Search This Blog

Thursday, April 7, 2016

“For Love OR Money” Cannot Be the Question

“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.

That’s reality.

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.


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.


Greg said...

Dear Mythbuster: "truer words..." as they say.
You've raised your profession to art, and art is a fast walk over quicksand. Love the blog and will do my part to viralize it.
Admiration itself is of little benefit to you but i sincerely admire those who commit to a passion as you have. My bouts of occasional self-loathing come directly from my unwillingness to take the Artist's risk and instead toil at the reliably mundane; a trade off that leaves a lifetime of simmering regret.

P. J. Grath said...

Greg, do not self-loathe, do not regret! You are a splendid husband, father, and grandfather, involved and evolved, and your visits to Waukazoo Street brighten our lives. "Art is a fast walk over quicksand." Did you make that up? Your wit and intelligence convey their own passion, believe me (please).

Gerry said...

Yes, yes and yes.

You are my bookseller the way other people are my physicians or my farmers. I would be hard-pressed to do without any of you.

P. J. Grath said...

People like you give me heart, Gerry. xxxooo!!!

Ellen Airgood said...

All this is well said. You and your wonderful store are in my thoughts! The world would be a smaller, darker place without you, and others like you. With my own heartfelt thanks for your efforts on behalf of books and writers--Ellen Airgood

P. J. Grath said...

Ellen, you are a darling! We have been singing your writerly praises around the old farmhouse this week during my sister's visit. On a sadder note, I know you will Partners Book Distributing as much as I will. But we soldier on and do our work, eh? xxxooo

Unknown said...

Your article, blog “For Love OR Money” Cannot Be the Question," seems to have come at the right time for me. I got into this business, not for money, but for love. I actually thought I could retire from my full time job and run the bookstore and survive on my retirement. What a wake-up call I got. Booksellers are dreamers and I am a big one, but reality hit me so hard, it knocked me down on my knees with force. I cannot retire, just work at the store when I can and depend upon the team. I'm struggling, very hard, to keep this store open. You cannot go into this business for just the love of books, you will hit reality harder than you think, but I will continue to keep plugging and listening to real people like you. You know the reality, I just wish I had better knowledge before buying this business; I might not have done it, if I knew the struggles ahead, but I don't know if I could have stayed away. Books, libraries, bookstores have always been a part of my life and I never thought I would own one, so this was a big dream which became a nightmare. I'm going to hang in there because I can still work my full time job, blessings, but I know how hard it is to run this business and I wish and pray for every bookseller in the world.

P. J. Grath said...

Valinda, thank you for commenting. I've had several responses by e-mail, also, from others who travel our road.

You and I got into this differently. Sounds as if you bought a bookstore that was already set up and going. Maybe all new books? I started with only used books, in a little summertime shed, and bootstrapped my business up from there over the course of 23 years.

One thing I've noticed is that every time I think I've finally got a handle on the book business, it changes. It has changed many times and in many ways since I got into it. Twenty-two years ago we in the secondary market all subscribed to AB Bookman's Weekly and mailed in our "want" lists (things customers were looking for) on postcards. I loved reading through the lists of books other stores across the country were looking for and still remember some of the names of bookstores no longer in existence, bookstores I knew only through ABBW.

I am encouraged by a couple of new aspects of our "real world." One is that many young people are developing a deep appreciation for printed books. Now that other technology is available, they see books as special. Precious. There are also the shop-local and slow-this-and-that movements.

Booksellers in London panicked when the first newspapers appeared on the streets. Would anyone read books any more? Movies and television brought the same fears. Ours has never been an easy way of life, never a way to get rich. But we are a proud tradition.

I wish you all possible success and happiness, Valinda. Every now and then we slip into the Pilgrim's Slough of Despond (Despair?), but then we climb out again and get back to work. Because we do love what we do and take pride in doing it.

AJC said...

Very nice.

I always say that "support" - as in "support your local bookseller" means money.

Jeanie Ransom said...

I'm happy to know about your blog, and have just signed up to receive it. Our family of readers was ecstatic to find a bookstore when we were in Northport, and my boys bought books for their vacation "souvenirs." We'll be back, and hope that many others will stop by, as well as buy!

P. J. Grath said...

AJC and Jeanie, thanks for visiting and commenting. Indeed, it is purchases that keep small retail businesses in business! And I love seeing the families returning every year for their summer vacations! I've seen kids grow from babes in arms to college students, which is both delightful and a little scary. :)