A decade ago, when independent bookstores across the country were folding under competition from chain superstores, Christine Deavel and her husband, John W. Marshall, did the unthinkable: they closed their general bookstore and reopened a few blocks away as a poetry-only bookstore. Open Books: A Poem Emporium, just north of downtown Seattle, soon began generating more profits than the owners had ever earned in their previous seven years as a general bookstore.
Now celebrating 10 years in business, Open Books, one of only two all-poetry bookstores in the U.S. (Grolier Poetry Book Shop in Cambridge, Mass., is the other), is a small shop with a major role in the poetry community.
"On the poetry map, they're a big bright star," said Joseph Bednarik, marketing director at poetry publisher Copper Canyon Press in nearby Port Townsend, Wash. "They're one of our top 10 accounts—which is a huge deal—they're right up there with B&N, Ingram and B & T. Whenever I walk into Open Books, it feels like home."
Both Deavel and Marshall hold MFAs in poetry, but they did not take the decision to stock only poetry lightly. "More than 50% of our sales as a general bookstore were in poetry," Marshall told PW. "Poetry was actually carrying our mystery and science fiction sections. We crunched the numbers and made sure that it wasn't a fantasy; that we would be able to make it. As our lease ended, a B&N opened nearby, and the handwriting was on the wall. We could see that a niche was easier than a general store."
Selling off the inventory of their general bookstore, the couple bought a house, which they converted into a small store, and leased space above the store to friends running a wine bar. "There was a great synergy between that wine bar and our poetry store," Marshall said. "When they closed a little over two years ago, we weathered a dip in our sales." The couple is petitioning to get their building rezoned from a commercial space to mixed-use so they can live above the store, sell their home and save money.
The bookstore operates on a bare-bones budget: the couple owns their building and has no employees. "We do make a profit, but we don't make a lot," said Marshall. "Our profits are in the low five figures, but it pays our insurance and taxes, and we both take a salary. We can't operate in the red."
An average day brings in $500, but there are also some extraordinary days. Six years ago, the couple talked the Seattle Arts and Lecture series into creating a poetry program, with Open Books partnering with the organization to publicize the poetry events using the store's mailing list of more than 1,000 customers and to supply books for all events. A recent reading by U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser brought 450 people to a local theater, where Open Books sold more than $2,000 worth of his books. Deavel said that 2004 was the store's best sales year ever, and so far, 2005 is "in a dead heat with last year."
Marshall believes they attract customers through their love and knowledge of poetry and the fact that "we're out there and part of the community. If you're part of the community, the community will come to you. We're walking billboards for our store when we show up at poetry readings—even when they take place at other bookstores." The couple's high profile within the community was raised when they edited the local literary magazine Fine Madness for many years.
Of the 8,000 titles Open Books stocks, 2,000 are used. "All the walls are lined with bookcases, and we can hardly do face-outs," said Deavel, joking that the rare books end up being rare because the store bought them new and never returned them, so they have gone out of print while on the shelves. The store's cozy size encourages customers to chat. "It's like a small bar—people are 10 feet away from each other," Deavel said. Copper Canyon's Bednarik agreed, "You can spend hours strolling through their shelves. They're both so committed to the form. They're an incredible resource for getting poetry out into the world."
This spring, the store will mark its 10th anniversary by hosting four consecutive nights of readings, with Linda Bierds, Joshua Beckman, Lucia Perillo and Bruce Beasley. The store will donate 20% of its sales for that week to the Seattle Public Library and the King County Library System.
"Open Books is a model for others to find the highly elusive audience for poetry," said Charles Flowers, associate director of the Association of American Poets. "There's a myth that there's no audience for poetry, but the fact that they're surviving is a testimony that poetry is a viable category. Open Books is putting their money where their passion is."