All my life, though, among my daydreams about careers that might have made me happy, has been this one: a small shop somewhere, some partner and I buying and selling used books. Sigrid Nunez The Last of Her Kind
Is there anything more pleasurable than walking into a bookshop, a small independent bookshop and roaming around the tables and bookshelves for a while? Just poking around, having a look, selecting a book to read for a while, moving on to another one.
Patrick Kurp writes about such an experience on his blog Anecdotal Evidence: “I grew up a hunter-gatherer, with the emphasis on hunter. Truly, hunting is the thing, not the gathering. Stalking the butterfly is the adventure, not the netting, pinching and pinning. Trolling the dim shelves of a book shop, alert and expectant, outweighs the pleasure of finding the three-volume Everyman’s edition of The Anatomy of Melancholy priced at $10. Ordering the same from Amazon.com is not the same. My Burton carries an addendum of happy memory, a covert connection to an autumn afternoon in Schuylerville, N.Y.”
There are still a few book lovers dedicated to preserving this type of hunting by opening and maintaining independent bookstores of their own. Perhaps you have heard that Ann Patchett and her business partner have recently opened Parnassus Books in Nashville. She professed to little interest in retail bookselling but “I also have no interest in living in a city without a bookstore.”
In describing Patchett’s new store Julie Bosman writes in the Times that “She is joining a small band of bookstore owners who have found patches of old-fashioned success in recent years, competing where Amazon cannot: by being small and sleek, with personal service, intimate author events and a carefully chosen rotation of books.”
During her summer book tour to promote her novel, State of Wonder, Patchett became more and more convinced by the crowd that showed up night after night, that not only were people still reading books, but that a small, independent bookstore was a solid business model. This did seem a little out of touch, although perhaps not for a community like Nashville where there are a fair number of universities, a sizable literary community, and the kind of start-up cash that both Patchett and her business partner are willing to make.
If a small bookstore is going to be successful today, I think it has to have a few features that set it apart from others, especially online stores and the one remaining big-box chain in this country. Sarah McNally the owner of McNally Jackson Books in New York seems to have found a few ways to do that
The store is known for its large literature collection organized by country—French, Italian, Portuguese, etc. It has a small café, lounge chairs, and the only “print-right-now” book-making machine in New York, one of 80 worldwide.
The rather enormous Book Espresso Machine (an ATM for books) can download, bind, and trim a paperback book in minutes drawing from a current collection of seven million titles. The device can also print self-published books which McNally’s machine does on the average almost 700 a month. Walk into her bookstore, hand her your masterpiece, bingo, you can put it on the shelf.
At a book fair several years ago, McNally realized “There were people greedy for books, rabid for books and I thought: This is what I want to be doing. I want to be with readers.”