Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Wednesday reflections: Three owners, three perspectives on bookstores and loss

This should be the post where I list all the great books I've read in the past year, and rhapsodize about the great things in store for books and the book industry in the coming year. But I have to admit my enthusiasm and energy are at a bit of an ebb tide at the moment. Maybe it's post-holiday letdown (and our store had a wonderful, exhausting, expectation-exceeding holiday). Maybe it's that my energy has been drained by a too-long wrestle with the flu. Maybe it's just that Mercury is retrograde, as one bookstore customer always insisted was the cause when things were going wrong.

It's an easy time to get to feeling down. There are plenty of stories going around about the number of bookstores closed this year, or about to close. Interestingly, the New York Times has in-depth pieces about three of those closing stores: Coliseum, Micawber Books, and Murder Ink / Ivy's. I find the words of the proprietors of each of those stores rather illuminating regarding the different perspectives one might take toward a run of bad news, or just a case of the blues.

George Liebson of New York's Coliseum Books doesn't hold back in this article. In what is sure to become his most famous quote, he states "Running a bookstore is like running an insane asylum." Keeping the booksellers and customers from killing each other, while preventing "the great American public" from spilling coffee on books, has been his primary function, he says. I mean no disrespect to Mr. Liebson, but it seems to me that it's just as well he's getting out of this line of work. If one thinks of customers (and employees) as a sort of sinister force of nature to be contained, retail work is probably not going to be especially satisfying. One had better love people as well as books if bookselling is going to be a fulfilling life. This seems to me somewhat of a blaming response to misfortune: a completely natural response, but an unhappy one.

Logan Fox of Micawber Books is in a slightly different situation. He has managed to sell his Princeton bookstore at a profit (making way for Labyrinth Books to come in and fulfill the academic book needs of the town, in cooperation with the University). His implication is that this is a pre-emptive strike against a future bookstore failure. His quote: “The old days of browsing, the old days of a person coming in for three or four hours on a Saturday and slowly meandering, making a small pile of books, being very selective, coming away with six or seven gems they wanted, are pretty much over. If you go to the Strand or to Micawber Books today, it’s a whole different gear, where society wants satisfaction and fulfillment now.” Though he seems less angry that Liebson, Fox is saddened by the state of the culture, and worried that bookstores like his will have no place in it.

Jay Pearsall of Murder Ink and Ivy's Books speaks for himself in this opinion piece. Reflecting on 17 years of running the tiny pair of bookstores on the Upper West Side (one dedicated to death, one to life, as he observes), his memories are primarily happy, though tinged with wry humor, and observing that his shop invited thieves as well as famous authors and loyal neighbors. His quote: "S0 much about running a bookstore is about control. You order books, arrange them, straighten them, move them around. You create an environment, a place where people are comfortable and interested, and you try to do it all without it looking as if you did anything special." But he takes a quotation from his reading to explain his loss: "One can only do so much to control one’s life." Somehow, his response seems to be acceptance.

I still want to open a bookstore, despite the odds. And I'm still confident, underneath the blues, that I'll do it, and that it will be a success. But chances are it won't last forever. I only hope that after a good, long run, full of exciting events, building of friendships and alliances, long strings of days like pearls slipping off a string (to quote from my childhood favorite Anne of Green Gables), lots and lots of reading, many triumphs and losses -- after all that, if and when I close, I hope my attitude is like Mr. Pearsall's. I hope I can embrace the experience of a wonderful bookstore, and when the time has come to let it go, to let it go (Mary Oliver there -- it's a day of quotations).

The new year seems like an odd time to reflect on endings. Maybe it's because I've just finished Mark Helprin's WINTER'S TALE (review to come) that I'm thinking about balance, about the "justice" of opposing forces of creation and destruction. In any case, it can never hurt to observe that this, too, shall pass. If there's anything a lifetime of reading can teach us, perhaps it's that. We booksellers and readers would do well to absorb the wisdom of writers, and our own experience, and be grateful for our riches while accepting our losses.

Later this week I'll be back with some less philosophical stuff: reviews, a tally of the last year in the reading, and some more links. In the meantime, happy reading, and Happy New Year.


lady t said...

Like they say,booksellin' aint easy! I admire your determination to go for what you want despite the daunting odds there. Wish I was more like that myself.

Looking forward to your review of Winter's Tale-I read that book a few years ago and loved it.

Anonymous said...

It's no problem closing your beloved bookstore if you started out by buying your building. That's the number one priority. Choose a location that's up and coming and somehow get whatever help you need and buy a building. This have become absolutely critical. Especially in a place like Brooklyn. Choose an awful neighborhood -- but choose a place where you can own the property. In time, you will have attained the financial autonomy you'll need for the subsequent stage of your life. In the process, your bookstore will have helped transform the lives of the people in your neighborhood.

By the way Larry Portzline and I have been emailing up a storm and I'm definitely going to launch an active bookstore tourism business this spring. Hope to see a fair amount of the NY booksellers and bring you lots of new customers.

kookaburra said...

Andy is totally right--with ownership you're not subjected to sudden killer hikes in commercial rents. Excellent advice! Now, about raising that money....

Anonymous said...

You know the weirdest thing about the impossibility of raising the down payment for buying a building is that once you're actually in business, and in crisis, you DO end up almost involuntarily tapping networks that you never thought you'd ever ever have the gall or daring or chutzpah to tap. I've seen this repeatedly. If only we did it UP FRONT to buy the building -- it might not be necessary down the line. So for instance, what about creating some flavor of Real Estate Investment Trust. The intent is for this entity to buy a building in which to house a bookstore. Potentially, the trust would also plan to buy additional buildings. Because: we know, in advance, that any time a new bookstore is added to ANY neighborhood, real estate values all around that store will rise. This is a given, in the field of real estate. Bookstores cause property values to rise. So -- create the REIT. Then, seek investors for the REIT. That is, while it's essentially impossible to convince people they should invest in a new bookstore ("Whaaaat? You're opening a boookkstoooore?? Are you craaaazyyy??) -- it is NOT impossible to get people to invest in Real Estate. And -- friends, family, future neighbors, community activist types, other real estate investors -- can be pretty confident that they'll ultimately get their money back out of a real estate investment.

So -- now -- in the context of establishing this REIT -- you also do the fundraising to launch the bookstore itself. You try to get people to invest in two entities simultaneously. The building(s) and the business.

This entire process by the way gives you an excuse to do wonderful pre-marketing work for the store.

Also, I don't know of any case when this has been done, sorry.