness.” 

The Authors Guild posted its webinar “Coronavirus Relief Programs for Authors and Freelancers,” featuring Mary Rasenberger and Umair Kazi, the Authors Guild’s executive director and director of policy and advocacy, respectively, and Marcum LLP partner Robert Pesce. The trio covers “how authors and freelancers can benefit from the government relief programs for economic assistance during the coronavirus crisis.” They discuss qualification criteria for unemployment, loan terms, and other information about the process. 

The Whiting Foundation offers notes from financial guru and artist Amy Smith’s April webinars “Unemployment Compensation for Freelancers and Self-Employed Individuals,” “Applying for PPP and EIDL Relief as an Organization,” and “Applying for PPP and EIDL Relief as an Individual.”

 

Inside Indie Bookstores: The Complete Series

by

Jeremiah Chamberlin

4.28.17

Inside Indie Bookstores, a series of interviews with the entrepreneurs who represent the last link in the chain that connects writers with their intended audience, ran in all six issues of 2010, celebrating the passion, ingenuity, determination, creativity, and resourcefulness of the entrepeneurs who run the institutions that mean so much to the literary community. Below we revisit the unique personalities, the expert perspectives, and that intoxicating new- and used-book atmosphere of Inside Indie Bookstores.

 

Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi
by Jeremiah Chamberlin
1.01.10
In the inaugural installment of Inside Indie Bookstores, a new series of interviews with independent booksellers across the country, contributor Jeremiah Chamberlin talks with Richard Howorth about his initial vision for Square Books, how a bookstore can stay relevant in the twenty-first century, and the future of independent bookselling.

Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon
by Jeremiah Chamberlin
3.01.10
In the second installment of our series Inside Indie Bookstores, Jeremiah Chamberlin travels to Portland, Oregon, to talk with Michael Powell, owner of Powell’s Books. The “City of Books,” as the four-story flagship store on West Burnside is known, occupies an entire city block, and carries more than one million books. The sixty-eight-thousand-square-foot space is divided into nine color-coded rooms, which together house more than 3,500 sections. From the moment you walk in, it feels as if you could find anything there.

Women & Children First in Chicago

by Jeremiah Chamberlin
5.01.10
In the third installment of our series Inside Indie Bookstores, Jeremiah Chamberlin travels to Chicago to talk with Linda Bubon and Ann Christophersen, co-owners of Women & Children First, which was conceived as a feminist bookstore three decades ago and has grown into a neighborhood shop popular with families and young professionals. Still, books related to women and women’s issues—whether health, politics, gender and sexuality, literature, criticism, childrearing, or biography—are clearly the store’s focus. 

Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee
by Jeremiah Chamberlin
7.01.10
In the fourth installment of our series Inside Indie Bookstores, Jeremiah Chamberlin travels to Milwaukee to talk with Daniel Goldin, owner of Boswell Book Company, which is named after James Boswell, the eighteenth-century British biographer, and is located on Downer Avenue in a diverse area of the city—close to both the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee and Lake Michigan. 

Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver
by Jeremiah Chamberlin
9.01.10
In the fifth installment of our series Inside Indie Bookstores, contributor Jeremiah Chamberlin travels to Denver to speak with Joyce Meskis, owner of Tattered Cover Book Store, which as become as much a destination for the local community as it has for writers. From the moment you walk in, you feel a sense of ease and peacefulness. The guiding aesthetic is a wonderful mix of the old (worn hardwood floors downstairs, exposed rafters and hand-hewn support beams) and the new (forest green carpet upstairs, a selection of organic and local options at the café). The place feels vital, vigorous.

McNally Jackson Books in New York City
by Jeremiah Chamberlin
11.01.10
In the sixth installment of our series Inside Indie Bookstores, contributor Jeremiah Chamberlin travels to New York City to speak with Sarah McNally, owner of McNally Jackson Books, located in a vibrant area of lower Manhattan—though technically in NoLita (North of Little Italy), it’s also on the eastern fringe of SoHo (South of Houston)—that is filled with boutiques, hip coffee shops, and trendy restaurants.

Inside Indie Bookstores: The Complete Series

by

Jeremiah Chamberlin

4.28.17

Inside Indie Bookstores, a series of interviews with the entrepreneurs who represent the last link in the chain that connects writers with their intended audience, ran in all six issues of 2010, celebrating the passion, ingenuity, determination, creativity, and resourcefulness of the entrepeneurs who run the institutions that mean so much to the literary community. Below we revisit the unique personalities, the expert perspectives, and that intoxicating new- and used-book atmosphere of Inside Indie Bookstores.

 

Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi
by Jeremiah Chamberlin
1.01.10
In the inaugural installment of Inside Indie Bookstores, a new series of interviews with independent booksellers across the country, contributor Jeremiah Chamberlin talks with Richard Howorth about his initial vision for Square Books, how a bookstore can stay relevant in the twenty-first century, and the future of independent bookselling.

Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon
by Jeremiah Chamberlin
3.01.10
In the second installment of our series Inside Indie Bookstores, Jeremiah Chamberlin travels to Portland, Oregon, to talk with Michael Powell, owner of Powell’s Books. The “City of Books,” as the four-story flagship store on West Burnside is known, occupies an entire city block, and carries more than one million books. The sixty-eight-thousand-square-foot space is divided into nine color-coded rooms, which together house more than 3,500 sections. From the moment you walk in, it feels as if you could find anything there.

Women & Children First in Chicago

by Jeremiah Chamberlin
5.01.10
In the third installment of our series Inside Indie Bookstores, Jeremiah Chamberlin travels to Chicago to talk with Linda Bubon and Ann Christophersen, co-owners of Women & Children First, which was conceived as a feminist bookstore three decades ago and has grown into a neighborhood shop popular with families and young professionals. Still, books related to women and women’s issues—whether health, politics, gender and sexuality, literature, criticism, childrearing, or biography—are clearly the store’s focus. 

Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee
by Jeremiah Chamberlin
7.01.10
In the fourth installment of our series Inside Indie Bookstores, Jeremiah Chamberlin travels to Milwaukee to talk with Daniel Goldin, owner of Boswell Book Company, which is named after James Boswell, the eighteenth-century British biographer, and is located on Downer Avenue in a diverse area of the city—close to both the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee and Lake Michigan. 

Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver
by Jeremiah Chamberlin
9.01.10
In the fifth installment of our series Inside Indie Bookstores, contributor Jeremiah Chamberlin travels to Denver to speak with Joyce Meskis, owner of Tattered Cover Book Store, which as become as much a destination for the local community as it has for writers. From the moment you walk in, you feel a sense of ease and peacefulness. The guiding aesthetic is a wonderful mix of the old (worn hardwood floors downstairs, exposed rafters and hand-hewn support beams) and the new (forest green carpet upstairs, a selection of organic and local options at the café). The place feels vital, vigorous.

McNally Jackson Books in New York City
by Jeremiah Chamberlin
11.01.10
In the sixth installment of our series Inside Indie Bookstores, contributor Jeremiah Chamberlin travels to New York City to speak with Sarah McNally, owner of McNally Jackson Books, located in a vibrant area of lower Manhattan—though technically in NoLita (North of Little Italy), it’s also on the eastern fringe of SoHo (South of Houston)—that is filled with boutiques, hip coffee shops, and trendy restaurants.

Authors Reimagine Live Events During the Coronavirus Pandemic

by

Michael Bourne

3.23.20

Six years ago, when Emily St. John Mandel published Station Eleven (Knopf, 2014), her best-selling novel about a pandemic flu that decimated the world’s population, she couldn’t have known that her next novel, The Glass Hotel (Knopf, 2020), would arrive at the height of a pandemic flu outbreak that, if not as lethal as the fictional “Georgia flu” of her earlier book, is nevertheless upending the world economy—and, not incidentally, her twenty-five-city book tour.

“Yeah, irony, right?” Mandel says with a rueful chuckle. “I maintain that this is nowhere near as bad as the Georgia flu. We’re not going to end our days in traveling Shakespearean theater companies crossing a post-apocalyptic wasteland.”

Perhaps not, but the coronavirus pandemic has radically disrupted the book business, setting off waves of bookstore closures and book festival cancellations, making it nearly impossible for authors like Mandel to tour in support of their books. For now these closures and cancellations are only affecting books published this spring, but if the national lockdowns continue, it could send lasting shockwaves through the always fragile publishing ecosystem. 

Already, though, authors and booksellers are teaming up to shift canceled live events online using digital tools like Zoom and Facebook Live. Mandel herself will be participating in a live digital Q&A Tuesday, March 24, with author Isaac Fitzgerald, hosted by Brooklyn’s Greenlight Books, where Mandel was originally scheduled to launch her book in person. The same night, a new organization, A Mighty Blaze, run by writers Jenna Blum and Caroline Leavitt, will be featuring Facebook Live events for Laura Zigman’s new novel Separation Anxiety (Ecco, 2020) and Andrea Bartz’s novel The Herd (Ballantine, 2020), along with a slate of debut authors.

It remains to be seen how effective these digital book events will be, especially for smaller presses that rely on in-person events at bookstores and festivals to introduce their authors to readers, says Mary Gannon, executive director of the Community of Literary Magazine and Presses. “I think everybody is trying to pivot and reinvent as quickly as possible just to experiment with how these events might work,” she says. “So it’s hard to tell at this point if digital events can make up for canceled live ones, but there’s kind of nothing else to do.”

No matter how successful these digital events are, virus-related lockdown orders and restrictions on in-person gatherings will hurt authors and the book industry more generally, Gannon says. When fears of infection slashed attendance at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference earlier in March, she says, many of the small presses in her organization saw sales for the month drop by as much as 20 or 30 percent, just from the loss of in-person sales from that one event.

“I think there’s going to be serious negative impact on both small and large publishers, but the smaller publishers are the ones that are more at risk because they have fewer resources,” she says. “It’s especially important right now for us to support literary magazines and small presses in any way we can. They’re essential to ensuring the health and diversity of the literary arts.”

Indeed, Paul Bogaards, deputy publisher at Knopf and Pantheon Books, offers a slightly more sanguine view of the disruption to live author events. At Knopf and Pantheon, imprints of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, which is a part of Penguin Random House, Bogaards says, all book tours have been canceled or postponed through the end of April, which impacts about a dozen titles at just those two imprints. “I can’t speak for the industry, but given the CDC protocols in place, no one is touring,” he says. “Physical gatherings are kaput. Boots-on-the-ground book tours are dead for the moment.”

But, he says, critics haven’t stopped reviewing books, authors continue to sit for interviews, and publishers are able to maintain their social media campaigns. “Touring is just one spoke in the wheel of book promotion and publicity,” he says, “and, in point of fact, publishers are doing less of it than they once did.”

Bogaards is encouraged by upticks in sales of commercial fiction and topical nonfiction, along with titles that touch directly on contagious diseases like Stephen King’s The Stand (Doubleday, 1978), Albert Camus’s The Plague (Gallimard, 1947), and Mandel’s Station Eleven. Publishers are hoping the enforced down-time will spark renewed interest in their classic titles. To that end, Knopf and Pantheon are launching social media initiatives designed to prompt readers toward its backlist catalog. “I mean, if you are under a government-ordered lockdown, what better way to travel than through the pages of a book?” he says.

In the meantime, authors at small and large publishers are exploring digital alternatives to live events. Blum and Leavitt, the organizers behind A Mighty Blaze, were among the first to see the need for a hub for writers whose book tours were stranded by the pandemic. The idea for the site came about after Leavitt, author of twelve books, including With or Without You, due out in August from Algonquin, learned that the Texas Library Association Conference, where she had been invited to appear, had to cancel and move its offerings online.

“I had spent a lot of time memorizing what I thought was a funny speech, with hand movements and everything,” she says. “I made a video of it and I sent it to Algonquin just for a lark, and they liked it so much they said, ‘Ooh, we can send that out.’ So I started the ‘Nothing is Cancelled Book Tour,’ where I told authors to make little videos and I’d post them as if they were in a bookstore. All I asked is that they shout out another writer and shout out an indie bookstore.”

The site took off, and Leavitt quickly joined forces with Blum, author of The Lost Family (HarperCollins, 2018). Calling themselves “two women writers in yoga pants trying to help other writers whose book tours have been canceled,” the pair has already attracted more than fifty industry partners, including Poets & Writers and two hundred author participants.

“It’s grown exponentially every day,” says Blum. “I would say it’s been growing faster than COVID. We’ve been having so many writers join us, and so many industry people from publishers to publicists to agents to indie bookstores to literary conferences and festivals—everybody wants to help.”

Still, digital events aren’t for everyone. Poet Tess Taylor is publishing two collections this spring, Last West: Roadsongs for Dorothea Lange, commissioned by New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and Rift Zone, due from Red Hen Press in April. Taylor was able to attend a reading for Last West at MoMA in February, but most of the subsequent events for that book, along with twenty-five more events planned for Rift Zone, have all been canceled.

