August 22, 2012

Bookstore Makeover Post #2: From Here to There

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jarek Steele @ 6:47 pm

Kris and I had a long meeting this morning, most of the contents of which I will spare you, but the thing about it I’ve been chewing on for most of the day is the internal struggle we have with staying true to our literary, progressive, queer, sometimes marginalized, sometimes vilified, sometimes celebrated, sometimes ignored roots while facing forward – leaning into the future.

This struggle rears its head pretty often, as expected in a store that is 43 years old and hopes to live longer.  In the decade that I’ve worked here I’ve sometimes felt like I’ve crammed for a quiz, taken it and have somehow fallen short, but most of the time I feel a bone-deep kinship with this store and all of it’s history – both the celebrated parts (Hilary Clinton, Jimmy Carter, opening Downtown and creating a nonprofit are just a few) and the parts we wish we could forget (the onslaught of the chains, the crushing pressure of Amazon, the lean, hard months when payroll is an accomplishment).

This makeover, this gift from our new friends at Paz & Associates, is thrilling.  They really get us and our mission and want to celebrate the best of who we are.  To be the best of who we are requires looking at the mistakes we’ve made head-on, square in the eye and correcting them.  It also requires dreaming of new ways of doing things.


Let there be light!

After our meeting this morning, I bought a light fixture.

Ok, there’s not a whole lot of light coming from it now, but just wait.  The main feature is that it will bring in some of the historical wrought iron detail from the outside of the building into the store, which I think is pretty cool.

I might have jumped the gun a bit because when I excitedly emailed everyone and told them I had done it the words “plan isn’t quite finished yet” were uttered, so maybe I should slow down.

Anyway, I got to ye olde Central West End, carried in my fixture to several oohs and ahhs of the booksellers on duty and made a trip down the street to Fellenz’s, where I took many measurements of various railings, fixtures and other architectural features.  More on that later – ahem – after we have a plan.

After getting some feedback on my last post, we brought up the need for more seating, which will undoubtedly be part of the grand scheme.

We’re also thinking through how best to do author events in a newly configured space, and how to make the front entrance less overwhelming and cluttered.

You can rest assured, though, the bones and spirit and history of the store will stay intact.  It’s our job to act as the keepers of that spirit and tradition and use it as our compass to guide us into the next 43 years on the corner of Euclid and McPherson.

August 20, 2012

Bookstore Makeover!

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jarek Steele @ 4:25 pm

In a twist of fate that somewhat resembles reality TV, our beloved bookstore has won a bookstore makeover by Paz and Associates as they celebrate 20 years in business.  True to indie bookselling form, the budget is minuscule and “re-purposing” will take on a whole new meaning.

Left Bank Books – Central West End

We’ve been drawing, redrawing, haggling, scraping, saving, arguing and planning for a remodel of our store in the CWE for several years now.  We even made an ill-fated stab at it a couple of years ago by trying in vain to bring all the new books upstairs and make the basement – ahem – lower level used books only.

As I said, it was ill-fated.

The bookshelves downstairs must have procreated many years ago and begat many new bookshelves that grew to sizes that are impossible to extricate from the premises without a hacksaw.

We stumbled.  We grew tired.  We moved on.

Until now.

The view from the front door.

The first thing we need to address is the stairs.  “What?” you may be saying, “I didn’t know you had a downstairs and I’ve been shopping at your store for 15 years!”

Yes.  That’s exactly the problem.  Last year, I made a giant sign to hang above the stairs that says “More Books Downstairs” with a gigantic arrow on it pointing, well, down the stairs.

The thing that happens now:

“What sign?” says the former owner of the store when he came to visit.  Sigh.

The second thing we want to change is the children’s section.

“Wait!” you say, “I love that children’s section.  Don’t lay a finger on it!”

To that I say this:

The children’s section

Books  should not be shelved on the floor.  Also, standing in this section with no place to turn around inspires panicky feelings in my stomach.

We’ll come up with a cool solution for this, too.

The trick will be to manage all this before the start of the holiday season (and around our event with Tony La Russa).

