A survival guide for independent bookshops
Mandy Jo Shelton
Master of Arts in Literature and Publishing
National University of Ireland, Galway
August 21, 2013
Dr Edward Herring, Dean of Arts
Dr Julia Carlson Kilroy, Programme Director
Dedicated to all the beloved bookshops in the world.
Shakespeare and Company 9
Charlie Byrne’s 11
A Business Model for the Future 12
Chapter One: Shakespeare and Company 15
Lending Library 20
Location, Location, Location 26
Fact and Fiction 32
Chapter Two: Charlie Byrne’s 40
A Brief History 43
Used Books 47
Location, Location, Location 49
Writers in Residence 52
Julian Gough 54
Ken Bruen 58
Travel Guides 60
Chapter Three: A Business Model for the Future 66
Social Media 75
Online recommendations 77
Solitary Activity 79
Writer Workspace 81
International Influence 83
As Publishers 87
Works Cited 94
This year in Galway would not have been possible–logistically, emotionally, and financially–without the help of several people: my parents, who have made untold sacrifices to subsidize my education; the United States Department of Education, who should be contacting me very soon about that unsubsidized student loan; the NUIG International Affairs Office for holding my hand through the process; the Garda Síochána for allowing me to stay in the country; Nona and the whole Shelton clan for helping me find my way; the Collins side of the family for lending support online and in real life; my sister, who I love deep deep down in my heart; Jason, Echo, and little baby Avree; my Tonka Truck, the 2003 Toyota Tacoma whose sale financed the first semester; the credit cards that financed the second semester; and of course, Brad and Biscuit, who can always make me smile, even over Skype.
Thanks to Charlie Byrne, Vinny Browne, Carmel McCarthy, and Megan Buckley at Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop for answering my questions and bestowing upon me a lifetime employee discount—though this may negate any claims toward impartiality, it also made life in Galway a bit brighter during the dark times. Thanks to Eoin Purcell for allowing me to pester him with speculation about ereaders.
Courses with Maureen O’Sullivan, Elizabeth Tilley and Rebecca Barr, Toner Quinn, Tim Keane, and Stephen Kavanagh all helped shape my thoughts during this Masters programme. Jeff Fowler at Refine Right Editing Services polished several of my essays. Melissa Garcia read a draft of my personal statement, and Ingrid Larson allowed me to pick her brain about the grad school application process. I am grateful to Rhonda Roddy, Elisabeth Piedmont-Marton, Walt Herbert, Michael Saenger, Jim Kilfoyle, Heather Gandy, Matt Crain, Lori Blewett, Ben Trollinger, and Paul Gravley for providing recommendations over the years. Bonnie Casson-Deweese and Lindsay Dold O’Sullivan approved of my bookworminess, and Cristen Luman has been a great supporter of the ROPES social media campaign. Celena Hebert acted as my fairy godmother, while Piotr and Patrycja Prokop let me wear my wings in their car. Many thanks to Nicole Priest, Joyce May, and Kendra Chesire for the send-off last summer.
The ROPES crew deserves credit for being a sounding board, complaints department, and generally lovely group of kinder. I harbor a fierce loyalty toward Jigsaw Galway and every local business that bought an ad when I was trying to learn the ropes of literary marketing; and anyone who bought a copy of Coming of Age, whether in print or as the first ebook in ROPES history, deserves an Irish blessing. Pádraic Breathnach, Dani Gill, and Zulaikha Engelbrecht allowed me to participate in the inner workings of the Cúirt International Festival of Literature. A very big thanks to Shelley Troupe, Patrick Lonergan, Paul Fahy, and John Crumlish for organizing the Selected programme, which set the stage for an unforgettable Galway Arts Festival 2013, as well as a healthy debate about ebooks over lunch at the House Hotel. That selected group of developing talent also brought me inspiration during that fortnight.
This thesis almost went in a very different direction, and I am grateful to those who assisted me in the time it took to mull it over. Special thanks must be extended to Marie-Louise Coolahan for not giving up on me, and to Julia Carlson Kilroy for overseeing everything… for everyone… at all times. Those who guided me through the Irish language—Daithi Ó Madáin, Feargal Ó Béarra, Philip Fogarty, and Rachel Ní Fhionnáin—deserve míle buíochas for their patience. Kristin Harrington, who is smarter than me in every way, contributed a book to my research during her visit. My “not all those who wander are lost” pilgrimage to the home of Gutenberg would not have been possible without Jessa Crispin’s offer of an internship and use of her apartment in Berlin. As a tour guide during that month, Lily Reilly was wunderbar.
Finally, I send my love to Julia Mancini and Sandra Tossou, who I met as Jules Spector and Sandy Burns in the autumn of 2004, when I was often in tears and very close to packing up and heading home to Texas. My own little expatriate community helped make Galway the magical place I would want to return to again and again. The two of you have shaped my education, my career, and my life in more ways than you could possibly imagine. Sláinte, y’all.
The bookshop has long been place of community for readers, a common ground where writers and publishing professionals can interact with their customers, surrounded by the physical objects that bring them all together. Book events such as signings, launches, and festival programming all bring life to a bookshop, while quiet moments of reading and browsing the shelves lead to new discoveries and unplanned purchases. With the encroachment of online sales, as well as the digital shift taking place across the publishing industry, bookshops are currently facing important questions of adaptation and survival.
