Last Thanksgiving I was in New Hope, PA and happened by Farley’s Bookshop, on Main Street, full of after-dinner shoppers. I was struck by the store, by its bustling prosperity and by the fact that I found one of my recent favorite books, Ron Cooper’s Purple Jesus, displayed there. I also saw displays arranged by small presses.
Q: Tell me about three or four of your favorite current novels from small presses. What percentage of your novel sales do small presses represent? Do you find small press novels any more or less reliable in quality than novels from mainstream presses? Do you find them any more or less to your taste?
A: There have been some incredible books out this year with the small presses. As for fiction, Joseph Daniel Haske’s “North Dixie Highway,” Richard Burgin’s novella/short story collection, “Hide Island,” and Larry Fondation’s “Martyrs and Holymen” have been at the top of our list.
In order to understand the volume of sales small presses represent with us, there are a few things you should understand about how we stock them first. We stock small press poetry more heavily than we do fiction, so when you look at our poetry sales, say, small presses make up roughly one-third of all poetry sales, as opposed to a much smaller percentage in fiction. But that is primarily because we stock small press poetry much more heavily. We have a much larger fiction section than we have poetry and so our small press sales numbers in fiction may seem smaller, but the section is three to four times the size of the poetry section. Also, we stock small press novels in our science fiction, children’s and mystery sections which adds to the overall “novel” sales numbers. But this ignores the small press books we also have in our art section. One of the small presses we work with, Raw Dog Screaming, publishes primarily fiction and if you were to look solely at their numbers you would see that their sales are quite high, but place those numbers inside the larger fiction section sales numbers and it becomes just a small part of a very large stock of novels in the store overall. It’s best to look at things on a press by press basis. Regardless, small press books are something that we love and something that we stock heavily, particularly when you look at all the titles from all the presses in all the sections.
One of the primary jobs of a bookseller is to cultivate stock for the store. We order from a wide variety of publishers across a large variety of topics and genres and much of what we do in terms of ordering is a careful cultivation. What this means is that in looking at publishers’ catalogs we see all kinds of stuff: superior novels from small presses and utter garbage from major presses, but we also see utter garbage from small presses and superior books from major presses. Our job is to try and find gems regardless of the size of the press and bring them in. The small presses however do take more risks than the major publishers and you will find much more cutting edge work in the smaller presses.
Our taste as a staff, and my taste personally, varies widely. Right now I am reading Darwin’s “Origin of Species,” Valerie Bandura’s “Freak Show” (a superb small press poetry book), Hemingway’s second volume of letters and William Humphrey’s “Home from the Hill” (a forgotten American classic re-issued by LSU Press). And each of the staff members is like that, reading widely across a slew of genres and topics. So, if a small press book fits the mood or interest or topic, I, or we, won’t hesitate to buy it.
Q: Tell me about three or four of your all-time favorite novels. Do you make a point to stock and promote them or are they personal favorites but not necessarily of interest to shoppers today?
A: Three of my all-time favorite novels are: Hermann Hesse’s “Siddhartha,” Nelson Algren’s “Man With the Golden Arm,” and Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick.” I definitely like to have these books in stock because they are close to my heart and thus, make for an easy recommendation. Each of the staff members is like that. We stock what we like and know and so our customers know that they can come in here and get good recommendations based on books we know and value. It doesn’t matter if the book is of interest to shoppers today or not, if it is good we want it on our shelves. And isn’t it wonderful to go into a bookstore and get a recommendation for a book you have never heard of, then take it home and end up loving it?
Q: I see on your web page the indie bestseller list “best-selling books in independent bookstores,” compiled weekly by the American Booksellers Association. I would guess that there’s a lot of variation between stores nationwide. What are your current top five fiction sellers in hardback and in trade paperback? How do they match up with the national list? Are any of them from small presses?
A: There is a lot of variation between stores, as we, unlike the chain stores, have different buyers. But for shops like ours that stock large quantities of books, you’ll find that this week’s hardcover and paperback best seller list reflects more or less what is happening with the national lists. That however doesn’t take into account long term sales, which when you look at them are much more reflective of a store’s character. For example, we obviously sold quite a few copies of Donna Tartt’s latest novel, but sales for that will drop off at some point down the road. So it is a best seller now, but a year or two years from now? But then we have novels like Eric Miles Williamson’s “Welcome to Oakland,” which is a small press release, that we’ve sold nearly eighty copies of in about three years. That is incredible for any book, especially a small press book. So when you look at long term sales you get a sense of what books are being hand sold to customers because we love them, even though they might not get any press or coverage.
