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Sunday
Feb212010

Flyleaf Books at the Beginning of Its Story

I met Jamie Fiocco, Sarah Carr and Land Arnold last September at SIBA's trade show in Greenville, S.C. In a column I wrote after the SIBA show, I said I'd been immediately impressed by their collective knowledge and passion as booksellers, as well as their undeniable courage as business people. Their new bookstore, Flyleaf Books, Chapel Hill, N.C., had its soft opening in November and a successful grand opening January 9.

Now that the bookshop is three months old--and with so many news stories appearing about bookstores on their last legs--it seemed like a good time to explore an indie that is on its first legs. Every bookstore is a story, and this one just hit the "Once upon a time" stage. For the next couple of weeks, the Flyleaf crew will share some early impressions of their new lives as bookstore owners. Jamie got the conversation started.

When Flyleaf Books hosted its grand opening, they had anticipated a crowd of about 150 people. "I got 125 wine glasses, thinking we’d have extras, and we had 350 show up," Jamie recalled, noting that community support "has been very, very good. I’ve bumped into folks in town talking about the store; folks walk in the door every day and immediately thank us for being brave enough to open an independent bookstore in town. We were overwhelmed with how many folks didn’t hesitate to become Flyleaf members or to buy gift certificates from us for their holiday gifts. Industry support has been equally positive. The reps and publishers made everything from their end move very easily. The other folks in the industry--media, vendors--were very supportive as well. I think with all the shifting going on in the publishing world folks were happy to have a positive project to be excited about."

After years as a frontline bookseller, being an owner has been "exhilarating and exhausting," Jamie observed. "It’s a beautiful thing to be able to talk to customers and to explain to them why the store is a certain way, or why we carry a certain book or type of book (or don’t carry them). It’s a whole new crowd of folks to introduce to all your favorite books and authors. And, on a different note, it’s nice having veto power in my back pocket, meaning I (we) have the ability to say 'no' when dealing with a customer, vendor or a self-published author who is being unreasonable. There have been a few times where someone was pushing an idea that didn’t dovetail with the store’s goals and it was nice to be able to tell them nicely that I just wasn’t interested."

I wondered if there was an aspect of the bookstore that they were uncertain about before opening, but have found exceeded expectations. She cited Flyleaf's events space: "We have a 1600-square-foot dedicated events space that we are using for readings. It’s the old aerobics/yoga room from the gym that used to be in this space, so the acoustics are great and there’s a beautiful wooden floor. We’ve been taken by surprise at how many community groups want to use the space for meetings, musical groups that want to use the space for performance, and all sorts of literary groups--writing classes, open mics, poetry slams--that need a space to meet regularly. We have had to develop rules about who can use the space; first priority to author events, then other events with a book tie-in. We’ve even developed a fee schedule for non-literary groups to rent the space when we don’t need it otherwise. We had a Phase Two in mind for the events room, and we’ve already moved ahead with part of that in installing a really nice AV projector and screen so we can accommodate DVD presentations and films in the room."
 
And what's personal life been like for the new bookstore owners? "I’ve had to almost completely abandon the notion of life outside the bookstore; since Sept 2 it’s been nonstop," Jamie admitted. "We’ve been open for 90 days now and we’re finally at the point where Land and I have discussed having regular days off. We don’t know when those days are yet, but we’ve been able to take a few here and there. We’ve got an employee who is able to close for us on weekends. Sarah’s been the rock; she opens the store 9 a.m. Monday through Friday and works into the early afternoon so Land and I can sleep in a bit. My husband has been very understanding; we talked about it before we started this project and decided two years of chaos was a fair price. Land and I have gotten pretty good at simply telling the other to go home and get some sleep. I absolutely cannot imagine doing this alone."

More from the Flyleaf Books crew next week.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1120.

