Monday, June 29, 2015

Avin Domnitz, booksellers' friend

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.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

the beauty of horizontal bookselling

When I walk into a good bookshop with the intention of browsing, I look for new books, and I look for a display table.

There are lots of ways to attractively present new titles, and I’ve seen them all.  But somehow, the sight of stacks on a big table “commands me to buy” (to use an ugly marketing phrase) like no other fixture or display strategy.

Vending one's wares from a simple table is such a universal human activity, and we all know the appeal, from farmer’s markets to trade shows.  So maybe I’m just drawn to the horizontal surface because my Swedish ancestors bought and sold their vegetables that way.  But I have other reasons.

A table has some distinct merchandising advantages over vertical shelving. 
There’s a kind of egalitarian spirit to stacks of books face up on a table.  A browser can circumnavigate with easy access to everything- nothing out of sight or out of reach.

There is less likelihood that butt-brush factor will chase browsers away from narrow aisles.

As a browser, the logistical challenges of vertical shelving- especially the floor to ceiling variety- are becoming clearer as creaking joints and dodgy eyesight begin to toy with me.   

There is the issue of the top shelf, and the even more distressing problem of the bottom one.  I can’t be the only customer who decides to skip finding out who the S through Z authors in New Books are rather than get down on hands and knees to examine them.  I’ve always wondered if those authors have any idea that their last names put them at a distinct display disadvantage in most bookshops.

Big corporate retailers are spending heavily to track eyeballs in their stores, since it’s clear that where they go is a huge factor in what products get noticed and sold.  For bookstores, this is also the case.

One of my favorite customers at the downtown Milwaukee bookstore I managed was Mrs. Jepson, an eccentric older woman who had won a lawsuit against an ambulance company and was rewarded by being able to use it as a taxi service.  They’d drop her off and pick her up after she spent an hour or so rolling around the store in her wheelchair. 
She looked a little like Flannery O'Connor, had definite interests, and a sharp tongue (“The only thing she reads is the newspaper!” she’d invariably complain about her paid companion.)  If she landed at a busy time we’d groan and make the best of it, but on a slow Tuesday morning she was a delight.

Another delight was seeing bookseller Daniel Goldin’s patient, funny, disarming way with her as he fetched books from this section and that at her command.  This talent has come in handy as his Boswell Book Company has cornered the Milwaukee north shore nursing home market.

But Mrs. Jepson mainly liked to browse, snatching random books within reach and demanding “what’s this about?”  The thing was, her browsing boundary was books she could see and pick up from a sitting down position.  Authors H through P of the new Mass Market fiction section, for instance.

I don’t know whether Esther Jepson would have had an easier time with horizontal display tables, but the lesson is that bookstore customers have unique perusing strategies and abilities, and may not be seeing what you want them to see.

My old boss David Schwartz was a big believer in the display table, and we spent lots of time configuring, measuring, and moving them around.   A key Schwartz insight: if the table is too low you will need a lot more inventory to make stacks; higher tables are better, since only a few copies of a book can get it close to the customer’s eye level.

My friend Jason Smith in Oak Park was a little obsessed with this issue for years before he opened his own store.   He was so convinced that displaying books on tables is the way to go that he named his store The Book Table, and it is indeed a joy for horizontally biased bibliophiles.

And in Hyde Park, the Front Table at Seminary Coop Bookstore has been some of the most valuable bookselling real estate in North America for decades.  There isn’t a better snapshot of new, important scholarly books to be found anywhere.  And in stacks!  I was thrilled to hear that they’re converting some of their vertical New Release shelving to more table space.  No more crawling on the floor to see the new Slavoj Zizek!

I know, I’m unrealistic.  Just in time inventory and bottom line watching have made book piles a thing of the past in many stores.  And organizing regular sections like fiction horizontally rather than vertically makes no sense.  And who has the space for all these tables anyway?

It's fun to get lost in the stacks.  But give me a big flat space stacked with curated new titles over wall shelving any day.