The two books contained a decade’s worth of poems, Taylor says, and she spent a year organizing the events to support them. “It feels like building a sandcastle,” she says. “You know, you build it up and up and up and then a wave comes and it knocks it down. I don’t know if I’m sad or angry. I’m all those things, and then sometimes I’m just humbled because what’s going on is so much bigger than just us or me.”

Living as she does in California, which is currently under a shelter-in-place order, Taylor says she will be throwing herself a digitally streamed “imaginary book party” with fellow poet Judy Halebsky, inviting friends “to have a glass of wine and watch us give our reading” online, and plans to regularly post poems by poets she admires. But she admits to feeling ambivalent about moving her live events online.

“I’m using social media because I want to be in a community right now at this moment when we can’t go out in the world, but I love people,” she says. “I love human beings. I really miss them. I love bookstores and want to support them. I love the feeling of live poetry, having it read, being in a room where someone is sharing their words and their breath with you—in the most wonderful way, not in a toxic way. Poetry is a beautiful way of sharing breath, and I miss that.”

 

 

Michael Bourne is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

From top: Emily St. John Mandel, author of Glass Hotel; Caroline Leavitt, cofounder of A Mighty Blaze and author of With or Without You; and Tess Taylor, author of Rift Zone.

(Credit: Mandel: Michel Leroy; Leavitt: Jeff Tamarkin; Taylor: Taylor Schreiner)

Amid Pandemic, Barnes & Noble Pauses to Improve Its Stores

by

Michael Bourne

3.30.20

Can a pandemic that shutters nearly two-thirds of a nationwide bookstore chain’s locations have a silver lining? If that bookstore chain is Barnes & Noble, quite possibly it could.

The chain, which was bought out last year by New York–based hedge fund Elliot Management, was in the process of overhauling its stores before the coronavirus hit this spring, says CEO James Daunt. Now, with roughly 400 of the chain’s 627 stores temporarily closed to help slow the spread of the pandemic, that work can continue in relative peace.

“Our stores are pretty terrible, we know that,” Daunt says. “We don’t shy away from that fact and certainly I don’t shy away from articulating that fact. To make them better bookstores, we really have to do a lot of work and some of that is physical work, moving the interiors around and changing the layout and the presentation of the stores, making them more open, easier to navigate, and frankly just better looking bookstores. And that, ironically, is a lot easier to do when you don’t have any customers in the way.”

Not that Daunt looks upon the wave of temporary closures at Barnes & Noble as good news. He has had to lay off all employees with less than six months seniority and furlough many others, actions he calls “traumatic” but necessary to trim costs while the stores are closed to the public.

“It’s desperately difficult. None of us have any idea how long this will go on for. If President Trump is correct and we’re back in business by Easter, then really, we don’t have a particular problem. It’s a nasty shock, but it’s not a problem, and very few people, if any, will ultimately lose their jobs. If it extends further, then evidently they will,” he says. (Trump has since extended social-distancing guidelines through April 30.) “If you have no money coming in, then your liabilities become a significant issue and we have to cut costs to ensure the survival of the business, and that will include unfortunately our staff as well as all the other discretionary expenditures that we have available to cut back on.”

But Daunt, who also runs the bookstore chain Waterstones as well as his own smaller independent chain, Daunt Books, in the U.K., has retained a core team of experienced booksellers at many shuttered Barnes & Noble locations and plans to use the time provided by the enforced closures to spruce up the stores and improve the selection of books on the shelves.

“The backlist at Barnes & Noble has really deteriorated over the last decade and the cumulative impact is that we have pretty shockingly poorly stocked stores,” he says. “Before this crisis, we had already embarked on a process of using the holiday sales to empty them out to a degree just to give us space, and what we were intending to do with that liberation of space is then pile back in the backlist that was missing and start to re-curate the stores.”

This work has been seen by book-industry observers as desperately overdue for Barnes & Noble, which had to close 150 stores in the decade leading up to the buyout last summer in the face of competition from Amazon and newly resurgent independent bookstores. The enormous selection of books at its larger stores, which helped spur the chain’s growth in the 1980s and 1990s, had become a liability in an era when customers can buy books from a warehouse by clicking a few buttons on their smartphones.

Daunt, who oversaw a similar overhaul at Waterstones over the past decade, strenuously denies the make-over at Barnes & Noble will entail abandoning a large number of under-performing locations. 

“If I could get a dollar for every time I was told I would close a hundred stores I would be a very rich man, but in fact I have a huge motivation to keep as many bookstores open as possible,” he says. “I believe in the profession, I believe in the vocation, I believe in the purpose and worth of bookstores within communities. That said, there is a clear case for closing a reasonably large number of stores because they’re just too big or too old, too this, too that, but we’d only do that if we could relocate. What we’ve done at Waterstones is actually close a very substantial number of stores but open up a larger number of stores. We haven’t deserted any locations. We’ve just moved.”

Over time, Daunt hopes the chain can find new locations that will better reflect the market for books in a given area. “So often it’s driven by the property—what’s the right size of store for a particular location, and certainly there are a number of Barnes & Noble stores which are either in the wrong place and they should be down the freeway or across the mall or in a slightly better location, or they’re just too big,” he says. “We’ve got a 25,000-square-foot store when a 20,000-square-foot store would be a much better size to have.”

While the widespread closures will eat into Barnes & Noble’s revenues in the short run, Daunt says the chain’s deep-pocketed ownership group will help it weather the crisis. It helps, he says, that business was unusually brisk at many of the chain’s locations before the shutdowns and that sales via the company’s website are currently running three or four times higher than normal.

“Our financing is not as bleak as perhaps our financial situation might have led one to think,” he says. “We just have to be pragmatic and sensible and we need an owner who’s prepared to let us continue to invest.”

Michael Bourne is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

James Daunt was named Barnes & Noble’s CEO in August 2019.

Literary Festivals Go Virtual

by

Thea Prieto

6.10.20

In the time of COVID-19 and social distancing, literary organizations face a difficult reality regarding in-person festivals and conferences. Dozens of events previously scheduled for the summer of 2020, some years in the making, have been canceled or postponed—events that typically bring together hundreds and thousands of readers, writers, and literary enthusiasts. The Squaw Valley Writers Workshops were slated to celebrate their fiftieth anniversary in July and will postpone most programming until 2021, and as of this writing the ninety-fifth Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, tentatively scheduled for August, has yet to announce if it will proceed.