Sunday
Feb142010

How Do We Love Books? Let Us Count the Events

How about a little retail tough love? According to the National Retail Federation's unromantically named 2010 Valentine's Day Consumer Intentions and Actions Survey, couples will spend an average of $63.34 on gifts for their spouse or S.O., compared to $67.22 last year.

That, my friends, is still a lot of potential book love, and my e-mail inbox this week has been a digital bouquet of newsletters from bookstores nationwide inviting patrons to give Valentine's Day a literary twist.

Greenlight Bookstore, Brooklyn, N.Y., started the celebration last night with a panel discussion "on the subject of bittersweet romance," and tonight "the romance theme continues with chocolate, champagne and paper craft" from Esther Smith's The Paper Bride: Wedding DIY from Pop-The-Question to Tie-The-Knot and Happily Ever After.

There's also a lovefest going on at Nantucket Bookworks, Nantucket, Mass., where owner Wendy Hudson--in her "loverly" e-mail newsletter--showcased an "I heart Bookworks!" video and wrote: "It's that time again when we say... 'We Love You, Dear Reader!'" Also, check out her recap (aka bookseller-to-bookseller video love letter) of a visit to San Francisco's legendary City Lights bookstore during her recent trip to ABA's Winter Institute.

Roxanne Coady, owner of R.J. Julia Booksellers, Madison, Conn., sent a letter to her customers noting: "With Valentine's Day around the corner, I thought, what better time to share some of my favorite reads on love? I will give this disclaimer--my idea of a good read about love does not involve the traditional boy-meets-girl story with a happily ever after ending. I'd rather read a book that explores all the dimensions of love in all its complexity--happy and unhappy." See Roxanne's Picks, as well as the bookshop's Valentine's Day selections for its Just the Right Book program.

Inspired by a line from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night--"If music be the food of love, play on."--the Regulator Bookshop, Durham, N.C., is hosting a cabaret tonight in celebration of Valentine's Day: "Bring your spouse, date, best friend, lover, significant other, main squeeze, life partner, POSSLQ, or soul mate, and see if we can figure out 'What Is This Thing Called Love?'" 

A "Love Your Readers Sale" is being held at the Galaxy Bookshop, Hardwick, Vt., where they wanted "to give a special Valentine to our customers to say 'Thank you for making us your bookstore--we love you!' Shop at The Galaxy Bookshop the week of February 8-13, spend $20 or more on a book, and receive a delicious treat from LePre Bonbons--or--Spend $20 or more on a book to get 14% (in honor of February 14th, of course) off a second book for your Valentine!"

Sometimes love is dangerous. At Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore, San Diego, Calif., "love is in the air when best-selling romance author Joan Brady visits for a Valentine's Day book-signing of her mystical new love story, The Ghost of Mt. Soledad."

Kids love Valentine's Day, too. After all, who do you think actually eats those Sweethearts candies? Odyssey Bookshop, South Hadley, Mass., has invited children "to a very special Valentine's Day Story and Craft Hour with children's author, Corinne Demas and Odyssey's children's manager, Rebecca Fabian" on Saturday.

And the Twig Book Shop, San Antonio, Tex., features an event Saturday titled, "Junie B. Jones Learns Some Valentine's Manners," during which Miss Anastasia and the bookstore are "hoping to help Junie B. Jones with her Tea Party etiquette," with a little help from Margaret Houston, Children's Etiquette Instructor from Protocol School of Texas.

Last Saturday, Tattered Cover Books, Denver, Colo., hosted a "Handmade Valentine Fundraiser" where guests could buy handmade valentines created by the "talented young poets of the Metro Denver Promotion of Letters (MDPL), a writing center for kids." The aspiring poets were available to help "create the perfect message for loved ones," and all proceeds from the event went to "help fund publishing these young authors."

But what would the holiday be without a dissenting opinion? Vroman's Bookstore, Pasadena, Calif., hosts an Anti-Valentine's Day Party this Sunday and proclaims that "Valentine's Day does not have to be the most dreaded holiday of your year anymore....  Make your own voodoo doll, swap stories of dates gone wrong, and enjoy a little food and drink!"

