In 2004, I learned that a new independent bookstore was opening in lower Manhattan. I was eager to return to bookselling, so I submitted my résumé to the store's proprietor, Sarah McNally, who invited me for an interview. Over coffee, she seduced me with her impossible vision of creating an independent bookstore in a retail environment that had eaten independent booksellers for breakfast.
McNally Robinson Booksellers opened on December 4, 2004, in a chaotic flurry of sawdust. Sarah gradually assembled a staff of intelligent and devoted individuals who helped shape her vision. Before long, the bookstore was hosting nightly readings, a Saturday morning Spanish-language discussion group, a political series hosted by Mark Crispin Miller and another that featured editors interviewing their writers.
Readers and literati began traveling to us from all parts of the city and beyond. While the rest of the nation's real estate bubble burst, our sales grew, buoyed by the enormous influx of foreign tourists who came to Manhattan with their inflated currencies to buy bargains. We discounted staff picks and indie bestsellers, filled our magazine shelves with hip fashion and design titles, stacked our stationery racks with quirky and beautiful cards and kept our travel section overloaded with guides to exotic destinations. On August 7, 2008 we held a party celebrating the store's name change to McNally Jackson Books. Such local authors as Kate Christensen, Daniel Pinchbeck and Nathan Englander acted as booksellers—suggesting titles, manning the register and serving drinks in the cafe.
Then Lehman Brothers fell. The federal government announced its $700 billion bailout, and the tsunami of layoffs rolled down Wall Street through Chinatown and Little Italy, landing at our Nolita doorstep. Our store became unusually quiet, and we were urged to pick up the pace of returns. We held our breath.
Slowly, sales started to improve, perhaps encouraged by the election of Barack Obama. Once again, we were crowded on the weekends. And glimmers of hope appeared on the horizon.
The first occurred on a busy Saturday afternoon. A little lady with saucer spectacles came to the register and politely handed over a huge list of books. “Can you please help me find these?” she asked. My colleague went searching for her selections. When she located all she could, she asked me to take over. The customer was perusing our trade paperback literature shelves. She handed me an assortment of book reviews torn out of newspapers and magazines—every title a new hardcover. We had every book but two.
The delighted woman bought everything we had found for her, adding gifts and a few paperbacks that she had seen on the front tables. As I rang up her nearly $500 purchase, she told me that she lives in Israel and used to get all her books from her friend's nearby independent bookstore, but when her friend was forced to close, she searched Steimatzky's (Israel's major bookstore chain) and couldn't find the English books she wanted. After discovering our store while visiting her daughter in Manhattan, she decided that during her biannual visits she would bring all the reviews she had collected and purchase all the titles from us.
A few days later, a retired Frenchman approached and asked me what he must read. I gave him Joseph O'Neill's third novel, Netherland, and Barack Obama's coming-of-age memoir, Dreams from My Father. As he left, he told me that I was so pleasant, he would bring his wife to meet me before they returned to Paris. And he did. And they bought all the books they could cram into their luggage without tipping the scales.
Sarah recently returned from maternity leave, inspiring us with bold marketing ideas, including bundling similarly themed paperbacks into pre-wrapped parcels. Her energy and confidence keep us afloat, as do the customers who come to us not only from other parts of the city and the country, but from around the world. Holding our breath, we move forward into this holiday season, keeping our eyes on the glimmers of hope on the horizon.
|Cheryl Pearl Sucher is a novelist, journalist and bookseller who lives in New York City and Dunedin, New Zealand.|