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Rebel Bookseller 2nd edition (excerpts: Introduction and 1st Rant)

[Reprinted with permission from Andrew Laties' Rebel Bookseller: Why Indie Businesses Represent Everything You Want To Fight for, from Free Speech To Buying Local To Building Communities Copyright © 2011 by Andrew Laties, Seven Stories Press ]


The smell of sawdust greeted me as I entered Brooklyn’s Greenlight Bookstore for the first time in October 2009. One month before opening, hundreds of boxes filled the storefront while a dozen volunteers were at work coloring the bookcases with warm brown woodstain. I’d come in from Western Massachusetts for this day prepping the store; my sixth time helping launch a bookselling company; thirty years since my first bookstore job.

I noticed a big pile of Random House boxes and remembered how in 1979, at age twenty, during my first month as a receiving clerk at a B. Dalton chain store in Chicago, I’d been checking in a box from just such a Random House stack when I came across two copies of Saul Alinskys 1946 title Reveille For Radicals. I browsed the book, bought it, and read it that night. Alinsky was a Chicago labor activist who in the 1930s helped organize the meatpacking plants searingly depicted in Upton Sinclairs 1906 novel, The Jungle. Later Alinsky had moved on to community organizing, fighting for civil rights and social justice. I remembered Alinskys eye-opening book decades after while struggling with the question of how to write about my turbulent life as a bookseller. Id decided to try to create a book that I would have enjoyed reading back when I was twenty. Rebel Bookseller: How to Improvise Your Own Indie Store and Beat Back the Chains was the outcome of my effort to live up to Reveille For Radicals.

Rebel Bookseller, however, was not published by a big publishing company. This was impossible since Id attacked major houses as “sycophantic lackeysduring the expansion of New York indie bookstore Barnes & Noble into a huge national corporation that for fifteen years held the whip hand in the book industry. Rather, Rebel Bookseller was put out by Vox Pop, a hybrid company just being launched by controversial publisher Sander Hicks, who had previously founded Soft Skull Press. In 2004 I’d helped Hicks create his new publishing house, bookstore, and performance café in Brooklyn.

In October 2005, a few months after Vox Pop had released Rebel Bookseller, during an author event at the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association (NAIBA) convention in Atlantic City, I’d addressed two hundred booksellers, encouraging them to assist in the needed resurgence of indie bookstore openings. Most of these booksellers had received free sample copies of Rebel Bookseller. I didn’t know then that among those present was a twenty-six-year-old employee of Three Lives & Company, of Manhattan, who the previous day had launched a blog announcing that she hoped to eventually open her own bookstore. The blog was called Written Nerd, and the blogger was Jessica Stockton.

Exactly four years later, I was standing in Jessica Stocktons almost-open Greenlight Bookstore. And now I knew something I hadn’t known when I’d first met Jessica: she hadn’t had any money, nor access to any through her family. Her drive, her creativity, and her social skills had been her only assets. Perhaps one of the things that had led her, on her blog, to call Rebel Bookseller awesome,“revolutionary, and “one of my own inspirationswas my assertion that you don’t need any money to launch your indie bookstore: a rather unconventional opinion. But by the time Greenlight opened, Jessicas networking skills had led her to partner Rebecca Fittingthe Random House sales representative for the New York City regionand had resulted in the accumulation of nearly $350,000 in start-up funds.

How did a blogger conjure a bookstore? Jessicas approach was to alternate passionate book reviews with essays challenging doomsaying about the prospects for indie bookselling. The quality of her posts attracted an array of commenters (including me), and, by 2006, lively debates about the state of the book industry and the future of indie bookselling were in progress every week at her salon on the web.

On Jessicas blog, I made the point several times that the book industry goes through cycles, alternating between concentration and decentralization, and that these cycles are generated through the actions of individuals. Conditions are always ripe for committed booksellers to make an effort. The only question is whether indie storefront bookstores are a better thing for our culture than competing models such as chain stores or Internet-based distribution. For instance, in May 2006 I commented:

A situation like back in say 1991 when there were 5,100 indie stores plus 2,000 chainstores is a lot healthier than the current 1,700 indie stores and (STILL only!) 2,000 chainstores. As to why people shop for books on the Internet: in a country that had thousands more storefronts selling books, there’d be many fewer people buying books on the Internet. We lost all those storefronts BEFORE the rise of online bookselling, and with the rise of a new generation of storefront indie booksellers, people will cut back on their Internet bookbuying and spend more time out hobnobbing with neighbors in all the swell new indie bookstores. It doesn’t matter at all what the Indie Bookstore Shopping Experience is like today. Tomorrow’s will be a helluva lot better.