But as stay-at-home orders swept the United States this spring, many organizers felt a more pressing need for community connection than ever before and sprung into action, reimagining their events in new, online formats. The Split This Rock poetry festival, originally scheduled for March in Washington, D.C., quickly pivoted to offer a virtual social-change book fair and livestreamed readings throughout May and June. The Conversations & Connections conference, sponsored by the literary magazine Barrelhouse, was replaced with a virtual Spring 2020 Read-In and Write-In, which launched on March 15, featuring a book group and workshops with guest lecturers and sprint writing sessions. The North Carolina Writers’ Network reenvisioned its daylong spring conference as the 2020 Cabin Fever Conference, an event held from April 16 to April 18, complete with open mic readings and a “virtual exhibit hall” of links to websites for presses based in North Carolina.

“People were grateful for the chance to connect, even if it was online through Zoom,” says Ed Southern, executive director of the North Carolina Writers’ Network. “It was important for us to take a step back and look again at our mission statement and remind ourselves our mission isn’t to put on a spring conference. Our mission is to connect, educate, promote, and serve writers.”

The Jackson Hole Writers Conference, Bay Area Book Festival, and Nantucket Book Festival are also offering virtual programming through various online platforms such as Zoom, YouTube, and social media. While Squaw Valley’s fiftieth anniversary festivities will have to wait until 2021, workshop organizers plan to offer a “Virtual Valley” 2020 summer poetry workshop from June 20 to June 27. And in honor of its forty-fifth anniversary, the Southampton Writers Conference will be held online from July 8 to July 12, with workshop faculty including Billy Collins, Camille Rankine, and Frederic Tuten.

Wordplay is perhaps one of the largest literary festivals to switch to an entirely digital platform on short notice. Hosted by the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, the inaugural Wordplay in 2019 boasted more than ten thousand festivalgoers as well as outdoor stages, cooking stages, literary parties, food trucks, and beer tents, in addition to readings, panels, and workshops. Within weeks of Minnesota’s implementation of shelter-in-place orders, Wordplay’s staff reprogrammed the festival, which was, as an announcement on its website quipped, like building a bicycle as you ride it. Originally planned as a daylong event in May, the virtual festival became a monthlong affair that spanned from April 7 to May 9, featuring more than one hundred authors. All events were free to the public. “We were nervous about people showing up, but they have and we’ve already hosted thousands of readers at our events,” says Steph Opitz, founding director of Wordplay, midway through the event. “One thing an in-person festival does really well is support debut authors via foot traffic, and while online programming loses that, it gains access previously denied by location.” 

Attendance has been an early concern for the organizers and participants of virtual literary festivals. While virtual platforms have the potential to make offerings more inclusive with lower costs and less physical demands on the attendees, there are still important drawbacks to consider.

“When there is so much uncertainty in the world, and folks are dealing with the hardships and bureaucracy of unemployment and limited access to public computers and new strains on their time,” says Opitz, “the fact that the festival is free only does so much for access.”

Organizers observe that accessibility issues stemming from socioeconomic disparity still arise even when events are offered strictly online. “Despite the lower costs, despite the fact that there’s no need to travel, [the programs are] completely inaccessible to many writers in this state who don’t have broadband,” says Southern. The North Carolina Writers’ Network is engaged in an ongoing “1 in 100” campaign that aims to serve all one hundred counties in North Carolina, but the organizers are still working to support a community that is largely rural and without internet access. 

Then there is the question of the financial viability of such events for organizers. “Honestly, we’re still figuring that out,” says Southern. “We rely on our [in-person] programs as a major source of revenue to help pay for all of the resources and services that we provide that don’t bring in revenue.” The 2020 Cabin Fever Conference’s price per class was reduced, and for organizations whose sole revenue stream is ticketing for in-person events, a permanent move to an online platform may be financially impossibe. “Profitability is sort of moot since we made it free,” says Opitz of Wordplay. The festival organizers, like many others, have called for donations to offset the financial burden of transitioning in-person events to online.

Still, the pivot to digital events is not without its successes, as organizers navigate the format’s limitations and work to foster an accessible and connected literary community. New information and better practices are being discovered every day. One Wordplay event with Kate DiCamillo, the Newbery Medal–winning author of books such as The Tale of Despereaux (Candlewick Press, 2003), was reported to have more than thirty thousand online viewers. “We don’t have a venue that could hold thirty thousand people,” says Opitz, “so to be able to do that virtually was really inspiring.” 

 

Thea Prieto’s fiction, reviews, and interviews have appeared in Longreads, the Masters Review, and in other journals. The author of From the Caves (Red Hen Press, 2021), she writes and edits for Propeller and the Gravity of the Thing. Her website is theaprieto.com.

Ed Southern, executive director of the North Carolina Writers’ Network, and Steph Opitz, founding director of Wordplay.

Literary Events Move Online in Efforts to Thwart Pandemic

by

Bonnie Chau

3.25.20

The 92nd Street Y, one of the country’s premier venues for live literary programming, has a long history of serving the public. Located on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, it was founded as a cultural and community center in 1874, and in 1939, William Carlos Williams opened the first season of programming of what is now the Unterberg Poetry Center. This week, as New York City residents hunker down under orders from the governor to stay home amid the coronavirus pandemic, the Poetry Center unveils its newest initiative: a podcast series called Read By consisting of audio recordings of notable authors reading aloud—from their own homes—the work most important to them right now. “We’ve been a major platform for live literary events for more than eighty years,” says Bernard Schwartz, director of the Unterberg Poetry Center. “What to do when you can’t put on a reading and there’s no telling when you’re coming back? We’re all stuck at home, but so are the authors. The Read By podcast invites authors to make intimate, informal—and low-fi—recordings of themselves reading the works they carry with them.” 

On the first episode of the Read By podcast, which was released on Monday, James Shapiro, who was originally scheduled for a live event that same evening, reads from his book The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606, about the tumultuous years when the plague was wiping out populations of London and its effects on Shakespeare and public playhouses. Ann Patchett and Gary Shteyngart are featured in the next two episodes this week, with new recordings to be released every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 8:00 PM EST. Featured guest readers in the upcoming weeks include Elif Batuman, Billy Collins, Rachel Cusk, Jonathan Franzen, Lauren Groff, George Saunders, and Colm Tóibín. In addition to the audio recordings, the website will include short written notes by the writers contextualizing their selection. Schwartz describes the readings as “regular and surprising. We are, by design, withholding the authors’ choices until an episode airs—the podcast is meant as a hopeful distraction and declaration of intent: We’re still here.” 

