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Photo: DS Shin
The Chicago bookstore called Semicolon is also an art gallery and community space.

The future of independent bookstores will probably be determined by owners who combine selling books with other services — coffee bars, author events, children’s story hours, community meetings, or art galleries. In Chicago, Semicolon is one example of how to do it.

Taylor Moore writes at Chicago magazine, “At Semicolon, creatives of all stripes can find common ground. Located near the Grand Blue Line stop in West Town, the city’s newest bookstore is also a community space and gallery for Chicago’s street art scene.

“But Semicolon is notable for more than just its unique concept. When it officially opened on Tuesday at 515 North Halsted Street with a party and mural unveiling, it became one of just a handful of woman-owned bookstores in Chicago and its only bookstore owned by a black woman.

“An author and editor with a PhD in literary theory, proprietor DL Mullen first explored the world of art curation through her writing business, which landed her gigs penning exhibition copy for museums like LACMA.

“ ‘Explaining art is really [key] to how people understand it and connect to it,’ she says. ‘It became important to me to bridge art and words.’ …

” ‘[Semicolon] represents the point in a sentence where it could stop, but the author decides to proceed,’ Mullen explains.

“As a curator, Mullen brings an aesthetic sensibility to the bookstore’s interior. Semicolon is filled with lots of small personal touches, from author quotes on the walls to colorful furniture bought and carried from the Salvation Army two blocks away.

“But what might be most visually striking about the space is the art itself, like the mural which dominates the shop’s north wall. Street artist Ahmad Lee painted it in one 11-hour stretch, vividly depicting two of Mullen’s favorite artists: Frida Kahlo and Jean-Michel Basquiat. …

“Mullen plans on featuring different Chicago street artists monthly, in addition to hosting author and artist talks every few weeks.

“As for the books, they’re unconventionally arranged on floor-to-ceiling shelves with their covers facing out, not unlike a gallery. Keeping with Semicolon’s curatorial spirit, Mullen hand-picked all 400 titles, grouping them by association rather than genre. In her ‘Books That Make You Think’ category, for example, you can pick up Erik Larson’s Dead Wake, Stephen King’s 11/22/63, a collection of James Baldwin essays, and biographies of Henri Matisse and Georges Seurat.

“Mullen also wanted the store to be an asset to aspiring and self-published authors. For those looking to print manuscripts on the fly, Semicolon houses an Espresso Book Machine, a printer that can print up to 450 pages in minutes.

“Throughout Semicolon’s creation, Mullen has never lost sight of the fact that the store is currently the city’s sole black woman–owned bookstore.

“ ‘It means everything to me. To be able to create something that I love, as a black woman, that other black women and people can love just as much is a huge deal,’ she says. ‘You don’t get into bookselling looking for money; it’s really hard to build up your career to actually open a bookstore. I feel grateful that I’ve been able to do that.’ ” More here.

Still more at “Because of Them We Can,” here, Melville House, here, Chicago Review of Books, here, and the Literary Hub, here.

Photo: The North Star
DL Mullen is the founder of the combined bookstore, art gallery, and community space in Chicago’s West Town.

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Photos: Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times
Comfortable easy chairs tempt customers at Lake Forest Park’s Third Place Books near Seattle. Some independent bookstores aim to be an extension of your living room.

The demise of the bookstore keeps being predicted, but independent shops flourish here and there. The survivors are the ones that provide more than a book.