I also argued that indie bookstores are an engine for community economic development, and that this offers a fundraising opportunity to prospective bookstore owners. Heres a comment of mine from January 2007:

What about creating some flavor of Real Estate Investment Trust? The intent is for this entity to buy a building in which to house a bookstore. Potentially, the trust would also plan to buy additional buildings. Because: we know, in advance, that any time a new bookstore is added to ANY neighborhood, real estate values all around that store will rise. . . . And friends, family, future neighbors, community activist types, other real estate investors can be pretty confident that they’ll ultimately get their money back out of a real estate investment. So—now—in the context of establishing this REIT—you also do the fundraising to launch the bookstore itself. This entire process by the way gives you an excuse to do wonderful pre-marketing work for the store.

In late 2005, Jessica Stockton left Three Lives & Company and moved to Labyrinth Books (later renamed Book Culture), near Columbia University on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. She developed a specialty in the fast-growing field of graphic novels. Meanwhile, she cofounded the New York City branch of Emerging Leaders, an American Booksellers Association (ABA) initiative that encourages young people to stay committed to their bookselling careers. She was invited to be a graphic novel expert panelist during the ABAs educational program at the June 2006 Book Expo America convention in Washington DC. Then she was invited onto the NAIBA board, and in February 2007 she attended the second ABA Winter Institute, a new educationally oriented industry gathering designed to spark innovation in indie bookselling.

All of this was thoroughly reported in a genial and energetic voice, online. Because of Jessicas blog, her career had shifted into overdrive.

The existence of Labyrinth Books was excellent evidence that indie storefront bookselling success could come from developing an innovative collaborative model. The store had been founded because influential professors and the provost at Columbia University were frustrated with campus bookseller Barnes & Nobles failure to stock a sufficiently intellectual book inventory. The provost had reached out to Jack Cella, manager of Chicagos renowned Seminary Co-op Bookstoreoften called the best academic bookstore in the country. Jack declined to open a branch in New York, but his engagementbolstered by letters of support from the facultyencouraged the university to facilitate the development of an independent bookselling company created by New York booksellers Chris Doeblin and Cliff Simms. The new bookstore, launched in 1997, benefited from preferential lease and incentive terms from landlord Columbia University.

Jessica worked at Labyrinth for a year then further broadened her bookselling education by moving on to McNally Robinson Booksellers (now McNally Jackson Books), in SoHo. There, in addition to supervising the graphic novel department, she became events coordinator.

Bookstore founder Sarah McNally had launched her company in 2004. New York is a city dominated by Barnes & Noble, and the location Sarah McNally chosealthough as far from B&N as she could make itwas still fairly close to a large branch. She was closer to several indie stores, including St. Marks Bookshop, founded 1977, which in 1989 had been saved from collapse by a loan from independent publisher and bookstore fan Robert Rodale.

The St. Marks story might have given pause to another prospective bookstore owner assessing a neighborhood for its ability to support an additional indie bookstore. But the fate of specific bookstores is anecdotal, not cautionary; every bookstore has a unique trajectory. And in particular, St. Marks Bookshop was able to repay the Rodale loan with interest. This happy ending offered an important insight. Just as Columbia University was needed to facilitate the creation of Labyrinth Books, and offered to do so when asked, so it was evident from the providential intervention of Robert Rodale that New Yorks huge population of book lovers would offer enough support to keep many indie bookstores afloat and viable, if only their owners specifically asked for this support and made careful decisions while accepting it.

Sarah McNallys way of asking for the support of New Yorkers was simply by creating a fabulously beautiful new bookstore, a skill she had learned growing up inside of the McNally bookselling family of Canada. With vigorous outreach via an aggressive special events program, McNally Jackson was welcomed as a marvelous addition to New York literary culture. Similarly, thousands of neighborhoods nationwide could energetically support new bookstores.

Jessica Stockton expanded the literary events series at McNally Jackson, and diligently documented her activity on the Written Nerd blog, further extending McNally Jacksons outreach. In turn, Sarah McNally was supportive of Jessicas plans to open her own bookstore. This courage to assist a future competitor is unheard of in many industries, but it is often seen in the bookstore business.