Other arts and cultural organizations nationwide are also quickly working to develop new ways of connecting artists and audiences and to support their communities in this time of isolation. On Thursday, March 26, the Asian American Writers’ Workshop will be hosting its first virtual event, I Am Deliberate and Afraid of Nothing: Poetry, Prose, and Protest, featuring readings by three writers: Andrea Abi-Karam, Romaissaa Benzizoune, and Sham-e-Ali Nayeem. The event is presented in affiliation with Mizna, an Arab American literary journal and platform focusing on Arab/Southwest Asian and North African artists. The event will be livestreamed on Facebook at 7:00 PM EST. The nonprofit Loft Literary Center announced this week that it will be shifting its annual Wordplay literary festival to be entirely virtual, with over one hundred of the original festival participants still planning on taking part in online conversations, podcasts, interviews, playlists, and other types of content scheduled for April and May. 

Alongside its readings and lectures programs, the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center is also home to dozens of literature classes and writing workshops. “For students in our writing workshops and literary seminars, reading and writing are more than just solitary acts—and we take that very seriously,” says Ricardo Maldonado, the Poetry Center’s managing director. “In the last two weeks, we have managed to move all classes online. It has been a challenge, but the response is gratifying. We need to keep our communities going.”

 

Bonnie Chau is the associate web editor of Poets & Writers, Inc.

StayHomeWriMo Rallies Writers

by

Emma Komlos-Hrobsky

3.25.20

Writers around the globe are gathering—virtually—to raise their spirits and keep creating through an initiative called StayHomeWriMo. Sponsored by National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), the organizers of the annual November write-a-thon in which authors pen a novel draft in a month, StayHomeWriMo invites writers to find comfort in their creativity and stay inside while the battle with COVID-19 continues.

The initiative launched on March 23 and will run “as long as it’s relevant,” says National Novel Writing Month’s executive director, Grant Faulkner. Each day writers can participate by visiting the StayHomeWriMo website or its social media channels for a daily checklist of four activities. A writing prompt provides structure and guidance for creative work; three other activities promote social, mental, and physical well-being. Related livestreams offer cheerleading and a chance to socialize and check in about StayHomeWriMo progress.

Participation is free and no sign up is necessary, although writers can enroll with the website to receive e-mails about StayHomeWriMo and engage in its online activities, including virtual writing groups. The StayHomeWriMo initiative is designed to be appropriate for people of all ages, and children as well as adults are welcome to participate. Focused work on a single project is not required.

“The response to StayHomeWriMo has amazed us,” says Faulkner. “Before we launched this, we surveyed our community of writers, and literally thousands of people responded to ask us to provide ways to help people’s physical, mental, social, and creative well-being, whether through writing prompts, tips on how to stay positive, online writing groups, creative encouragement, virtual discussions, writing challenges—or just dashes of whimsy and mirth.”

Writers have responded enthusiastically to StayHomeWriMo’s call to creative arms. Twitter user @JulzBurgisser described #StayHomeWriMo as “the help I didn’t know I needed until I read the email. Anyone creative out there that needs some juicy help right now? Get on board that train.”

 

Emma Komlos-Hrobsky is the associate editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

The Insanity and the Inspiration: National Novel Writing Month

by

Anndee Hochman

10.9.19

On the second floor of Big Blue Marble, an independent bookstore in the leafy Mount Airy neighborhood of Philadelphia, Roz Carter plugged in her computer, popped in her earbuds, and turned on a playlist heavy on Prince and Janelle Monáe. At another table Sara Head pecked away at her keyboard, water bottle beside her. Nathan Long sat on the lumpy couch, computer parked on his lap, imagining a small town called Harbor and a young woman whose brother has been killed in a distant, ongoing war.

It was November 1, 2018, day one of the twentieth annual National Novel Writing Month—NaNoWriMo to its aficionados—a project that, depending on one’s perspective, is either insanity or invitation, a thankless exercise or a creative kick-start: Write a fifty-thousand-word novel in a month. Slam out 1,667 words a day, every day, weekends and Thanksgiving and Black Friday included. Don’t stop, don’t edit, don’t tumble down the rabbit hole of research. And, in the process, join a community of three hundred thousand people around the world attempting the same literary feat. 

Big Blue Marble had agreed to host three write-ins over the course of the month: casual gatherings where NaNoWriMo disciples could sip tea, compare word counts, and find kinship in the solitary slog of writing a book.

On this Thursday evening the writers briefly described their projects. “I’m working on a historical novel set in ancient Egypt that has paranormal aspects,” said Carter, a fifty-two-year-old administrative assistant and mother of two grown sons. “It has a set of twins as the main characters. There’s lust and magic. And hopefully I’ll get it done.”

Long, who at fifty-three is tall, reedy, and a little rumpled, looking every bit the professor on sabbatical he is—he teaches creative writing at Stockton University in New Jersey—explained that his book would be a series of linked flash fictions revolving around a young woman whose gender identity is in flux. Head, a forty-year-old archaeologist and avid online gamer, described her work as “a sci-fi novel set in space, kind of a horror story in space, so sort of cross-genre.” 

The chatter quieted. Head typed steadily; Long stared hard at his screen. Carter opened a blank file and wrote: Kiya, where is your sister? The only sounds were the crunch of popcorn, the tap of fingers on keyboards, the barely audible pulse of worlds being made.

National Novel Writing Month started in 1999, when novice writer Chris Baty persuaded twenty friends to join his crackpot venture. By year three, five thousand people had signed on, and then NaNoWriMo took off: The seventy-five thousand participants in 2006—the year Baty had established a nonprofit in Oakland to support the project—increased to three hundred forty thousand by 2012, when he stepped down as the organization’s executive director. 

Grant Faulkner, who took over the helm, describes NaNoWriMo in grand terms: a creative challenge, a journey of self-discovery, a means of nudging underrepresented voices into the literary world. “So often, people don’t think their stories matter because they don’t see people like themselves getting published,” he says. NaNoWriMo provides role models—a diverse slate of writers who offer online “pep talks” throughout the month—along with the spur of a daily deadline. NaNoWriMo also supports writers year-round with webcasts and podcasts; forums where writers publicly post their progress; a novel-writing prep course available through the online learning platform Coursera; “Camp NaNoWriMo” for writers who want to complete a project in April or July; and a Young Writers Program, with free workbooks and Common Core–aligned curricula, that reaches a hundred thousand kids a year.