By looking at the history of the fabled Shakespeare and Company of 1920s Paris, as well as the current performance of Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop in Galway, perhaps the trajectory of bookselling can be anticipated in the years to come. This study of bookshops—past, present, and future—will be useful in analyzing the appeal of a retail environment that combines books, buildings, and business. As bricks-and-mortar bookshops cope with changes to the publishing industry as a whole, the mythology of the bookstore is a very real attribute that should be explored further.
Two underlying themes account for bookshops’ unique cultural and economic standing: the tendency for booklovers to imbue bookstores with the same narrative qualities contained within the books themselves; and the belief that creativity flourishes when money is tight and the establishments surrounding artists are at their most vulnerable. Bookshops are commercial ventures blessed with the ephemeral qualities of art, and in such storied bookshops, the very shelves hold the secrets to survival. Yet at the same time, bookshops are charged with protecting literature from market forces and a culture of convenience.
The climate surrounding bookshops can be ascertained from media coverage, personal interviews, and works of literature, which will provide a history of bookselling, a snapshot of the situation today, and a way forward into the future.
Given a good pitch and the right amount of capital, any educated person ought to be able to make a small secure living out of a bookshop.
(From Bookshop Memories by George Orwell)
As purveyor of the apparatus for what is ultimately a solitary activity, the bookseller occupies a precarious space at the intersection of quiet reverence and celebrated cultural exchange, between the semblance of loneliness and the joy of interpersonal connection, and between the pursuit of art for art’s sake and the possibility of a profitable (or at least sustainable) business model.
Art galleries, museums, cafes, and coffee shops have all at some point offered an almost magical atmosphere for members of civilization, past and present. Occasionally, these spaces need to be protected by those who have sought shelter within their walls. Aesthetes must make room in their psyches, their budgets, and their daily schedules to support these cultural institutions and ensure their survival. As the end customers in the bookselling chain, readers hold the most power in the financial equation, but authors and publishers too have their roles to play. Booksellers themselves are tasked with maintaining relevance and keeping up with the market, no matter how rapidly changing and, at times, unfair the digital shift may seem.
One way of contributing to the debate is to explore the literary, economic, and societal themes that interact to create the lore of the bookshop—past, present, and future.
Shakespeare and Company
For many, the ideal bookshop will always be Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company in 1920s and 30s Paris. The American expatriate, drawn to France at a time when continental living was much cheaper than interbellum stateside existence, operated an English-language lending library and bookshop across the street from her partner’s French-language bookshop. Written about by many famous authors of the era and infamous for publishing James Joyce’s Ulysses, Shakespeare and Company inspired so much literary-infused Lost Generation nostalgia that a second incarnation, an homage of a bookshop with the same name, operates in Paris today.
The original Shakespeare and Company played to host to such writers as Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, and Henry Miller. Sylvia Beach served as curator, patron, muse, postmistress, and librarian to an entire card catalog of literary geniuses. The shop itself was famously liberated by Hemingway during the end of the Second World War, but this was not enough to keep Beach in business. The current incarnation, which still operates in the shadow of Notre Dame, exists as proof of the dictum: imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
From a publishing industry perspective, the person of Sylvia Beach and her evolving business model continue to generate interest due to the sheer force of personality involved, as well as the blatant disregard for the categorical silos of librarian, bookseller, publisher, reader, and author. Beach tried her hand at all, leading to the 1922 publication of the so-called obscenities contained within Ulysses. Beach risked federal prosecution to bring the book into existence, all throughout dealing with Joyce’s constant revisions and requests for loans.
The story of Shakespeare and Company rightfully holds a prime place in the mythology of bookselling, as Beach created a welcoming space at a crossroads of culture, something many aspire to in today’s world of global collaboration and digital innovation.
The local neighborhood bookshop is the stalwart of an intellectual community, past and present. Among them, contemporary bookshops grapple with how to order, stock, and advertise books: bestselling books, used books, rare books, self-published books, and, now, ebooks. All are faced with the looming presence of Amazon. Questions of location, distribution, pricing models, social media presence, and of course, community, are industry-wide. Yet each independent bookshop has a different plan and a different story to tell about bookselling in the digital era.
In Galway alone, five different bookshops represent a range of strategies and approaches to sales of trade books: high street retailer Easons, Dubray’s independent chain, Charlie Byrne’s new-and-used bookshop, Kennys bookshop and gallery, and Bell, Book, and Candle’s West End presence. When searching for that magical community bookshop, it is Charlie Byrne’s that offers Galway a sort of Shakespeare and Company of its own.
Charlie Byrne’s, the locally owned new-and-used bookseller in the city centre of Galway, is an excellent focal point for a study of the contemporary bookstore. Once Kennys, the friendly rival across the street, abandoned its bricks-and-mortar location for an online business model, Charlie’s became the hub of Galway’s literary community. Several authors of fictional works, such as Julian Gough and Ken Bruen, have written about Charlie Byrne’s place in the community fabric. The bookshop has also expanded its online presence, as social media becomes more important in retail.
In Galway, though removed from publishing hubs such as New York, London, and even Dublin, the culture surrounding bookshops provides insight into a changing industry, and the approach seen at Charlie Byrne’s is best suited for the tough road ahead.
A Business Model for the Future
At this exciting time of transition in the publishing industry, bookshops are facing game-changing upheavals that caught a few major players by surprise. A decade ago, mom-and-pop shops were threatened by the presence of book superstores, such as Barnes and Noble or Waterstones. Now, in the wake of Amazon’s ascendency, at least one such chain (Borders) has been pushed out of business by the very same price penetration and loss-leader strategies that big-box stores used to edge out smaller bookshop rivals.
