Illustration of bookstore from "Globe and Mail"

Illustration of bookstore from “Globe and Mail”

“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?

10 thoughts on “Backlisted!

  1. \Perhaps I can work at your store, rather than run my own: I’d like that. And, by ‘work’, I mean acquaint myself throughly with the stock and pet the non-attack cat in residence.


  2. I would love to see a small independent bookstore make a good go at it on the Internet, but most of all I would love to see a huge competitor give Amazon a run for its money. Surely other companies besides Amazon can stream books?


  3. Yes, it would be nice to have more online bookstores. Amazon does everything very well, but I don’t understand why B&N can’t compete, because it is online and even has the Nook to compete with the Kindle.

    Something new will come along sometime. Even Jeff Bezos has said that in an interview.

    Indies just can’t make it anymore. If I opened a bookstore, alas, it would probably be gone in a month. I know some cities still have good indies, and I pray for them!


  4. I always dreamed of having a bookstore too! In my city in Mexico there were no bookstores from 1984 until 2006 (aproximately) there were only school supplies stores that had school books in the back of the store. Parents would line up with their lists and wait for hours to fulfill the order.
    In 2006 after I moved to Montreal, I went back to visit and there was this beautiful bookstore in the historical downtown. I couldn’t believe it! But can you imagine, more than 20 years without a bookstore. Obviously I didn’t live there all that time, I moved to bigger cities and I used to travel to the US to buy books.

    I work at a bookstore. I’m the e-commerce/web/social media person.
    When I started I had the same illusion as everyone who comes to drop their CV.. “how wonderful to be sitting around reading all day…”
    The truth is you never get to read when you work at a bookstore if you care about its survival. We serve a niche so we’re still standing, although every year sales go down.
    We are sustained by… yup, school books. Literature is the soul but school books are the money.

    For a bookstore to survive it needs to serve a very specific niche and have an alternative revenue stream, be it a coffeeshop, a room for events, workshops, etc. Also, you need highly passionate people who like to work with people which isn’t my case (I’m afraid I’m too much of an introvert), people who read like to talk about books (70% of the time I discovered) and my introversion doesn’t help much with that so I’m relegated to the web.

    Two examples of bookstores with niche markets: New York City’s Crime Pays bookstore
    And here in Montreal, Drawn and Quarterly, a lovely shop that is also a publishing house. They publish mostly graphic novels but sell a very well curated selection of literature (for hipsters).

    A good used books shop seems to work well. At least here in Montreal there are a couple that I raid often and they have a fantastic selection. If you know books opening a used bookstore is a very good alternative. Curating the selection is half the success.

    sorry for taking over your post! I got excited once again with the topic!


  5. Dear Luisa, I’m glad your hometown finally has a bookstore. I don’t understand how towns can survive without a bookstore, but even a university town I know no longer has a new bookstore. So it’s great that yours has a bookstore now that everyone else is closing.

    We want to hear from bookstore people! Yes, I know my bookstore is just a dream. People have tried here, and just can’t make it. I know from an SF group I used to belong to that even when the group is held at a bookstore the people tend to get the book at the library instead of the bookstore. I thought that was rude: perhaps that’s why the bookstore no longer sponsors the group.

    Montreal is such a sophisticated city, and I do know about niche stores. Very lucky your store has a niche! I’m sure you’re ideal for the website because you know so much about trends. In Omaha there is a mystery bookstore, but it had to be bailed out by a city grant. Still, I like it very much, and always buy something when I’m there.

    Yes, used bookstores have the best chance. My husband says I’d have to sell MY books, and I don’t like the idea of that at all. I can just see it: somebody would want to buy one of my books, I wouldn’t have read it yet, and I’d have to say somebody else wanted it… You can imagine!

    But, who knows? Maybe I’ll try to open one someday. The web can’t last forever. Or can it?:)

    One friend told me I should move to Iowa City and open a bookstore, but it already has eight, I think. I doubt a university town could support more than that….


  6. I would like to have a bookstore like the one described in Laura Lippman’s Tess Monaghan mystery series. It’s owned by Tess’ relative (aunt?) who does, I think, live above the store. Lots of interesting activities there and occasionally a murder.

    Open your store so you can help us with a problem. My brother has a summer place in Vermont. It’s a large old house so members of the family have been dumping our surplus books up there for years. We regard it as a Vermont library. Now he wants to sell the place, but what to do with all those books! You could sell them for us, after first reading them, of course.


  7. Nancy, I must read the Tess Monaghan series. Living above the store is okay: it’s right IN the store that is a little strange.

    If I open a store, I will definitely have dibs on your “VErmont library.”


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