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independent bookstores

In Praise of Indie Bookstores

by Susan Henderson on April 28, 2018

Today is Independent Bookstore Day. How will you celebrate? And tell us a story about a favorite indie store.

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Robert Gray of Shelf Awareness asked me some questions about indie bookstores and then wrote this gorgeous column that makes me feel all warm and fuzzy. I hope you’ll click over and read it: “IBD & Measuring Success by Relationships.”

But today, I’d like to tell a little longer story about the indie bookstores that fed my soul and helped me find my tribe, even in cities where I felt like an outsider…

It’s a bittersweet story because so many of those stores are gone. There was Chapters bookstore in DC, where I started my collection of James Baldwin novels and essays. There was Mills bookstore in Nashville, where I had a long conversation with staff about which translations of Dante are best and, on another day, about the great wisdom of Anne Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi. And there’s Pittsburgh’s Phantom of the Attic (it’s still there!), where I learned of the glorious existence of The Sandman series and gamers (like finding out you have weird, distant cousins who don’t shower).

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Here’s a glimpse at each indie bookstore I visited since The Flicker of Old Dreams came out…

Turn of the Corkscrew on Long Island with co-owner, Carol Hoenig…

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Chevalier’s Books in Larchmont Village (LA) with the great David Ulin

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Book Show in Highland Park (LA) with Peter H. Z. Hsu, reading for the Vermin on the Mount literary series…

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The Book Catapult in San Diego with When We Were Ghouls author, Amy Wallen…

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Main Street Books in St. Charles, Missouri with co-owner, Emily Hall…

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Fun fact about Emily: She used to train birds of prey. And she said this, which I wanted to pass along to you: “It’s an incredibly empowering and humbling experience to have a bird of prey on your arm. The raptor trusts you enough to make you its perch, which is what is keeping it safe from danger and providing it a place from which to view the world. You are basically home base for an exquisitely evolved killing machine. It doesn’t matter if the bird is a tiny kestrel or screech owl, or a massive golden eagle- being that close to a raptor is… whew.”

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Last but not least, I want to thank the Montana indies that have reached out to me… Donna at Keystone Bookstore in Lewistown, Mara Lynn at Chapter One Book Store in Hamilton, Country Bookshelf in Bozeman, and Cassiopeia Books in Great Falls. I am grateful to all of you!

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As I said about indies in Robert Gray’s column (and please read it), “No matter the city, I know where to find my tribe. And I don’t just ask them for book recommendations. I also let them lead me to the coffee shops, the restaurants, the music venues, and the art and recreation of their town. Because booksellers are the creative and intellectual heart of that community. And just as word of mouth keeps books alive, word of mouth keeps these small, vibrant bookstores and their communities alive.”

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Some thank you’s are in order. Thank you to David Abrams, who has so generously featured my bookshelf, my book trailer, and “my first time” over at The Quivering Pen; to Gina Frangello, who reviewed my book for the Los Angeles Review of Books; to Barbara DeMarco-Barrett for interviewing me on KUCI-FM’s Writers on Writing; to Hubert O’Hearn for reviewing my book for The London Economic; to Caroline Leavitt for interviewing me on Caroline Leavittville; to BookPage for publishing my essay, Looking Death in the Eye; to Jason Schott, who reviewed my book in the Brooklyn Digest; to The Voice of Oma; to Tabitha Lord for interviewing me on Book Club Babble and live on the Author’s Cut; to Marshal Zeringue for featuring my book on the My Book, The Movie and The Page 69 Test; to Sally Christie for reviewing my book on Life Is A Story–Tell It Big; to June McInerney for reviewing my book on June’s Literary Blog; to Ric Marion for reviewing my book on Along the River; to Lori for reviewing my book on She Treads Softly; to Myfanwy Collins for name-checking my book on Bookish; to Lou Pendergrast for reviewing my book on More2Read; to Jennifer Haupt for talking with me at Psychology Today; to Angel for kind words about Mary at ouroborosangel; to Shannon for choosing my novel as a Literati staff pick; and to Jen for highlighting my book on Book Club Girl.

