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Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Taking Stock — and Putting Stock in Truth and Books

Although winter is still far in the future, there is a rich, fecund aroma of autumn in the September air, and the inevitable lull following the Labor Day weekend seems like a good time to take stock (before "going forward," as it seems we must say these days, adding that phrase to anything having to do with the future). So here is my very general report on the 2019 season for my life, my bookstore, my authors, and for bookstores in general in the United States. How’s that for biting off more than anyone will feel like chewing on a rainy Tuesday morning?

Our pack of three got through the busy summer without catastrophes of any kind. We kept up (if barely) with laundry and mowing grass and got enough sleep most nights that morning’s arrival did not bring excessive dismay. June, you may recall, was cool and wet (that’s when the grass grew at jungle speed), July and August more summery but only rarely too warm. It was a beautiful summer, really. 

Old Sarah, now 84 in dog years, staggers a bit from time to time but can also still run like the wind and jump like a steeplechase champion. Her dog mom and dad — that’s me and the Artist — have slowed down, too, but then we don’t even try to keep up with the pace of former years. Visits from family and friends are less strenuous, because our plans for the time are less ambitious. Being together is enough.

It was a good season in the bookstore. Being closed on Sundays was a good decision, and opening at 10 a.m. most days, instead of the officially stated 11 a.m., worked out well, too. (No one minds when a business opens early.) Having TEA events (Thursday Evening Authors) every other week, for a total of five, was a manageable and successful plan that I’ll repeat in 2020. And taking credit and debit cards for the second year in a row was a life-saver both for my business and my customers.

My authors! I would be nowhere and nothing without them! Here are the nine top-selling titles for August at Dog Ears Books:
  1. From the Place of the Gathering Light, by Kathleen Stocking
  2. Beautiful Music, by Michael Zadoorian
  3. Downstream From Here, by Charles Eisendrath
  4. The Leisure Seeker, by Michael Zadoorian
  5. Letters from the Leelanau, by Kathleen Stocking
(Do you see some repetition of author names in the list so far? And we’re not done yet.)

6.  Dune Dragons, by Gretchen Rose, tied with Lost Tiki Palaces of Detroit, by Michael Zadoorian
7.  The Marsh King’s Daughter, by Karen Dionne
8.  Lake Michigan Rock Picker’s Guide, by Bruce Mueller and Kevin Gauthier
9.  And in a 5-way tie for ninth place we have:
Even in Darkness, by Barbara Stark-Nemon
Jim Harrison: The Essential Poems
Leelanau by Kayak, by Jon R. Constant
Long Arc of the Universe, by Kathleen Stocking
Trails of M-22, BY Jim DuFresne

I’ll not continue to tenth place, because there are far too many in that position to list.

And now for the general state of indie bookstores across the United States, for those readers who may be interested. 

I had to do some digging on the question, and what prompted my quest was yet another wanderer one day last week bemoaning the disappearance of bookstores. His wife had given him a time limit of 10 minutes to look at books. He proclaimed that time constraint as he entered, along with his love of bookstores -- but then, instead of using his precious time to peruse the shelves, he came and planted himself in front of my desk and demanded to know: “How do you stay in business?” 

I really hate questions about business from curiosity-seekers! I love questions about books! I even welcome questions about other bookstores! But inquiring about the health of my business is like asking a cattleman how many cows he runs or querying an investor about the returns on her stock portfolio. (NYOB!) You’re here, in a bookstore! It’s open! The shelves are filled with books! I want to say, “If you truly love books, you won’t be able to keep your hands off them, and if you’re not interested in books, why did you come in at all?”

But back to his question: “How do you stay in business?”

My answer was brief and to the point: “I sell books.”

He then starts into a long “yes, but” routine about bookstores closing right and left, and I ask him where he lives, if he visits bookstores there, and if he buys books in those bookstores. He says he does. “Well, that’s how they stay in business,” I tell him.

Unfortunately for me, though, he happened in during a quiet afternoon lull and could not let go of his curiosity, so fixated on what he was convinced is the sad, sorry state of American bricks-and-mortar bookselling that he was blind to my treasure-filled shelves. Sigh! If my business were in decline — which it is not — he and his ilk would not be the cure!

But what how much evidence does he have for his belief? And what is the truth of this widespread belief, anyway, the claim I have heard so many times over the years and, yes, this past summer, also, that bookstores are vanishing from the American scene?

Each issue of my daily e-mail “Shelf Awareness” newsletter brings me news of various independent bookstores opening, moving, offered for sale, bought by new owners, and closing across the country. If I look beyond the newsletter, it’s fairly simple to find statistics on how many bookstores have closed during a certain time period, but I don’t find similar stats for the new bookstores that opened. What is the bottom line? Are we indie booksellers an endangered species, like the hawksbill sea turtle, and I just haven’t gotten word yet of my imminent demise? 

Here’s a surprise: There are more bookstores in the United States today than there were in the 1930sWhen you stop to think about how much closer to home in general people shopped back then, that seems counterintuitive, which goes to show once again that what “makes sense” to us isn’t always how things are or ever were.

Next surprise: Between 2000 and 2007, over a thousand American bookstores closed their doors, for one reason or another. But between 2009 and 2015, the number of indies rose by 35%! 

Another surprise: Sales rose 9% in indie bookstores from 2017 to 2018. Who expected that back in 2007?

My view from the bookstore counter goes back now 26 years, and during the very first summer,1993, in the little shed right down Waukazoo Street (long gone now) from where I sit this morning, over and over I heard visitors to my little treasure island lament upon entry, “No one reads books any more!” Mind you, they were not referring to themselves but to people they took to be the majority of Americans. They, of course, did read, and that's why they were delighted to find a bookstore while on vacation. Some had very extensive private libraries  at home that held many more volumes than my then-tiny shop had on offer. But time and time again I heard the mournful refrain: “No one reads books any more!” 

Well, if that had been true in 1993 or if it had become true in any of the intervening years since, I would not still be a bookseller, because my business is not a hobby. There’s no secret trust fund behind it, paying expenses and buying inventory. What I told last week’s curiosity-seeker was my bottom-line truth: I stay in business by selling books.

Maybe we readers are tempted to think of bookstores as endangered and of books as disappearing because it seems to add value to what we love and allow us, as readers, to feel more special, perhaps even elite. I can kind of understand that, but at the same time I want to push back against it and object, albeit gently and lovingly, as follows: 

Dear friends, 

Personally written and illustrated, printed-on-paper, well-produced books are special, but it is not their scarcity that makes them precious. Books are part of our common human heritage, the earth’s history and cultures that have made us and continue to make us who we are. The more of us who share in that wealth, the richer we all are! Is that a paradox? Nonetheless, I believe it to be true. And you, my readers, my bookstore customers, are very special people, every single one of you! Thank you for another wonderful summer of books in Northport!


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