Shoppers are still browsing for books, but often use bricks-and-mortar bookstores as showrooms, choosing to hunt for lower prices online. Shoppers save a percentage off the cost of the books they thumb through in the local bookshop, allowing the small business owner to pay overhead for the online sale. In countries where the Net Book Agreement is still a factor, price-fixing means grocery stores and other giant retailers cannot undercut book prices, but online retailers have affected book sales globally.
The flipside, however, is that online retailers cannot connect with a community in the same way as Shakespeare and Company or Charlie Byrne’s. Amazon cannot host a book launch, support a self-published local author, or create a window display to synchronize with an upcoming event. It is clear that bookshops have relied on that sense of community during the lean years of Amazonian oppression. Surely, however, there must be a way for bookshops to launch an offensive of their own, adapting to the internet and using Amazon’s own strategies to strengthen sales. Social media is a blessing for small businesses, if used correctly, and ebooks will also need to be embraced by independent booksellers.
There are several intersecting aspects of successful bookselling. Seen separately as a business, the bookstore in its current incarnation makes little financial sense and will surely fail if it does not evolve. Seen as a magical space of community-building and intellectual exchange, the bookshop becomes the stuff of fairy tales, with no long-term viability. However, a strategy that somehow incorporates both business and leisure might have a place in the civilization of the future.
The digital shift is affecting all types of businesses, not just books. It is worth noting that books are only one category of online sales, a single tab on the homepage of Amazon, the WalMart of the digital world. From hardware to stuffed animals, retail is changing, and it holds true that certain items are best bought over the internet. Online sales allow for more customers all over the world, 24-hours a day. Retailers that do not keep up with this shift will go out of business.
In order to guarantee that books are still a better value when purchased in real life, bookshops must offer something even more desirable than competitive prices and wide selection. Libraries also showcase physical books and can easily fill the void left by bookshops that are unwilling or unable to adapt to the influence of online retailers. The bookshops that survive must prove the cultural and civic value of an entity that exists in the space between libraries and online booksellers.
Bookshops offer mood and atmosphere, insight into local and current themes, memorable characters, and noteworthy events—the very intangibles that readers seek in a good book. Perhaps booksellers should look to their own supply for guidance through what will surely continue to be a difficult retail environment. Just as readers seek layers, nuance, gravitas, and humor in the books they read, so have they come to expect these things from the physical places where they buy books. The value of bookshops is really a question of the value of literature.
Chapter One: Shakespeare and Company
In those days there was no money to buy books. Books you borrowed from the rental library of Shakespeare and Company, which was the library and bookstore of Sylvia Beach at 12 rue de l’Odéon. On a cold windswept street, this was a lovely, warm, cheerful place with a big stove in winter, tables and shelves of books, new books in the window, and photographs on the wall of famous writers both dead and living. The photographs all looked like snapshots and even the dead writers looked as though they had really been alive. Sylvia had a lively, very sharply cut face, brown eyes that were as alive as a small animal’s and as gay as a young girl’s, and wavy brown hair that was brushed back from her fine forehead and cut thick below her ears and at the line of the collar of the brown velvet jacket she wore. She had pretty legs and she was kind, cheerful and interested, and loved to make jokes and gossip. No one that I ever knew was nicer to me.
I was very shy when I first went into the bookshop and I did not have enough money on me to join the rental library. She told me I could pay the deposit any time I had the money and made me out a card and said I could take as many books as I wished.
There was no reason for her to trust me. She did not know me and the address I had given her, 74 rue Cardinal Lemoine, could not have been a poorer one. But she was delightful and charming and welcoming and behind her, as high as the wall and stretching out into the back room which gave onto the inner court of the building, were the shelves and shelves of the richness of the library.
(From A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway)
The period between World War I and World War II saw many young Americans moving to the European continent, particularly to Paris, in search of artistic freedom and cheaper rent. This génération perdue, as they came to be known, comprised a vast English-speaking community that was connected by art galleries and literary salons, with stalwarts like Gertrude Stein and James Joyce wielding influence over the younger lions of American literature, particularly Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald, with a little help from the United States government, ushered in the Jazz Age of flappers and prohibition with the 1920 publication of his first novel, This Side of Paradise, but was influencing American culture from Paris by the mid-Twenties. He had met the young journalist Hemingway and introduced him to his editor, Maxwell Perkins of the Charles Scribner’s Sons publishing house. Both Fitzgerald and Hemingway were enthralled by the writing of Joyce, who they would soon have occasion to meet, thanks to the publisher of Ulysses, an American woman named Sylvia Beach.
For the Lost Generation, Stein’s art-filled home hosted literary salons and the Cafe Deux Magots provided coffee, cocktails, and the occasional sustenance, but Shakespeare and Company, Beach’s English-language bookshop on rue de l’Odéon, sourced the reading material. In Beach’s own words:
Shakespeare and Company immediately became a center for young American writers who had had to flee from persecution in our country. Their post-War need of freedom of expression had come in contact with American post-War restrictions, and the spirit of independence inherited from their ancestors, drove them to take refuge in France
(Institut Radiophonique 322).
Often heralded as “the patron saint of independent bookstores,” Beach devoted her life to literature (Walsh xxv). To this day, the bookstore that consumed her time, energy, and health serves as the standard by which all other bookstores are measured. The American diplomat Morrill Cody observed something of this bookselling idealism as early as 1924, when Shakespeare and Company was hardly five years old. Upon visiting the shop for an article in Publishers Weekly, Cody writes: “In fact Miss Beach has all the theories that so many booksellers would like to believe, but nearly always sacrifice because of ‘financial interest.’ In Shakespeare and Company these theories are put in practice, and they work! It does not follow, however, that they would work anywhere else” (Cody 311).
