“If we take this money here…and put it here,” my cousin said, “it might work.”
“I don’t have the faintest idea,” I said.
And I don’t.
I’ve talked about it forever: my ambition as a young girl to open a bookstore, and I spent Career Week shyly hanging around The Paper Place. Then there was Cattleman’s Books: just about the time I’d arranged everything, the Cattleman got sick and his relatives pulped the books.
When my husband said I should blog less, after a marathon of writing featurettes on the pros and cons of blogging, I wistfully came up with the idea of opening a bookstore called Backlisted! I would carry no new books, only books on publishers’ backlists and used books. I would order remainders and discount NYRB books. I would buy books at estates. I would cozy up to writers who live in a 150-mile radius and insist they give readings, and get people to attend with promises of drugs (kidding) or champagne cake from that really good bakery. I would have Cult Fiction week: A Confederacy of Dunces , H. D., and Jane Gaskell’s Atlan fantasy quintet. To please the Persephone Junta and the Virago Junta (and I’m joking: I’m a MEMBER of the Persephone and Virago juntas), I would wear a frilly apron over a skirt, twin set and fake pearls. Not to mention Dalkey Archive week. What a good small press that is!
I’ve been sidetracked from my bookstore plans by doing the expected thing: I taught after being a T.A. in grad school (“You’re a born teacher,” my mom said-ha!), and later writing and editing for various publications (“You’re a good writer,” said a professor of mine gloomily; he didn’t otherwise think highly of my skills. I had to explain that my friend and I turned up at the Boethius lecture because we had read Boethius; heavens, why else would anyone go to anything so boring?).
There are drawbacks to opening a bookstore. Fourteen or fifteen bookstores have gone bust here since the ’90s. What could I possibly do that they couldn’t? We have to drive 100 or more miles to Iowa City or Omaha to get to a good bookstore. And even then I’m not sure the stores are thriving.
Here are three fun pluses of opening a bookstore.
1. You can invent a whole new image of yourself. New hair, new clothes, smart new glasses: I see myself playing the intellectual and reciting speeches from the salons in War and Peace. But I know how these things go. I’m much more likely to look preppy and sound ditzy than intellectual (the new preppy ditz look!), and even though I’m not ditzy, I might be a little bit preppy, though it’s usually spoiled by a blouse coming untucked.
2. You can have your own book group. Naturally you make use of your connections or no one will come: your cousin and her friends, your friend Janet who lives 200 miles away (“Why CAN’T you come?”) and her friends, and those truly horrible people in the Great Books club.
3. Let everyone list their favorite books in a beautiful leather notebook and once a week post “So-and-So’s favorite book!” and a small display of one or two copies. We’re not snobs. Let it be what it is. Wuthering Heights or Mistress of Mellyn. It’s a book!
Minuses or Things to Avoid:
1. Do not live in your store, microwave Italian dinners so the whole place smells like Stouffer’s, or tell anyone that you shower at the neighborhood gym. The very thought of your hanging around sitting on the floor because you can’t afford chairs, or using a box as your desk is enough to sadden anyone.
2. You want a nice cat in your store, not an attack cat. After years of loving every cat I met at bookstores (especially Martha at Brookfield-Murphy Books), I finally met one at a used bookstore that jumped on my bare legs. I never went back there.
If someone would give me a bookstore, I’d run it. And, yes, if I don’t open a bookstore soon, I never will.
Amazon is the bookstore of the future. Or the present. Who knows what the future holds? For now, only the online thing can make money, if it can, and I’m not sure of that.
What kind of bookstore would you open if you had a chance?