Q: I’m often looking for novels set in certain places. Can you recommend a few novels set in New Hope or Princeton or Philadelphia?
A: Patricia Highsmith wrote a novel called “Cry of the Owl” which is set in a fictionalized version of New Hope, a town she spent much time in. David Goodis’ novels, particularly “Black Friday” and “The Blonde on the Streetcorner” and “The Moon in the Gutter,” are some of the best novels about Philadelphia out there. Goodis is our poet laureate and always will be. Steve Lopez’ “Third and Indiana” is a novel set in an area of the city called “The Badlands” and is not to be missed. Lopez was a reporter in the city and the novel is kin to Richard Price’s “Clockers” and the television show “The Wire.” Pete Dexter’s “God’s Pocket” is another gem, also done by a former Philly newspaperman and it covers similar turf to Lopez’ work. Duane Swierczynski’s and Dennis Tafoya’s novels are superior as well, Philadelphia set and bred. Those two writers consistently challenge Goodis’ throne and are superior wordsmiths.
Q: Baseball season is just around the corner. If a shopper wants to read a baseball book or two, can you help them? Do you sometimes do fiction displays by subject?
A: We can definitely help a customer looking for a baseball book, be it in fiction or in our sports section (try Lawrence Ritter’s “The Glory of Their Times” or Red Smith’s “American Pastimes”). Our bread and butter is recommendations, hand-selling books. This is why we all try to read as widely as possible, so that we can provide a good recommendation to someone regardless of what they are looking for. And if we don’t know a good one for some reason, we’ll go out of our way to find one.
Our displays are done by genre, but within each display we’ll highlight certain books. If, say, because baseball season is coming up we might highlight baseball related novels within the fiction section, or we might build an all encompassing baseball related display in the center of the store where we rotate our displays and highlights regularly. But we also experiment to try and find where a book will sell the best. For example, I moved Walter Tevis’ novels about pool, “The Color of Money” and “The Hustler,” over to our sports section (where I have a bunch of other pool books) to see if they would sell better from there than in fiction. We try and keep our displays and our sections fluid so that things aren’t boring for either us or our customers.
Q: Despite the amount of online book sales, I understand that independent bookstores did well last year. How much of that do you think was due to Barnes & Noble store closings and how much due to readers and bookstores connecting more? What percentage of your sales are online?
A: Independent bookstores have been doing well for the last few years, with an increase in the number of independent bookstores opening as well as sales. We think much of that has to do with a host of things, some of which has to do with the chains going under. It seems though that many people are realizing the value of shopping locally and that mentality extends to bookstores. Shopping locally means the money stays in the community as opposed to going out of state to some faceless mega-corporation that doesn’t invest in either its customers personally or the community. Plus, a bookstore has a magic to it that a website never will. Watch what happens when a child walks by our front windows and sees the books on display. They start pointing and you can hear them say, “Can we go inside?” That will never, ever, happen with the internet.
We sell some books through our website, but not many. People like coming in here, hanging out, browsing, getting recommendations, catching up. Like I said, that doesn’t happen with a computer.
Q: When I buy books, I’m often shocked by the difference between the price of the ebook and the trade paperback, sometimes a difference of $2.99 versus $14.99. I would think trade paperback titles that are priced within a few dollars of their ebook editions would be easier bookstore sales. Do you take into account the price differential in deciding whether to stock a title or to stock titles by a publisher? Are you surprised to see whole books sold, in ebook format, for less than most greeting cards?
A: ebook prices shouldn’t be a shock: massive corporations have new computer products to sell and they want you to buy them. So, they bottom out ebook prices to encourage people to buy computer products that they’ll only update so you can buy them, both the delivery method and the book, again. When you buy an ebook you don’t even own it. You’re just renting it. Isn’t that scary? What is to stop them from taking the book from you? Amazon has already done that (see: “Amazon Erases Orwell Books From Kindle”). Besides, what are you paying for with an ebook? It’s just a digital file. It’s not even a book. A book is something you hold and put on a shelf and share with friends and lovers and strangers. It has typesetting and graphic design as components of it, components that are also part of the story. It has a smell and paper. We sell books. We have no interest in selling digital files. We think “ebooks” are an abomination.