The legend of Shakespeare and Company looms large over the book world. Perhaps the most famous English-language bookshop in history, its new-and-used lending library and literary clubhouse business model did little to enrich its proprietress, but did take hold of the public imagination and, in many ways, kindle the ambition of her successors. “In her last years, Beach was sought out by readers and booksellers, all striving to re-create the model of her shop” (Walsh, xxv). Few bookshops would ever achieve the fame of Shakespeare and Company.
The literature sold in the shop, written in the atmosphere surrounding the shop, and—in more recent years—created about the shop itself has been vital to its continually exalted place in literary history. Shakespeare and Company may not have succeeded as a financial venture, but its story could easily be a work of prize-winning fiction.
Beach opened Shakespeare and Company in 1919, at the age of 32. After first scouting locations in New York and London, she settled on Paris, where she had lived with her family as a teenager. “She discovered her first French literature in bookstalls along the quais of the Seine and helped organize poetry readings and musical evenings for American students when her father was a pastor in the Latin Quarter” (Comstock 214). This love of French culture would keep her in Paris until her death in 1962.
Beach soon met Adrienne Monnier, and the two would engage in a business and personal partnership until Monnier’s death in 1955. In a 1927 speech, Beach recalls Monnier’s influence on the new endeavor:
It was a French woman, Mlle. Adrienne Monnier, founder of the first literary bookshop in Paris, who gave me the idea of opening a library where French readers might become acquainted with the modern literature of England, and particularly of America. Such a library was completely lacking in Paris at the time. During the War I discovered Mlle. Monnier’s “Maison des Amis des Livres” where writers and readers met, undisturbed by the bombs (Institut Radiophonique 321).
Monnier assisted Beach in securing a retail space at 8 rue Dupuytren, just around the corner from Monnier’s own shop. Beach recalls: “Americans are supposed to be capable in business matters; in this case an American girl would have been lost in her first attempts to run a bookshop, had she not been guided by the experience and wisdom of her French friend” (ibid). More candidly, Beach writes to her mother, in a letter dated August 27, 1919, that “Monnier is going to see that they do not charge me American prices for all of this” (Beach 76).
For her part, Monnier had learned the bookselling business by diving in head-first. She benefited from the war effort, which saw most male entrepreneurs off in the trenches. In her memoirs, Monnier writes: “Competition could not smother me because most of the booksellers were in the army. As life was slowed down, I did not lack the time to learn a profession whose practice I was completely ignorant of. I loved books, that was all” (Monnier 12).
In her memoirs, Beach recalls the very humble beginnings of Shakespeare and Company, as well as the first of many loans from her family: “Shortly, my mother in Princeton got a cable from me, saying simply: ‘Opening bookshop in Paris. Please send money,’ and she sent me all her savings,” a reported three thousand dollars (Shakespeare and Company 17 and Comstock 219). Beach named the shop after “my associate ‘Bill’ Shakespeare,” as she refers to the Bard in a 1940 letter to Monnier (Beach 187). The Company of the name evoked the lineage of English-language literature, and the shop was to specialize in lending books to polyglot Parisians and a growing expatriate community.
Shakespeare and Company moved from its original location to the famous number 12 rue de l’Odéon, across the street from Adrienne Monnier’s Maison des Amis des Livres, in 1922.
Shakespeare and Company began as a lending library, where English-language readers could borrow from a stock that was initially limited to Sylvia Beach’s personal collection. In his Publishers Weekly article, Cody notes an annual fee of just over four dollars. “Beach has about 100 subscribers whose fees are enough to cover her expenses, and what profit she makes is on the sale of new books.” Cody goes on to observe that “the youngest subscriber is four and a half years old, and she picks out such books as the Jungle Book to have her nurse read to her…. Another subscriber is so old that he must be carried in on a wheelchair” (Cody 311). These subscribers would eventually donate books: some from their suitcases, some of which they had written themselves. The collection grew organically, and retail was an afterthought for Beach.
Not limited to members of a particular trade guild or religious organization, Beach’s lending library welcomed a cross-section of Parisian society, giving off a bohemian vibe that would entrench itself in the expatriate culture of Europe between the wars. Beach herself observes: “Students generally borrow the Classics, which are too expensive for their purses, and difficult to obtain from the Sorbonne Library, many needing the same book at the same moment” (Institut Radiophonique 322). In writing to the Friendship Press on March 17, 1937, she explains that “French Negro students in Paris rely on my lending library to keep them in touch, as much as possible, with American Negro literature” (Beach 178). Beach’s own publishing ventures would also prove to be on the cutting edge.
As a lending library, Shakespeare and Company specialized in the repeat customer. Book borrowers would build relationships with Beach and other readers, keeping track of books they wanted, making requests of Beach, and, most importantly, coming back to the shop over and over again to return one book and take out another. This relationship-building exchange, facilitated by Beach’s subscription business model, ensured the sense of community readers seek in the best bookshops.
Beach even circulated a newsletter for her subscribers, keeping in touch with readers near and far and giving them mail-order access to the collection when they could not drop in to the Paris location. This precursor of social media and online bookselling served the same purpose as today’s Facebook Pages and Amazon 1-Click Ordering: to allow patrons to remain wired into the scene and sales at Shakespeare and Company, assuring them they would be welcome if and when they ever returned.