Yeah.  There’s that panicky feeling again.  Stay tuned for more updates as we go!

July 25, 2012

From the Department of Just This

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jarek Steele @ 12:20 am

I was eight when Ronald Reagan was first elected president.  I knew nothing of politics then and frequently wish that I didn’t have to pay attention now.  My first inkling that guys who didn’t wear clip-on ties (and who would probably only visit the dirt road and trailer I called home on some press conference about poverty eradication) actually influenced what happened to me was when my dad got laid off from Merz Sheet Metal.  It was right after Reagan busted the airline strike and deregulated the industry setting the stage for a cascade of deregulation that has birthed companies that are too big to fail and corporations that are considered people.  Did the government directly cause my family’s financial woes? No.  As always, things were more complicated than that.  But the climate made it nearly impossible for Dad to find work.

By the time I was ten, the sound of Reagan’s voice made me sick to my stomach.

Odd, you may say.  This blog is usually about the book selling industry, chock full of railing against Amazon.  Why am I sifting through the ruminations of some middle Illinois hick’s childhood?

Indulge me a while longer.  I promise to get to the point.

I’ve been sitting with the DOJ’s decision about the “anti-trust” lawsuit brought against some in the publishing industry feeling an eerily familiar feeling.  I couldn’t quite place it at first.  Sure, there was disappointment.  Anger.  A touch of bitter resignation and despair.  After all, I was one of the over 800 people who sent public comment letters rationally explaining why creating a diverse marketplace was actually good for consumers and that the success of this lawsuit would only benefit one company – Amazon.  When fellow book lovers and I were unceremoniously dismissed and ignored because we actually know something about the industry and have a hand in keeping it healthy, I had a right to feel kind of pissed off.

Also dubious is the no-bid contract with the state department for a gajillion Kindles.  It’s all so cozy, isn’t it?  So very sewn up.  Finished.  Decided before it was asked.  Yes, I’m angry as both a citizen and a business owner.  I’m almost speechless looking at the blatant, immoral and possibly illegal disregard for the other side of this argument in favor of short-sighted politics.

But there was that other thing.  Something akin to a bruise.  An old one.  Yellowed and spread out over time, sure, but still vaguely painful.  A reminder of earlier flailing against immovable walls.

It’s the eight year old in me who believes in the better angels of our nature and the power of the underdog only to find myself shoved firmly back on the front porch of our trailer drinking Mountain Dew out of the glass bottle, petting one of the dozen cats all named Kitty, knowing life couldn’t be any bigger than my yard because success is against the rules.

Do I sound heartbroken?  It’s because I sort of am.  Nobody likes to watch the other team spike the ball.  But tomorrow will come, and when it does it will come to this:  

Booksellers: No one will help us.  There is no protection.  We are the architects of our own redemption.  If it’s against the rules for us to expand outside our own yards, we must make our yards better.  If the administration-backed mega monopolizer wants to step on us, we must penetrate its boot and become the annoying sharp tack.

Readers:  Love is essential, but it doesn’t pay the bills.  You have to buy local, too.

July 20, 2012

A Gentle(wo)man’s Profession

Dog and Pony ShowKris, Danielle and I landed in NYC an hour late on Tuesday because in the words of our pilot our plane was “broken” and we had to find another one.  We missed our first appointment and went straight to our temporary digs courtesy of Air BNB where our host met us with a cold beer and his pitch.

Everyone in New York has one, so this came as no surprise, but jumping into a discussion about how he could break into digital-only publishing before we put our bags down didn’t set an auspicious tone for the rest of our trip – which was to condense what we do at ye olde bookstore into a brochure and 30 minute spiel in the hopes of reminding them to send authors our way.

We persevered though.  Danielle had micro-scheduled us with machine-like precision so we did talk to about 100 of the publishing industry’s decision makers – everyone from publicists and editors to assistants and interns (and if you don’t think a competent assistant has power, you obviously have never a.) worked as one or b.) worked with one).

Having me along was overkill.  I don’t typically jump in and talk over anyone, which meant that I was mostly silent, which is actually fine.  My strength is observation.

