Comment: New York Bookstores Need A Miracle

When my buddies in publishing and I decided to try to adapt the Emerging Leaders project of the American Booksellers Association to the New York area, it seemed like a perfect fit. The idea was to get the young people from the publishing community and the young people from the bookselling community together, informally networking and getting to know each other so that we could work toward the future of the book industry. But we ran into a problem I didn’t expect.

The New York bookselling community doesn’t seem to exist.

We’ve estimated (generously) that about 15% of the attendees at our Emerging Leaders Nights Out have been from bookstores, with all the rest from publishing houses or literary agencies. Almost no booksellers have attended more than once. And our invite emails to the “general” address of many, many local bookstores have gone almost universally unanswered. It's not from a lack of bookstores; I have a list of over 50 independents in the greater metro area that are currently open. There are probably a lot more publishing employees than booksellers in the city, but I know there are more booksellers than this.

To be honest, I probably could have predicted this. New York City booksellers are notoriously uninvolved in their regional association, the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association. At the fall trade show, I was one of only two New York stores represented. The city holds the greatest concentration of stores, if not the majority of the stores in the region, but they’re not really much of a factor in decision making, networking, education, or advocacy on the regional level, because they just don’t join, and they don’t go. And not only do they not join official communities, but many don’t support their fellow indies informally. There are certainly some booksellers who know each other, and some bookstores that work together. But many would rather send a customer away disappointed than send them to a bookstore they see as a competitor.

The two obvious questions are, why is this the case? And why does it matter? The answer to the first I think has some roots in both bookstore culture and New York City culture. Unfortunately, the old New Yorker magazine cover that showed the map of the world, where 9th Avenue took up approximately as much space as all of New Jersey (and most of Russia), is fairly accurate to many New Yorkers’ view of things. Life outside the city just doesn’t matter that much; “their” problems are not “our” problems. “We” just wouldn’t have much to say to a store from, say, Chester County, PA (an example I pick for its absurdity, as Chester County Books & Music is obviously doing much better than many a New York City store). And in some cases the New York Attitude can extend even to neighborhoods: what could my store in SoHo/Upper West Side/Park Slope/Chelsea/East Village possibly have in common with that other store in another neighborhood?

Bookstore culture is the other factor. Independent bookstore owners tend to be… independent. Even iconoclastic, eccentric, or hermitish (though of course this varies wildly from person to person). They don’t tend to be “joiners.” Many consider their kooky little neighborhood venture as a singular entity that, once again, doesn’t have anything in common with any other bookstore. The independent spirit that makes for unique stock, colorful employees, one-of-a-kind spaces, and one-one-one relationships, can also mean that indie bookstores shun anything that seems it might threaten their independence, even if it’s a loose network of similarly independent stores. I think this is a mentality more common in older, smaller stores, but it’s still around.

These two attitudes combined – New York snobbery meeting indie bookstore eccentricity – mean that (at least it seems to me) there’s an unfortunate tendency for New York bookstores to pull in their skirts, grumble that Store X is doing better than us and turn up our nose at Store Y that’s struggling, rather than consider that we’re all in the same boat. It’s a common response in a crisis (more on that later), but it’s pretty obvious it does more harm than good.

The other, major aspect of bookstore culture that prevents a community, especially a community of young people, is the confusion about whether being a bookseller is a profession or not. For many, it actually is not. It’s a part-time retail job (albeit a supercool one), the equivalent of working at the Gap or Hot Dog On A Stick, which is performed for a finite amount of time, for very little pay, and no investment in the company itself. Fair enough.

Unfortunately, the perception of dilettantism can extend even to employees who HAVE been with a bookstore a long time, who ARE invested in the store’s goals and well-being, and who are skilled and knowledgeable enough that they are major contributors to the store and thus to the book industry itself. These are the people Robert Gray calls “frontline booksellers,” the ones on the sales floor, putting books in customers’ hands. But ask them what they do, and they’ll tell you they’re working in a bookstore while they work on their novel, or album, or degree, or plan for life, even if they’re loving their job as a bookseller and rockin’ it old school.

Maybe I’m wrong about this; I only suspect it because I struggled with it myself. The whole “if you don’t have an office/title/publication/PhD, it’s not a Real Job” mentality was inescapable, until the ALP’s observation that I loved what I was doing induced an epiphany that bookselling is, in fact, my career. That many booksellers don’t necessarily consider themselves skilled professionals with a stake in the state of their industry is an indicator of a kind of ingrained anti-retail prejudice. Fact is, if you’re good at what you do, and you get paid for it, you’re a professional. And frontline booksellers are the overlooked professionals of the book industry. They make the transaction – selling a book to a customer – that is the end goal of every agent, editor, publicist, sales rep, and marketer, in every publishing house, anywhere. And they create the space where books are browsed, discovered, and shared: the very arena of literary culture.