Similarly implementing this collaborative approach, Chris Doeblin of Book Culture reached out to Sarah McNally, to his former employee Jessica Stockton, to St. Marks Bookshop cofounder Terry McCoy and, with them, to dozens of other New York bookstore owners. Together, in early 2008, these booksellers founded New Yorks first city-wide bookstore coalition: Independent Booksellers of New York City (IBNYC). Again, the entire process was narrated on the Written Nerd blog.

I attended IBNYC’s founding meeting, held on the twelfth floor of Random House corporate headquarters at Fifty-fifth Street and Broadway. Random Houses support demonstrated the desire of this major publisher to assist the efforts of indie booksellers to increase their market share and sell more books. Twenty-five bookstore owners were present, and the group identified an array of joint projects, such as creating a bookstore-locator website.

We went around the table introducing ourselves. I said I represented Vox Pop, in Brooklyn, and was the author of Rebel Bookseller. It turned out that several of the booksellers had been carrying my book, and one, Peter Soter of Morningside Bookshop, said he always kept a copy on display behind him at the cash register.

I was delighted to meet New Yorks leading bookselling professionals. One puzzling thing about being a bookseller is the widespread misconception that we are not practicing a profession. But yes, bookselling is a profession, on a par with psychiatrist, librarian, university professor, lawyer, or investment banker (in fact its a little of each). Unlike these recognized professions, however, in bookselling there is no path to certification; no form of accreditation. Booksellers are autonomous. We pursue opportunities as our capacities permit.

Our mission is to understand the authors and readers we hope to serve, and to bring them together. In so doing we must ensure that our work is financially viable, using either for-profit or nonprofit methodologies, and increasingly a combination of the two.

We stand for freedom of expression. Our sixteenth-century forebears were sometimes burned at the stake, and we may be targeted too, as were the members of Sedition, the Houston bookselling collective whose store was set on fire in 2007 for stocking pro-immigrant and radical literature.

The most brilliant bookstoresPolitics & Prose Bookstore, in Washington DC; City Lights Books, in San Francisco; The Tattered Cover Book Store, in Denverare beacons for the rest of us, encouraging our efforts to stand out in unique ways.

It can be frightening to be out there on our own, but we rarely regret the effort. Even when our bookstores close, we look back with pride.

A few months later at the next IBNYC meeting, ABA’s new buy-local initiative, IndieBound, was on the table. IndieBound brought all types of locally owned companies together online to spread the word about how communities benefit when neighbors support independent businesses. Combining social media and e-commerce, the project represented ABA’s most innovative Internet-based effort to support indie bookstores in collaborating with their small business colleagues. At the IBNYC meeting, we decided our initial IndieBound production would be a celebratory week of coordinated special events in November.

The buy-local movement is sometimes thought to be a modern-day progressive initiative but it is rooted in the 1920s, when populist Southerners were worried about the invasive cultural impact of chain stores. Their antichain movements major achievement was the Robinson-Patman Act of 1936. For decades afterward, federal antitrust regulations provided locally owned stores some protection from short-term monopolistic underpricing by national competitors.

Unfortunately, local stores were not necessarily loved by neighbors. The owners constituted small-town elites with economic power. Many perpetuated racial discrimination. Labor union members preferred the newly unionizing chain stores, with their apparently better-value products.

By the 1960s, the federal government was increasingly focused on protecting the rights of workers, consumers, and minorities, and began to cut back on enforcement of Robinson-Patman rules that protected local stores from national chains.

In our era, federal government control over the local enforcement of human rights laws is more securely established. Meanwhile, labor unions are disenchanted with chain stores like the nonunionized Walmart. Since the 1990s, indie bookstores like Women & Children First, in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood, have been spearheading the movement to organize small businesses in jointly urging their mutual customers to buy local. Today’s buy-local movement cites analyses like The Andersonville Study of Retail Economics to prove that when customers spend in locally owned stores, much of the money recirculates in the community, bolstering quality of life. In contrast, most money spent in chains or on the Internet leaves hometowns. Online purchases in particular are usually not subject to sales tax, so states are starved of funds for education, public services, and Medicaid most times someone chooses to buy online. After decades of infatuation with big-box chain stores, community leaders have finally learned that durable economic revitalization hinges on the launch of new businesses owned by local residents. Wall Street investors have tired of paying premium prices for book superstore company shares (Barnes & Noble and Borders having failed to deliver on their 1990s-era promise of unending growth), so national chains have lost access to once seemingly unlimited capital to plunk lavish store build-outs into saturated local markets. The tide has turned in favor of prudently managed, locally owned stores, which are quite cost-effective to launch relative to the benefit to their host communities.