It was this foundation of the well-informed repeat customer, a familiar if expanding collection, and a single personality behind the front desk that allowed Shakespeare and Company to grow into one of the most famous bookshops of all time. By beginning life as a lending library, the bookstore fostered all the goodwill of those public institutions, while subscription fees allowed at least some independence of curation for the proprietress. A thorough knowledge of her subscribers and their literary preferences allowed Beach to chart the course of her collection and steer the direction of the business with greater autonomy.
For Beach, an important aspect of the lending library was literature in translation. The library began partially because Beach was seeking out English translations of great French works and had trouble finding them. With the influx of American, English, and Irish expatriates into Paris at the time, Beach sensed a market of fellow readers who were seeking out great works of Gallic literature, as well as more modern, experimental writing.
Beach herself was a translator. Having lived in Paris since the age of 14, she spoke both English and French. Beach “spent several years engaged in translating [Henri] Michaux’s 1931 Un barbare en Asie (A Barbarian in Asia) for New Directions, an achievement for which she won the Denyse Clairouin Memorial Award for Translation in 1950″ (Walsh xxii). Beach’s partner, Monnier, was a native French-speaker who also spoke English. Together, the two of them translated many works, including those of the modern writers who were revolving in and out of the two bookshops on either side of rue de l’Odéon, most famously T.S. Eliot’s poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Monnier also published and stocked the French edition of Ulysses, translated by M. Valery Larbaud, who Beach refers to as the “godfather to Shakespeare and Company” (Institut Radiophonique 322).
The work of translators is often misunderstood and under-appreciated, and the same is true today as it was in Beach’s time, nearly a century ago. The two-way street of translation is heavily trafficked in the direction of English into other languages, but academics and proponents of literature in translation often lament the lack of translations into English. In an article in A Companion to the History of the Book, Claire Squires argues that:
Typically, UK and US audiences, unless they read in foreign languages and make the effort to acquire foreign-language editions, have a very limited access to texts created beyond their own cultures…. In this analysis, it is the British and American readers who are culturally impoverished, while their publishing industries derive financial benefit from foreign and translation rights (Squires 408).
Beginning with the classics, there is a fine history of translations into the English language, but as the American publishing scene grew stronger and consolidated into larger corporations, very little foreign literature made its way on to American bookshelves. During the course of her career, Beach offered an antidote to this imbalance. It could be argued that an English-language bookshop in the middle of Paris did little to encourage expatriate Americans to improve their French. However, as a business model, Beach was doing her part to reverse the flow of the foreign-and-translation rights tide that was flooding the European market with American literature and swelling the pockets of American publishers.
Shakespeare and Company also got into the book publishing game, adding a new layer to the shop’s nostalgic groundwork and cementing Beach’s place in literary studies. The most infamous book bearing the Shakespeare and Company imprint was the 1922 first edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Joyce’s story had been serialized in a periodical, The Little Review, beginning in 1918, but the modernist masterpiece struggled to find book form until the author approached Beach about taking on the project.
In a letter to her friend Marion Peter, dated May 23, 1921, Beach writes:
My shop is a great success and self supporting and all that sort of thing and just think I am publishing a book now. Ulysses by James Joyce, the greatest book and author of the age….! You probably saw in the papers the uproar caused by the trial of the Editors of the Little Review for printing some of Ulysses in it, and how they were fined $100 and their thumb prints taken…. Ulysses is a masterpiece and one day it will be ranked among the classics in English literature (Beach 87).
In her memoirs, Beach writes of the myriad ways Joyce began to try her patience. Chiefly, he was rewriting entire pages of text on the galleys Darantiére, the Dijon printer, sent to Beach. In a letter to her sister, dated April 23, 1921 (incidentally, the date traditionally accepted as William Shakespeare’s birthday), Beach writes: “Ulysses is going to make my place famous. Already the publicity is beginning and swarms of people visit the shop on hearing the news” (Beach 85). However, Joyce’s rewrites would delay publication for another year.
Once the book was published, Beach learned her struggles had only just begun. Obscenity charges brought against the book in the United States meant a host of problems regarding distribution. In a letter to Marion Peter in Chicago, dated August 7, 1922, Beach writes: “A friend in Canada is smuggling in most of the copies for New York—those in the 150 franc edition; that leaves 10 more of the more expensive ones which I am entrusting to you” (Beach 101). As a follow-up, on May 29, 1923, she writes:
Marion, you were such an angel to take all that trouble bootlegging for me! As for the two copies that were confiscated, it was a miracle they were not all taken. 500 copies of the 2nd edition which appeared in October were seized in the States and the same number were destroyed in England about two months ago by the enlightened (?) authorities. What a dark age we are living in and what a privilege to behold the spectacle of ignorant men solemnly deciding whether the work of some great writer is suitable for the public to read or not! (Beach 105).
Shakespeare and Company would publish eleven editions of Ulysses throughout the Twenties. However, “it became clear in 1931 that Sylvia’s health had been broken by the demands of publication and that Shakespeare and Company was on the verge of bankruptcy because of Joyce’s continued loans and advances against royalties.” Beach soon relinquished her publishing rights, at Joyce’s request (Comstock 218).
Referred to as “The Great Amateur Publisher” by Janet Flanner, Beach cut her teeth in publishing on perhaps the toughest piece of prose ever to see print (Comstock, 223). It is no wonder that she soon lost her taste for publishing, though her predictions about the literary importance of Ulysses would prove true. As a champion of new writing, Beach went above and beyond the call of day-to-day bookselling and risked prosecution to bring a book she believed in to life.