Moira Macdonald reports for the Seattle Times, “If you walk through the entrance of Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park — right past the signs by the door that say EAT SLEEP READ — on a random weekday afternoon, you might find something nobody could have predicted a decade ago: a neighborhood bookstore, busy and thriving. …

“Ten years ago, when the recession hit and Amazon’s deep discounts seemed to sound a death knell for independent bookstores, such a picture might have seemed like the most fantastical of fiction. Beloved Seattle bookstores were closing their doors throughout the aughts, and those who remained open seemed to face an impossibly uphill task — who would pay full price for a book when you could buy it for less online? But there’s more to an indie bookstore than the price on a book’s cover. …

“Founded in 1998 by visionary developer Ron Sher, Third Place Books got its name from sociologist Ray Oldenburg’s theory of the necessity of a third place; one that isn’t home or work but somewhere we can connect with a community. …

“While far from the oldest bookstore in Seattle, Third Place is the only one that in recent years has expanded to three locations, opening in the Ravenna neighborhood in 2002 and Seward Park in 2016. All offer a mix of new and used books, … a comfortable place for coffee or a meal, friendly booksellers eager to recommend a new favorite, a busy schedule of author readings and special events — in other words, offering not just books, but an experience. …

“In their three very different locations — a suburban shopping center north of Seattle; a quiet residential neighborhood near the University of Washington; a south Seattle neighborhood with one of the country’s most diverse ZIP codes — Third Place is offering ways to find community.

“Each store offers at least one book club; Seward Park, leading the pack, has five: Reading Through It: A Post-Election Book Club; Booze & Lasers (for science fiction/fantasy); Social Justice Syllabus; a teen book club; and a new Black Literature club, starting in January. Lake Forest Park’s three book groups include a general literary club, a nonfiction club and a Knitting Book Club (no, they don’t read books about knitting, but knit while they meet, discussing a variety of books).

“The Ravenna store takes advantage of its proximity to UW to present the monthly Black Jaw Literary Series, which features students and faculty members from the university’s creative-writing program. And it’s taken a creative approach to the author appearances that are the bread-and-butter of the bookstore business: Literary Luncheons. …

“Sometimes, creating community in a bookstore doesn’t involve books at all. Calendar events for the three stores include language conversation clubs, mahjong gatherings, live music (often at Third Place Commons, an open community space adjacent to but operated separately from the Lake Forest Park store) and Magic Mondays, a popular monthly demonstration by local magicians at Ravenna. …

“And the stores give back to the communities they serve, regularly supporting local schools. … Other charitable programs [include] single-day fundraisers — instigated by employees, and quickly organized. … The most recent [raised] money for legal services for refugees detained at the U.S.-Mexico border; business that day was up 75 percent.”

More.

A mother and son peruse a picture book at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park, Washington. As traditional bookstores close, Third Place books has actually been expanding to new locations.

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Photo: Dave Parkinson / The Tivyside Advertiser
Retiring owner of Bookends bookshop in Cardigan, Paul Morris, left, with new owner Ceisjan van Heerden.

Here’s another great story about people who love bookstores enough to try running one. This version is not about taking on the gig for one day, as the New York Times book critic did in this post, or doing it for a vacation week, as I reported here. It’s about completely taking over.

Alison Flood has the story at the Guardian. “The UK’s newest independent bookseller is gearing up to open his doors [November 5, 2018] – after winning a bookshop in a raffle.

“The unusual prize was dreamed up by Paul Morris, who opened Bookends in Cardigan [Wales] four years ago. The shop is profitable and would have made an estimated £30,000 in a sale, but Morris said he wanted to give someone else the chance to realise their dream of running a bookshop. Over the last three months, anyone who spent more than £20 was eligible to be entered into a raffle to win it.

“The name of the winner, Ceisjan Van Heerden, who is from the Netherlands, was drawn out of a hat containing 59 others at a ceremony last week, as Abba’s ‘The Winner Takes It All’ played to a crowd. …

“ ‘I thought about selling it, but I thought instead, let’s give someone an opportunity in life which they might not otherwise have had. The principle was to make sure the shop continues in good hands,’ he said. “[Ceisjan] is a regular customer and I’m really pleased it was him – he wants to run it.’ …

“Van Heerden told the Tivyside Advertiser that he was ‘so shocked’ when he heard he had won. ‘I love books and read a lot and just happened to be in the shop when a TV crew was making a film about Paul’s decision to raffle it off and I bought a ticket,’ said Van Heerden.