Jessica Stockton Bagnulo (she’d gotten married) wrote a business plan and entered it into a prestigious competition sponsored by the Brooklyn Public Library and Citi Foundation. She won the $15,000 first prize, and shortly after, entered into her quiet collaboration with Random House sales representative Rebecca Fitting.

Since childhood Rebecca had dreamed of having her own bookstore. At age eighteen she joined an Albany, New York, branch of Borders Books & Music, then helped launch Borders stores in Peabody, Massachusetts, and Memphis, Tennessee. She managed an indie store, The Deliberate Literate, for two years before being hired by Random House, spending ten years in publishing working the upstate New York and New England region, then the metro New York territory.

During the months after they established their working relationship, Jessica and Rebecca failed to further advance their project. They knew hundreds of thousands of dollars in start-up funds should be in place prior to launch. Jessicas blog posts documented increasing frustration. I commented that her asset was her social capital and that she needed to find a way to cash it in.

Serendipitously, this was happening on its own. A Brooklyn neighborhood organization had found, through stakeholder analysis, that community members identified bookstore as the missing element in their local revitalization efforts. The Fort Greene Association had failed to attract the interest of any existing New York bookstore in opening a branch. Now they learned that a bookstore business plan was the recent winner of the Brooklyn Public Library PowerUp! Competition.

They contacted Jessica Stockton Bagnulo and Rebecca Fitting. In a whirlwind of private and public meetings, parties, negotiating sessions, and fundraising events, a bookstore suddenly became feasible.

A local real estate investor offered below-market rent on a hot Fulton Street location a few blocks west of the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were gathered through friends-and-family promissory note sales to neighbors, and from the World Trade Center Small Business Recovery Fund. Jessica and Rebecca were thrust headlong into doing what they had promised to do: open a storefront indie bookstore.

My day of bookcase staining in October 2009 was the least of the start-up work, but like the hundreds of other people involved in making Greenlight Bookstore a reality, I feel a proprietary pride and obligation. When I receive Greenlights e-mailed reminders of author readings, panel discussions, cooking demos, comedy nights, concerts, and childrens story hours, I feel joy in this upsurge of activist bookselling. When I’m in Brooklyn and I stop by the store, there are usually dozens of browsers. I always discover great books that I absolutely must buy.

In June 2010, New York magazine published an article that announced the surprising resurgence of indie bookselling in New York City. Several of IBNYCs newer members were profiled, among them Idlewild in Union Square, WORD in Greenpoint, and Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene. Financial data provided by Jessica and Rebecca were eye-popping; the store was tracking close to a million dollars of revenue in its first year in business, meeting its financial targets and obligations, including debt repayment.

The marketplace changes every day, and the early success of Greenlight Bookstore does not provide a roadmap. Rather it demonstrates that an innovative approach can work even when naysayers abound.

As I write this introduction, the hot question of the day is what impact electronic books will have on physical books and storefront bookstores. As with any market transformation, the e-book revolution provides myriad business opportunities for creative people. Far from imperiling the indie storefront bookstore paradigm, this particular change can strengthen it, since more than ever an excursion to a bookstore is driven by a readers wish to spend time in the presence of physical books and in the company of other readers, not by the need to scan the content of a specific book. And when it comes to creating exciting spaces where community members can gather, indie booksellers are approaching high-end restaurateurs in skill. So indie booksellers should welcome the arrival of plentiful e-books. We can expect to see renewed interest in book reading among the public. Physical books will find more buyers because the pleasure of owning, reading, and sharing these is different from the experience of perusing a restricted-access electronic display on a screen. These media do not compete: they supplement one another. Readers can even support local bookstores by purchasing e-books from ABA IndieCommerce-affiliated websites like

In this book’s eleven chapters, I weave tales of the birth, death, and reincarnation of several personal businesses into a behind-the-scenes history of the late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century book industry. I’ve selected stories that obliquely illustrate strategies explained in the ten interlacing rants, which are specifically devoted to the subject of how to improvise an independent store. I allow this whole narrative process to expose and clarify three Rough Rules of Rebel Bookselling: 1) ADA (Adapt, Don’t Adopt); 2) SMOWS (Sell More of What’s Selling); and 3) BLSH (Buy Low, Sell High). I didn’t invent these rules, but I appreciate them, and there aren’t many rules I appreciate.