Romance will endure, no doubt, especially if writers have anything to say about it--and they do. In a world that has permitted "tweet me" and "text me" to enter the traditional Sweethearts candy lexicon, it's reassuring to know that old-fashioned love of books and bookshops can still be a great retail aphrodisiac.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1115.

Sunday
Feb072010

'Well-met in Chester' at New Voices 2010

Colum McCann inscribed a copy of Songdogs, his first novel, to me in January, 1996, with the words: "Well-met in Chester on a winter evening, with great thanks for your supporting my work. Sláinte." Last fall, he won the National Book Award for Let the Great World Spin. I was thinking about that narrative arc last weekend when I attended the afternoon readings for New Voices 2010 in Chester, Vt.

Hosted by Bill and Lynne Reed of Misty Valley Books and celebrating its 16th anniversary, New Voices was started by the bookstore's original owners, Dwight Currie and Michael Kohlmann. After the Reeds purchased Misty Valley in 2001, they not only continued the tradition, but eventually added Vermont Voices and a Gourmet Mystery Series to their seasonal schedule, thanks in part to the success of this original event.

Guest authors for New Voices this time were Deborah Copaken Kogan (Between Here and April), Elena Gorokhova (A Mountain of Crumbs), James Landis (The Last Day), Heidi Durrow (The Girl Who Fell From the Sky) and Matthew Dicks (Something Missing).

"This year's New Voices, which you can imagine we spend some thought and effort on, coalesced early," Bill observed. "Lynne always scouts first timers in the catalogs and gets galleys. She keeps in touch with publishers, and we always go prospecting at BEA and NEIBA for possible New Voices, with documentation in hand of previous events. This year we had a credible roster early, and we had both read the books of the five authors we finally invited. Publishers were very helpful this year, too, pointing us in the right direction. We were pretty sure by the fall that we had a good group."

The day began with cross-country skiing in the morning, followed by the afternoon reading/signing at a beautiful stone church in the village. That evening, there was a wine and cheese cocktail hour and then dinner with the authors at the Fullerton Inn. This day-long interaction seems to gradually develop a comfort level between writers and readers, and the barrier of compressed arrival, performance and departure that bookends most author events dissipates in the welcoming, cozy Vermont winter atmosphere.

"The thing that makes the weekend so wonderful for us is the fact that it is more than a book reading," Lynne said. "We had the authors to our house Friday evening for dinner along with their introducers and a few friends. This group really, dare I say, bonded. We had such a good time. Then to wake up to go cross-country skiing in 5-degree weather at Grafton Ponds cemented their friendship. So, by the time they got to the church, they were old buddies, felt comfortable, knew people in the audience, and the day kept flowing. No one wanted to leave."

"Bill and I both agree that this was one of the very best New Voices ever," she added. "We always have interesting authors, but this year the mix worked. The books were all so different. I think what made the reading special was the introducers. The energy in the church was amazing." 

A few words about those introducers: Bill came up with the idea a couple of years ago to ask members of the community to read the selected books beforehand and make the introductions: "It helped increase attendance, too, I think, to involve community members early, inviting friends to read the books and introduce the authors. The friends were happy to be involved and, as you probably noticed, rose to the occasion. Somehow it also gives more credence to the event if more people are involved. Several attendees have remarked that it was nice to hear what the introducers had to say."

That direct and personal engagement by the introducers with their chosen books and authors ultimately added five additional "new voices" to the event. In fact, Deborah Copaken Kogan responded to Nancy Pennell's intro by saying, "That was the best introduction anyone in my decade of writing has ever done."

Jeremy Dworkin, who introduced Heidi Durrow, thanked Bill and Lynne for "an effort that's obviously become a community tradition."

This year, more than 130 people attended the readings, up significantly from 2009. Misty Valley sold out of all five books and took orders for more. I heard one woman standing in line enthusiastically ask a friend, "Who are you going to buy?"

