Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Double-Duty Wednesday: Links & Bookstore Visits

Link Madness (late edition)

I guess I was overcome by Labor Day laziness and forgot to blog on Monday, so here are some late and rather eclectic links.

* Author Alex Kuczynski has a somewhat smirky article in the NY Times about the contemporary book party, describing the "colossal blowouts" for books by Tina Brown, Holly Peterson, and Patricia Marx, as opposed to the warm-wine-and-skimpy-brie affairs of yesteryear. Her contention is that today's parties are hosted not by publishers, but by wealthy authors and friends of authors; hence the extravagance in hopes of garnering publicity. (Thanks to Ron at Galleycat for the link, and I'll second his notion that if it's media mentions you want, invite a blogger or two along with the glitterati!) I'm not sure I agree with Kuczynski; we've hosted some pretty swanky publisher-sponsored digs at the bookstore, and sold books offsite at several more, though there are still plenty of author-sponsored cheap wine and cheese soirees -- long may they live.

* Speaking of rich people and reading, the Times also has a slideshow of recommended wedding gifts for booklovers. Too bad this wasn't around when the ALP and I were sending out invites -- though some of these are pretty silly. We're happy with just books... or maybe some more bookshelves.

* Here's a more grassroots kind of project: the Delocator! Covered recently in Bookselling This Week (among others), the website is a tool for locating independent coffee shops, movie theaters, and bookstores in your zip code, and anyone can add a favorite. It's not a perfect system (I put in McNally Robinson's zip code and several bookstores were in there two or three times, and there were clearly some spam entries), but it's certainly a step in bring independent businesses into the internet age, and raising consciousness of the great stuff in our own communities. Give it a try -- add your favorite local spots, and discover some new ones (I just added Word, one of the newer additions to the Brooklyn bookstore scene).

* Latest in the e-book saga: Business Week reports on the Sony Reader, which is available in Borders and Best Buy, though Sony won't release sales figures, which suggests it's not doing so well. The main problem at this point, aside from some complaints about clunky design, is that e-books for the readers are only available through Sony Connect, the company's own website, and there aren't that many. Though that may change as Sony is "now planning to adopt e-book software from Adobe Systems" which will allow downloads from other outlets. What do you think, readers (small R)? Any interest in reading books on an electronic device, particularly this one? What would have to happen to make e-books relevant? And what would that mean? I love the way one commentor on this article puts it:

I am interested in where this takes us? How many trees can we save? How do authors fare or royalties when the print and production is taken out? how much cheaper can books be? They're big questions. Bring them on!

* I know one place people will be talking about these questions: the 2008 ABA Winter Institute in Louisville, Kentucky! Registration has just been opened for the January 24-27 conference and educational sessions -- it's the third annual Winter Institute, so Len Vlahos at ABA has dubbed it WI3, perhaps in reference to the increasing focus on technology. Holy cow, am I dying to go. I'll have to figure out some way to beg, steal or borrow plane and hotel fare to get in on those conversations.

Brooklyn Bookstore Visits
I had a very interesting week. I'm in the home stretch of trying to get my business plan ready for the September 14 PowerUp! deadline, and as usual at this point I feel both super-ready and like I need to go back to Square 1. So I spent some time this week visiting folks at two different (successful) Brooklyn bookstores to pick their brains a little, and enjoy the scene.

Word Books, Greenpoint
As I mentioned earlier, Word Books is one of the newest additions to the Brooklyn literary scene. Opened in March 2007 by Christine Onorati, it sits on the most Brooklyn-ish corner of Greenpoint you can imagine. Across the street is a public park with baby strollers and teenagers playing basketball; behind that is an old industrial warehouse with "GREENPOINT" stenciled in beautifully faded letters on the side; down the street is a church steeple silhouetted against the sky; a block away is the multi-lingual bustle of Greenpoint Avenue. Word occupies one of those enviable two-exposure corner lots, albeit on a quiet street in a
neighborhood that's really only accessible by the dreaded G train (one of the few subways that only serves Brooklyn and Queens, not Manhattan, it's notoriously unreliable on weekends).