If you’d appreciate lots of rules, I apologize. With the exception of the “Showcasing Your Storearticles in the appendixwhich were distributed by the American Booksellers Association at dozens of Booksellers SchoolsIve steered clear of prescriptions for success. My hope is to provoke originality. Personally, I find that books filled with checklists generally fail to help me determine how best to solve the problem of simply surviving. Checklists can imply that running a business is a matter of building a better mousetrap. But in a marketplace dominated by corporations flush with cash, the real issue may be deciding what to do when ten other mousetraps encircle yours.

I’ve run a lot of mazes, and been eaten by several fat cats: I’m qualified to offer not checklists but legends, allegories, fables, parables, ritual incantations, tales from the cryptthe whole suffused with paranoia, mania, and ingenious financial advice.

For this second edition I’ve revised and expanded Rebel Bookseller to reflect industry changes since 2005. Chainstore companies have, as I defiantly predicted, proven vulnerable: one thousand of their storefronts have closed, leaving many towns without a bookstore. Therefore this edition calls out beyond prospective booksellers to all indie business owners, as well as to community groups, real estate developers, nonprofit organizations, universities, and urban planners. A revival of locally controlled indie bookselling is essential for fostering the creative, locally autonomous citizenry this nation requires. We all have a role. Now is the time for action.

And if you are a working bookseller, or one of those laid off during the recent chainstore closings, please be assured that a life in indie store ownership is worth striving for.


Chapter One (1st Rant):


So you’re thinking of opening a boo ks t o r e .
Are you c r a z y?

Back when Chris and I were running The Childrens Bookstore, someone would come in every month asking for advice on opening their own. But now the membership in the American Booksellers Association has dropped by two-thirds. Its so obvious to everyone that you cant open a bookstore anymore that no one even bothers to ask how.

Who wants to compete with these huge superstores, with their big inventories, long hours, and in-store coffee shops? Not to mention the Internet, which of course makes every book in print easily available to anyone. Nope, you’ve got to be insane to open a bookstore.

Well, its true that we’ve now been booksellers for over three decades, operating several different stores. And, its true there are still about two thousand independent bookstores in the US that never closed down but weathered the storm. I’d be irresponsible not to be honest with you though. Now, or ten years ago, or fifty years ago, or fifty years from now, you should never open a bookstore. Nobody who ever opened a bookstore should have done it. Right now, Reason X is the reason why a bookstore wont work. Next time, it’ll be Reason Y. So, do yourself a big favor: tell your friends, next time they urge you on, its easier to lose money than to make it. Forget about this bookstore thing. Put it out of your mind.

Lots of quaint little neighborhoods have nice shops, and if you pay attention to whos in those storefronts over a five- or ten-year period, you notice new stores are going in and old stores are going out every few years. Each time a store disappears, thats someones $50K or $150K down the tubes. Most of the time.

I dont know if it qualifies as a tragedy or not. So many people delude themselves as to what running a small business is about. In ’86 we hosted a party at The Childrens Bookstore for people who were attending a Prospective Booksellers School put on by the American Booksellers Association. I had a conversation with a psychologist who had no bookselling experience. She said she was preparing to open a chain of six psychology bookstores in Washington DC, as a sideline to her full-time psychology practice. That sort of idea was typical in the late eighties. People thought of bookstores as something they could do in their spare time. Independent bookselling was invincible: hundreds of new indies were opening every year. The corporate superstore chains blind-sided everyone, using discount pricing to lure hapless customers away from the local stores they treasured. Once we were gone, goodbye to across-the-board discounts. But most of those independent bookstores would have gone out of business anyway—just not so fast and not all at once. They were losing a little money, and they started losing a lot.

The question is, where do you stand at the moment when you go out of business? Are you in control? Did you pull money out during the life of the company and park it elsewhere? Has that money grown?

For instance, its a rarely mentioned truth of the bookstore business that the only way to make money is to buy your building. While your operation may be just scraping by, you earn yourself a building with all those occupancy payments. Or, a tactic we managed to pull off may be the way you make money: packaging and leveraging your stores image to do a completely different project. This was how we ended up owning the store at Chicago Childrens Museum. That site guaranteed a lot of traffic for our shop, located as it was in a tourist mall without retail footprints that could accommodate a superstore to compete with us.

The point is, you can focus on the fact your independent bookstore is doomed and then let this reality prevent you from launching the thing. Or you can focus on your doom and use this foreknowledge to help you plan for finessing your businesss reincarnation.

Thats what Buddhists call death energy. Every moment, you think about your possibly imminent death. This gives you the courage to take chances. After all, whats the point in fear or delay? You might not live ten more seconds.

DMU Timestamp: March 15, 2012 22:35