Why Bookselling?

I opened my bookstore two and a half years ago (December 2008), right smack in the middle of the ‘economic downturn’. Since then, I have had a number of customers ask me how I’m doing, some with concern, others as an accusation that I had made a huge mistake (some seem almost angry, which I have yet to understand). The concern is well-placed, as there are far fewer shops peppering the American landscape than in previous decades, and more close each month. I generally explain my reasoning behind opening the shop, and stress the fact that I sell online as well, and these business models support one another, each serves different clientele, etc., etc…

The recurrence of the question, though, has led me to some reflection on the topic, and it turns out that having a shop has very little to do with a desire to be successful, but a lot to do with the desire to be happy and fulfilled. I enjoy interacting with customers, determining their needs, and finding the right books to fill them. Sometimes I am unable to help, but I always stand a better chance of being useful if I am able to have a conversation face to face. And as it turns out, I have made some friends here. I have also learned what it means to be considered part of the community. I believe this is something young people often struggle with (I’m 29), and eventually figure out once they have started families.

Could I make more money traveling from estate sale to estate sale, auction to private collection, and doing away with the shop? Maybe. In fact, probably. Do I want to give up my shop because of that? Definitely not. Let me give an example of why:

Last week, a woman came in, in response to a call I made informing her we had an 1831 Bible. She is an American Civil War re-enactor, and is always looking for items to use in her reenactments (i.e., things that would have existed back then). The shop wasn’t busy, so I took the time to compile a list of what he had available in terms of pre-Civil War material — turns out we had quite a lot. I printed the list, and highlighted what I thought would be the most useful selections. I mentioned one in particular, a biography of a gentleman born into slavery in Virginia, who escaped, lived in a Quaker community in Canada for 40 years. The biography was printed in Rochester — my store is in Webster, a suburb of Rochester. Of course she decided she absolutely had to have this. In the end, she walked out with that, the Bible, and 7 Louisa May Alcott hardcovers — she plans to begin a personal collection of these. She was delighted, we had a great conversation about the 150th anniversary activities, and, quite frankly, the whole experience made my week.

Forgive a bit of a ramble there, but it goes to the point of this story, which is that this sort of interaction cannot be replicated digitally. Moreover, it is the sort of commerce I believe we have lost sight of in recent times, one which involved interpersonal relationships, trading and bartering, and a true sense that both parties were better off after the transaction. Sure, I am a merchant, and my customers are consumers, but what is more important than that to me is that we are all people. We are a community, and each of us have different skills, and the primary use of those skills, in my opinion, should be to better that community. This is not to say I don’t want to make money (Ayn Rand would get on my case!) — I also believe those who display the greatest ability in providing services to their community deserve the greatest rewards. But it is not all about how much money I make, or I might do it differently (see above).

This blog is my way of reaching out, in an attempt to develop the same sense of community with some of my fellow book-minded folks who may not live close enough that I can regularly enjoy their company. With luck, I will live a life surrounded by good friends who share my love of books, and happy customers to whom my reasons for opening a shop finally make sense.

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Published in: on June 24, 2013 at 11:21 AM  Leave a Comment  
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