The most common reason people cite for resisting NaNoWriMo’s November challenge is “I don’t have time.” Faulkner’s response: How many hours do you squander each day scrolling through Snapchat or watching Netflix? Others protest, “I’m not creative. I’m not a writer.” And to that Faulkner circles back to the project’s mission. “Everyone has a story to tell,” he says. “Stories are the way we make meaning in the world. The way to be a creative type is to create.”

According to family lore, Carter began reading at age four and writing at eight; she has a clear memory of her mother bent over a book, cigarette in one hand, coffee cup in the other. She always imagined writing a book, but life intervened—first, children, then a job at the University of Pennsylvania, which enabled her to complete her bachelor’s degree. 

Carter tried NaNoWriMo eight years ago, while finishing her coursework in English and working full-time. She neared the twenty-thousand-word mark before ditching the project. “It was too ambitious. I hadn’t thought about what it would take to start and complete a novel. I didn’t have a writing routine that actually made any sense.” 

She tried again the next year, with the kernel of an idea about an African American family, a Gothic tale involving voodoo, witches, and a swamp. She never finished that project, either, but gave NaNoWriMo one more go in 2013. That time she kept an unforgiving schedule, writing before work, at lunchtime, and in the evening. “I was a complete basket case by the end,” Carter says. “I was getting up at 5 AM, eating at my desk. I was determined.” She finished the month with a complete draft of “The Covington Witches,” had the book swiftly edited in December, and self-published it via Smashwords in January 2014.

The book didn’t exactly go viral; it’s cleared a scant $100 in sales from both e-book and print copies. But the publishing experience whetted Carter’s appetite for more. The story of the Covingtons wasn’t finished—or rather, it wasn’t entirely begun. Carter imagined a prequel set in ancient Egypt, during the reign of the female pharaoh Hatshepsut. The protagonists would be seventeen-year-old twin girls, sold into servitude to redeem their father’s debt. There would be love and betrayal and goddess worship and magic—the age-old roots of the Covington witches’ supernatural powers. 

For months before last year’s NaNoWriMo, Carter plunged into research: She listened to an audio course on ancient Egypt, read books on magic and demonology, and watched Cleopatra dozens of times. By November 1, she had a four-act structure, a scene-by-scene outline, even a working title, “Sekhmet’s Magic” (which she didn’t love). The rest would involve diligence, along with something indescribable. “When the characters are fleshed out in my head, it makes it easier for them to write their own story. And I just put it down,” she says. “That sounds a little mystical, but there’s no other real way to say it.”

In one of Head’s earliest memories—she might have been five or six—her father taught her to play Dungeons & Dragons. “I was a unicorn out in the woods or something,” she says. Later she became a devoted online gamer, an archaeologist…and a person who believed she had a book in her, just waiting to be realized. Like fiction, Head says, group gaming calls for character development and smart pacing—for instance, ending each session with a cliffhanger to entice participants to return the following week. Those games—whether played tabletop or online—were “an extension of make-believe,” Head says. “You can create a character. You have a curiosity about something, and you can work through that curiosity.” 

Head first attempted NaNoWriMo in 2007. “I got to fifty thousand words, but it was gibberish,” she says. “The themes jumped around. It wasn’t a story, just a monthlong brainstorming session.” Head tried NaNoWriMo every year since, schooling herself—with the help of the project’s resources and other novel-writing guides—in the craft of fiction: dialogue, setting, pacing, character development.

As November rolled around, she was ready. From a six-paragraph sketch of a science fiction horror story involving aliens, a haunted intergalactic cruise ship, and malevolent shadows, she had created a detailed outline, along with backstories for her primary characters. “I needed to develop a ‘why’—why is this happening? Who are the bad guys? Why are they trying to eat everyone on the ship?” Using a software program called Inspiration, Head made graphic organizers and mind-maps to answer those questions and expand her story’s background. She had a title, “Shadows That Hunger,” and a first sentence: “The ship moved through space as it always did on nights like this, plotting its own course as it saw fit.” Most important, Head approached NaNoWriMo 2018 with new resolve. What if, this time, she aimed not only to finish, but to make a story she’d be proud to share with the world?

Long is accustomed to writing short: flash fiction, chapter-length stories, at most a novella. NaNoWriMo challenged him to scale up, to unspool a larger, unrulier tale about a town called Harbor and its denizens: a young woman grieving the loss of her father and brother and contemplating her own gender transition; a man who lives in the woods above the town; a group of immigrants who may have crossed centuries as well as continents. There would be floods and identity crises and the rumble of a faraway war.

For Long, NaNoWriMo also called for a different approach to writing: less precious, more playful. “It’s easy to get too serious about it,” he says. “I remember when I wrote a novel for grad school, I worked so much on the first page. Here, it’s like: Move forward, move forward. Don’t see it as a little jewel.”

He tried NaNoWriMo seven years ago and found the daily slog punishing; this time, he planned to “cheat” by writing two thousand words on each of twenty-five days, so he could take five days off. He drew other lessons from that first attempt: to seek the elusive balance between planning and allowing the story to unfold. “I learned to have a lot of ideas and think it out in advance, but also…to relax into the voice, to let the voice drive things.”

He adds, “The one bit of advice I gave myself was: I can write a terrible novel. I can waste a month of my life on what might be totally trash. I knew I would get something out of it, just writing differently than I usually write.”

Does constraint foster experimentation? Does progress, at least at the drafting stage, matter more than perfection? And can the monthlong effort to write a novel, in the virtual or actual company of other creative types, really result in an altered sense of self?

Faulkner offers an emphatic yes. “There’s something about that pressure of moving forward that really motivates you to take different creative paths. A lot of people never finish their rough draft because they’re removing a hyphen and then putting it back.” He argues that NaNoWriMo isn’t just a creative experiment. “It’s also a way to explore your behavior and what you make possible or impossible,” he says. “Once a person becomes a creator, not just a consumer, I think they are empowered to do things not only on the page, but beyond the page. I think they tend to become bolder as people, to honor their imaginations, to value their voices.”

Nearly five hundred traditionally published books had their genesis during NaNoWriMo; the best known include Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants (Algonquin Books, 2006), Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl (St. Martin’s Press, 2013), and Marissa Meyer’s Cinder (Feiwel & Friends, 2012). But most NaNoWriMo writers hit the wordsmith’s equivalent of a marathoner’s twenty-two-mile slump. Of the 301,256 participants in 2018, nearly 12 percent—35,410—made the fifty-thousand-word mark.