Location, Location, Location
For a bricks-and-mortar bookshop, physical location is crucial to success. As a gathering place for artists and intellectuals, the bookshop of lore is almost always located in an urban area, usually one of the great cities, which are overrun with writers. It should be noted, however, that the booksellers themselves are often part of this neighborhood fabric before they ever set up shop as a retail outlet.
Sylvia Beach first opened Shakespeare and Company at 8 rue Dupuytren, and remained there for the first three years of the bookshop’s existence. In a pattern shared by many successful bookshops, Beach soon began looking for a larger premises, and found one in 1922 at 12 rue de l’Odéon, a two-minute walk from her earlier shop. Both locations were in Paris’s sixth arrondissement, on the celebrated Left Bank of the Seine. Cody describes the locale to American readers as “the oldest part of Paris, full of quaint narrow streets, beautiful arched doorways, and moss-covered stone courts” (Cody 311).
The fact that Adrienne Monnier’s shop was located just across the street provided a nice synergy for the English-language/French-language book market among Paris bohemians, especially since Beach and Monnier had teamed up in both their personal lives as well as literary pursuits. Sharing thoughts and books across rue de l’Odéon, the two complemented one another and brought another dimension to the customer experience at either shop, which Monnier likened to a whole new world: “When the two bookshops faced each other across the street leading to the National Theater, they stood at the entrance to a country Monnier called ‘Odéonia’” (Comstock 197).
This Odéonia, also referred to by Monnier as “the country of memory,” serves as the sort of fictional landscape familiar to most readers, allowing Beach and Monnier, as well as their respective shops, to inhabit a land of their own creation (Monnier 139). This act of genesis by Monnier no doubt appeals to readers who can imagine such a scene from the 1920s:
When Adrienne Monnier first established her shop, the rue de l’Odéon was known primarily to students at the nearby Sorbonne and to those who came, in the evening, to performances at the National Theater. Because of La Maison des Amis des Livres and, later, Shakespeare and Company, the street became one of the most famous in Paris, a street on which even today one meets the ghosts of all those who regularly walked up the slope toward the twin bookshops (Comstock 197).
The book-buying public could easily imagine Joyce, Stein, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway all moving in and out of this magical place in Paris: “Adrienne Monnier was able to create a fictional country–Odéonia–and to populate it with the figures, real and imagined, of her years there” (Comstock 214). This recognizable literary technique of world-building helped enhance the mythology around Shakespeare and Company, contributing to its staying power in the minds of readers, even those who were not alive to see it themselves.
Surely, with fame extending beyond one’s own century, Sylvia Beach must have amassed a veritable fortune from her book empire. Alas, as anyone in the industry knows, bookselling is never a wise route toward financial success, and books boast tragically low profit margins. “In 1921, Sylvia had calculated that Shakespeare and Company earned a total of $100 for the entire year,” the equivalent of just over a thousand dollars today (Comstock 225 and Friedman).
Beach was CEO over her own cottage industry, essentially giving her life over to the business. For an entrepreneur, life without a steady salary, benefits, or the security that goes with a regular nine-to-five job means one is personally liable for the business’s wins and losses. Like Monnier, Beach began with a love of books and worked from there:
She learned the necessary mathematics to keep the accounts at Shakespeare and Company and to juggle the complicated rates of exchange on book purchases, but, like Virginia Woolf, she never was certain of the multiplication and division tables and often resorted to counting on her fingers. She found bookkeeping burdensome, never developing anything more than a rudimentary accounting system that amounted to little more than recording lists of orders and sales (Comstock 212).
In curating her selection of books, Beach had to find the fine line between titles that would move swiftly enough to justify their space on the shelves, and titles that would ensure her bookshop and lending library continued to be known for the quality of selection. “One of the first things that struck me on entering the shop was that no prices are marked in any of the books,” Cody observes. “When someone wishes to buy a book, Miss Beach figures out the price from the American or English price on the basis of current rates of exchange” (Cody 312). The bestsellers of the day might have sold quickly if Beach had chosen to import them especially to Paris, but she chose to focus on the types of books she herself wanted to read, supporting many small publishers and experimental writers.
The proximity to Monnier and her bookshop, Maison des Amis des Livres, could have been a cause for competition, but instead became a source of collaboration:
Adrienne apparently wanted Sylvia to become an astute businesswoman, like herself. But such a dream was never to materialize, in part because Sylvia’s generosity of spirit refused commercial constraints. Although both bookshops were intellectual rather than commercial successes, La Maison des Amis des Livres never skirted bankruptcy to quite the same degree as Shakespeare and Company (Comstock 208).
With a clientele composed of many American expatriates, Shakespeare and Company was caught up by the same Depression that affected so many of Beach’s countrymen. “The problems were made worse for Shakespeare and Company by the effects of the stock market crash of 1929, which not only devalued the American dollar, but took large numbers of Sylvia’s clients back to America” (Comstock 218).
The shop itself featured an intentional freedom of space for movement. When opening her shop, Beach decided “…rather than filling the shop with shelves, she restricted them to the perimeter of the walls, giving the interior space the feeling of a comfortable living room” (Walsh xix). This invitation to linger brought in many browsers, and Cody’s description for readers of Publishers Weekly hints at the literary celebrities who frequented the shop:
Miss Beach’s bookshop is essentially a “character” store, the brown burlapped walls, the grotesque Chinese goldfish, the pair of brass scales (just as tho books were sold by the pound as they were in the olden days), and the feeling of old wood, homeliness, comfort, always clean without being shiny. But Silvia Beach is the principal character. Here is a rendezvous for the writers of today and tomorrow, each an inspiration to the other. There is an air of seriousness and witty intelligence about the shop that attracts those lovers of literature who consider books in the lights of living characters rather than plots that turn out happily or unhappily (Cody 309-10).