And here is what I observed:

Women.  Powerful, decisive, funny, intelligent women.  I didn’t do an official census of Simon & Schuster, Penguin, HarperCollins or any of the others (that would have just been creepy) but in almost every case women filled those cubicles AND the corner offices.  The brain power, the holders of institutional knowledge, the creative thinkers – women.

This is no surprise.  Left Bank Books, almost every bookstore in the St. Louis Independent Bookstore Alliance, and many many other independent bookstores in the country are owned at least in part by women and employ lots of women in powerful, decision making positions.

Women read more than men.  Women form book clubs.  Women care more about fiction than men do, but they also read nonfiction.  Women, in large part, drive the industry.

Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely the Sonny Mehtas of the industry, and we met with some really outstanding male publicists this past week.  It’s not an all-girls club, but women are the heart of it.

One of the coolest (and possibly most surreal) parts of our trips to New York are our visits with Kris’ cousin Sallye, who happens to be one of the buyers for Barnes & Noble.  Sitting at a table listening to the two of these powerhouse book people, the Montagues and Capulets of bookselling, talk in tones sometimes as passionate as Romeo and Juliet, about the industry and the books in it is pretty awe-inspiring.  As I’ve said before, I’m not exactly a scintillating conversationalist (which doesn’t matter because the two of them hold forth with an energy that is no joke) so I listen, observe, and learn.

You can’t see the brown pants and black socks here. Just trust me though.

And here’s where a thought struck me, first with Sallye and Kris, and has been percolating in my brain since my conversation with our friend Eve, who also lives in New York but works in the Fashion Industry (I capitalize that because she works with Estee Lauder in the sense that “works with” should also be capitalized – a fact that is hilarious to me when I show up for dinner wearing brown pants, black socks and no apologies).  Anyway, she mentioned that in the Fashion District being “pretty” earns women “intelligence points.”  People take you more seriously if you select the right shoes – like you understand the industry- which is the opposite of her -and almost every other woman on the planet’s- other experiences in other industries.

Flash back to our meetings with the publishers.  These women had the right shoes, too (I guess, but I wore Adidas to a fancy restaurant so how would I know?) and they have equally spectacular brains and instincts, but they and the rest of our industry are being squeezed.  “Restacked” as our host at one downsized smaller complex of offices put it.


Here are two industries dominated by women (and some pretty awesome men).  In one – the fashion industry- men have a large place along side women – tandem.  In the other, the domination of the industry is by Amazon (Jeff Bezos) and e-readers  – again Bezos (Kindle), Leonard Riggio (Nook), Steve Jobs (iPad), Joseph Jacobsen (co-founder of E Ink, which was subsequently sold to a Taiwanese concern) etc. to destroy the current model.

“Destroy” might not be the right term to use for B&N at this point.  They do persist with bricks and mortar stores and don’t lock you into their e-book format with the Nook.  Compared to Bezos, Riggio is a book selling champion.

Things have gone sideways indeed, if I (of all people) am cutting a massive corporation slack, but I digress.

I’m not trying to make a case that the Patriarchy has conspired to kill literature (or that the fashion industry is a bastion of feminism).  But isn’t it odd that an almost exclusively male industry (the tech industry) threatens the book?  Like the only way for guys to get back in was to make it about the most powerful… gadget?

I’m not suggesting that e-readers don’t have a big place in the modern reading experience.  In fact, as a last minute add-on, we visited the offices of a company who is re-conceptualizing the e-reading experience to actually work in tandem with independent bookstores (and other “curators”) and give readers who like the digital experience a solid choice besides Amazon.  Exciting stuff.

Exceptions to the rule aside, I just wonder why one industry has been so successful at colonizing and then cannibalizing another.  The winner in these kinds of struggles isn’t always right.  Often it’s just the entity that is unable to use its inside voice. The loudest voices in the room are very often (although not in my case) male.

Books weren’t broken before we all decided what they really were missing were batteries.  Despite being a deeply flawed industry, books (publishing and selling) work because of not in spite of the number of contributing voices.  And it is no coincidence that so many of them are women’s voices.