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As always, I’ll end by sharing the books I’ve read since my last post:

Hala Alyan, Salt Houses
Zadie Smith, Feel Free
Mark Sarvas, Memento Park
Rupi Kaur, milk and honey
Naomi Shihab Nye, 19 Varieties of Gazelle
Rachel Khong, Goodbye, Vitamin 
Julia Fierro, The Gypsy Moth Summer
Jennifer Haupt, In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills
Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist
Amanda Palmer, The Art of Asking 
Marilynne Robinson, What Are We Doing Here? 

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That’s it for now. Go visit your favorite indie store, and then come back here and tell me about it in the comments section, where all the cools stuff happens.

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Monthly Wrap: Kids in Bookstores

by Susan Henderson on March 6, 2009

I was thinking about the years my kids were still into wearing costumes – no holiday required – and we’d head to the bookstore: me, Superman with a dishtowel for a cape, and his sidekick in a knight’s helmet, shorts, rubber boots and a whistle necklace which he was not to blow in the store.

My boys knew exactly where the books they loved were located, and liked to open one after another and explore every genre and turn the rack of Little Critter paperbacks round and round. We often read books to each other for an hour or more before choosing which ones to buy.

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We love going to the bookstore together just as much now as we did then, but our visits have dropped off. More often, we sit at one of the many computers in the house and type our orders into Amazon. We don’t stray from our lists. It’s just so easy to do it this way, but there’s none of the sense that we are bonding or creating good family memories with this way of shopping.

I hadn’t noticed this fact until our discussion at LitPark this month. Your answers to the question – Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Indie? – changed me. And so did my guest, who not only made me realize the invaluable role of the liasons between publishers and bookstores (Cory Doctorow describes them beautifully here), but the hit these stores are taking each time we choose to shop at Amazon.

When you buy from an independent bookstore, $68 of every $100 stays in the community. Think about what that means in this economy. And now think about what it would mean if physical bookstores disappeared altogether.

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Here’s a little story for you. I like to take my kids to The Book Revue when there are visiting children’s authors. A couple of years ago, I took them to see Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, who had co-written a prequel to Peter Pan (called PETER AND THE STAR CATCHERS*) that my youngest loved, and that evening was the launch of the follow-up prequel. * = for an indie store click here

Dave Barry wore a Peter Pan hat and talked about what it was like to write a book with another author when one liked to work from an outline (Ridley) and the other liked to wing it (Dave).

Green-Hand, the one who used to wear the whistle necklace, was sitting in the first row with his newly purchased book, already reading and not at all bothered by their talking.

And then the terrible thing happened. Dave Barry (who might as well have slapped my son) opened his own copy of the book and began to read aloud from Chapter 3.

Green-Hand, still on Chapter 1, stood, pissed, and dragged his metal folding chair from the front row to the back of the bookstore, saying they were ruining the book by giving away what would happen. It was a long and loud while of pretending we weren’t related, and when he reached the back wall, he sat down in his metal chair and opened the book again.

At the end of the reading, the kids got in line to have their books signed, and I insisted that Green-Hand join his brother there. That’s him in the green shirt. And he’s smiling. Or trying to. Because I told him he better.

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What will the world come to when there are no more physical bookstores, and all the readings are on YouTube? How will you show your righteous indignation? Who will hear you scrape your chair across the floor? These are the important questions we must ask ourselves.

And this is why I’m going to suggest that you join me in a little exercise this month. Click on this Indiebound link and type in your zip code and find a few indie bookstores in your neighborhood. Then have a visit. See if there’s anything that might bring you to the store on a regular basis: a book club, a café, wi-fi, comfy chairs.

Introduce yourself. Tell someone who works in that store that you’re a writer. Tell him or her what you like to read. Learn something about the person you’re speaking with – maybe that person is a writer, too. Maybe he or she has an interesting story. Ask questions about the store. Find out if they sponsor readings, if they have a website, if they’ll order books for you that you’d otherwise buy from Amazon.

Just try it, and I will, too. I’ll be bringing the kids.