One such character took the liberty of redecorating the shop in response to an unfavourable review. On an invoice showing Ernest Hemingway’s borrowings, damaged books, and miscellaneous bills, Beach has handwritten: “Hemingway read Wyndham Lewis’s article The Dumb Ox in Life and Letters and punched a vase of tulips on the table. Paid SB 1500 fr damages. SB returned 500 fr.” (Beach 124). Cody muses about James Joyce, another of these characters: “Mr. Joyce with his strikingly good-looking face, has indeed attracted many people to the shop” (Cody 310). Some characters even took the form of fantastical creatures: Beach writes that during a dinner party hosted by Monnier and attended by the Joyces and the Fitzgeralds, “Scott drew a picture in my copy of The Great Gatsby of the guests—with Joyce seated at the table wearing a halo, Scott kneeling beside him, and Adrienne and myself, at the head and foot, depicted as mermaids (or sirens)” (Shakespeare and Company 116).
As for the inventory, “Beach’s shelves were stocked with books from the secondhand stores of Paris, American books sent by her sister Cyprian, and British books she purchased herself on trips to London” (Walsh xix). Monnier proposes that the support she and Beach lent to the modernists was as much an economic decision as it was artistic: “We had very little money, and it was that detail that drove us to specialize in modern literature; if we had had a lot of money, it is certain that we would have wanted to buy everything that existed in respect to printed works” (Monnier, 71). Many artists have argued that money stifles creativity; in this case, Beach and Monnier invested in new works because unknown writers cost less.
Beach also appeared to have picked up from Monnier a retail philosophy:
[Monnier’s] bookshop was directed less toward the sale of books than to the reading and lending of them…. Her shop encouraged people to browse, to sit near the potbellied stove and read, to take tea with her and discuss the novels, volumes of poetry, and reviews she stocked. She herself knew well every book in her shop and had chosen the individual items because of her own interest in them (Comstock 195).
In a letter to Marion Peter, dated October 28, 1938, Beach confesses: “I have always loved books and their authors, and for the sake of them swallowed the rest of it, but you can’t expect everyone to do the same.” She goes on to add, humbly: “However, as a recognition of my so-called services, the French last summer—you may have heard of it—bestowed the Legion of Honour on me” (Beach 185).
Fact and Fiction
As owner of a bookstore beloved by working writers, it was inevitable that Beach would find her way into works of literature. “One of the most well-connected and influential women in modernism, Beach makes cameo appearances in Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, Stein’s Painted Lace, and William Carlos Williams’ Autobiography” (Walsh xvi). However, some of the most insightful sources are Hemingway’s quintessential—if biased and self-serving—memoir of Paris, A Moveable Feast, as well as Beach’s own memoir, simply titled Shakespeare and Company.
The closing of Shakespeare and Company only lends to the legend that has grown up around the bookshop. In Beach’s own memoirs, the events are downplayed as wartime realities, but certain larger-than-life elements have proved accurate. After a rumored refusal to sell a copy of Finnegans Wake (again, a Joyce modernist masterpiece) to a soldier of the occupying Nazi regime, Beach began stowing books and preparing to evacuate Paris (Comstock 229). A year into the occupation, Beach and Monnier had seen many of their friends and clients staying away for longer periods of time until they were gone altogether. Beach and Monnier left Paris, but were briefly interned by the Nazis.
Beach reports in her memoir an episode entitled “Hemingway liberates the rue de l’Odéon,” which occurred in 1945 after she and Adrienne had returned to Paris:
There was still a lot of shooting going on in the rue de l’Odéon, and we were getting tired of it, when one day a string of jeeps came up the street and stopped in front of my house. I heard a deep voice calling: “Sylvia!: And everybody in the street took up the cry of “Sylvia!”
“It’s Hemingway! It’s Hemingway!” cried Adrienne. I flew downstairs; we met with a crash; he picked me up and swung me around and kissed me while people on the street and in the windows cheered.
We went up to Adrienne’s apartment and sat Hemingway down. He was in battle dress, grimy and bloody. A machine gun clanked on the floor. He asked Adrienne for a piece of soap, and she gave him her last cake.
He wanted to know if there was anything he could do for us. We asked him if he could do something about the Nazi snipers on the roof tops in our street, particularly on Adrienne’s roof top. He got his company out of the jeeps and took them up to the roof. We heard firing for the last time in the rue de l’ Odeon. Hemingway and his men came down again and rode off in their jeeps—”to liberate,” according to Hemingway, “the cellar at the Ritz.” (Shakespeare and Company 219)
Beach reports being grateful but, ultimately, underwhelmed by Hemingway’s heroic gesture. It was too little, too late to resuscitate the atmosphere of the interwar years. The books in her shop may have avoided the fate of the infamous Berlin book-burnings, but the German invasion nevertheless had a dampening effect on the book world. The bohemian spirit was gone from the Left Bank, at least for Beach and Monnier, who retired from the bookselling business. Monnier would commit suicide ten years later, suffering from Méniére’s disease. Beach would go on to write her memoirs, completing the circle by finally becoming an author in her own right: Shakespeare and Company was published in 1959.