July 18, 2012

There’s No Crying In Bookselling

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jarek Steele @ 12:40 am
Tags: , , ,

There's No CryingI’m awake in the middle of the night in New York City – not in the Maritime Hotel, where I’d like to be soaking my heat stroked body in a cool Gin & Stormy, but stone sober in my bed reflecting on my day today, and steeling myself for tomorrow’s meetings with Gotham’s bigger publishers.

Ostensibly, we’re here to pitch our more than 200 event per year reading series to their publicity departments so that they’ll send their authors to St. Louis in general, and us in particular.  The reality is that we’re selling the idea that publishers, authors and readers still need bookstores.

Sometimes the act of selling and reselling this idea to other people, especially the publishers (who have found themselves somewhat paddle-less in this dammed up creek of an industry), is invigorating.  Language isn’t just powerful between the covers of a book,  it’s just as powerful in naming your own fate.  In fact, that’s how the purveyors of the notion that the Kindle is Christ returned have succeeded in convincing us that we need to follow, lock step, into the Amazonian future – and that anyone who rejects that notion just doesn’t get it because they’re a luddite or are delusional.  They simply control the conversation.  They spout statistics about the increase in e-Book consumption and seamlessly equate that with Amazon.

They’re good.

Above every conversation involving books, e-books, publishing, writing or reading hangs the specter of the apparently inevitable world domination of one e-tailer.  Even if that’s not what we’re talking about – that’s what we’re talking about.

Yeah, I could go on and on about how they do this – from tax evasion to the DOJ’s bogus anti-trust lawsuit against anyone else trying to sell e-books to the simultaneous no-bid contract with the United States government to buy Kindles.

But what I’m really thinking about tonight is my woodworking shop in my garage at home, and my bicycle that’s waiting for me to ride it, and my son who just got his first tattoo, and the stack of 6 books on my nightstand waiting patiently to be read, and the friendship and respect I feel for the co-workers who surround me every day. A word from our sponsors – This life was brought to you by an independent bookstore.

I guess this is why I’m up in the middle of the night doing our payroll and paying Simon & Schuster before we meet with them tomorrow.  Because as invigorating as changing the conversation is, as necessary as it is to name our own fate, it is also endless and stressful.  Many times too much so.  I can think of a few booksellers who’ve moved on because of it.

But to badly paraphrase Tom Hanks, there’s no crying in bookselling.  So I will close with this, wake up tomorrow, tilt at a windmill or two, and count myself lucky.

Then I might go have a drink.

June 11, 2012

The Apathy and the Ecstasy

I started my job at Left Bank Books when I was 29 years old – two days after interviewing with owners Kris Kleindienst and Barry Leibman in a borrowed shirt a size too big which I kept tucking in and untucking in the minutes before my interview, trying to decide which way made me look more attractive as a job candidate.  Should I look more business-like?  Tucked.  Or should I look like the ubercool booksellers at the counter?  Untucked.

My terror about the interview lessened as I talked to them about the store.  It’s history and traditions sang to me a siren song tuned specifically to my desires.  We talked, planned and joked through the interview and I knew I was a goner.

Then my terror returned at the end of the interview when I was asked to take the “Bookstore Quiz” – a two page short answer test on titles, authors and the finer points of shelving books.  I froze, and despite having completed an independent study of all of Virginia Woolf’s writing the year before, I could not summon one single title she had written.

When I handed my test back to Kris, I mumbled something about how sorry I was to have wasted their time.  I was hired before I left the building.

We are now ten years past my Left Bank beginning, and I own this dream with Kris.  In those years I have seen writers succeed and fail, publishers rise and fall, bookstores open and close.  The book survives because it is necessary to our democracy.  Access to it is necessary to our democracy.

I tell you this story because I want you to know what my career means to me, and what the notion of independent bookselling means not just to me, but to many thousands of others.

And to ask you a favor.

Right now, the department of justice is proceeding with an antitrust lawsuit against several publishers and Apple over e-books.  I summed this up on my last post here: https://jareksteele.wordpress.com/2012/04/17/feed-the-monster/

Part of the court’s process is that they have to allow for public comment on this issue.  The deadline for this is June 25 – a mere two weeks from now – and even one letter from you (yes you family, friends and customers) will make a difference.

