Some friends and I sat around with a bottle of wine one night, trying to identify the perfect collective noun for booksellers. We rejected in short order “a binding,” “a trollop,” and “a shelving.” One weary soul suggested “an extinction” (which made the rest of us come down on him pretty hard).
Reports of the corner bookstore’s death have been greatly exaggerated. Like so many small businesses in America, we are threatened, but we are also smarter than the average bearer of bad news. Just pull up the video of Ann Patchett reciting the St. Crispin’s Day speech at BookExpo America 2012, and see if your blood doesn’t pump faster.
I heard from many indie bookstore owners after publishing Little Bookstore, the memoir of how my husband and I did everything wrong and still wound up having a great time while creating a relaxing hangout for our community. Bookslingers (as we call each other) from stores big and small shared their successes and scares with us, and told us what keeps them going. We made friends and even started social media support groups with indies around the world, and their stories point to some lessons about how to thrive in the midst of doom and gloom.
Sustainable bookstores have owners and staff who like people as much as books. Good bookslingers know their stock and their customers’ names.
They have a reputation for honesty. I know a secondhand seller who returned a limited-edition book signed by Imelda Marcos to a man who’d left it in a box of donations by mistake.
Great booksellers fight fire with water, as a friend did by offering to price any book within $2 of a cheaper online copy; the friend’s slogan is, “A small price to pay to keep your corner store.” We don’t get mad, we get creative.
Great bookshop owners put out vibes of hope and energy, get involved in their communities, hold special events that pull in talented regional people to build customer bases. Rather than cursing the darkness (or even the DOJ), they concentrate on loving what they do, and doing it well.
The big indies anchor retail on their physical city blocks, yet from this pride of place they are generous to smaller retailers near them. They also advise and appreciate little bookstores everywhere—those of us who want to be them when we grow up. (For Jack and me, it’s Malaprops.)
Small bookstores can turn on a dime. And they are the future, breakers of molds, redefining where and how people will sell new and used books—in rooms rented at antique malls, at train stations, after the night shift outside a factory from a car’s back seat, in church basements, out of a traveling RV, from a prefab hut at the entrance to a campground. Stores managed by people who do whatever they need to: run co-op shops, or even operate on the honor system; offering students free housing in return for work; gathering three retired friends together to get opening capital; having hours of 6–11 p.m. only. Those are real bookstores we heard from, staffed by people who know their customers’ names and needs. And that’s what keeps every store we met humming along: human interaction, and having the willingness to figure out what the community needs, and the flexibility to provide it.
Bookstores, whether big or small, with quirky or conventional locations, are places people want to be—where everyone who reads (on Kindles, Kobos, or paper) feels welcome. Grab a cuppa and let your breathing slow: browse, buy, and if you pull out an iPhone to order elsewhere, we’ll do what Harvard Book Store did and make it more convenient to order from us.
Best of all, these shops and their owners are generous with one another, shooting advice and encouragement back and forth, making zippy YouTube videos about all indies. When Sue, owner of Chapter2Books in Hudson, Wis., e-mailed me to say that she was giving up, the blog I wrote about her got reblogged up and down the line of international indie bookslingers.
Sue and her husband are still in business, a year later.
I went to Missouri to sign books at Maria Joseph Books, then owners Angelic and Joe drove with us to Illinois to meet Stacey and Bruce of BSR Used Books. Alerted by social media that we were there, Lou called from Afterwords, a shop further north. We joked that the collective noun was “a static” of booksellers because we kept picking up more as we went along. My husband said later that the energy crackling around us as we compared problems, strategies, and solutions could have powered Los Angeles for a week.
Perhaps bookstores prove that nice guys do finish last; the more generous the bookslinger, the longer the store will remain. My friends and I finally found what we think could be the perfect collective noun for booksellers: “a VOLUME.” Because we speak loudly, and are bound together.