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Normally, this is where I tell you what I read this month, but all were galleys, and I don’t want to give away future guests. I will, however, share the book I’ve been reading to my kids: Trenton Lee Stewart, THE MYSTERIOUS BENEDICT SOCIETY *. It’s about extra-smart kids who are chosen to take a secret test, and if they do well, they will be given a “very special opportunity” – but is this a good thing? We’re just a few chapters from the end (the book is 485 pages) and absolutely love it. Every chapter is strange and unexpected and dangerous. And this author understands how alone smart kids can feel, which adds a real depth to the thrilling plot. * = for an indie store click here.

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Okay. That’s it for March. Time for me to get back to the new book I’m writing. Thanks to everyone who played here, and to my guest, the very awesome bookseller, Ann Kingman. And thanks to those who linked to LitPark this month: Bookdwarf, Kash’s Book Corner, The Debutante Ball, Word of the Day, Daryl Ebneezra Kadabra, Bookavore, BitterSweet Blog, First Person Narrative, Bookies, Erin Balser, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Brad Listi . Com, Side Dish, Gray Skies, Endless Knots, and Read by Myfanwy. See you next month!

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Ann Kingman, Bookseller

by Susan Henderson on March 4, 2009

Today, I’d like you to meet Ann Kingman, a book lover, blogger, and District Sales Manager for one of the major publishing houses. We’ll be talking about what she does with your books in that window of time between turning in your final edits and seeing your book for sale. She’ll also share her opinion about the current crisis in the publishing industry and the important role of independent bookstores. And by the way, as they say on NPR: The opinions expressed in this interview are solely those of the subject and not of her employer or its affiliates. 🙂

I hope you enjoy our conversation and find Ann as lovely as I do. And after the interview, be sure to check out her two blogs: Books on the Nightstand, a blog and podcast about books and reading that she does with her colleague, Michael Kindness. And Booksellsers Blog, where she shares what she learns about social media and online marketing with independent bookstores.

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First, tell me about you as a reader, and how you happened to make your career about books.

Like so many of us, I can’t ever remember not reading. Both of my parents were readers and that must be where I picked it up. One of my earliest memories is my mother banging on the bathroom door to check if I was all right. I guess I had been in there a long time. I was fine, I was just really enjoying the biography of Juliet Low (founder of The Girl Scouts) and some peace and quiet.

I definitely took refuge in reading in the years up to and after my parents’ divorce, when I was 9. Reading is what got me through those times. I don’t think it’s a particularly unique story, which is why I believe so strongly in the power of literature to inspire, to comfort and to heal.

I was a Magazine Journalism major in college (among other things), and my dream job was to work as a features editor at a well-known magazine. But magazine jobs were very difficult to find, and when I did get an offer, the pay was not enough to live on, especially in New York City. I was working with an employment agency, who sent me on yet another interview, this time to Dell Publishing. I knew them primarily from their puzzle magazines, and I wasn’t all that excited, but I went on the interview anyway. I still remember the feeling when I stepped into the Personnel Office: on the wall was a poster celebrating the 25th anniversary of Dell Yearling Books. And pictured on the poster were many, many of my favorite books from childhood — the ones that got me through so many bad times. I knew at that moment that I just had to work there, even if it meant sweeping floors. Luckily, it was an administrative job in the sales department, and it paid quite well because I was one of the few people who had computer skills at the time. I didn’t know anything about how books were sold, but I was willing to learn. My plan was to move to the editorial side of the company after awhile, but I soon fell in love with the sales side of the process, and that’s where I’ve stayed. Twenty-two years and four mergers later, I’m still basically with the same company, though it has changed in name and location many times since I was hired.

What exactly does a bookseller do? What are the best and most difficult parts of this kind of work?