The lawsuit (encouraged in large part by Amazon) says that publishers shouldn’t be able to set the prices on the e-books they publish.  They say this is “price fixing.”

Amazon wants to be able to continue their war against independent booksellers (and lots of other indie businesses) by selling ebooks at a fraction of their cost as a loss leader so they can sell you other products.

The publishers, hundreds of bookstores, and many, many authors and readers want the opportunity to offer these books too – something that becomes impossible when a massive giant sabotages the rest of the industry, creating its own largely tax-free monopoly.

Books – even e-books- aren’t free to produce.  The artist’s work is worth something.  The editor’s work is worth something.  The publicist’s work is worth something.  The bookseller’s work is worth something.  If publishers can’t set a price on their own product to cover these costs, parasites like Amazon can devalue literature until no-one will be able to afford to produce it, and no-one without the money to buy a Kindle will be able to access what is produced.

That is very dangerous.

The enemies of a fair marketplace are betting on public ignorance and apathy here.  If you zone out, click away and forget this, they will be very happy.  But there is a clear right and wrong.  A free market depends on a healthy and vibrant marketplace with plenty of competitors to check and balance each other.  If this lawsuit is successful, only one business will win the right to tell you what to read, and your choices will disappear.

You don’t need to be a bookseller to care about this.

Please write a letter – even if it’s only a few sentences telling the Department of Justice and the Judges that this lawsuit, if successful, will only benefit one corporate giant – which is the opposite of how it’s intended – and send it here:

John Read
Chief, Litigation III Section
Antitrust Division
U.S. Department of Justice
450 5th Street, NW, Suite 4000
Washington, DC 20530

Then send it here:


Then to be sure your voice is heard, send a copy to dan@bookweb.org (the American Booksellers Association).

For more information, go here:


Your grateful bookseller,

Jarek Steele

April 17, 2012

Please Don’t Feed the Monster – Why e-book price fixing isn’t the issue

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jarek Steele @ 1:28 pm
Tags: , , , ,

Does anyone else see the supreme irony in the Department of Justice’s antitrust lawsuit against book publishers and Apple?

In a nutshell, here’s what happened:

Publishers: Hey, retailers.  We own the rights to this really great book.  We’re selling the e-book version for $9.00 each.  We’d like to sell it through your website.

Apple and Indie Bookstores: Awesome! Sign us up.

Amazon: Wait.  I usually sell all books as loss leaders and mark them down to under the price all my competition pays for them so I can sell garbage disposals.  Does this mean I can’t do that?

Publishers: Um. Yeah.

Indie Bookstores:  Woohoo! Look at that – people are buying books and e-books from us!

Amazon:  Wait, my whole business plan is to sell your entire industry’s products for under cost so you’ll all go out of business and I’ll be the only one left.  Then I’ll raise the prices so I can actually bathe in money.

Publishers, Apple and Indie Bookstores:  But won’t that mean that you won’t have the book selection you have now?

Amazon:  I don’t care about that.  I’m just interested in installing my money burning fireplace in my en suite.  Of course my customers are too stupid to realize what I’m doing.  I just have to wave sparkly Kindles in front of them and they’ll follow me anywhere.

Indie Bookstores:  Do you really think your customers are that stupid?  They are readers, after all.  They’ll probably catch on.

Amazon:  Nah, watch this.  I’ll get the Department of Justice to sue all of you so I’ll look like a populist good guy – only concerned about the price of books for my loyal customers.  Then you’ll look like you’re trying to monopolize the industry.  Your customers are gonna be SO MAD at you.

Publishers and Bookstores:  Um, wait.  Selling them through the agency model ensures that more retailers can compete, thereby creating a more diverse selling climate, creates more competition and ensures that we don’t sell at a loss and go out of business.

Amazon:  Yeah, whatever.  I’m still going to look awesome, and my pr team is totally going to trash you. Plus, Americans don’t really care about monopolies as long as they get a bargain.  They just know they’re supposed to care so I’ll just wave the words “price fixing” around so it gets lots of media coverage.

