Joan Drury, who opened Drury Lane Books four years ago in Grand Marais, Minn., in a cottage perched on the rocky shore of Lake Superior, has a few unusual business practices—at least for the average bookseller. For example, she doesn't make returns.
"Of course, there are exceptions, such as if I have a hardcover and a paperback comes out or if a book is damaged," she said. "But otherwise, no returns. We buy what we can sell, rather than buying a lot of books and having to return them. We buy carefully." Drury called the policy "a matter of respect for the publishers' needs." As the former owner of Spinsters Ink, she said, she knows how it feels for a publisher to believe "a book has been sold and then get hit with returns."
In a related vein, the author of four novels aims to let books find their market by keeping them on the shelves much longer than many other stores—and much longer than Calvin Trillin's measure of somewhere "between milk and yogurt." "Of course, there are some books we keep in the store no matter what," she said, "because they should be available, though they may not sell. If a book hasn't sold for at least a year and up to two, then we'll get rid of it. After all, Sandy Martz's book [When I Am an Old Woman, I Shall Wear Purple, Papier-Maché Press] was out for 17 months before it started selling. If booksellers had thrown it out in a few months, it wouldn't have taken off. As a publisher, I know those stories. And as a writer, I want my books to have a chance."
Drury's background even influences the placement of books on the shelves. The store has a firm policy of not placing bestsellers from the large New York houses on the "Staff Picks" shelf. "We put lesser-known gems like In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez [Algonquin], Hummingbird House by Patricia Henley [MacAdam/Cage] or One-Dog Canoe by Mary Casanova [FSG] on that shelf," she explained. "Those are the books that need to be brought to people's attention, not The Da Vinci Code. That book doesn't need any help from me to sell."
When buying, she said she follows the same approach she had as a publisher. "We want good books. That's all," she said. "My first criterion as a publisher was excellence. If it wasn't good writing, I wasn't interested, no matter how great the politics. I'm the same way as a bookseller."
Drury makes the store's inventory decisions, although her three employees have some input. They clearly know what they're doing. And they're effective. Although the store is small, the inventory—emphasizing literary fiction, regional authors and children's books—appeals to both locals and tourists wanting a good read. In fact, this reporter, who, as a correspondent for PW has access to truckloads of free books, left Drury Lane with a bag full of books she just could not resist buying.
Path to Bookselling
For eight years, Drury was the publisher of Spinsters Ink, which at the time was located in Duluth, Minn. During her tenure as publisher, Spinsters Ink published 45 books. Four of these were her own novels; a feminist mystery trilogy (The Other Side of Silence, Silent Words and Closed in Silence) and one work of literary fiction, Those Jordan Girls.
Drury sold Spinsters Ink four years ago and moved 90 miles north of Duluth to Grand Marais, in the far northeastern part of Minnesota, a little fishing village with a population of 1,300 that swells to three-times that size during summers. "I needed to live up here, and it was hard to run Spinsters Ink from a cabin in the woods," she said. "I wanted to concentrate on my own writing, instead of publishing other people's works." (Spinsters' current publisher, Sharon Silvas, shut down the 26-year-old press last month [News, Jan 17].)
With all the insiders' knowledge she has about the difficulties independent booksellers face just keeping their doors open, much less making a living, why would Drury want to open her own bookstore? "I love the business," she told PW. "I had to get back into it. I'm a player." Perhaps more surprising: she says she is making more money than she did as a publisher. "Which isn't saying a lot, I know," she continued. "But we're doing well, we're making a profit—barely. Publishers, authors, booksellers—we're all masochists, in our own ways. But we all love books."
Bookselling stimulates a part of her separate from her sense of self as a writer, she added. "I love being a writer. I've never not been an author, which is the core of who I am. But of business things—I really love being a bookseller. I get to buy as many books as I want without having to read them."
Despite the cataclysmic changes Drury has witnessed in different parts of the book business in the past decade, she expressed some optimism about the future of small presses and independent bookselling.
"It's scary, watching the corporatization of this industry, this 'bigger is better' mentality," she said. "But the business is going to persevere. It has to: publishers and booksellers are inextricably linked to one another. None of us can survive without the other. Some of the giants aren't going to survive, because they need a lot of money to survive. So it'll go back to the smaller houses, who can take the risks the larger houses can't take. And I see the independents hanging on. There'll always be people opening their own independents.
"My experience as an author and as a publisher has definitely made me a better bookseller," she told PW. "I think I'm more sympathetic to the needs of publishers and authors. After all, I've walked in their shoes."