When Pigs Fly: The Improbable Dream of Bookselling in a Digital Age

FlyingPigstorefront 300x200 When Pigs Fly: The Improbable Dream of Bookselling in a Digital Age“I’ve always dreamed of opening a bookstore when I retire.” We used to hear this all the time, a shy confession from book-loving customers and tourists delighted to find an independent bookstore tucked away in a small Vermont town. It was the words “when I retire” that made us smile, this cozy perception of bookselling as something other than work, a magical land where one got to read all day in a rocking chair and occasionally shoo a cat off one’s lap to rise in search of a book…and perhaps ring up a customer. We don’t hear that opening-a-bookstore dream expressed that often anymore; news of widespread bookstore closures and the growing dominance of online retailing and the rise of digital books have all made people more aware of the challenges of our field. But the fierce passion for printed books, and a desire for them in the hearts of our communities, is still alive and well. Will it be enough to sustain a faltering industry? It’s hard to say. When the Horn Book invited me to write about the joys and challenges of operating an independent bookstore in the twenty-first century, I was both honored and a bit wary: do people really want to know the realities of bookselling? Or do they want the dream?

Unlike many booksellers, my partner and I got into the business by accident. We had moved to northern Vermont from Manhattan in June 1996, seeking green grass and fresher air and a less hectic life; we were in our early thirties, full of dreams and a taste for adventure. Vermont was beautiful, gay-friendly (an early adopter of civil rights laws), and small enough that everything seemed possible.

The center of the little town of 3,500 where we settled held a post office, a fire station, a preschool, and a tiny market. There was also a café in a cute little square building that used to be the old post office. When a “for lease” notice appeared on that building three months into our Vermont sojourn, Josie and I immediately began brainstorming: could we do something special with that space? It took us about fifteen minutes to decide that a bookstore — specifically a children’s bookstore — was the only endeavor we had any business considering. We both had teaching backgrounds, master’s degrees in education, and experience with kids from age three through high school. We had both taught reading to literacy students. We had entrepreneurial enthusiasm. Above all, we had a knowledge and love of books.

Once we made the decision, we acted quickly. How hard could it be, really? We weren’t attempting to be a nationally known entity; we just wanted to be a neighborhood resource, a mom-and-pop store, something one step up from a hobby. Back then, you see, we were the ones who thought opening a bookstore might be something one did in near-retirement — a calm job, probably not likely to make us much money (even then, profit margins were slim), but a labor of love we hoped could support us.

FlyingPiginterior2006 300x200 When Pigs Fly: The Improbable Dream of Bookselling in a Digital AgeTen weeks later, we opened our doors. Ten weeks from idea to opening day! I don’t advise this. I’m not sure it was even possible, but it happened. We opened with 850 square feet, 6,500 books, a purple front door, brightly painted walls in a hue we called “Dr. Seuss Blue,” and candy-striped awnings. The Flying Pig was named in large part for the improbability of our vision — a seat-of-the-pants, fly-by-day operation that we learned by doing. Sixteen years later, we have thirty thousand books and a retail space nearly twice as large, four miles north of our original location. While our immediate surroundings have changed, it’s the landscape of bookselling that is almost unrecognizable. When we opened, there were several thousand independent bookstores in the U.S. Now, there are fewer than two thousand — less than half. And we are Chittenden County’s oldest independent new-bookstore.

A good “indie” measures profit not only in book sales but in what it adds to the community. Its role goes far beyond mere commerce. Something I often want to ask customers, authors, friends, and even family who routinely give their business to online mega-corporations is, Do those corporations bring authors and other cultural opportunities to your communities, igniting joy and wonder and possibility in young people? Do they give to your fundraisers and bake sales, donate books and money to your kids’ teams and your favorite causes? Do they set aside new titles just for you, because they know you’ll love them? Help you plan your curriculum using the best possible titles to suit your needs? Hand you a comforting read after your dog dies? Spend a half hour with you to find the perfect book for your niece in the hospital? Do they employ people in your town and contribute taxes to your schools and roads and public services? Customers who support local stores are also supporting themselves and their communities. It’s a beautiful symbiosis.

When we opened, chain stores were just beginning to move into neighborhoods and compete with indies; there were no online book retailers and no e-books. Publishers hadn’t yet created websites where they sold books in direct competition with bookstores, which act as showrooms for their products. In 1996, readers appreciated the value of diverse voices in bookselling, and seemed to better understand the grassroots role of independent booksellers in discovering hidden gems and talking them up until they reached a national audience (and the attention of the chains). When we hosted authors for events, spending time and money promoting them and stocking and hand-selling their books, they didn’t have websites that linked only to Amazon, as many do now.