Apple: Can I just chime in here?  This is how the music industry was destroyed.  People started buying downloads of music for free and almost free so musicians couldn’t afford to make music and the music producers went out of business.

Amazon: Yawn… Are you still here?  Look, I have the freaking Department of Justice on this.  Give up. You’re done.  We’ve trained everyone to expect big monster corporations to gobble up small businesses and become too big to fail.  It’s the American way!

Simon & Schuster, Hachette and HarperCollins:  Crap.  We’re outta here.

Penguin, Apple, Macmillan and Indie bookstores: This is totally outrageous.  This is just Amazon’s latest tactic to tilt the table so all the marbles roll toward you.  This doesn’t benefit anyone except you.  Not even your customers.  You can’t do that!

Amazon: Watch me.


If the department of justice wanted to really deal with a price fixing issue, let’s take a long, hard look at gas prices and oil companies.  Paying fair market value for books in any form is not monopoly, it’s fair play and makes good economic sense.

Here are some more sources: 

Publisher’s Weekly Article – MacMillan CEO John Sargent’s letter is really good.

PBS NewsHour interview.  Still trying to wrap my head around Stever Berman’s (a “seattle based lawyer” – read Amazon’s) quote,  But there’s nothing wrong with being a monopolist. And if Amazon could gain a monopoly share by offering the lowest price, and consumers want that lowest price, they’re enabled and allowed under the law to do so.


As my brilliant partner, Kris said this morning – Life doesn’t move toward fairness.  It just moves forward.

February 6, 2012

Publishing for one is publishing for all – a word about IndieBound’s new policy

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jarek Steele @ 11:28 am
Tags: , , , , ,

Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson

In one of those deals that are reminiscent of Robert Johnson’s midnight deal at the crossroad, Houghton Mifflin announced that it would publish Amazon Publishing’s books via its new “New Harvest” imprint, thereby adding more dubious credibility to the Walmart of the internet.  It may not seem like a huge deal to the ordinary reader, but consider this:

When Kris tried to order a book published by a major publisher in bulk quantity for a customer a couple of weeks ago, she looked at Amazon to see what kind of competition we had.  This is not uncommon.  People look there to see what they “should” be charged and then ask us to match it without knowing that Amazon sells many books below the cost of what we actually pay for it.  (I say “we” meaning real bookstores who don’t get the deals Amazon gets.  My proof?  An actual Amazon invoice from a major publisher that was misdelivered to us recently listing an additional two percent discount for them that we don’t get, but I digress.)  Anyway, Kris looked on Amazon and then called customer service at said big publisher and asked if we could get the same deal as Amazon so we could sell the book at a competitive price.  Not only were we told that Amazon doesn’t get special deals from them, the “customer service” rep told her to order it from, you guessed it, Amazon.

Yes, the publisher actually directed one of its customers to order one of their products from its competitor.  This is sort of like Foot Locker calling up Nike and being directed to order their next shipment of running shoes from Payless.  I’m sure the folks at this publishing house don’t see us as actual competition for Amazon.  After all, we are David to the Amazon Goliath.  We won’t be stocking New Harvest titles, but will this paper cut make a difference to the Mighty One?  Yeah, right.

And yet…

Today, in a very proud moment, I opened an e-mail from IndieBound (the folks that host and manage the vast e-commerce database for most indie bookstores in the country) that announced its new policy:

While Amazon is seeking to distribute its print catalog through conventional means, it seems that they are simultaneously pursuing a strategy of locking in ebook exclusives which other retailers are not allowed to sell.  IndieCommerce believes that this is wrong, and that any book title for sale should be available to all retailers in the same formats and on the same basis.  So, IndieCommerce has made a decision not to list these titles for sale through IndieCommerce sites.

 This means that the American Booksellers Association is calling Amazon on its shady business practices.  Sure, Left Bank Books can “not sell” Amazon… er, I mean “New Harvest, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin” titles.  Who would care?  But this is a definite step in the right direction.