"Well-met in Chester" indeed. A reading tradition still thrives in the Green Mountains and, as Elena Gorokhova said, "In an era when innovation and adaptation are watchwords, there is something to be said for tradition."--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1109.

Sunday
Jan312010

Quirky 'Beyond Measure'

During an intensely digitized week--as I monitored the iPad's debut, last-minute objections to the Google Book Settlement and the Digital Book World Conference--I also found myself thinking, for some reason, about Richard Brautigan.

I read "All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace" for the first time in decades. And as I was considering and reconsidering that word "quirky" and its relationship to indie bookstores (for the record, I never used the term to describe Brautigan when I read him in the 1970s), I recalled some lines from his novel, The Abortion: "The library came into being because of an overwhelming need and desire for such a place. There simply had to be a library like this." If you don't know about the library, you should. Now more than ever, perhaps, quirky may be a business model.

I mentioned last week that Kathy Patrick's Beauty & the Book, Jefferson, Tex., was high on my list of pilgrimage-worthy shrines to bookseller quirkiness. Subsequently, Kathy put the question to her fans on Facebook: "Is Beauty and the Book a quirky bookstore?" Among the responses:

  • Quirky is good! Everything else is boring.
  • Quirky fits, also unique, fabulous, outrageous, fascinating, inspiring, blingful and totally Kathy!
  • It's the quirkiest! That's why the world loves it and you!
  • Quirky beyond measure. And I mean that in a nice way.

 

Besse Lynch, events and marketing coordinator at the Bookworm of Edwards, Edwards, Colo., responded to the column by recalling her affection for the Bookmill, Montague, Mass., because "browsing the shelves felt like exploring in some long forgotten attic. There was nothing cookie cutter about the space or selection, yet it was somehow familiar and comfortable."

I asked her how that might translate into success for indie bookstores. "Quirky can be so different for different people," she replied. "I think of it as a feeling you can't find anywhere else, something unusual yet familiar, maybe nostalgic at the same time. In defining quirky in terms of a bookstore, it can mean at once being a place where a person feels like a unique individual, and a place where those individualities come together to form a cohesive community. When a person shops at an indie bookstore this is what they are looking for. Not a place where they buy a book and walk out, but a place where they buy a book and belong to community."

Can the "quirky" factor drive people away? "The trick is to define yourself as an individual while being careful not to exclude other individuals," she added. "The beauty of a truly quirky bookstore is that it must be accepting of the quirks of others." At the Bookworm, "We just try to do things that we are passionate about, and that have meaning within our community. We take our customer's needs and suggestions to heart and try to create an atmosphere that reflects the diversity of ideas that come into our store."

And, finally, is quirky something that can be planned?

Janet Geddis, who hopes to open Avid Bookshop in Athens, Ga., sometime later this year, observed that she wants her shop "to be well-organized, friendly and cozy, but I'd also like something funky or quirky that instantly sets it apart from other bookstores (and other businesses, for that matter). But I believe there's a problem with setting out to do something deliberately quirky: I don't want my design decisions to appear contrived or manipulative. When I think about quirky places I like to visit, the thing that has drawn my attention is almost always something that evolved organically."

She noted that genuine quirkiness seems "born out of true individuality. People haven't made calculated decisions to be strange in order to stand out. Instead, their oddities come straight from the heart. I'd venture to guess that the proprietors of Wild Rumpus [Minneapolis, Minn.] genuinely love animals and children--they didn't make a choice to sell kids' books in a store full of animals purely because it was a good business plan. Their quirkiness arises from their passions."

As Janet plans her bookstore, she already knows it will include "some surprising and intriguing elements in the design, but I can't yet know what I'll say, do, or create that will give Avid that quirkiness many of my future customers crave. I suppose this strange and appealing element will evolve naturally as my staff and I settle in and share what we love with our customers."

To paraphrase Mr. Brautigan, there simply have to be bookstores like these.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1103.

