“I’d do this even if I didn’t get paid for it,” said best-selling author Stephen King. Anyone who loves to write can identify with that statement. But what works for work (e.g., writing) does not work for businesses (e.g., a bookstore).
No one pays me to write blog posts, and it’s anyone’s guess how many people care at all that I take time to put an idea or observation into words, let it percolate a few days, go back to rewrite and polish, and finally hit that magic ‘Publish’ button. Granted, a blog post is not a novel or a poem. And how many deserving novels and poems, memoirs and histories, books and articles on economics, politics, philosophy, and what-have-you are already out there in the world, looking for an audience? The mind not only boggles -- it reels, stumbles and falls, blinking wide-eyed. Everyone has something to say! No wonder so many writers have to work other jobs!
Writing is work, for anyone who tries to do it well, even for those who can’t live without it. It just happens to be work we love. We would also love, as Stephen King manages, to be paid for our time and effort, but we don’t expect that to happen often.
(It’s so exciting when the rare opportunity presents itself to be paid for writing. Three hundred words? Twenty dollars? Hey, great! Because I’d be doing this anyway, even without pay, even without a word of feedback. Because recreating the world in sentences is one of my ways of being in the world, to paraphrase Jim Harrison.)
Bookselling, on the other hand, as in selling books out of one’s own bricks-and-mortar, public shop, is another matter entirely. I am moved to write about the difference because, over and over, I read pieces by well-meaning people -- often writers with books to sell, which really drives me nuts! -- going on and on about how booksellers “aren’t in it for the money.” Well, guess what. We are.
Yet another in the long line of booksellers-don’t-care-about-money pieces was quoted in and linked to this week in “Shelf Awareness.” The writer admits that he buys online “when I want something” and goes to physical bookstores for discovery. I like the discovery part -- the other part, not so much. Booksellers need patronage both from customers who “know what they want” and those willing and eager to explore and be surprised. To stay in business, we actually need to sell books.
We’re not in this business to get rich, it’s true. (We’re not that deluded.) We’ve chosen relatively low-paying but, for us, spiritually rewarding work over a variety of possible high-paying but, to us, soul-destroying careers with great benefits. Think of paid vacations, paid sick leave, paid health insurance, and pensions. Nope, not for us. But we’ve chosen not to postpone life until retirement, either.
(Does “retirement,” except as a familiar cultural concept, have any place at all in a bookseller’s life? If so, someone needs to explain it to me.)
Show me an independent bookseller, not already independently wealthy, who opens a bookstore to lose money or “break even.”
Show me an independent bookseller with so little imagination that she or he needs an indoor public hobby with a regular schedule just to “keep busy.”
We don’t go into the book business looking for great wealth, but we definitely hope to make a living, however modest. We value our work highly and hope others will value it at least enough to keep us in business, because --
Like everyone else, booksellers (and writers and artists) have to put food on the table and gas in the tank, and occasionally see a doctor or a dentist. They generally have rent to pay, in addition to perhaps a mortgage and property taxes. Up North we need heat in the winter and a plow to get out the driveway. Even the family dog needs food and shots and license.
Years ago, I noticed something that still strikes me as odd: Often the same Americans who admire highly successful individuals for working hard, loving their work, and making lots of money seem to think that people who do not make a lot of money, as long as they love their work, should be willing to work for nothing. For this group of workers, loving what they do is supposed to be sufficient reward.
How is that supposed to work?
A terrible and dangerous cultural myth has grown up around independent bookstores. The myth tells people that booksellers don’t want or need to sell books because all they want is to spend time around other people who love books and talk to people about books they love.
THIS MYTH NEEDS BUSTING!
Employees clock in and out and get paychecks. Business owners do not. My business, very seasonal, at the “end of the road,” cannot afford employees. Librarians are on salary; I am not. When I’m in my bookshop, I’m at work, and my work is selling books. Yes, of course I love conversation about books with customers in my shop. It just can’t be an either/or proposition -- either talk or sell books -- because if I’m forced to that choice, another follows directly on its heels: selling books or closing the door.
I know I’m not alone and that I speak for bookstore owners across the country and around the world. If the time comes that my book sales flatline and I end up working for nothing, the curtain will come ringing down fast and for good.
We booksellers may be dreamers, but we live in the real world, too. Please feel free to join us there.
Postscript and Update, 4/13/2016:
My P.S. has to do with small businesses other than bookstores. I want to acknowledge that independent booksellers are not the only ones expected to be happy with loving their work, regardless of monetary return. Friends who operate restaurants in seasonal tourist destinations share the experience. Well-heeled visitors may admire jars of local jam or jugs of local maple syrup but ask for a “better” price, which is to say the business owner should take the cut and be glad of a few pennies in the till. Do not be a cheapskate tourist! A business is not a garage sale, and if you had any idea how hard these people work and how long their work days are, you would offer double their asking price on everything in the place!
My update concerns new bills rushed into law by legislatures in various states, the one I’ll highlight being North Carolina, where the so-called “Bathroom Bill” not only prohibits municipalities from having higher standards of nondiscrimination than the state itself but also prohibits municipalities from having higher minimum wage laws than the state has fixed. The peculiar hypocrisyof these new laws is striking: legislatures in the very states that are outraged when the federal government imposes standards on them have no qualms about imposing state standards on their own constituent municipalities.
Boycotting of North Carolina won’t reduce the salaries of those in the state congress but already has resulted in an instant outflow of jobs and a turnoff of tourist and convention dollars. Small businesses and working people are paying the price. Naturally, news of the book world easily captures my attention, so I read with great interest a letter from the owner of Malaprop’s Books in response to an open letter from a group of authors canceling bookstore appearances in North Carolina. The wrong people are being punished, as a St. Louis, Missouri, bookseller points out in a blog post following the letter exchange. Booksellers who have put their livelihoods on the line for nondiscrimination and free speech are the last people who should be pilloried for the reprehensible actions of their state legislature.
This is "shop talk," granted, but it has much wider ramifications. Any time allies are treated as enemies, enemies are strengthened in their opposition and have nothing to gain by becoming allies.