Left unchecked and unregulated the monopolization of the bookselling industry will not “introduce as many authors to as many readers as possible” as Larry Kirshbaum suggests.  It will, instead, stamp out, delete and destroy the efforts of other publishers, bookstores and authors who want to “introduce” their own favorites that might just have come from somewhere else.  It will also fool readers into thinking they have a choice, when really all roads lead back to Bezos.  It’s corporate greed clothed in fake populism.

Exclusivity is the enemy of democracy.  It is anathema to fair play.

One small voice drowns in the cacophony of bullies, but a chorus of independent voices – some small, some big, some new, some old rising together in a crescendo is a beautifully loud thing.  Today, I’m proud of our organization, who is listening and responding to the needs of its members.

Well done.

January 18, 2012

Winter Institute Diary Entry # 1, wherein I confess my love for my profession

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jarek Steele @ 4:09 pm
Tags: , ,

Maybe it’s the allure of hotel coffee and bad box lunches, but I do love this conference.  More than that, I love independent booksellers.  Taken out of context,we are a worrisome group – (mostly) Introverted readers who also run businesses that employ introverted readers and sell books to other introverts.  Definitely not a textbook business plan.  As a group, though, we are thought leaders.  We shape and define the literary conversation.  As Ann Patchett said in her speech this morning, we are capable of creating trends just by willing it to be so.

Ok, I skipped out on the last two educational sessions today.  Give me a break – I have been social and outgoing for a solid 4 1/2 hours.  I need solitary time.  Just me and my keyboard.

But let’s talk about the past 4 1/2 hours here in New Orleans, where 500 of my closest bookselling friends are gathered to talk to each other about this rebellious, resilient industry of ours.

I didn’t think I’d like listening to the President and CEO of Ingram, but I actually sort of did (whilst remembering the very uncomfortable conference call a couple of years ago wherein the credit department of said wholesaler scolded me for paying our bill a few days late each month).  I set down the chip on my shoulder long enough to actually benefit from what he said, and I came away remembering this most of all:

(paraphrased) If selling books is your main focus, you will fail.

My first instinct was to dismiss him.  I didn’t take two planes to The Big Easy to be told that if I focus on selling books, I’ll die.  But he illustrated his point by talking about a company that had been a leader for over 100 years, who invented laptop word processors, and introduced the first PDA to the world – Smith-Corona.  Their mission: To be the best typewriter company in the world” was too single focused, too narrow, and technology upstarts devoured them.

I started thinking about my quest to be the best bookstore in St. Louis.  I realized I was thinking too narrowly about who we are and what we do.  Certainly we must choose a path that is focused with laser-like specificity – do one thing and do it well – but what if the definition of that thing is unchained from its dock?  Does it float out to sea, or does it gain steam and chart a new course?  What if we redefine what it means to be a bookstore?


I definitely don’t have the answer to that.  Most of my professional life is spent balancing two ideas: preserving the  the core identity and traditions of our 42 year old store (and hundreds of years old profession), and pioneering uncharted territory to ensure its future.

For Christmas I learned how to tool leather and made a guitar strap for my son that says, “Be truthful, gentle  and fearless.” (a quote from Gandhi)  It has become my mantra in days of uncertainty.  I have trouble with being fearless, but I do feel good about the armada of other souls who are untethered from their docks, who are choosing to chart similar courses with me.

December 14, 2011

Them’s Fightin’ Words: Slate Magazine’s Misguided Rant Against Bookstores

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jarek Steele @ 12:35 pm
Tags: , , ,

Farhad Manjoo - Bookstore hater

Oh, man.  Where do I begin?  I thought I had said what I wanted to say about this in my last blog post, but obviously there’s more to say.

Danielle, our Events Coordinator here at Left Bank Books, forwarded to me this gem from Slate Magazine in an email with the subject, “your next blog post?”  Before I even got past the title I knew I wasn’t finished with this topic, although I really wish I was.

The issue: Farhad Manjoo (pictured), Slate Magazine’s Technology columnist, wrote passionately about the apparent idiocy in shopping at a locally owned independent bookstore like mine.  It was a response to Richard Russo’s article in the New York Times defending the bookstore.