There are challenges that threaten to undo us. Every time one of our regulars is given a Kindle (the only e-reader that limits book purchases to a single vendor), we feel the loss of those sales. Indies sell e-books and e-readers, too, but getting that word out is an uphill battle. We also now compete with online retailers and publishers for school and library sales (the bread and butter of children’s bookselling). And publishers even offer books in editions we retailers can’t sell; I’m a children’s book author as well as a bookseller, and for several uncomfortable months I couldn’t sell my own book in paperback to the local kids, who were able to buy it at their school book fair and order it from a book club flyer. That kind of thing makes customers think we are trying to charge them more money by carrying only hardcovers.

The list of these increasing encroachments into our livelihood is both legion and depressing. It’s hard not to sound bitter about them, but in truth, they are not even the biggest threats. Most troubling is the consolidation of power — decisions about what to publish, and what to stock on shelves across the nation — into fewer and fewer hands. A book in a healthy bookselling landscape full of independents would have had, say, four thousand chances to catch the eyes of booksellers who might champion it. Now, a single buyer at a chain store might pass on a title, effectively wiping out a couple thousand markets in a single decision. Fewer publishers and fewer markets can lead to a narrowing of cultural diversity and constricted intellectual freedom. In 1996, bookselling was a challenge; in 2012, it’s a fairy-tale glass mountain: worth trying to scale, but ever so slippery.

EandJhangingflag2006 Liz Shayne 200x300 When Pigs Fly: The Improbable Dream of Bookselling in a Digital Age

photo credit: Liz Shayne

A bookstore is one of the few neighborhood businesses that serve every age and interest. Like a market, a bookstore nourishes the community — its food is ideas and imagination and information. We’re part of our customers’ lives from cradle to grave. It’s an honor that people come to us, for books and conversation, sometimes even just for a friendly face, during the hardest and the best times of their lives. We’ve had a baby take his first steps at the Flying Pig. We’ve hosted a wedding. We’ve had the joy of being part of the lives of hundreds of children, handing them The Story of Ferdinand, The Trumpet of the Swan, The Great Gilly Hopkins, The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963, The Martian Chronicles, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, I Capture the Castle, The Golden Compass, Code Name Verity — hundreds of books, some of which we know will change their lives, or at least their minds and hearts, forever. And nonfiction! There’s an immense pleasure in handing a child a book on a subject that lights his or her mind on fire, from sports to cheese-making to medieval history to the undersea world. We have a simple motto we share with the kids who think of themselves as “reluctant readers”: it’s simply a matter of finding the right book at the right time. And that’s what we always aim to do. We’ve seen our child customers grow up, go off to college, and — in more than a few instances — bring in their own children to start a lifelong love affair with reading. That’s a valuable, lucky way to spend a career.

One of my childhood touchstone books was Norton Juster and Jules Feiffer’s The Phantom Tollbooth. In addition to the puns and playfulness, the cleverness and heart, I was struck by a passage at the end of the book that knocked my ten-year-old socks off. It was that marvelous moment when King Azaz reveals the secret of Milo’s journey, as the crowds applaud his rescue of the Princesses Rhyme and Reason:

As the cheering continued, Rhyme leaned forward and touched Milo gently on the arm.

“They’re shouting for you,” she said with a smile.

“But I could never have done it,” he objected, “without everyone else’s help.”

“That may be true,” said Reason gravely, “but you had the courage to try; and what you can do is often simply a matter of what you will do.”

“That’s why,” said Azaz, “there was one very important thing about your quest that we couldn’t discuss until you returned.”

“I remember,” said Milo eagerly. “Tell me now.”

“It was impossible,” said the king, looking at the Mathemagician.

“Completely impossible,” said the Mathemagician, looking at the king…

“But if we’d told you then, you might not have gone — and, as you’ve discovered, so many things are possible just as long as you don’t know they’re impossible.”

If someone told us now, “You’ve got ten weeks to conceive, plan, and open a bookstore that will need to weather wild economic storms and the changing tides of its own industry,” well, we would know that it’s impossible. And we have the flying pig to prove it.

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Elizabeth Bluemle About Elizabeth Bluemle

Elizabeth Bluemle is the co-owner of The Flying Pig Bookstore in Shelburne, Vermont, and co-author of Publishers Weekly’s ShelfTalker blog with Josie Leavitt.

Comments

  1. Wonderful!!!!!

  2. I can relate to a LOT of this! We decided to open our store at the end of July 2011, and opened our doors October 1, 2011. Talk about on-the-job training – whew!

  3. It takes a village to raise a child — and it takes a bookstore to make a village.

  4. A lovely article indeed. I do believe as people’s worlds migrate increasingly away from the tactile then all the more will the sublime grounding of real books remain the refuge that matters most. In this our stores are a much better future than many that come to mind.

  5. Fantastic article. I was one of the young kids that came to Elizabeth and Josie’s bookstore when they opened in Charlotte, and I always stop by when I’m in town. There’s nothing like a bookstore to serve as a community center for like-minded people. Thanks!

    • Ian, you were always the most fun, articulate kid – and have grown into a fantastic adult. I’ll never forget the night of our last Harry Potter party, where you volunteered (as Hermione!), and said, “This night marks the end of my childhood.” It’s been a joy watching you — and all of the kids — grow up!

