“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.
Ten 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.
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.