NaNoWriMo reveals writers’ vulnerabilities, their doubts, their quirks. Carter wrote at home in the morning before work and at a local coffee shop some evenings, always with a crunchy snack, pretzels or popcorn, nearby. Long treated NaNoWriMo like a job: Wake up, feed the dog, settle by the bay window with his Dell laptop. In the afternoons, he’d walk in the Wissahickon woods and think about the book: How should he handle a sexual encounter between two trans characters? What was the difference—in pacing, in voice—between a stand-alone story and a scene in a longer work?

Head, a night owl, often began writing at 6 PM, squeezing her NaNoWriMo project around coursework for her master’s degree in cultural resource management and relying on groceries delivered from a meal-prep service. She had her rituals: soundtracks of background noise—café chatter or the light tick of rain—and a cup of chocolate chai. Sometimes she lay in bed at night and thumbed another three hundred words on her phone. “My biggest fear,” she says, “is that if I’m bored writing it, are my readers going to be bored reading it? And if everybody’s bored with it, why am I writing?”

At Big Blue Marble’s Sunday write-ins, she became the self-declared referee of word sprints: twenty-minute bursts with the goal of writing as many words as possible. Two weeks into November, her characters—all aliens with varying gender identities—had made it to the haunted ship and were trying to turn the power on. 

Carter lagged slightly behind the midmonth goal—she had 22,463 words—but found that her novel’s voices, especially those of twins Kiya and Tetisheri, dogged her consciousness. “When you’re immersed like this, it’s self-perpetuating. The story’s always with you.” She resisted the impulse to do more research and instead left placeholders when she didn’t know a historical detail, such as what her characters might eat for breakfast or how the palace would be laid out.

For Long, each scene he drafted stirred up more questions: How speculative could he make this novel? Did humor humanize his characters or make them seem silly? As a white man, could he write about nonwhite refugees with integrity and respect? He knew he was lucky to be on sabbatical. Still, life intruded: a leak in the radiator, a dog that needed walking, five pies to bake for his family’s Thanksgiving. During the holiday he tried explaining the novel to his sisters. One said, “Does the main character find love?” The other asked, “But what’s the plot? What happens?”

By November 29, Long had rethought the book’s opening. No longer a two-page preface about the town of Harbor, it now began in the protagonist’s voice: “…as I breathed deep the clear salty breeze blowing in from the harbor, I realized my room no longer smelled of the dead man.” Even the title had morphed, from “Harbor” to “Little Harbor,” a change that, to Long, conveyed the idea of “scant” as well as “small.”

“Any novel is never the exact replica of the vision one has,” he says. “It’s like sailing to a distant shore with primitive navigation. If you keep sailing, or rowing, you’re bound to reach another shore…and there are also nice surprises along the way.”

More than fifty thousand works of fiction, including novels, novellas, and short story collections, are published annually—via traditional routes and self-publishing—in the United States, according to Bowker, the publisher of the Books in Print database and the official agency for assigning ISBNs in the United States. How many more books linger, half-realized, in computer files and desk drawers? How many lie in restive writers’ minds, never to reach the page? NaNoWriMo tries to remedy the obstacles we place in our own creative paths, the ways that fear—of exposure, of inadequacy, of failure—can stifle imagination.

For Carter, Head, and Long, NaNoWriMo ended not with a bang but with a patter. All three reached the target word count. No one actually finished. Because the truth is, you cannot complete a novel in a month. What you can do—with strict time management, sufficient snacks, and indulgent family members—is knock out something that lands in the vast chasm between brainstorm and best-seller.

By late January, Long had found a writing partner, the only person to whom he had confided how “Little Harbor” would end. He was flipping some scenes, cutting others, and revising sections, ten thousand words at a time. By late summer he had polished three excerpts of the novel and sent them to journals. His aim: a complete manuscript, ready to workshop with readers he trusts, by the time the school year began. Then he’d start shopping the book, either to potential agents or directly to a short list of literary small presses. 

Carter, meanwhile, was tugged into an ancillary project: a TV series based on The Covington Witches, for which she wrote the screenplay, advertised for local actors and crew members, and self-financed on-location shooting in Philadelphia, where the book is set. (The first two episodes are available on Amazon; a third is in the works.) The book’s prequel—“Sekhmet’s Magic,” or whatever it would eventually be called—would have to wait. 

Head spent the early spring sharing portions of her draft with two readers, struggling to integrate backstory while still hastening the plot along. She had tweaked the novel’s opening to lead with the main character rather than the haunted ship: “Cayrd choked back the acidic-tasting beer, then slammed the glass down on the badly abused bar.” She was starting to investigate self-publishing options.

Their work will continue for months—maybe for years. Still, fifty thousand words is something to shout about. NaNoWriMo isn’t meant to forge finished manuscripts. It’s about writing as equal parts strict discipline and wild experiment. It’s about making something big, one increment at a time, plugging along with faith that, in the very long run, something meaningful will come of the effort. “I don’t necessarily need to see the book on a shelf,” Head says. “I just want it to be out there. If one person reads it, I’ll have done my job.” 

 

Anndee Hochman is a journalist, essayist, and teaching artist. Her column, “The Parent Trip,” appears weekly in the Philadelphia Inquirer, and her work has also been published in O, the Oprah Magazine; Redbook; Cooking Light; and the Journal of the American Medical Association. She is the author of Anatomies: A Novella and Stories (Picador, 2000) and Everyday Acts & Small Subversions: Women Reinventing Family, Community, and Home (Eighth Mountain Press, 1994).

Among the three hundred thousand or so writers who participated in National Novel Writing Month in 2018 were (from left) Sara Head, Nathan Long, and Roz Carter.

(Credit: Long: Courtney Doucette; Carter: Cole Carter)

The Poem Chooses You

by

Anndee Hochman

2.14.18

Amos Koffa was a skinny, bespectacled, middle-school outcast with few friends when the student first wrote a poem. Amos knew of Maya Angelou (after hearing her poem “In and Out of Time” in the 2006 comedy Madea’s Family Reunion, Amos walked around the house murmuring the title like an incantation) but had never written anything that wasn’t part of a school assignment.

Then Amos, who uses the pronouns “they/them/their,” saw a flyer in the library of Science Park High School in Newark, New Jersey: a call for submissions for Talented: 2012 Poetry Collection, published by the America Library of Poetry. “I wrote a poem about being sad,” Amos says. “The title was ‘Sorrow.’ It got put in the book, and I was really happy. I felt like I did something, like my voice mattered.” Amos was fourteen years old.