Which leads to the second question: why is a bookseller community important, why does it matter. It matters in part because being part of a group of professionals reinforces the idea that one is a professional, and helps one to start thinking in more creative and powerful ways about the world that one works in. That was a weirdly passive sentence there, but what I mean is that my transition to career bookseller didn’t start until I went to my first NAIBA trade show, and found myself surrounded by others who cared about the same things I did. I started thinking about my bookstore not as just the place I punched the clock, but a vibrant part of a larger industry, and one that could be a factor in where that industry went. Booksellers need to hang out with each other in order to find their place in the book world. It sounds abstract, but it’s the beginning of revivifying independent bookstores, and ensuring their future. Without professional booksellers to carry the torch, independent bookstores will no doubt be slowly replaced by chains, corporate decision makers and ever more wage slaves. Bookstore owners in particular ought to encourage their staff to become part of the professional community if they care about the longevity of their stores.

Because, though I know I’m the poster girl for optimism about the future of indie bookstores, there are some major obstacles to making a store work, especially in New York City: astronomical rents, corporate financial clout, the tyrannical convenience of the internet. Many a bookstore has gone under because their business model just couldn’t cope with the changes in the retail environment and the book industry. I could be wrong, but I suspect the stores that closed were not the stores who were constantly in communication with their fellow stores, attending conferences to learn about new developments, hobnobbing with like-minded folks in publishing or other aspects of the industry to get ideas, staying connected in order to stay ahead. They probably thought “independent bookstore” meant “we don’t need anybody.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

We all sold a great book a year or so ago called THE WISDOM OF CROWDS by James Surowicki (check my spelling); his contention was that a group of people can come up with better ideas than the most genius individual, even or especially when the group is informal. The creativity and vibrancy that comes from networking with others in your field is invaluable, and can make the difference between success or failure for bookstores on the razor-thin margin of profitability. I can’t tell you what specific thing or idea would come out of a group of booksellers in a room together. That’s the point. The stuff that happens when a community talks to itself is something that no individual could create, and it works to the support of the entire community.

Libba Bray’s "Ode to Independent Booksellers" compared indie bookstore owners to the Founding Fathers, those other independents struggling to survive. I think what we’re trying to create is more of a loose confederacy than a federal system, but there’s a lot to be learned from that high-stakes struggle against a bigger and better-financed enemy. (And I’m not saying that chain stores are the enemy or need to be destroyed; doesn’t the U.S. have good relations with Britain? We just need to figure out how to survive and thrive along with them.) And as one of their number wryly pointed out, “If we don’t hang together, we will certainly all hang separately.”

As I wrote in one of my earliest blog entries, we are not each others’ competition. We are colleagues. Chain stores and Amazon take away far more of our business than we could possibly take from each other. And if we talk together and work together, we can not only increase our collective market share, but increase good will, and maybe even improve the literary culture of our city and our country.

To be fair, there are signs of bookseller community already. Rusel, the dynamic force behind the thriving Penn Concessions bookstore in Pennsylvania Station, just sent out an invitation to the third bookseller/sales rep get-together. The one I went to last December was another building block in my enthusiasm for bookselling, and attended by a number of bookstore owners and sales reps of all ages. But it seemed like a tiny percentage of New York stores that attended, and a small percentage of the staff of those that did. We need to do more.

It’s the Christmas season in New York. One of the classic New York Christmas movies is Miracle on 34th Street – remember it? The scene in that movie that has always stuck with me is the astonishment of a customer when Kris Kringle, the Macy’s Santa, sends her to Gimbel’s to get her child’s gift, because they have better stock on what she needs. The indignant Macy's manager is soon overwhelmed by the gratitude of customers and increased sales as a result of Kringle’s counter-intuitive program of good will. Soon Mr. Macy and Mr. Gimble are shaking hands on camera, both having bumper Christmas retail seasons.

To me, that unlikely cooperation is the miracle of the film. Against their expectations, Macy and Gimbel found that supporting the other guy not only makes the customer happy, but benefits the store as well. It’s as old as the Golden Rule, and as cutting-edge as “small is the new big”. Support your fellows, and find yourself supported.

I have on my computer a list of about 65 New York bookstores (including about 8 Barnes & Nobles), with their phone number, cross streets, and specialties. The list is by no means exhaustive. I refer to it whenever a customer is looking for a book we’re out of, or a subject I’m no expert in, or a genre we have no space to stock. I send them over, or I call the store and have them reserve the book. I know some other stores that do this too. And it’s like a little miracle every time: the astonishment, the gratitude, the sale.