Manjoo sets it up like this – Bookstores are “some of the least efficient, least user-friendly, and most mistakenly mythologized local establishments you can find” and are “cultish, moldering institutions.”  His reasoning?

  • Bookstores present a frustrating customer experience.
  • You don’t need to browse because you can peek at e-books on your couch.
  • Bookstores mark up their inventory to pay for rent, payroll, etc. which is inefficient.
  • Bookstores aren’t local.
  • If you spend more money for a book, you can’t spend more money on “real” local goods.

He does establish early on that Slate is an Amazon affiliate.  Given their cozy relationship, it really shouldn’t be surprising that they – and he – would champion them.  But let’s put that aside for the moment.

Most of what irks me about Manjoo’s article has to do with what I posted last time – the smug assurance that shopping at a local bookstore makes you a chump.  I think I said pretty much all I wanted to about not making your customers feel stupid for their tastes, so I’ll leave that alone as well.

What I will take issue with is his assertion that independent bookstores are just the latest sacred cow that needs to be slaughtered in order to move into the Bezos led future.

Rather than get into a protracted fist fight about Manjoo’s article, I think I’ll illustrate just what a locally-owned bookstore really does for you and your community, then you can decide where and how you want to spend your money.

Here’s how a bookstore really works:

In 2008, Left Bank Books bought True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society by Farhad Manjoo from John Wiley & Sons, who listed the book (hardcover) at $25.95.  We put it on our shelves as part of our “relatively paltry selection” and then sold it to customers at the list price, $25.95 plus tax.  On each sale, we made $10.38.

With our $10.38, we paid booksellers (creating and maintaining jobs), paid for our booksellers health insurance, paid our rent (helping to keep a vibrant and relevant neighborhood from being boarded up and abandoned),  bought office supplies from Pedro’s Planet (a locally-owned office supply company), paid sales tax (maintaining the infrastructure of our community).  If we sold the same book today to a member of our loyalty program, 1% of that would have gone to their chosen local charity.  I think that’s a highly efficient use of that money, which, by the way isn’t a bookstore markup.  It’s the actual price of the book.

$15.57 went back to John Wiley & Sons, and of that, Mr. Manjoo received whatever royalty he negotiated with the publisher and John Wiley & Sons kept the rest.  Yep, they’re in Manhattan.  However, the $11,000 (our cost) worth of books from local authors who published their books themselves that we keep on our shelves are not from Manhattan.  Neither are the books produced by Reedy Press and other local publishers, the cards and t-shirts produced by All Along Press, Firecracker Press, Sleepy Kitty, STL Style and other local printers.

The customer who bought the book, ordered and hand sold by Left Bank Books employees, then probably went next door and bought clothing, food, lotions, etc. from other neighborhood stores, or, if they ordered from our website (which lists every book in print and let’s you create the all important wishlist) they received it at their home and used the internet to shop other local places because they value that.  The customer who bought the book on Amazon also clicked through to other Amazon products and bought them there because that’s how Bezos wins, by selling books as a loss leader to make you buy other stuff.  They did not log off, get in the car and go buy local as Mr. Manjoo describes.

Speaking of authentic local experiences, we didn’t do an author event with Mr. Manjoo, but we do other events – around 200 per year – in conjunction with local libraries, churches, the Ethical Society, cooking schools, universities, high schools, grade schools, glbt centers and other local institutions.  For free.

The customers who didn’t buy that book looked at it on the shelf and noticed other books shelved next to it, and by serendipity picked up a book they would have never known existed if they relied on an algorithm to suggest it for them.  They liked that book more than Mr. Manjoo’s book, so they bought that instead.

Ah, you say, but what about e-books?  Your precious corner store can’t give me those!  Well, yes.  Yes we can.  In fact, with the help of Indiebound we offer free apps for your iPhone or Android to help you do just that.

I guess all of this is to say bookstores are not “cultish, moldering” institutions, but physical representations of an industry that changes every single year.  We are small, flexible and determined to change along with it.  Not all of us will survive, but those of us who do will still serve an important purpose, and will still respect and support our customers and community.

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