Monday, April 27, 2009

Independent Bookstores in NYC

Let me start by saying this: I am a bit ashamed of myself.

Before moving to western Massachusetts to join the Odyssey as their events coordinator, I lived in Brooklyn and worked as an assistant literary agent for a small boutique agency in the Gramercy Park area of Manhattan.

For those not looking closely (and I was one of those), New York City appears to be, on the surface, primarily a "Barnes and Noble" kind of town. There is one in just about every neighborhood of the five boroughs-- if not more -- and, from what I can remember, only a handful of Borders (which I've always disliked). The closest B&N to where I worked is the GIANT store in Union Square (14th and Park Avenue). It has four floors of books, an enormous, inviting cafe to read in during lunch breaks or after a long day at the office, and a fiction section to make just about anyone drool -- regardless of how you feel about the chains.

I've always tried to support as many locally-owned indie bookstores as possible. Every time I go home to Camden, ME, I make sure to stop into the Owl and Turtle Bookshop. On the few occasions my husband and I can make it to Martha's Vineyard for a few cherished days, I stop into both Edgartown Books and the Bunch of Grapes Bookstore in Vineyard Haven. The Bunch of Grapes is, and will always be, near and dear to my heart. It is the bookstore that made me want to be a bookseller since I was ten, and when I first heard the news that it nearly burned down last year -- I was truly devastated. They are, however, reopening this summer and my husband and I are joining my parents for the re-opening celebration!

I apologize, I've gotten a tad off-track.

So, yes, I try and shop locally, but I don't think I really "got" why it was so important until I started working at the Odyssey because admittedly, I didn't exactly "seek out" indies in NYC. If I found one, terrific, but did I go out of my way? No. I walked past that same B&N everyday to and from work and I succumbed their convenience and four floors.

I could easily go on for several pages and extrapalate on why we should all shop locally, but it's been done by others more eloquent than I am, so instead, I will link to the IndieBound page for those interested, as I have another purpose for this particular post.

Since working at the Odyssey, I've joined many of the social networking sites to help promote the store and connect with other booksellers across the country. As I do so, I'm finding more and more thriving (and by thriving I mean keep their heads above water) and wonderful independent bookstores in Manhattan and Brooklyn that I am ashamed to say I never knew of or took advantage of. I only wish that my upcoming trip to BEA this May was a day or two longer so that I could spend some time wandering around what I am sure are some terrific stores.

These stores are (and are not limited to):

Word; Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
McNally-Jackson; Soho, Manhattan (actually, I've visited this store twice, but I love it, so I had to include it.)
BookCourt; Cobble Hill, Brooklyn (my first apartment in Brooklyn was no more than 8 blocks away from BookCourt. Did I visit it often? Stupidly, no.)
BookCulture; Morningside Heights, Manhattan
The Corner Bookstore; Upper East Side, Manhattan

So, to these indie bookstores in Manhattan and Brooklyn (and the many others I've missed), my sincere apologies for not being your patron often enough during my five years in NYC and I hope to visit you all soon --- probably not all at the same time, however, cause I tend to by 1 or 2 new books for each store I visit and my husband WILL NOT be happy with me if I blow $200 on books in New York when I could have ordered them from the Odyssey with my staff discount.

Does he have a point? Absolutely. Do I care? Not really. I'm supporting my local indies! (I swear, if we ever get divorced, it'll be over my book addiction.)

Friday, March 27, 2009

I Should Not Be Allowed to Shelve Books Anymore

One of my favorite parts of working in a bookstore is, of course, seeing all the wonderful new books coming in. For the most part, I work at the store's lower-level register (in addition to my office duties) , where all of our fiction, poetry and children's titles are shelved. It's safe to say that nearly every day, I shelve at least a handful of books.

Unfortunately, for my bank account, my husband, and my overloaded bookshelves, many of these books-to-be-shelved end up in my books-to-buy pile and never officially make it into stock.

In fact, I'm banned from the fiction section during inventory because the task would never be completed. I'd sit there separating the books into neat piles of "inventory" and "my inventory." I am forced to count pens and to make sure there are no gardening titles missing. They know if they give me any section I'm interested in, inventory will be askew as I'll have hoarded half the titles in my office.

Today is a beautiful day in western Massachusetts and the only thing that could keep me from not throwing a fit about wanting to be outside is looking at all the pretty books.

Number One in today's pile of "Books to Be Bought," is All the Sad Young Literary Men by Keith Gessen. Terrific title, gorgeous new paperback cover. I remember seeing this at McNally-Jackson in Soho (NYC) and my husband forcing me out the door without letting me buy it. Haha, dear husband, foiled again! You can't watch me 24/7.