My actual job is really that of Sales Representative. We think of “booksellers” as the people who work in the bookstores putting books into customers’ hands. My role is that of liaison between the publisher and the bookstore. I work with approximately 30 independent bookstores in New England. I meet with them several times a year to share with them the books that we will be publishing in the coming seasons—we usually work about 6 months ahead. For instance, it is now February and I am talking to them about books that will be published in July and August. I work with the buyer at the bookstore to decide which books they should stock, and how many copies of each they should buy. Much of my advice is based on my knowledge of the store, what their customers buy, and what their booksellers like to read. One of my favorite parts of the job is talking to the booksellers who work on the sales floor. I try to get to know them and know what they like to read, so that I can give them Advanced Readers Copies—these are “preview” copies of books that we will be publishing in the future. I try to get the booksellers to read them early and tell me what they think about them. Our hope is that they will love the books I give them and recommend them to their customers once the books are in the store.

The most difficult part of my job is really remembering what time of year it is! As I said earlier, I am currently selling the books that we will be publishing in the summer. However, I am also working with my bookstores to make sure that they have enough copies of the books that are out right now—the books that are selling, getting review attention, and getting good word of mouth from booksellers and readers. In addition, I am now starting to read manuscripts that will be published in the Fall. I’m always working at 3 points in time, and trying to keep it all in the air without dropping any of the balls is a feat that challenges me on many occasions. It’s not exactly difficult, but there is definitely the feeling that our work is never done. We work the books throughout their whole life cycle to make sure that every book finds its readership.

So, walk me through the process, if you would. An author finds out, Yay, Big Publishing House bought my manuscript! When do you come in?

The timeline differs at each publisher, but the general process goes something like this: Author gets contract, and the book gets put on the publishing schedule (so far out in the future that the author likely believes that they will not live to see the publication, but the long process is a whole ‘nother story).  About 6 months before the publication date, the editorial, marketing and publicity departments present the title to the sales reps at a meeting formally known as the “Sales Conference.” These conferences happen 3 times per year. There is a marketing and publicity plan mostly in place, and the cover may or not be finalized.

Prior to the Sales Conference, the reps have received manuscripts or manuscript excerpts, and information about each book on that season’s schedule. At the Sales Conference, the reps talk about the books with the publisher, editor, marketing and publicity departments, learn more about the content of the book, the marketing plans, etc. Then we reps go out and sell the list to our bookstores.

On our sales calls, we talk with the buyers about titles that might be comparable to the books we are selling, we look at previous books by the author and how they’ve sold, and we spend a lot of time figuring out who at the bookstore is the right reader for each book. We also talk about how the store will promote the books they are most excited about: in their newsletter, by putting a stack at the front of the store on a table, a window display, etc.

We know that not every bookstore can carry every book, so we work with the store to determine which ones their customers will most want to buy. The staff at most of our independent bookstores know their clientele extremely well, and with the help of computerized inventory systems can determine which books are the best for them to bring in. Often a bookstore will start with a small quantity, just 1 or 2 copies, but if a bookseller on staff reads and loves the book, they will order more. Many bookstores are so passionate about the books that the staff loves that they can sell hundreds of copies of a favorite book simply by recommending it to their customers.

Fascinating! Over the years, I’ve gathered bits and pieces of this process, but, finally, I have a coherent picture. And I never knew bookstore owners gave their customers so much consideration.

With your more than 20 years in the publishing business, you’ve seen companies grow and buckle and merge before. Does this current publishing crisis feel different to you? And would you call it a crisis?

I’ve been through many “crises” and though it’s a cliché, it’s true that in publishing, the only constant is change. That being said, we are definitely in a time where there are many challenges to keep us all on our toes. During my career, the challenges have previously come basically one at a time, with most of them being a new outlet for book sales threatening the survival of existing channels. This time we have that, of course, with online bookselling, but we also have the rise of the e-book, print on demand, various formats, a recession… and they are all happening at the same time.

Is it a crisis? I don’t think I’d label it as such. This feels more like an evolution. Certainly things will change, and the uncertainty makes people uneasy. It’s a personal crisis to those who have devoted their lives to the industry and find themselves out of work with few opportunities to stay in publishing. But as an industry, publishing will always exist.

I’m such a fan of your bookseller’s blog because I think it’s really at the forefront of trying to rethink how publishers and booksellers might adapt to the changing habits of readers. Talk to me about the types of changes you’re making (or thinking about making) to stay competitive.