“He officially takes over the shop on 5 November and said he is planning to run it with a friend from Iceland, who is now moving to west Wales. Although the pair have been friends online for nine years, they have yet to meet face to face. ‘It might sound strange, but we are sure we can make it work. It is just an amazing opportunity,’ he said.” What could possibly go wrong?

More here.

 

 

 

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Photos: Evan Frost | MPR News
Cats are only one of the unusual features of Minnesota’s Wild Rumpus bookstore, which Publisher’s Weekly named the 2017 Bookstore of the Year.

In August, John and family visited friends in Minnesota and, among other adventures, checked out the award-winning children’s bookstore their friends love.

At Minnesota Public Radio (MPR), Tracy Mumford reports on a visit she made to the store in April 2017.

“At the Wild Rumpus bookstore in Minneapolis, Neil deGrasse Tyson is strutting across the floor. A crowd gathers, but this striking figure is not the world-famous astrophysicist — it’s a chicken.

“In addition to over 34,000 books, the children’s bookstore boasts a menagerie that includes Tyson the chicken, one ferret, two doves, two chinchillas, a cockatiel and a tarantula named Thomas Jefferson. (Jefferson’s in a cage, as are several of the other furry and feathered inhabitants.)

“This week, the shop was honored for its long history of serving up children’s books with a side of animal chaos. Publishers Weekly named it the 2017 Bookstore of the Year, making Wild Rumpus the first children’s bookstore to receive the honor.

“For co-founder Collette Morgan, finding out that she’d won was a too-excited-to-even-speak moment. Her tight-knit staff gathered around her when she got the call. …

“Every afternoon after school lets out, the store still fills up with young readers browsing the shelves, which run from picture books through young adult novels. Bookseller Jean Ernest, who has worked there for 20 years, says she has watched the customers grow up right in front of her, transforming from kids into parents who bring their own children into the shop. …

“Amid all the store’s success, and its fast approaching 25th anniversary, Morgan has a message to her younger self, opening the store on its very first day.

” ‘You did the right thing. You did the right thing,’ Morgan said. ‘At the time it was: … Why am I doing this when everybody else is closing? But it’s just been the love of my life.’ ” More at MPR, here.

If you are in Minneapolis on November 10, you can hear author Sheetal Sheth read her book Always Anjali at 11. Book blurb: “Anjali and her friends are excited to get matching personalized license plates for their bikes. But Anjali can’t find her name. To make matters worse, she gets bullied for her ‘different’ name, and is so upset she demands to change it. When her parents refuse and she is forced to take matters into her own hands, she winds up learning to celebrate who she is and carry her name with pride and power.”

Some of Wild Rumpus bookstore’s resident cats eat lunch while a book is gift wrapped for a customer. If you visit, you can also meet Neil deGrasse Tyson the chicken, one ferret, two doves, two chinchillas, a cockatiel, and a tarantula named Thomas Jefferson (in his cage).

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Photos: Rachel Watson
Barbara Balliet and Cheryl Clarke, owners of Blenheim Hill Books, one of five bookstores in an upstate New York village of 500 souls.

This village sounds like heaven to a book lover. I think the people who live there must be very happy. I’m pretty sure they are well-read.

Daniel A. Gross writes at Atlas Obscura, “The village of Hobart, New York, is home to two restaurants, one coffee shop, zero liquor stores, and, strangely enough, five independent bookstores. … Fewer than 500 people live in Hobart. Yet from Main Street, in the center of town, you’re closer to a copy of the Odyssey in classical Greek, or a vintage collection of Jell-O recipes, than a gas station.

“This literature-laden state of affairs emerged just after the turn of the millennium, when two residents of Manhattan, Diana and Bill Adams, stopped in Hobart during a trip through the Catskills. ‘We were both intrigued,’ says Bill, who worked as a physician for 40 years. … He and his wife, Diana, a former lawyer, were looking for retirement activities that they could pursue into their old age.

