Tuesday, June 29, 2010

back to the bookstore future in seattle

I have a suggestion for all my friends and colleagues who are losing sleep over the future of the book: get out here to Seattle and pay a visit to Elliott Bay Book Company’s new store in Capitol Hill.

Reluctantly forced to move by real estate issues from the literary outpost it staked out in Pioneer Square decades ago, there was plenty of consternation over whether such an idiosyncratic shrine to independent bookselling could re-invent itself in a new location.

The funky, historic old downtown quarter, with its interesting mix of international tourists, baseball fans, and homegrown winos, seemed an organic part of the bookstore’s identity. How would it fare in an actual neighborhood- a lively mix of students, professionals, and young families, with a thriving gay and lesbian vibe?

The physical character of Elliott Bay seemed unique, essential, and irreproducible. How on earth could the antique wood floors, which sounded like creeping through your grandmother’s attic, ever be replicated? Or the signature weathered bookshelves, which had literally supported thirty-five years of changing Pioneer Square reading tastes? And even if recreating these essential features two miles away were possible, was it desirable? Wouldn’t the small business consultant gurus advise seizing the opportunity to change and modernize?

But friends of the store can put the nail-biting on pause and move on to other things to worry about.

“Jaw-dropping” is one of those overused phrases- really, how often does your jaw actually drop even when seeing something great? But mine did when I walked through the doors of the Tenth Avenue store for the first time last week. I felt as if I were seeing the perfect bookstore. And after a few hours and a few visits, I believe by so rigorously honoring its own history it may be creating a prototype for the bookstore of the future.

I jotted down ten things that really worked for me. You may find others.

1. The book inventory is top drawer. It will tweak and evolve (it always does in good bookstores!) but the essential core strengths we always loved about the Pioneer Square location are still here. And showcased in a way that wasn’t possible there.

2. The staff are still great. I overheard one somewhat dotty customer being led with infinite patience through the labyrinth of what to read after Stieg Larsson. There’s a tag team approach- if one bookseller can’t answer, someone else can. And everyone who works there seems, I don’t know, interesting- like they probably spent their day off performing, creating, writing or working for social justice.

3. The layout, which sprawls across the floor of an old Ford Motor repair facility, is wonderfully airy and spacious. No more constantly having people brush past your butt when you’re trying to read the Staff Recommends cards.

4. Wood is everywhere, and yes, the floors creak in a really satisfying way.

5. The gorgeous high ceilings, wood beams and skylights are lovely.

6. Those front windows, a wall of them- amazing, and what a surprise. They look great from the outside but from inside, flush with gray Seattle morning light, they are dazzling. They give the whole space a sort of Bauhaus feel that seems perfect. Bookstore as 21st century creative workshop!

7. The immediate neighbors couldn’t be better and are definitely worth a visit (or two) - the northwest music chain Everyday Music is adjacent to the store, and one door down is my favorite restaurant/bar in all of Seattle, Oddfellows. I’m not sure who or what the Oddfellows were, but I guess it was something like the Masons. They left these gorgeous old buildings, and this one has been restored with great charm. And the food is tasty from breakfast through late at night.

8. The broader neighborhood, as mentioned above, is a fascinating mix, and only minutes from downtown.

9. And the even broader community- Seattle- is of course a bewitching place. It’s especially satisfying to find a store like Elliott Bay situated in the belly of the online beast which has wreaked so much havoc in the book community.

10. Rick Simonson, book buyer, events originator, passionate lover of international fiction, and overall sage, is the glue that holds it all together. He’s a walking testament to the power of an institutional memory in bookselling, though he’s never a slave to track. (selecting new titles based on sales history of similar old ones.) He’s a taste-maker in the best sense, trusting his own instincts and reading interests while knowing how to interpret the notoriously cryptic tea leaves left by customers. Nobody I can think of in bookselling has a stronger commitment to all of the working parts that make up a successful book- the publisher, the author, the store, the reader- and is more adept at stitching them together.

Understandably, general booksellers across the country are in a panic about what the future holds for our business. (So are publishers!). I can’t really fault a bookseller for rushing to embrace new technologies before they understand them, or for demanding a slice of the e-book pie, or for giving up valuable floor space in their stores for Rube Goldberg-like printing contraptions. We have to try everything.