I think we all have to change our definition of “customer.” As publishers, our customers are not only the retailers and wholesalers who pay us directly, but the booksellers on the front lines, and the consumer who purchases a book at retail. The industry is great at speaking with their retail and wholesale customers, but not so good at talking with the others. This needs to change. Booksellers have to get up to speed on the technology, and probably make some significant investments in their websites and e-commerce systems.

A website is no longer “nice to have,” and a robust e-commerce system will allow them to stay competitive. We are in a time when the idea of supporting local businesses is nearing a groundswell, and local bookstores stand to benefit if they can keep the customer experience at the top of mind. Many customers will happily support a local business, and even pay a bit more, if it is convenient for them to do so. Booksellers need to make sure that ease of use is there, as well as continue to educate the public about the benefits of shopping locally. They also need to work with other local businesses to help drive that message home. And it’s more important than ever that booksellers create relationships with their customers to better serve their market.

As publishing becomes easier and less expensive, the number of books will increase. And I think that there will be an even more important role for people to act as curators for the volume of content that will come.  When faced with an infinite number of choices, we will still need someone to put a book in our hands (or the virtual equivalent) and say, “Read this, it’s fantastic.”

Last question. How could you convince a chronic Amazon user like me to buy from one of your independent bookstores instead? Here’s my reason for using Amazon: They already have my credit card, I always find what I’m looking for, and I can shop impulsively—the moment I hear of a book I want, I’m seconds away from placing an order.

Yes, let’s talk about bookstores.

I think people should feel free to shop at whatever business best meets their needs.  When you shop at a locally-owned and operated business, $68 of every $100 will stay in the local community. Shopping at a business that is part of chain will retain $43 in the local community. As the economy continues to falter and more of my friends and neighbors are losing their jobs, this has become even more important to me. I want to keep local businesses vital in my community, as they are what keep my community vital.

The second reason to support independent bookstores is one that should be of supreme importance to writers. There are more than 2,000 independent bookstores listed on Indiebound.org. Each of those bookstores determine for themselves what books will be sold in each of their stores. Pretend that there are no more independent bookstores. Imagine you are an author. What if the Romance Buyer at the big chain store decides that he does not want to carry your book in their stores? Now your book is not in any physical bookstore location. Worse yet, it’s possible that the publisher will not be able to proceed with the publication of your book. This is, admittedly, an extreme example, as I always think that there will be some thriving independent bookstores. However, leaving the decision of what will or will not be published in the hands of just a few is a dangerous path to take.

But let’s talk about you, the customer, for a minute. There’s no arguing the convenience factor of Amazon. Independent bookstores are working diligently to get up to speed with technology, and some stores have done brilliantly. Powells.com is the most well-known because they were there early. I do believe that independent booksellers need to make it easy for their customers to support them. So I would ask this: if you, the customer, want to support your local bookseller, but there are specific reasons why you don’t or can’t, have a conversation with the bookstore owner. Let them know what they could do to get your business. I know that it’s not always price that causes readers to choose another option. Often there is no price difference, or it’s just $2-$3.

This conversation will of course work better if it’s constructive and not just a litany of complaints. The bookseller may not be able to accommodate your wishes, or move as quickly as you’d like, but it’s important for them to know. In my experience, I’ve found that most bookstore owners love to talk with customers about what they can do better. A healthy independent bookstore is more than just a place to buy books—it’s a community center, a gathering place, and often an important anchor to a town’s retail center.

Ultimately, you should feel free to shop wherever you choose. Seeing the larger picture and understanding the ramifications is important, and may influence your choice of where to spend your money, but in the end, it’s all about choice.

One more thought: I cannot imagine a world where children cannot experience the joy of wandering around a bookstore, taking in all of the colors and pictures, touching everything, and pulling out a few dollars to buy a book that they picked out themselves. I witnessed this scenario in a bookstore yesterday, and it made me smile the rest of the day.

You’re lovely, Ann. Thanks for being here!

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Okay, maybe it’s my period, but that last answer totally made me cry. I’m off to find a local bookstore right now. While I’m gone, I hope you’ll leave a comment for Ann and visit her websites. And, as always, thank you for being here.

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