“During that first trip, in 2001, the couple spotted a corner store for rent at the end of Main Street. After speaking with the owner, they decided to rent it on the spot, and soon they were lugging their hefty personal book collection to Hobart, one rental car-load at a time. They didn’t expect to establish a book village in the process. ‘There was no plan,’ Bill says. They weren’t even sure whether their bookstore would survive in the foothills of the Catskills, three miles from the main highway.

“But they did own a lot of books. … That was how it became possible to buy a leather-bound collection of classical verse, or a set of classic political essays, in a tiny village more than two hours from New York City. Wm. H. Adams Antiquarian Books had a relatively quiet first year. But then Don Dales, a local entrepreneur and piano teacher, decided that one good bookstore deserves another, and opened his own shop. …

“Readers, like shoppers at the mall, often wandered back and forth between the shops. As more bookstores came to town, one of Hobart’s original booksellers (no one can quite remember who) began to describe the town as ‘the only book village east of the Mississippi.’ (Other American book towns include Stillwater, Minnesota, and Archer City, Texas.) …

“Barbara Balliet and Cheryl Clarke, a couple who spent their careers at Rutgers University, moved to Hobart at around that time. Clarke was surprised to find such a tiny community, far from cities or colleges, so overrun with books. …

” ‘She says, “You find all kinds of people who like books, and they’re not just college-educated.’ When the two women arrived, they met a bookseller who was ready to sell her stock, so Balliet bought it and they hopped into business themselves.

“Both women saw right away that, compared to other Catskills towns that have lost jobs and emptied out, Hobart seemed to be coming back to life. … The bookstores were a part of that. …

“Balliet says that, although she can’t make a living off the store, she can make a tidy profit — enough to grow a garden, travel, and buy more books. …

“According to the International Organisation of Book Towns, [the first] was Hay-on-Wye, Wales, founded in 1961 by Richard Booth. … Others include Wigtown, Scotland; Featherston, New Zealand; Kampung Buku, Malaysia; and Paju Book City, South Korea.

“As Hobart evolved, individual book shops have found their own specialty, like siblings who each choose their own path. ‘We try to complement each other,’ Balliet says. ‘Each one maintained its own identity and individuality,’ adds Bill Adams. Creative Corner Books, a cozy one-room shop that specializes in craft, cooking, and DIY books, is Hobart’s only shop with a knitting corner.”

More here.

Hat tip: @michikokakutani on twitter

Photo: Blenheim Hill Books in Hobart.

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Photo: Lucy Young/Evening Standard
Jonathan Privett, co-owner of Word On The Water inside the barge.

I love stories about unusual libraries and unusual bookstores. Here’s one from the New York Times about a bookselling endeavor powered by the famed eccentricity of Englishmen.

Rod Nordland writes, “The two men who run London’s only floating bookstore, Word on the Water, are living proof that there really is something you can do in life with an English lit degree, other than teach English literature.

“The store — a 50-foot-long canalboat stuffed to its bulkheads and overflowing onto the towpath with books — has a permanent berth on the Regent’s Canal, around the corner from the British Library. This comes after years of its owners staying one step ahead of eviction from the canals, by relocating fortnightly.

“It is doing so well that Paddy Screech, 51, an Oxford-educated Cornishman with a close-trimmed beard and a soft-spoken manner, and Jonathan Privett, 52, a gaptoothed Yorkshireman who has trouble staying still for long (except with a book), finally took their dream vacations this year. …

“The men got the idea for the store from a book, of course — ‘Children of Ol’ Man River,’ in which Billy Bryant recounts how his British immigrant family arrived on the Mississippi River, homeless, living on a floating board, which they built into a theater, and then into the showboat craze of the late 1800s.

“When they met, Mr. Privett was living on a canalboat, part of a subculture of boat dwellers who berth on London’s canals for free — as long as they keep moving periodically. Mr. Screech had been working with homeless people and drug addicts, while caring for an alcoholic mother at home. ‘Overnight, she stopped drinking and turned into a little old lady who only drank tea,’ he said. …

“Mr. Privett had the book-business experience. Before settling on his canalboat, he had at times been a homeless squatter who supported himself selling used books from street stalls.