  6. Susie Alexander says:

    As a children’s-bookstore-owner-in-the-making, I read your poignant piece with my heart and mind. Thank you for sharing your beautiful thoughts. It gave me great encouragement for the world that I am embarking on! I hope to visit your store in VT someday . . . and I hope you will have an opportunity to visit Once Upon a Storybook in Southern California, after it opens.

  7. I’m now planning a trip to Vermont (when the snow melts), with child in tow, to visit your bookstore. What a compelling story. I’m hoping your door is still painted purple!

  8. Elizabeth, this was articulate, accurate, and actually encouraging. Thanks to you and Josie talking us through the initial set-up phase, we are about to celebrate our 15th year here at MainStreet BookEnds. It has defined our lives, placed us squarely in the heart of this community, and we would not have missed this ride for anything. To rephrase a quote from Wendell Berry about the land, these independent bookstores are our source, not just a resource. Thank you for speaking so lovingly for all of us.

  9. Exactly- you have hit the highs and lows of the angst of being a bookstore owner. We too moved quickly to own a store, both The Sea Otter Bookstore which I started in Salinas in 1977 (probably took about 3 months because we had to have shelves designed by an architect and built by a carpenter in those days) and Village Square Booksellers that I purchased in Nov 2000 (after receiving a press release that they would close 3 weeks before) and later when we moved it to a storefront 3 times its size within 6 weeks in 2002. At the time we purchased VSBooks, we had “sailed away” & been retired since 1992. We knew it was not a money-making opportunity.
    It is the only business where you can use your educational background in so many ways to help your community – all of the business (inventory control and computer systems) and team building skills I learned in manufacturing easily translate to managing both the bookstore and the local organizations that are so vital to Vermont communities. And yes, I do too much- I’ve just been elected to yet another position as Library Trustee after our renovation project has been devastated by a now-bankrupt main contractor.
    Oh and in addition to all the community activities most indies are involved in, we sell hand-chosen books and toys and gifts- things that make our customers feel good. Helping to solve problems (emotional, family, health) or just encouraging someone to read by putting the right book in their hands- that is what makes me feel like indies will survive.

  10. Wonderful article, Elizabeth! Kudos to you and Josie, and much continued success!

  11. Elizabeth, I loved this! So much heart, so much information. I’m proud to know you and wish I could get to your store more often!

  12. How often do tears come to my eyes when reading an article about opening a business? Thanks for doing what you always do, whether here or on ShelfTalker: show me the life behind the thing I love so much.

    Thank you for that Phantom Tollbooth quotation, too! I think even the first three lines–about how what you can do is often just a matter of what you will do–will stay with me.

  13. Wonderful article – wonderful story! I’m so glad you both decided to accomplish the impossible! :) e

  14. I still have a collection of children’s books that have special inside covers—my children pictured with authors who then signed their books. My daughter at 2 weeks old being held by Charlotte Zolotow, James Marshall with his arm around my four-year-old son after he’d just recovered from a full on temper tantrum where he threw himself on the floor screaming “I hate books!” because he wanted a puppet. All of us dressed in red on the Valentine’s Day we met Aliki. I would have had none of these books (or memories) with out the wonderful Jody Fickes Shapiro who welcomed thousands into Adventures for Kids in Ventura!

    • Yes! Jody’s Adventures for Kids was a significant force in our community, Susie. Although the store closed soon after her retirement, Jody is still connecting kids and books and passionately championing indie bookstores.

  15. Elizabeth, thank you for telling your story of risk-taking and dreaming and love. But thank you as well for speaking to the unprecedented challenges that face indie booksellers–the same challenges that writers and illustrators must also contend with. Your point about Kindles is especially sobering. Thank you in all for speaking as honestly and bravely as you always do.

  16. In my online children’s book writing classes I always take a moment to encourage my students — many of whom live outside of major cities — to purchase books from independents or online at Indybound. I tell them that independent booksellers have the potential to be the greatest ally an emerging author could ever wish for — but that those advocates and allies can’t survive unless book lovers support them. Now I have an article to give them that sums up the reasons to support independents far more gracefully than I ever could. Thank you!

  17. Kristin Elizabeth Clark says:

    A beautiful article – thank you so much for writing it AND for establishing and maintaining such an important and magical place. I especially loved this line: “A good “indie” measures profit not only in book sales but in what it adds to the community.”

    Truer words, truer words…

  18. Here’s to the Flying Pig and other indies for making possible the impossible, each and every day.

  19. Thank you for beautifully articulating what we all love about creating, working for, and supporting a small independent bookstore! Linden Tree Books in Los Altos, Callfornia has also been around over 25 years, has moved a few times, and has seen trends come and go, but nothing replaces the pure joy we experience when we put the right book into the hands of a child. May we all continue to be thriving many years from now.

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