Number Two in today's pile: Don't Cry: Stories by Mary Gaitskill. I'm currently reading Lauren Groff's new short story collection, Delicate, Edible Birds, which I think is fantastic, and feel a short-story "kick" coming on this weekend. All short stories - all the time. I still need to finish Nikolai Gogol's Collected Stories, too.

And, finally, Number Three: The Book of Night Women by Marlon James. Okay, technically, I didn't shelve this book today, but it's been on display right across from the main register for about a week, taunting me. "Read me, read me," it calls. If there is one thing I'm not able to resist, it's a book crying out to be read. Okay, there are two things I can't resist. The other one is a cookie.


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Authors Events and Independent Bookselling

Dear readers,

Please be forewarned that this post may come to you more in the form of a rant rather than a well thought-out blog post, but let's see how it progresses.

Over the course of the past few weeks, the bookstore for which I work has received more than it's usual number of author appearance requests, some from local authors, some from small presses, and of course, some from the "big ones." The fact that so many people want to read at the store is wonderful and we wish we could accommodate everyone. Alas, with the economy as it is and our advertising budget being what it is, we can't book everyone. For that, we apologize.

However, there was one request that came in today that made me audibly sigh.

An author calls to talk about the possibility of setting up a reading at our store. I asked to her to e-mail us some information on the book and let her know that once I'd discussed this with our store's co-owner, we'd let her know if we'd like to set something up. A few hours later, I get an e-mail with a link to her website.

Upon clicking on the link, I see in big, bold, bright letters "Inexpensive copies are available at both and Barnes and"

Oh boy.

Ok, I know that an author's first priority is to get her book noticed and to sell copies. I get that, I do. But, when approaching an independent bookstore fighting tooth-and-nail just to stay open in this economy, I wish writers would take extra care in how they pitch an event to us.

One fellow bookseller today told me that she heard of an author who read at an Indie bookstore and asked the audience to purchase their copies on Amazon to boost his "rank." Um, pardon?

Do all authors know that they can link to as another online venue to sell books? No, probably not, and I'm sure rude authors like the gentleman above are few and far between, but that doesn't make it any less frustrating for us. The question is, how do we educate these authors? Is it the publisher's responsibility to tell authors to give all booksellers equal opportunity? Would that mean Wal-Mart may want a link someday? There's a thought to make all booksellers shudder.

I don't know the answers to all of these questions, nor can I think of all the questions to ask, but if there are any authors reading this now or in the future, please remember us indies. We're the ones who schedule the majority of author appearances, we're the ones handselling your books, and we're the ones donating back to your communities. We've earned and deserve an equal shot.

Moving right along to another aspect of author events...

I can't tell you how many times we host a reading and a quarter or more of our audience has bought the book elsewhere.

Why does it matter where the book is bought as long as it's bought?

I'll tell you exactly why, but first, let me ask you a couple of questions.

1) Are you happy that this person is doing a reading in your area?
2) Would you like to see this person come back and give another reading for a future book?

If you answered yes to one or both of these questions, you need to buy the book at the store hosting the reading -- and here's why.

Believe it or not, publishers (gasp!) look at our book sales after an event is over. If 100 people attended, but only 10 people bought the book at our store, the publisher won't send that author back. Period. They don't check the Barnes and Nobles in the surrounding towns to see if sales spiked there, nor Amazon.

I understand that there are inevitable snaffus: a customer may have bought a copy of an author's latest book at one store only to discover that a week from now, that person is reading at another. That happens. Of course it does.

So, how do you correct this? In these tough economic times, it's a horrible question to answer on behalf of the customer.

As a business, we would like to ask that if you want to bring a book from home to get signed, you should buy a backlist paperback title by the same author and get both signed, or buy a second copy and give one to a friend. If you already have everything that person has written, buy something in the store of relatively equal value -- perhaps another book you've been meaning to pick up.

At a recent event this February, a gentleman and his wife drove in from Boston to attend a reading of ours and brought every single copy of that author's work with them, roughly 12 books -- including the newest title. BUT, he was smart enough and kind enough to buy a second copy from us and bought an additional, non-related title. Since he brought so many books into the store, do we wish he bought more? Absolutely! Do I think we could have asked him to purchase more to get all those books signed? Personally, no, I don't think we should have. Not too many customers would have done what he did and I don't want to push it --- not in this economy. Other booksellers, including some I work with, may beg to differ, but I do agree that some sort of policy needs to be in place.

So what do we do? Do we require that all books wanting to be signed be bought at our store? Perhaps, and I think in most cases, that's fair. Do we have a two-for-one rule? Maybe.