“A French friend, Stephane Chaudat, provided a boat big enough to be a store, a 1920s-era Dutch barge; he remains their partner.

“Mr. Privett had a stock of used books. Mr. Screech borrowed 2,000 pounds from his then-sober mother as capital, and their business was born in early 2010. …

“Things went downstream fast. Forced by the berthing laws to move every fortnight, they often found themselves on parts of the nine-mile-long Regent’s Canal with industrial buildings and no customers. …

“Mr. Screech said. ‘For years, it just felt like it was going to sink.’

“Then it did. A friend used the sea toilet on the book barge and left an inlet open, and the boat sank to the bottom; even their prized copy of ‘Ol’ Man River’ was lost. Shortly later, the boat Mr. Privett lived on sunk as well, and he lost all of his family photographs.

“ ‘[We] were just sitting there on the towpath, crying,’ Mr. Screech said. …

“As the canal trust peppered them with legal notices, fines and threats to have the boat barge lifted out of the water and broken up, their supporters got busy, too. One rallying cry of a Twitter post, from the science-fiction author Cory Doctorow, was retweeted a million times, Mr. Screech said.”

Read the whole saga here.

As small blurbs filling out New Yorker magazine columns were once titled, “There’ll always be an England.”

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Photo: City of Asylum
City of Asylum Books specializes in translation and world literature. 

With Amazon opening retail bookstores in Greater Boston and elsewhere, the independent bookstores we all love are more threatened than ever. What new models will help them survive?

The Nonprofit Quarterly discusses one idea.

Louis Altman writes, “Conventional wisdom is that the goliath Amazon, the dominant and diversified Internet retailer of everything from books to 7-string zithers has, with unbeatable pricing and almost infinite selection, crushed all brick-and-mortar booksellers in its path. …

“The truth is that independent booksellers are thriving, with 30 percent growth in the number of these stores from 2009–2016, to 2,311 as of 2016. Between 2014 and 2015, independent booksellers saw their market share actually grow from 7 percent of all book sales in 2014 to 10 percent in 2015. …

“The answer may lie with niche-filling shops like Pittsburgh’s new City of Asylum Books, part of a nascent multipurpose cultural center on the city’s North Side called Alphabet City Center. Alphabet City is a consolidated space recently acquired by City of Asylum, a nonprofit arts organization providing sanctuary and forums of expression for exiled writers of all genres from other countries, introducing many unsung voices to the Pittsburgh public through literary community events. …

“The nonprofit bookstore opened … January 14th, offering some 10,000 titles on a wide range of subjects, specializing in translated works and world literature, in 1,200 square feet of space in the Alphabet City building, which includes a bar, restaurant and a venue for readings, performances and workshops. The bookstore sells everything from cookbooks to children’s books to poetry and harbors a giving library, where patrons can take—and give—books for free. …

“Kepler’s Books of Menlo Park, California, [restructured] as a community-owned bookstore, creating a ‘hybrid model’ maintaining operation of the for-profit bookstore, connecting it with a nonprofit arm housing and sponsoring local literary events and presentations for local schools and the community.” More here.

Whether the independent bookstore will find salvation in nonprofit approaches remains to be seen, but creative thinking is sure to be a requirement for longevity. I myself think independents will need to provide services that many used bookstores, particularly nonprofit used bookstores like the Bryn Mawr Book Store in Cambridge, Mass., provide — for example, tracking down out-of-print books for a fee.

My local independent doesn’t offer many extras. It won’t order self-published books for customers, so I am forced to use Amazon if I want one. “Self-published” can include popular books published in England but not yet available in the US through normal channels. Amazon will provide. Why not independents?

There are other issues with my local independent such as shelving two of my three ordered books when they are all the same title, not offering delivery for a fee, and having a website they know is not worth using. But I want the shop to survive, so I order anything from there that it is willing to get for me.

I’d be interested in other people’s experiences and advice for independents.

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