Sunday, December 20, 2009

Boswell Book Company

I just finished reading an interesting book on the upcoming MIT Press list about the artist Michael Asher (Situation Aesthetics: The Work of Michael Asher). Believing that works of art can refer to activities, not just to material objects, Asher creates "situations" in art museums and public spaces rather than what we normally think of as works of art. For instance, he arranged for a group of high school students to re-install the galleries in a California museum. They completely upended the way the collection was displayed, disregarding the institutional categories. They even produced their own catalog. (“We hope we please you and do not frighten you,” they charmingly wrote.)

One of the installations for which Asher is best known was his intervention at the Claire Copley Gallery in Los Angeles in the seventies. An early proponent- some would say the godfather- of the practice now known as “institutional critique,” Asher tore down the walls- literally, not figuratively- separating the exhibition spaces of the museum from the curatorial and administrative offices. Museum visitors were able to see and hear the mundane back-office workings of the museum, not just view the end results displayed on white walls.

I was reminded of this Asher piece when I sat down with Jason Kennedy at Boswell Book Company the other day. For one thing, I think there’s a lot of similarity between stocking a great bookstore and curating great exhibitions. For another, the Boswell buyers see their reps in a prominent public space on the floor of the bookshop- no walls here between back office and public face.

I see some buyers “off the floor,” and indeed spent most of my time in that job with a dedicated private space. There are some advantages to having meetings away from the retail floor. Distractions are less likely, and it’s more possible to develop a flow as we go through the catalog book by book. Meetings on the selling floor almost always invite interruptions- customers, phone calls, booksellers needing answers.

But what you give up in flow is more than balanced by what you gain in soaking up atmosphere. The actual store is where book sales are made and lost. Customers should be able to eavesdrop on how carefully these stocking decisions are made, and they should be impressed. I probably see a couple dozen accounts where we meet “on stage,” and it’s not unusual for customers to jump right into our conversation. And why not? I’ve learned more about what’s selling by spending a couple hours overhearing real, live customers asking booksellers questions than I do by asking buyers to look up sales figures on computers.

But back to Jason. I used to say that there are as many bookseller buying styles as there are buyers. But I think I was wrong. It’s true to the extent that every buyer makes decisions based on individual taste. But buying styles? I think there are only five or six. For instance, there are very detail-oriented advance planners who pore through catalogs ahead of time and have largely made their decisions by the time I see them, making me feel a little superfluous. On the other hand, there are people who haven’t so much as glanced at the catalogs (which I dutifully mailed to them weeks ahead of time) and say things like “Just tell me what I need.” (You’d think such carte blanche would be welcome. It is not.)

Jason is something of a dream buyer. He’s read the catalogs in advance, has definite ideas about what books he’s most interested in, but is happy to hear me out about them anyway. He reads history books, and is full of ideas about how to sell more. (“I’ve been thinking it’s time we broke out Spanish History. It was such an important time.”) He knows the customers for these books, often by name.

Best of all, Jason reacts. That this is something reps are thankful for might seem a little puzzling, but the non-reaction on the part of some buyers is one of the more disappointing aspects of appointments. Am I talking too much? Am I telling them what they need? Did they hate that book or are are they just tired?

With Jason, just about every page elicits some observation. My notes from our meeting included phrases like:

Great price point
That’s really cool
What an awful cover, what were they thinking?
This is hilarious
We can really promote this
That’s awesome
We’ll display these together
Birding is so hot right now
I used to write sonnets (!)
Looks cool but would need handselling
Why not pub a Black history title in Black history month?
Ann (another bookseller) is resident Shakespearean
Public radio will love this
Anthropology is picking up lately
I know exactly who will buy this
I don’t get it.
Oh. My. God. (re The American Department Store Transformed. Wonder who might like that…)

Though no customers joined the conversation this time, the meeting felt productive, collaboration more than just order-taking.

I should have acknowledged at the outset that I have no objectivity whatsoever about this shop or its staff. For one thing, I worked with owner Daniel Goldin at Schwartz Bookshops for years and he is my friend; for another, I managed the Schwartz store when it opened in this very location just before I left to become a rep. I was one of the most persistent lobbyists in the company for opening a store there, so some of my cheer-leading for Boswell may be partly to vindicate the position I staked out so long ago and to show David Schwartz I was right after all.

But my attachment to a Downer store goes back farther still. That area of the east side was my favorite escape when playing hooky from Riverside High School (especially on gym days). There were various bookstores- before Boswell, and before Schwartz, and before Webster’s, that site had a sort of religious bookstore. Around the corner (the Henry’s space currently) was the fantastic Jeanette Schaeffer Books- a little carriage trade holdover, quirky selection and display, cats, a wonderful book woman who didn’t throw you out for being a high school student. Later, the Book Bay, a great kids store, operated on the east side of the street in one of those storefronts near Breadsmith. And let us not forget the short but glorious reign of “Harry’s Penguin,” the boutique experiment in a fiction-only shop run by Schwartz in the back of the late, lamented Coffee Trader.

The bookstore pedigree of these two Milwaukee blocks is pretty sound, but running a viable new shop there in the current climate will be no cakewalk. I remember some real estate consultant once warning us that “half of your catchment area is Lake Michigan.”

But Daniel is doing it. He’s got a smart mix of books, a great staff, one of the most interesting blogs in the book industry, a robust network of contacts with other local businesses, an exhausting roster of author appearances, some extremely imaginative events (opera, the indoor farmer’s market, poetry slams), and such a charming and goofy collection of non-book items that even a sidelines cynic like myself has surrendered. How many blue robots do you need? More than you think.


  1. Aw shucks! Thank you for your friendship, your customership, and continuing to be one of our best reps (and as such, deserving of a December rest). Yes, this is a classic case of logrolling. And yes, the department store book was a reference to me too. I guess I need to read it, but not until after reading "We Were Merchants: The Sternberg Family and the Story of Godchaux's and Maison Blanche Department Stores" from LSU Press.

  2. I remember David once saying "fish don't read."