I’ll make this list available to anyone who wants it – it’s all public information anyway. Maybe it will be the beginning of your own holiday miracle. And I encourage anyone in the book industry, in New York or elsewhere, to think and wonder about how to make another miracle happen: the miracle of a thriving, connected culture of independent bookstores, and bookstore professionals, in the greatest city on earth. We’ll be trying again, in more practical ways, to get young booksellers together in the New Year. In the meantime, please let me know your thoughts. Thanks for reading.


Anonymous said…
Wow. What a great post. I hope this gets read by all the booksellers you're talking about, and not just in New York.

Having once been a very dedicated indie bookstore employee, I have a couple of comments.

The first is that, as you suggest, I think sometimes in their quest to be independent, indie bookstores make the business harder than it needs to be. Indie bookstore owners & employees can indeed be iconoclastic and diffident, but the problem is that too often this attitude is picked up on by prospective customers who are intimidated by this attitude and thus prefer to shop at the more inviting chain stores.

Secondly, and more importantly, is your point about "front line booksellers." Being a bookseller at a truly great indie bookstore was one of the best jobs I've ever had. I think I was very good at it, and I would love to be able to do it again, but the simple fact is that I could not afford to keep that job and I went deeper into debt the whole time I had it. Booksellers are by far an indie book store's best asset, but the same book store owners who complain about the state of the industry are not always willing to put the resources toward the one thing they have going for them, the people. I know the money is often tight at these places, but I don't understand how an indie can survive without a dedicated, knowledgeable staff. You are lucky that you were able to find a store that you could start a career in bookselling at. At many stores, such a career isn't possible.

Thanks again for a great post.
Book Nerd said…
Hi Max,

I agree with you about the difficulty of making a living as a frontline bookseller. Bookstore profit margins are always super-tight, and payroll is the biggest expense next to rent, so it often seems logical to employ minimum-wage employees and maybe one or two "management" types. But my experience is that the more each individual bookseller is invested in the store, trained, knowledgeable, enthusiastic, pleasant -- in a word, professional -- the better the bookstore will be. One of the things we discussed at the Emerging Leaders meeting last ABA was the possibility of profit sharing or other strategies to allow bookstores to retain great employees, and allow frontline booksellers to keep the jobs they love and still put food on the table. It's a tricky business, but I think we've got to pursue it if great independents are to survive and multiply.

Thanks for your comments and compliments -- great to have another (once, always) bookseller reading!
Anonymous said…
Thanks for the well-thought-out post. Its overall message of generosity is perfect as the holiday season approaches; your point about stores being wary of sending customers to "competitors" a sobering one. Also, you're right that some may regard the bookseller position as similar to a Gap job--probably because the pay is modest--but we book lovers beg to differ. Nothing beats hearing a recommendation from your local independent seller, whom you've grown to trust. Also, some of the most important friendships in my life started during a "What have you read lately that's good?" conversation.

One more thing: happy birthday to you & the ALP!
Anonymous said…
I went to NAIBA (as an author, but man was it heaven as a reader!!!) and wondered why there wasn't more of a NYC presence...I was invited by the owners of a wonderful local indie (Bennett Books)and loved every minute. Thanks for your excellent post.
Noelle said…
Back when I was working the front lines of a NYC indie, I was amazed how quickly being a bookseller without a stake in the store could cause burn-out. It really does come down to the pay sometimes, no matter how much you are a supporter of the business. There isn't a lot of respect out there for booksellers who think of the job as their career but don't aspire to ever own a bookstore. This could be part of the effect of chain stores, who made bookselling into just another retail job. It would be nice to see more meet-ups among booksellers because I think alot of employees would benifit from meeting their counterparts. It's going to take a lot of legwork and cajoling to get them out of the woodwork, however.
Anonymous said…
Very provocative.

There was something in this post that reminded me suddenly of sitting in a student senate meeting in high school and debating student apathy.

Later that year some guys on the track team started a foul-mouthed underground newspaper that directly attacked and insulted the principal. The student body really woke up to school issues.

In other words, this set of problems in my opinion boils down to P.R. strategy. What a good local organization should be engaged in is P.R. It may be that only once a specific campaign has already been launched will the various potential members become alert to the benefit of joining in.

Also, as has been suggested, it all boils down to money. And specifically NOT just for the store owners, but for whichever booksellers participate in the new P.R. campaign.