Sunday
Jan242010

Bookstores & the Quirky Factor

Should independent bookstores be quirky? What does quirky mean now? What is (or was) your favorite quirky, eccentric, fun, weird, off-the-wall (off-the-shelves?) bookshop of all time? What bookstore makes (or made) you smile just thinking about it?

So many stories are written about booksellers in dire financial straits and contending with perilous, hyper-digitized futures that the fun factor can get lost in the numbers. Business is business, but most of us became booksellers for pleasure as well as--if not consciously in lieu of--profit.

What makes a great bookstore quirky? What makes a quirky bookstore great?

The catalyst for my musings on the quirk factor is Michael Walsh, sales manager at Johns Hopkins University Press and publisher of Old Earth Books. He wrote in response to last week's column, which mentioned Siegfried Weisberger, a Baltimore bookseller who closed his store in 1954 after 29 years.

This triggered some memories for Walsh, who shared a great Style magazine article he found reporting that three years later, Rose Hayes purchased and reopened the Peabody Book Shop and Beer Stube. Style described it as a place where "beer took precedence over books, which became more motif than merchandise, and the stube itself became a cluttered caricature of its humble origins with ballet slippers hanging from the wrought-iron chandelier, and the stag’s head above the brick fireplace competing for attention with mounted animal horns, ceramic busts, figurines and framed pictures of waterfowl."

There is "no counting how many Baltimoreans descended the dingy stairwell into the Peabody Book Shop and Beer Stube to share a beer at the communal wooden tables, hear poetry read aloud, participate in sing-alongs or watch as the Great Dantini performed his magic tricks. But everyone who passed through, it seems, has a story to tell, and one rarely about books," Style wrote.

"I remember going there," Walsh recalled. "It was a hoot. More beer than books. But still, one of those off the wall weird/fun places. Now gone." In 1986, the business closed once more after Hayes died.

"The Peabody was interesting, but perhaps one of the most interesting characters in Baltimore book trade was the late Abe Sherman," Walsh added. "He ran a newsstand with books for decades. He fought in WWI and WWII. He was well known for yelling, 'Are you buying or reading?! If you wanna read, go over to the library!'"

If you've lived your life in books (and who among us hasn't?), you've encountered these places and people, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse--though quirky bad can be as entertaining as quirky good.

My longtime favorite was Tuttle Antiquarian Books, which closed a couple of years ago. Tuttle's was located in two old houses on South Main Street in Rutland, Vt. One building had an extraordinary selection of used books crammed on dusty shelves. You accessed the stacks by wedging your way down narrow aisles. It was always worth the trouble. Customer service was not generally an option, however. With some effort, you could locate the room where you paid for purchases, and someone might grudgingly accept your money.

The other building housed the offices of Charles E. Tuttle Co. The history of Tuttle as a publisher is well known, and in this place there was a much more organized display of Asian-themed books, which they began publishing in the late 1940s. That particular room opened up a literary world to me long before I had access to it anywhere else. And the two houses conspired to have a kind of Dickensian impact on my sense of what a bookstore should be--a little mysterious, grudgingly open to exploration, quite possibly infinite in space and, yes, just a little wacky around the edges.

When I became a bookseller, I simply added customer service as the missing plot twist.

Bookstore quirky is, of course, an indefinable concept. Or, more accurately, it is subject to endless individual definitions.

While it is fun to watch the snarky anti-ambience of Black Books, the British comedy series, I wouldn't want to be there.

Someday I would love to visit Lenore & Lloyd Dickmans' manure tank bookstore in Princeton, Wis., if it still exists.

And if I'm ever in Jefferson, Tex., I will definitely stop by Kathy Patrick's Beauty & the Book, "the only hair salon/book store in the country." Even though I'm too bald to present much of a challenge on the coiffure front, it just sounds like a fun book place to visit.

What's on your great quirky bookstore list--past or present?--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1097.