That year, Amos and other eighth graders watched the school-wide competition for Poetry Out Loud, a national recitation contest created by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the Poetry Foundation and administered in partnership with state arts agencies. Amos was a Glee devotee who aspired to be an actor, but this was something new: These were teenagers performing poems by William Shakespeare, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Naomi Shihab Nye. Using their bodies and voices to articulate confusion, passion, and loneliness. Earning applause.

Poetry Out Loud is for high school students only, but the eighth graders did a mock contest in the classroom; teachers and students raved about Amos’s performance. When the yearbook came out, Amos, the gangly teen with a habit of ducking their head at the end of every sentence, was stunned to see their photo with the caption “Most Poetic.”

Breana Sena’s family was serious about the arts. Her father had trained with the Joffrey Ballet before becoming a computer engineer, and both Breana and her older sister, Celeste, took classes at the Ailey School, located at the Joan Weill Center for Dance, in New York City.

Acting was Celeste’s passion, so Breana immersed herself in dance: ballet, flamenco, hip-hop, West African, jazz. Although Breana played Hermia in a middle-school production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, when Poetry Out Loud came along in high school, Breana ceded the turf to her older sister, who went on to dominate the competition at Ronald E. McNair High School for three years: school-wide champion in 2014, regional competitor in 2015, and state winner in 2016.

Then Celeste graduated.

“I felt like I had to step up, like I had to continue a legacy,” Breana says. She began sifting through the Poetry Out Loud anthology—a 900-poem online digest from which students must make their selections—for a fierce and complicated female voice, for words that might speak to her: a half-Dominican, half-Jamaican high school junior growing up in Jersey City.

Emily Li used to be nonplussed by poetry. “I’d get frustrated when the teacher gave us a poem and nobody knew what the meaning was. I know we did Emily Dickinson—she sticks in my mind because she has the same name as me. We also did ‘Fire and Ice’ by…who was it? Robert Frost. Poetry was such a blur.”

The youngest child of Chinese immigrants, Emily started singing along with YouTube videos when she was eight. At nine, she sang at a high school gala, in a gymnasium packed with three hundred people; after ninth grade, she took a gap year to perform on Chinese Idol, the singing competition program based on the British television series Pop Idol, living in hotels and trying not to breathe too much in Shanghai, where the smell of pollution hung in the air like rancid socks.

Back at the Lawrenceville School, a private New Jersey boarding academy where Poetry Out Loud participation was a requirement for freshmen and sophomores, Emily figured she might as well aim for a good grade. She clicked through the anthology and stumbled on Tony Hoagland’s “Personal.”

“I loved that poem so much,” she says. “It was about how everyone says, ‘Don’t take it personal, calm down; don’t be so emotional.’ And the poem says, ‘You know what? I am going to take it personal.’”

Emily was knocked out at regionals that year for failings that remain obscure. “The judges were writing things down, but we didn’t get to see that,” she says. The following fall, even though Poetry Out Loud wasn’t mandatory for juniors at Lawrenceville, she decided to give the contest another try.


When Poetry Out Loud was launched in 2005, I felt leery. This was the blueprint: High school teachers would help students select, interpret, and memorize classic and contemporary poems, then stage classroom and school-wide contests with volunteer judges—other teachers or administrators, local poets or actors or notable alumni. The school winners would advance to regional contests, then statewide bouts, organized by each state’s arts agency. In late April, one Poetry Out Loud champion from each of the fifty states, plus D.C., Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, would gather in an auditorium at George Washington University for a final competition. The grand prize? Twenty thousand dollars.

The whole enterprise seemed so old school—Really? Memorize and regurgitate metered texts by dead white guys?—when my aim, as a visiting writer in New Jersey classrooms, was to wake students to the muscle, range, and freshness of contemporary voices, including their own. I recoiled from the competitive aspect, too. “Wouldn’t that shift focus from the process to the prize?” I thought.

The program’s first year made me a convert. At Trenton High School, I helped an enthusiastic junior articulate the distinct voices—naive daughter and grief-racked mother—in “Ballad of Birmingham,” Dudley Randall’s poem about the 1963 church bombing that killed four African American girls. Over several visits to her school, I watched the kids’ recitations grow a little more robust, their analysis of poetry a bit more probing.

It’s been twelve years. I’ve coached Poetry Out Loud kids in cities and suburbs, vast regional high schools and tiny charter academies. Sure, some comb the anthology for the shortest pieces, then shamble onstage for a gutless rendition of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” But more often, this is what happens: The words get under their skin. A teenager finds something in a five-hundred-year-old sonnet that twangs an experience of rage or heartbreak. They notice ironies and allusions. They breathe where the poet breathed.

I remember one defiant, distracted boy at a suburban high school who latched on to a World War I poem by Rupert Brooke. Suddenly he wanted to win this poetry thing; teachers told me he quit cutting class and started turning in homework. A girl in Camden read Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask” and told me that was just how it felt to be female, to be Latina, to smile even when she was shredded inside.

“You may think you’re picking the poems,” I told the kids. “But the poem also chooses you. Your job is to figure out why.”

By sophomore year, Amos and their mother had left Newark, but Amos was still committed to competing in Poetry Out Loud. The performing arts teacher at Amos’s new school, Burlington County Institute of Technology, insisted they practice without a microphone, so they could push their voice to the back rows of the auditorium.

At the regional competition, Amos’s left foot quivered as they stood at the microphone. They got as far as state finals that year, unusual for a tenth grader, and the year after that, when they had to wheedle a chemistry teacher to be their faculty sponsor.

Amos was also finding a tribe: the kids who huddled in the green room before the state contest each March, swapping cell phone numbers and Instagram accounts. “I live in a very provincial area,” Amos says. “At Poetry Out Loud, when I see students from all parts of New Jersey, they’re so accepting and kind.”

The summer after sophomore year, Amos won a scholarship to a summer program; at a meeting of the group’s gay-straight alliance, Amos came out as queer for the first time, then ran to the bathroom and wept. “They were all so proud to be what they were,” Amos says of the members of the alliance. “I was ashamed.”

But by senior year, Amos was older—and bolder, challenging teachers when they elided Bayard Rustin’s homosexuality in discussions of the civil rights movement; performing an original spoken-word piece about kids who are transgender in the school’s talent show. “My acting teacher tells me we should do things that put us out of our comfort zone,” Amos says. “I always get scared before performing, but I don’t let the fear stop me.”

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