Companies such as Doubleday and Scribner once led the way in combining bookselling and publishing. Now, a new generation of booksellers is getting in touch with its publishing side, including such booksellers-cum-publishers as Cleveland’s Guide to Kulchur, which publishes marginalized writers, and Las Vegas’s the Writer’s Block, which is about to launch a literary journal.
“Most bookstores do something else, greeting cards or a café,” said Tom Holbrook, owner of RiverRun Bookstore in New Hampshire, who launched Piscataqua Press out of the bookstore in the fall of 2012. At the time, the store had 200 books on consignment, most published through Amazon’s CreateSpace. “Many of these books looked terrible,” said Holbrook, whose goal is to make money and keep local authors from getting ripped off.
Today Piscataqua publishes 30–35 books a year, a mix of what Holbrook described as “assisted self-publishing” titles along with some trade books and works in the public domain. The books are featured in a dedicated RiverRun window display, and Piscataqua authors sometimes speak at the store. A PW reviewer called the press’s most recent trade title, Danielle Flood’s The Unquiet Daughter (a memoir about growing up with a dysfunctional mother and Flood’s search for her biological father), “a gripping story.”
Although Holbrook’s roots are in bookselling, he enjoys being a publisher. “It’s a way for us to start entering into the bigger [publishing] world. I’m learning about how people are buying books and how people are reading them. Not only has it become a significant part of our business, but it’s countered the seasonality of bookselling,” he said, noting that sales are slow in New Hampshire during the frequently chilly and snowy first quarter. Ironically, even though RiverRun is a bricks-and-mortar retailer, Piscataqua’s books are designed to sell online. The press has a hard time making it work economically giving other bricks-and-mortar bookstores a 40% discount, Holbrook said.
Having a book machine was a given when Dane Neller, cofounder and CEO of On Demand Books (the maker of the Espresso Book Machine), purchased Shakespeare & Co. in New York City with a group of backers last year. Since then, the store’s book machine, which is centrally located between the café and the book department, has done double duty, printing the works of local writers and filling in the gaps in the store’s inventory. Neller, like other Espresso owners, laments the general reluctance of publishers to give booksellers permission to reprint their books. But he’s found other uses for the book machine that fall under the edutainment umbrella.
To encourage children to get away from screens, Shakespeare & Co. lets them design their own covers for notebooks with coloring and selfies, which designs are then printed on the book machine. Neller would like to make the book machine more user-friendly by enabling customers to personalize their books with inscriptions and other special material. Watching the kids interact with the machine, Neller sees the potential for creating a book version of Build-a-Bear Workshop.
The Writer’s Block founders and owners Scott Seeley and Drew Cohen saw the potential of having a book machine early on and bought one a year before the store opened in 2015. Initially, they used the book machine to let the community know that the store was coming, by putting the machine in a nearby cafe. Now the machine is often used to print children’s writings. “Publishing kids’ workshop books on the machine has been an absolute blessing,” said Seeley, who conducts free children’s workshops similar to those offered at 826 literary centers. Having a classroom component was always part of Seeley’s plan for the store. He founded and ran 826NYC and its Super Hero Supply Co. storefront for a decade.
At present the Writer’s Block book machine is primarily used to print self-published books, which account for about 80% of its use. Seeley and Cohen also use the machine to print works in the public domain for customers—for example, an antiquated book of cocktail recipes for bartenders. Seeley is also considering another use for the book machine as part of a publishing venture that the store will launch early next year. He has already begun to solicit contributions from writers for a Las Vegas–oriented anthology modeled on McSweeney’s Journal. Seeley plans to print a collector’s edition of the tentatively titled The Writer’s Block Reader on a high-quality press and a trade edition on the book machine.
With elaborate printing and binding equipment, including a letterpress and an offset press, Guide to Kulchur may have the most ambitious publishing program of any bookstore. Last year the bookstore launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise $20,000 for the equipment and to hire staff for its GTK Press. When donations fell short of the goal, co-owner RA Washington sold his car to purchase the equipment that the store needed.
Like RiverRun’s Holbrook, Washington wanted to add a publishing program to bolster book sales. “We thought we wouldn’t be able to sell enough books to keep the store open [without publishing],” he said. The press, which is about to complete its first full year of operation, was also a way for Guide to Kulchur to give a voice to marginalized writers. GTK Press has published 15 titles to date, including Washington’s own novel Citi, which was originally released by Red Giant Books.
Guide to Kulchur has an active program to provide books to prisoners in Ohio, and it stocks an eclectic list of books both new and used, including many small-press titles from Wave Books and Haymarket. It doesn’t carry bestsellers. “You can get them cheaper elsewhere,” said Washington, who is much more interested in promoting other types of books and making them affordable.
Although Guide to Kulchur closed its doors earlier this month, that was in preparation for a move to new quarters and to a new business model. In December it will go from an 1,100 sq. ft. for-profit bookstore and transition to being a nonprofit, operating in a 13,000 sq. ft. former high school. Washington recently filed papers for nonprofit status and is currently working with a fiscal sponsor. As part of the transition he plans to shift the bookstore to a pay-what-you-want model. He’ll also be doing more kids’ programming focused specifically on teens. “I think they kind of get lost in the sauce,” he said.
A Texas Publisher Turns Bookseller
While some booksellers have been adding publisher to their job title, some presses have been opening bookstores to fill a void in their communities and to showcase their work. One press that has opened a bookstore is Dallas’s Deep Vellum Publishing.
When Will Evans founded the nonprofit publishing house in 2014 to publish books in translation, he also envisioned a bookstore. It took a little bit longer for the retail piece to come to fruition, but last fall Evans had a soft opening in Dallas’s Deep Ellum neighborhood for a 1,200 sq. ft. for-profit bookstore, which shares the Deep Vellum name. Since Anne Hollander came on board as cofounder of the bookstore in July, the store, which is organized by publisher, has begun to grow. It went from selling 30 books a month earlier in the year to 600 in October, and is on track for 800 this month. “Currently we have 74 independent publishers on our shelves,” Hollander said. Among the store’s bestselling presses, besides its sister company, are New Directions, Grove, and the Feminist Press.
Hollander is already planning to expand, and not necessarily with a store that showcases small press books. “Obviously our heart and soul is with independent publishing,” said Hollander, who is considering opening a classics bookstore. Even if this doesn’t happen, Hollander does anticipate opening another Deep Vellum Books in Dallas/Ft. Worth or in a neighboring state in 2017, one or two more in 2018, and up to three more in 2019. Any new store’s inventory would be matched to the community’s needs, she said.
As the bookstore expands, it will continue to be united with Deep Vellum Publishing through their shared mission: “To provide accessible books and culture to the communities and neighborhoods they serve.” The difference lies in how they execute the mission, Hollander said.