Independent booksellers lost a champion this weekend.
I worked for and got to know Avin Domnitz after he joined forces with David Schwartz to lead Milwaukee’s Harry W Schwartz Bookshops/Dickens Books in the mid-eighties.
So many booksellers of a certain age- myself included- got into the business for love of the product, not retailing in general. The business aspects were a necessary evil, and the less time spent worrying about them the better. Some of us saw it as one of the last honorable ways to make a living. Some of us thought it was a way to change the world. Some of us just didn’t have the wit or talent to do anything else.
But as the competitive environment began to heat up, the necessary skill set to survive was sometimes lacking. Avin was just what we needed. He shared some of those motivations, but he also had a talent for and enjoyment of negotiation and persuasion honed as a trial lawyer.
A keen analytical thinker, a strategist, that rare guy who was always able to keep both forest and trees in sharp focus, Avin was the man you wanted in the room when dealing with big fish- bookstore chains, major publishers, internet entities, government, banks, landlords.
When I recall those long ago days, I think we (the Schwartz side of the family merger) didn’t always appreciate what he brought to the table. Avin’s thankless job was to keep watch over today’s sales to make sure we’d have the money to pay yesterday’s bills. We often didn’t. His close attention to the bottom line, expenses, and business practices was not always well-received. It wasn't as much fun as shelving an incoming order of Penguins. But his scrupulosity probably saved the stores more than once.
The Schwartz stores thrived on being bookish places, and David himself was a consummate reader. But Avin was also a reader. Avin’s intellectual gravitas, his passion for particular books and authors, got less attention than it deserved since he worked behind the scenes rather than in front of customers. This man had impeccable reading tastes and strong, thoughtful opinions about literature and history.
Avin and I left the stores around the same time- he to work for the American Booksellers Association as CEO, me to become a sales rep. Our paths crossed occasionally since then, and I remember a conversation awhile back about Yale’s Jewish Lives series after he’d met the editor. “These are such wonderful books,” he enthused. He may have retired but his excitement about books was as fresh as our first conversation about Philip Roth 30 years ago.
When I think about Avin I recall his incredible patience, and his willingness to give advice in a way that the mathematically challenged could process. His confidence could sometimes be a little intimidating, but he showed just enough ordinary human insecurity and anxiety that the anxiously insecure enjoyed his company.
He had a droll sense of humor, especially about human foibles. But when people disappointed him or did stupid things he never seemed to sour on humanity in general- a feat that’s easier said than done and I suspect had something to do with his deep love of family and faith.
There are lots of heroes to celebrate as independent bookselling seems to be miraculously surviving and maybe even thriving, but few have done as much to chaperone the profession into the 21st century. If American booksellers today are smarter, more sophisticated in their business practices, more networked, more savvy about social media, and more confident about the future, they have Avin Domnitz to thank.