But when I see a successful re-invention like the new Elliott Bay, I feel more confident that the great bookstore of the next 20 or 30 years may look a lot like the great bookstore of today and yesterday. Sticking to publishing and selling printed books in “great good places” as a business plan is not necessarily a form of denial.

End of love letter.

But check it out.

Friday, June 18, 2010

business books & the last laugh part 2

To David Schwartz, the success with Winning Through Intimidation suggested that a big, untapped book retail niche was germinating under our noses. Though there were a handful of business and technical specialist booksellers in the country, very few general trade stores showed much interest in the business book market in the late seventies.

Enter Jack Covert. Jack and his wife Ann were proprietors of “Jack’s Record Rack,” the legendary music store on the east side of Milwaukee. Anticipating the demise of vinyl, Jack closed up shop and brought his savvy and enthusiasm to the book business by signing on with Schwartz to find and develop a clientele for business books.

The focus on professional books was not entirely new at the store. For years, David’s father Harry had built and maintained a significant medical book specialty, and we sourced textbooks for the Medical College, Marquette University and other schools and hospitals. But this was a very small operation and not terribly proactive compared with the business book program envisioned by Jack and David.

My memory of the details may be a bit hazy, but I recall three things pretty clearly:

First, though they had a reasonably firm idea of where they wanted to end up, the road map to get there was pretty sketchy. I don’t think Jack or David really knew for sure that the idea of selling big quantities of books to corporations would ever really bear fruit, nor how long the experiment to find out would have to last. But there was a willingness to commit resources and tweak the program until it got traction. I suspect there were many moments when both of them were tempted to pack it in.

Secondly, I remember Jack’s enthusiasm. He brought an old school sales evangelism to his outreach attempts that we hadn’t seen much in the staid world of the bookshop. Even by 1980, when the threats of chain competition were alarming (we were worried about Walden and B. Dalton! Can you imagine?), the genteel bookshop philosophy was to do your best and keep a tidy store with the right books and hope that the customers would come to you. Meanwhile Jack loaded up his trunk with business books and drove to remote parts of the state to make cold calls on small and medium businesses.

Which leads to my third recollection: the rest of the staff thought the whole thing deeply weird. The rest of the booksellers were not unlike current bookseller demographics- youngish fiction readers, sometimes with specific interests in history or the arts. We had been drawn to working in the store by the Schwartz sensibility, a somewhat nebulous vibe but one that definitely did not include hawking capitalist apologetics to The Man.

We watched the growing business section in the store and the huge claims on David’s attention as a kind of internal threat, despite the fact that Jack was the only dedicated staffer working on it. In the same way that I sometimes feel guilty now about how contemptuous I could be toward my younger sister decades ago, I sometimes feel a pang of remorse when I think about how unpleasant we booksellers behaved toward our new, entrepreneurial colleague. But Jack seemed to let it all slide by, and kept his focus on the mission.

And in some ways, Jack has had the last laugh. In 2010, the Harry W Schwartz Bookshop is no more. But its direct descendent, 800CEOREAD, is the most impressive and profitable business book retailer in the country.

More on them and how they do what they do to come.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

business books and the last laugh, part 1

In the bookselling mists of time, i.e. the seventies, I began working at the Harry W Schwartz Bookshop in downtown Milwaukee. Part of what drew me to the store was the counter-cultural, somewhat hip political vibe. Though Harry had taken some brave stands on the right to sell erotica in the forties and against attempts to suppress books in the McCarthyite fifties, the store he sold to his son David in the seventies was in fact a pretty mainstream, successful business.

Nevertheless, the anti-establishment signals were easily discernable. David had returned to the store after much soul-searching about whether being a business-person of any sort was an honorable way to make a living. Much of this questing had been done at a commune in Maine. His personal inclinations were decidedly left.

The people who worked at the shop tended to have secondary occupations such as art or political activism. One of the three references I used to get my job was the local Communist Party organizer, and I think that was the one that did the trick.

As for the inventory, Schwartz was a comprehensive old-school general trade store of a sort we don’t see as much lately. It seemed vast when vast was 100,000 titles. But books of social critique were showcased, and were always among the strongest sellers in the store. The measly Business section seemed like an afterthought.