I have been struck by the fact that although Larry Portzline's "Bookstore Tourism" is so successful in New York, that no New Yorkers have created a full-time company to do it, and no New York bookstores have realized that if Larry can without difficulty fill buses in Harrisburg, PA and benificently deposit 60 paying customers on the doorsteps of a bunch of happy and startled bookstores in NYC, then this means that there are probably HUNDREDS of towns in a 3-hour radius from NYC that could be tapped to provide tens of thousands of new customers to New York indie bookstores. And this activity could be coordinated by individuals, teams, organizations, corporations, in New York. Why should all the tourists in New York not be attracted and directed to bookstores? There's MONEY on the table. Bookstore employees could be specifically involved in tour-guiding, and could establish a commission system, since these are patently NEW customers for the bookstores involved.

(I'm always looking for a good project by the way, and would be happy to work with a couple of people on trying to organize this, with the objective of luring more in, based on the measurable, direct financial payoff.)

My two-and-a-half cents.

Anonymous said…
Perhaps the definition of "New York Bookstores" needs some broadening. Check out this store in Stockholm!

Perhaps there are opportunities to market New York indies to overseas tourists. (This might require the booksellers involved to do some overseas travel...)
Larry Portzline said…
Awesome post! And I agree that it should be read by all booksellers.

In my dealings with booksellers in and around Greenwich Village, I've often suggested just what Andy said -- that the number of bibliophiles within two or three hours of New York who would LOVE to do what my bookstore tourism groups have done is staggering. I've even suggested a loose consortium that would work with travel agents or motorocoach companies to bring busloads of booklovers into town. But the resistance as BN describes it is quite clear. They may agree that it would indeed be a great thing, but they worry about having to cooperate with their competition, and they'd rather let someone else do all the work anyway.

Have these booksellers not seen the buses from the hinterlands in Midtown? We're not talking about suddenly having 50 motorcoaches parked in Washington Square, but a handful of buses each week from Jersey / Connecticut / Delaware would certainly be nice for the bottom line and help to raise consumers' awareness of the indies -- INCLUDING when they get back home to their own communities. The benefits are so obvious and so far-reaching that they ought to trump any misgivings about being friendly with the competition. But the walls stay up.

I have to add that when I was in a Village bookstore very recently, I overheard a woman -- apparently from out of town -- asking about a used copy of a particular title. The bookseller replied that they didn't have any used copies, and although the store was just blocks away from the Strand, which almost certainly would have had it, he didn't mention it. Would it have destroyed this guy's bottom line to send the lady up the street? Good will within the industry shouldn't be a foreign concept to indie booksellers, it should be Rule #1. The potential dividends are mind-blowing.
Anonymous said…
This is clearly one of the top ten posts of 2006 for the bookselling community (and by community I mean everyone who sells books- no matter if they are new, used, rare etc.) I do think the used, rare, out-of-print bookseller is a little more open to referring someone to a colleague and maybe it is because the independent new book store tends to lean toward the publishing industry more than their brethren. Booksellers in both worlds have become too lazy in that they would more quickly refer a customer to one of the godzillas (Amazon, Abebooks etc.) then one of their neighbors (I will have much more to say about this in an upcoming post).
Thanks again and Happy Holidays.
Larry Portzline said…
Bookselling This Week just put out a column by American Booksellers Association President Russ Lawrence on this very topic from a national perspective. Good timing. Check it out here.
David de Beer said…
>I refer to it whenever a customer is looking for a book we’re out of, or a subject I’m no expert in, or a genre we have no space to stock

well, let me give you some quick thoughts from a former bookseller in South Africa, seems we had much the same problems you did. Regardign the above, I did that too.

We didn't have even the sugestion of meetings and organizations and get-togethers when I was still working in the bookstore. A lot of us knew each other though, and we would actually refer customers criss-cross. We had an adnvatage I think, since most of the indie stores here tend to do both new and 2nd hand books. A few stores would even band together and buy stock together, savign on expenses and stuff.
But, yes, when we liked each other, we would refer customers to one another's shops.
"Like" is an important word in this context. Not all booksellers liked each other.

But you haven't really mentioned outright the most important aspect of this enclosed attitude - the fear of the competition. That fear is real - the fear that you will be put out of business adn if you refer people to otehr stores, that's exactly what you're doing, giving them business and taking it away from yourselves.
Now, most of us here came to knwo each other. We had a few less than ethical book selling folk, and I refused to give them referrals. But there are books I simply didn't stock [Christian books were a horrible seller at my store, and I only had one customer who ever looked for the likes of Emile Zola and Andre Gide] In those cases, i would recommend stores I knew carried them. same with comic books. In our stores, we never bought the new ones, but would get some back issues some times. Now, I also buy comic books adn that's where I would send people when they looked for new stuff, or back issues we simply never found, like Sandman or Alan Moore's comics.