The price of a book can factor into our ordering, but just because a book is expensive doesn’t mean we won’t stock it. We have a limited edition collection of Audubon’s bird paintings here for $350 and we’d have a hard time justifying not having it here. It’s a stunning book. We also work with a small press out of Hopewell, New Jersey, Pied Oxen Printers, who puts out some of the most gorgeous, most well-crafted books we have ever seen. Pied Oxen books are made in very small runs, completely handset, hand-sewn and often include limited edition art. They are always signed by the author. While more expensive than a mass market paperback they are everything a book should be and they are a fine representation of the printer’s and the bookmaker’s art. How could we not stock them? Likewise Sunnyoutside Press’ hand-sewn chapbooks and broadsides: beautiful design, small runs, interesting titles. And Sunnyoutside’s chapbooks and broadsides are more than reasonably priced. These books are the pinnacle of what a book can be, and because we love books we want to sell them here.
Q: Buying books in a bookstore, I pay state taxes. Buying them online, I don’t. Buying an ebook, I usually save even more money, sometimes a ridiculous amount because the ebook is so cheap. Amazon, of course, is the big online seller. How close are we to making Amazon the only seller, the seller with 99% of the market? What can shoppers do to both shop wisely and to not shop themselves out of alternatives?
A: Again, ebooks aren’t books. It is an important distinction to make. When people stop paying state taxes they are removing money from their community. We like to have things like good roads, police and fire and ambulance squads, excellent schools for our children and towns that you can walk around and visit. State sales taxes support those things. It is no coincidence that a decrease in public school funding has coincided with a rise in internet sales. If you want to lower book prices, prices that have risen three times the inflation rate due to the manipulation of the credit/returns system by chain stores and price strong-arming by Amazon (see Andrew Laties’ “Rebel Bookseller” for a history of this), then people need to stop shopping at chain stores and Amazon. Also, Amazon, like any monopoly, has already started to raise their book prices now that they have gained a market share of sales. It is classic monopoly behavior from a company that sells books at a loss-leader, a behavior that devalues the art of writing and the importance of books as a whole. It is remarkable that writers don’t speak out against Amazon’s pricing schemes since their schemes say to the customer, “No, it’s not worth that much. It is worth much less.” This devalues art, and makes it difficult for a writer to make a living wage off writing.
We aren’t close to making Amazon the only retailer because many, many people want to, and are, resisting. They are actively supporting brick and mortar shops to keep money circulating in their community. Publishers and booksellers and writers and readers are all working together to remind people that knowledge is democratic in the true sense of the word and that when we give power and money, and centralize the power to spread knowledge, to the wealthy few, then there is a great risk that the many won’t have access to knowledge. Remember, in Frederick Douglass’ memoir he tells that slaves were not taught to read or write and thus he never heard the word “freedom” until he learned to read. Knowledge, or rather the control of language was centralized, and thus kept from the many in the interest of the few. If we allow Amazon and companies like Amazon to have the market share, what words will they keep from us? What books? What knowledge? If you want to have a variety of options, and shop wisely, spread your spending out: go support butcher shops, farmers, booksellers, candle makers, furniture makers, photographers, soap makers, dairy farmers, small auto shops and mechanics and stop spending money online, at chain stores or supermarkets. Spreading your spending out like that might not be as convenient as one-click shopping but in the long run it guarantees the health of your community, your region, and your bank account since history has shown us that economic variety keeps prices down. Corporations and monopolies never have. Remember when radio was good? When there was diversity amongst radio stations and programming? Then they passed the 1996 Telecommunications Act which didn’t limit the number of stations a company could own. Now you have Clear Channel and all the radio sounds the same. Think about it. Lastly, stopping the spending of money with these major corporations stops the support of the very things that threaten us: large scale industrial farming, labor abuse (Amazon’s warehouses are some of the worst places to work and Amazon has been caught using Neo-Nazi security services to control its warehouse workers; see: “Amazon ‘used neo-Nazi guards to keep immigrant workforce under control’ in Germany” and see: “Inside Amazon’s Warehouse“); as well as centralization of power and money amongst the elite. Remember: buying ebooks means you have to rely on a company like Amazon to provide you with the tools, an ereader, to have access to those files. Why give them that power?
It’s time to fight back. You fight back by choosing to whom you hand your money.