Matt Norcross, 32, store manager for McLean & Eakin, Booksellers, believes he's in the right place, and it's the right time. “Buying local; being green; independent farmers. All these things seem to be swinging the pendulum back for the independent bookseller,” he says. “They told me, do what you love, and the money will follow. I'm starting to believe them.”
Even before it became trendy to do so, Norcross, who's been a Great Lakes Booksellers Association (GLBA) board member since 2006, has been a staunch advocate of locally owned businesses. An active Chamber of Commerce member, he's tried to spearhead a “buy local” campaign in the all-season resort town of Petoskey, Mich., even using the same educational materials developed by GLBA.
“But it was hard to get anyone to agree on anything,” Norcross recalls. He describes the downtown retailers in this picturesque tourist destination in northern Michigan as a “fantastic group” of small business owners who possess a “tremendous amount of diversity,” but who couldn't reach consensus on packaging, message, logos or images. “That's the pro and con of independent retailers,” Norcross notes.
Most recently, Norcross has taken what he calls his “passion” for supporting local retailers beyond Petoskey, to the state capital in Lansing. The day Norcross spoke via telephone with PW, he reported having just come from a meeting with small business liaisons to Gov. Jennifer Granholm. His goal was to make state government officials more aware of the importance of doing business with Michigan's independently owned retailers, especially locally owned bookstores.
Norcross explains that his reaching out to state leaders was prompted by the discovery that Michigan's prison system will not accept any books for inmates at state facilities unless they've been shipped from Amazon.com. “It bothered me that, even with Michigan's economy being what it is now, they wouldn't do businesses with a taxpaying company,” Norcross says. “Why aren't we a priority for the state government to do business with?”
Norcross comes by his fearlessness in advocating for local business from his mother, Julie Norcross, who opened McLean & Eakin in a 1,500-square-foot basement space in 1992, when her son was 15 years old. The store has since more than tripled in size, expanding to 5,000 square feet on two floors. At about the same time she started her own business, Julie Norcross worked with a group that successfully opposed Wal-Mart's plans to open a store in Petoskey.
Recalling jaunts to area big-box stores with his friends in high school and college, Norcross recalls that while he would complain about the negative impact of large chains on the community, most of his friends thought they were cool. Even today, Norcross notes, some new store staff members “don't get it at first. It's interesting, watching them come around and realize they have to make patronizing local businesses a priority.”
After helping out at the store during his teens, Norcross moved to Chicago after graduation from Kalamazoo College, first clerking at the Board of Trade, then managing a restaurant in the Sears Tower—a “painful” experience. “I started there in September 2001,” he recalls. “Nobody wanted to come into the tallest building in town to eat dinner.”
Intending to go to graduate school in international studies, Norcross returned to Petoskey in 2003 to take a break—but soon realized that he was “finding everything, all the challenges” he needed at McLean & Eakin.
“There's a lot of potential to sell books,” he insists. “We just have to make the bookstore a really fun place, a central place for communities.”
Name: Matt Norcross
Company: McLean & Eakin, Booksellers, Petoskey, Mich.
Education: B.A. in psychology, Kalamazoo College, Mich.
How long in current job: 5 years
Previous job: Restaurant manager, Sears Tower, Chicago
Dream job: Traveling snowboarder for Snowboarder magazine
Passionate about: The transformation of BookSense into IndieBound this summer. “I believe it's going to be effective as a selling tool for booksellers.”