Then one day a man called Robert Ringer changed all that. He had written a book called Winning Through Intimidation, a work of business psychology that pretty much taught what the title said. Today, the marketplace is awash in this kind of in your face self-help for budding capitalists, with big print, bullet points and lots of white space. But in the mid-seventies this book felt like a grenade launched into the bookshops.

Even more strangely, Ringer’s technique for marketing his book was completely new. He crossed the country, visiting bookshops in major cities, and offered them a cash incentive to take an insane number of copies of his book and to display them prominently. If memory serves, this number was 500 copies, which is a somewhat routine number for high profile commercial books these days. (I’m not sure about the cash but it may have been $500.)

Ringer met with David, who was never afraid to try a new idea, and the result was that the giant display window at the corner of 5th and Wisconsin was transformed one morning into a wall to wall shrine for the ominously black-jacketed Winning Through Intimidation.

Staff and many customers were shocked. Though few of us had actually read the book, it seemed self-evident that this was an unworthy piece of pro-business garbage. Urgent meetings were convened. Words like “sellout” and worse were muttered. We just couldn’t believe that David would agree to promoting such an odious piece of work- and for money!

There are several things to say about this affair several decades on.

First and foremost, it worked! This was probably the first time Schwartz had “made” a book by an unknown author simply by getting behind it in a crassly commercial way.

Heretofore, in-store marketing of a single book consisted of a stack of ten copies, or a few face-outs on a pillar. The valuable front windows had never been dedicated to a single title.

This approach was a harbinger of the co-op advertising system we take for granted today, by which publishers help pay for bookseller ads and promotions.

The energetic Mr. Ringer, who was tireless in thinking up ways to promote his book and was keen to enlist the booksellers directly, was a precursor of the successful self-published authors of today.

And probably most significantly, the Ringer phenomenon was but an advance droplet in the flood of business books that was to come as the century closed. Thousands of sometimes formulaic but often extremely profitable how-to books have been bread and butter for many booksellers and publishers.

As the age of Reagan settled upon us and young people stopped saying the word “business” with a snicker, business books colonized bookstore shelves like a virus. When I started working at the store, you wouldn’t be caught dead reading a business book in public; by the mid-eighties, there was always some kid on the Number 30 bus absorbed in Napolean Hill's Think and Grow Rich.

And how did the progressive-minded booksellers at Harry W Schwartz follow up their success with Robert Ringer? Stay tuned.

Friday, June 4, 2010

and another reason to love your local bookstore

I love bookstores that commit to stocking interesting small journals and magazines, and this week I picked up the latest editions of three of the best in three different stores.

N+1, the brilliant, twice per year notebook/manifesto issued by a collective of young geniuses in Brooklyn, offers some of the most penetrating and original social criticism to be found anywhere. Issue 9, dedicated to the theme “Bad Money,” is no exception. The anonymous introductory essays, linked under the heading “The Intellectual Situation,” are alone worth the price of an issue, and cleverly limn the links between internet history, the future of printed books and newspapers, and the twisted market metaphors driving online gaming, i.e. “nerd crack.”

After a too-long hiatus, Tom Frank’s original Chicago-based journal The Baffler is back. One of the earliest, most rigorous, and funniest takedowns of the creeping marketization of every aspect of our lives, the current issue is loaded with tasty food for iconoclastic thought. The standout is Walter Benn Michaels’ The Un-Usable Past, wherein he dissects what the ideological triumph of the so-called free market has wrought for literature and culture. The whole issue is a keeper.

Last year I stumbled upon a beautiful and profound short essay by Amy Leach called “Sail On, My Little Honey Bee” in a wonderful small magazine called A Public Space. Like the previous two journals, A Public Space has a distinctive aesthetic, a quirky appealing design, and a solid mission, though the reader is never beaten unconscious with it. Less polemical than N+1 and The Baffler, A Public Space consistently features some of the most interesting fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction you can find anywhere. Every piece punches above its weight.

We focus so much on the other media on the endangered print species list- books, newspapers, commercial magazines. Let’s not forget to do some nail-biting for these wonderful hybrids. And to support them and the stores that stock them.