I asked Christine about that, expecting to hear that her business was mostly during the evenings and weekends when folks were home from work, but her knowledge of the neighborhood put my assumptions to shame. As she's discovered living a few blocks away, there are a lot of work-at-home folks around, and they are thrilled for the chance to shop local. The shop is open from 10 to 7, and business has been tripping along steadily for these first, often precarious months. To put it in perspective, Christine told me that she ran a bookstore in a small Long Island town for about six years ("practice" for the Brooklyn store, she calls it now), and while her rent in Brooklyn has doubled what she paid there, her sales have quadrupled -- and that's just in the first six months! She emphasized the importance of knowing your neighborhood, and knowing that there are folks who want to read what you read around you -- otherwise, she says, what's the fun of stocking your store?

The store has the aura of doing small things solidly and well. The window has a beautiful stencil with the store's name and specialties, and the window displays have won prizes (i.e. the Lonely Planet display contest). There's a graphic novel section that's possibly better than the one I buy for, though half the size. Discounted books are front and center; great fiction and nonfiction line the left-hand wall. A gorgeous display of hand-selected stationary and a wall of neat locally designed T-shirts round out the sideline offerings. And the back is a slightly segregated section of kids books and toys -- very savvy from a browsing and marketing perspective.

There's also great potential for the future. A child-proof gate blocks access to the basement, which is finished just enough to hold events (the store's Harry Potter party attracted around 200 locals). Christine has plans for expanding her event series, implementing a number of book clubs, and maybe adding more retail space. Talking to her, I suddenly realized the wisdom of thinking about a bookstore in phases. Maybe you don't have to have every element in place on opening day. Maybe it's financially and even emotionally more reasonable and satisfying to think of the store as a work in progress, something that will continue to improve and expand and refine and grow every month and year. I'm grateful to Christine for her insights, and I can't wait to see how Word continues to grow.

Book Court, Boerum Hill
Downtown Brooklyn's own BookCourt is at the other end of the spectrum in terms of bookstore life: founded in 1981, the store has done a fair amount of growing already, though more is on the horizon. I stopped in on a Friday morning to get a feel for the place and talk to founders Henry Zook and Mary Gannet and their son Zack, who now works in the store as a manager. The store is one of the success stories of indie bookselling in the last quarter of the 20th century: though they had some slow years in the 1990s, when the book business seemed to falter everywhere, their neighborhood regulars never failed them, and the owners were able to buy their original building and the one next door. Mary told me that when the Barnes & Noble opened a few blocks away in 2003, business at BookCourt actually got better. By that time folks had seen what tended to happen to small bookstores when the chains moved in, and they clearly told the owners of BookCourt that they weren't going to let that happen to their store. Mary and I agreed that Brooklyn is a good place for an indie: New Yorkers can tend to be more educated about economics and the effects of shopping local, and Brooklynites often have fierce loyalties to their neighborhoods.

BookCourt's operations were interesting too; they're open until around 11 most nights, because of the restaurants and nightlife in the area, and earlier in the morning to accomodate business from the nearby courthouses and city government buildings. I spent an hour or so receiving a shipment from Perseus (something I haven't had a chance to do in a long time), and learned about the store's staffing, computer systems, and discounting policies, which seem to fall somewhere between those of a small store and a large store, in keeping with the bookstore's 1800 square foot space. This encompasses the two store fronts and basement of the first building, and the store seems larger than it is, with lots of beautiful displays, staff picks, and local Brooklyn interest books. They're the exclusive seller of a Jonathan Lethem project, Patchwork Planet, and have lots of great relationships with local authors.

Things are about to change, though. Henry and co. are in the process of building on an addition in back that will more than double the size of the store, and that will serve as expanded event space, cafe, and increased retail space. To accommodate this increased volume, they're also finishing some basement space to serve as a receiving room and offices, and will streamline some processes. More books will be moved upstairs, the children's section will be relocated and expanded, and the store will begin to stock remainders. It's an exciting time, as the renovations should be complete in a few months, and the venerable store will enter a new phase of its life.

I sat with Henry and Zack in their office/living space above the bookstore after my stint on the floor, talking about history and future, plans and precautions. BookCourt is another shining example of knowing your neighborhood, investing wisely, and creating a space for books and authors that has obviously led to long-term success. I'm grateful to Henry, Mary, Zack, and their staff for their enthusiastic support of my own bookstore dreams, and inspired by the life they have created for themselves, and I look forward to seeing the bookstore continue to mature.