But how do we separate those who simply wanted to save a few bucks by shopping online from those who maybe didn't know about an event until too late and bought their book at another independent store?

To those buying their books online, consider us NOT letting your book get signed the extra cost of purchasing your books elsewhere. WE brought the authors to the store, WE paid for all the advertising, and WE'RE giving you the entertainment and cultural experience of meeting these terrific writers. It's our time, love and sweat, and we deserve to see the benefits -- and it's a requirement that we DO see these benefits or we won't get that author back again. In fact, if our sales from author events are consistently low with a particular publisher, they may not send us anyone ever again.

To those somewhat frequent and random snaffus, it's a really tough question to answer.

We're not trying to be rude or put-off potential customers, we just want them to understand the cost of their actions. What may be seen as simple, in fact, isn't.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Why Indies Can't Ignore Online Shopping

This a great blog post from a fellow independent bookseller regarding online shopping.

I agree with her whole-heartedly. We indies pride ourselves on our "brick and mortars" establishments. Unfortunately, we won't be able to afford to stay in our buildings unless we start focusing on an online presence -- whether we like it or not.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

This Just In...

My colleague tells me that another co-worker of ours essentially posted the exact same "shelving" blog a few nights ago and I had no idea. Here is the link.


Shelving Is an Intimate Thing...

On my dinner break this evening, I was catching up on reading the debut novel, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, and came across the following passage that really struck a cord with me. The author, Reif Larsen, writes "Shelving [books] is an intimate thing, like the fingerprint of a room."

This is yet more proof that I am not alone in my book "habits." In the past six years, I've moved three times and during each move, my favorite part of unpacking is getting the chance to shelve my books again. I don't let anyone else touch them. This is my one pleasure in the midst of moving chaos, and I won't let anyone take that away from me -- including my husband.

I have a very intricate system. First, I divide all the books into piles of those I have read and those I haven't. They go on different shelves, and once a book has been read, it is moved from one shelf to another.

Second, I start with my "read" pile and divide into two new piles by the author's last name. One pile is A-L, the next pile, M-Z. I then start separate by each individual letter and begin placing books on shelves.

Next, I'll move to my "to be read" pile and repeat the same steps as for the "read" pile. There are significantly more "to be read" books than "read" books, so I tend to divide the piles into A-F, G-P, Q-Z.

This process takes the better part of a day and when I'm finished, I'm torn between how beautiful everything looks on the shelves and being sad that my task is over, as I often find myself flipping through pages, discovering books bought long ago that I simply haven't gotten around to reading yet.

I know the majority of you out there will think I'm nuts, but I also know that there are a few of you out there who know exactly what I'm talking about, and no Kindle is going to make up for it.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Oh, author dinners, how I love thee...

Last night, my colleague and I had the opportunity to attend a dinner in Cambridge, MA for two upcoming debut novelists, Hyatt Bass and Christian Moerk, at a lovely little restaurant called Harvest.

I have to tell you, I love author dinners. Not only do I get to meet these wonderful new (and old) writers, and Hyatt and Christian were no exception, but I also get to talk with other booksellers in the area to get and incorporate new ideas into the Odyssey, as well as get an excellent meal for free.

Generally speaking, it's sometimes hard to get into a detailed conversation with the writers unless you're lucky enough to sit right next to them, but last night, both authors did a marvelous job engaging both ends of the table and I would bring either of them to my store in a heartbeat. Christian's new novel, Darling Jim, which I think I mentioned before, is coming out late this Spring, and is one of the most disturbing (but great) novels I've read in a while. It takes place in Ireland and opens with the discovery of three female bodies in the house of an older woman, who at one point, has taken her nieces hostage and clearly, um, done away with them. The rest of the novel details why. It's terrifying and gripping.

Hyatt's novel, The Embers, is equally as good, but a little easier on the stomach. It's a delightful, but slightly heart-wrenching family story about the mistakes we make and how those mistakes (accidents or not) affect us. It's poignant, reflective, lovely.

So, the authors were a delight, but I also got to know a few of my colleagues (if it's ok to call them that) at the Harvard Bookstore a little better. I've met them a few times at various conferences and dinners and have found them both to be unbelievably intelligent and extremely well-read. In other words, they kind of put me to shame, and I feel like a small child in awe of them, star-struck, as they are the up-and-coming bookseller goddesses, and I'm still a bit of a newbie.

But, putting silliness and self-deprecation aside, nothing feels better than getting together with book people outside of your store who can give you fresh ideas and sympathize with your plights, along with meeting new authors, and eating marvelous food.

And, I get paid for it.