Indie and chain stores - you know, I don't understand why these two think themselves in competition. Both have the same goal, the advancement of book selling, and both have benefits the other doesn't, as well as flaws the other can compensate for.
I have a grumble about SF writers who don't know their genre, but write it anyways. The response is inevitably "but we can't find it! None of the stores stock them, they only stock Fantasy."
I used to think that, and then I discovered 2nd hand and smaller, specialist shops. Now I know they do exist, even the SF fans can have a paradise if they go look hard enough.
But Fantasy? Honestly, apart from the more obscure authors, I always say stick to the big chains - they carry the most (at least here in SA.)

Money issues -yeah, this was exaclty the reason I quit working at the store. Eventually, it got too much for too little pay. I'm still on good terms with my former boss, sure, but I just couldn't afford it anymore. Didn't have any desire to open my own shop, either, was happy enough there for a long time. But finances, oy...
Anonymous said…
It's true - booksellers aren't all sitting around the fire, holding hands, and singing Kumbaya. And it's also true that we independent booksellers lean toward...well, independence...and that we might not play well together all the time.

But let's not make believe that a professional bookselling community would be something new. The American Booksellers Association is supposed to be that organization. And about half of the savvy, successful bookstore owners I know (four of nine) think that the ABA is a complete joke... and yes, I share that opinion.

Do opportunities exist for booksellers to improve their lot by working together? Absolutely. But it's never gonna happen under the banner of the ABA. Never. Period.

A bunch of twenty-somethings want to get the independent bookselling world back on track? Hey, I'm all for it. Lemme know what I can do to help. But take it from a guy who's been around the block a few can't build a new house using nails and screws you pulled out of the old house. Start fresh. Start an organization with ideas that COMPETE with those of the ABA.

And them's my two cents...

Dave in NJ
Book Nerd said…
Thanks so much for all your comments, guys.

Dave, I didn't even mention the ABA in this post and you still managed to talk about it! =) (I did mention NAIBA, our regional association, which it seems to me even fewer bookstores belong to than to ABA, though its benefits are potentially greater on a local level.) I agree with you that ABA membership is only one way booksellers can get together as professionals -- several booksellers I respect I know through other channels. But I tend to think that every little bit helps.

Andy and Larry, you guys ever think of working together? I'd love to see Bookstore Tourism get big, but I've got my own rainbows to chase and I don't think I'm one to take it on as a project. I'm happy to support it all I can, though -- I think it's one of the new ways of thinking that has the potential to revitalize indie bookstores.

I also want to clarify -- one link to this post implied that I think indie bookstores in New York are in bad shape. I don't. I think this city has some of the most wonderful bookstores in the world, and some of the best booksellers I've ever met. But if our bookseller culture is going to survive and grow in the decades to come, I think the time has come to learn to work together in better ways.

Keep those ideas comin'. And especially let me know if you have thoughts about how to reach out to booksellers who may not be blog readers.
Anonymous said…
Yes, Larry and I are now going to finally start working together directly. Thanks for waking us up about this, Jessica.
Keith Raffel said…
I agree with those who believe the main difference between an independent and a chain is the booksellers. Can you imagine walking into a Borders or B&N and asking for a recommendation for a good historical novel for your mother or a good detective story for your brother? They would just mumble where the sections including these books are. Whereas in an independent store, you would be talking to someone who loves books and can recommend what s/he has read or heard of. I stopped at the Borders in downtown Palo Alto this week and pointed out they were out of my book. A clerk looked at the screen and said proudly that it had done well at that store, selling 37 copies. She could not order more herself, but assured me that the computer in Michigan would take care of it. A mile away, the independent bookstore Kepler's has sold over ten times more copies. Why? Because when people come in looking for a mystery or something set in Silicon Valley, the staff knows the book. The more it sells, the more they feature it. A virtuous circle. What frustrates me is friends who would rather save 15% at a chain or online than support the independent bookstores that add so much to the community. Keith Raffel
Unknown said…
I'm glad I found your blog! As someone who loves books and loves to promote great fiction, I find this fascinating. I'd love to chat with you sometime on my literary blog, Novel Journey. I think the novelists who hang out there would also find your views interesting. (You can contact me through my profile if you or any of the booksellers reading this would be up for an interview). I'm glad there are folks out there who are so passionate about books.
Anonymous said…
a good read.
Anonymous said…
It was extremely interesting for me to read this post. Thanks the author for it. I like such topics and anything that is connected to them. I would like to read a bit more soon.

Best wishes
Alice Tudes

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