In a letter to Marion Peter, dated May 25, 1937, Beach responds to the request that Peter’s daughter, named after Beach, serve as an assistant in the shop while studying abroad in Paris:
As for her help once a week in my shop, why that means a crowd of fresh customers coming to buy their books at Shakespeare and Company’s only for the pleasure of seeing the fascinating Sylvia-Jeune…. I’m afraid though, that she wont find it very amusing work. We dont often have a Hemingway-Spender reading like the one last week, and its not particularly lively handing out books all day to some of the types who have to have something sweet that ends happily…” (Beach 180).
This “Sylvia-Jeune” (Young Sylvia) was Beach’s namesake and something of a charm or talisman for the bookshop. In another letter, dated May 23, 1921, Beach writes to Peter: “Little old Sylvia’s picture is up in the shop and she is the mascot that has brought me any amount of luck” (Beach 86). Her friend’s daughter would not be the only person named after Sylvia Beach, and the bookshop on the rue de l’Odéon would not be the only bookshop of that name.
In 1951, another American expatriate, George Whitman, opened an English-language bookshop in Paris. Originally named Le Mistral, Whitman rechristened the shop as Shakespeare and Company in 1964 after Sylvia Beach’s death. Located in the shadow of Notre Dame Cathedral at 37 rue de la Bûcherie, this third location of Shakespeare and Company is now run by a third Sylvia: Whitman’s daughter, born in 1981 and named Sylvia Beach Whitman (ShakespeareandCompany.com).
One reason so many people still talk about Shakespeare and Company is that, in a way, it is still doing business. Just as “Shakespeare and Company proved to be an important way station on the expatriate tour” in the Twenties, the current shop is world-famous, especially in backpacker circles. Referred to as “tumbleweeds,” travelers can experience something like the hospitality of the original Shakespeare and Company, updated for the era of cheap plane tickets and budget travel accommodations, and earn a bed for the night in exchange for a few hours of work in the shop. In the spirit of nurturing new writers, the bookshop has launched an English-language literary prize for unpublished authors, which is set to run biannually beginning in 2011, the year George Whitman died (ParisLiteraryPrize.org). There is also a Sylvia Beach memorial library located inside the bookshop. (Walsh xxv).
The fact that the bookshop itself has been physically recreated speaks volumes about the grip it has on the literary imagination; especially that of expatriate Americans. The current Shakespeare and Company has featured in such films as Before Sunset and Midnight in Paris and trades on the history of the former shop of the same name (Comstock 197). Other bookshops do not have the same luxury, and through Shakespeare and Company seems safe from declaring bankruptcy due to the digital shift, this business model is unlikely to be repeated with any degree of success. In order to revive the Lost Generation atmosphere today, the new bookstore model would require an embracing of the new mediums. If Sylvia Beach’s goals in 1919 were resurrected today, there would still be text to translate, writers to discover, censorship to overthrow… but it would likely all be done online.
In his 1924 Publishers Weekly article, Cody writes that:
Shakespeare and Company is a unique bookshop, going contrary to many of the principles laid down for the “successful bookseller,” but it is making a success, slowly but surely, just the same. And that success will have in it something much finer than the mere sale of books. It will have given aid in the shuffle, and will have given to many readers a new angle on the personality and intimacy of books and their authors (Cody 313).
To learn from Shakespeare and Company, from its 1919 beginning through its mid-century reincarnation and into the present day, it is first necessary to let go of any nostalgia for Paris between the wars. The internet has precluded much community-building activity, as like-minded individuals congregate in chat rooms and on the comment threads of various websites. So too have lending libraries gone out of fashion; at least in the sense that a budding entrepreneur could open a lending library as a functioning business.
What remain, of course, are the underlying themes of Beach’s endeavor: the push for more literature available in translation, more new writers encouraged, and more risks taken in publishing. The fact that Shakespeare and Company evolved from a lending library to a retail bookshop to an actual publisher and managed, for a while, to be all three at once, says something about a purity of purpose that goes beyond $9.99 price points and instant WhisperNet delivery.
Furthermore, Beach and her bookshop are forever associated with a time, almost a century ago, when American literature found its unique voice in part by traveling outside itself. Beach’s status as book dealer to the Lost Generation gave her an authority many looked to for years to come:
Outliving many members of her generation, Beach enjoyed great prestige as the guardian of the memory of 1920s Paris. She coined the term ‘Bloomsday’ to describe the day on which Ulysses is set, and she traveled to Ireland for the first time in her life to be present for the opening of the James Joyce Tower and Museum at Sandycove (Walsh xxiv).
To be associated with so many legendary writers is undoubtedly the source of much of Shakespeare and Company’s lasting power, but there is also a reason so much talent gathered in the same place. Sylvia Beach’s own literary taste—individualistic, often contrary to popular opinion—served as a method of divination when seeking out her career path, a location for the lending library, a business model that expanded to include bookselling and publishing, the championing of an obscene work that turned out to be the greatest novel of a century, and the reported unwillingness to sell a book to a Nazi, all of which contributed to the bookstore’s success and longevity. Even when the original owner became too worn down by the constant effort required, and entire army of tumbleweeds were willing to take up the torch and ensure that the name Shakespeare and Company endured.
Chapter Two: Charlie Byrne’s
I needed Merton and a pint. Not necessarily in that order. Headed for Charlie Byrne’s, a second-hand bookshop. It is the bookshop. During my apprenticeship with the librarian Tommy Kennedy, as he shaped and nurtured my reading, he told me about Sylvia Beach. In Paris, in the true glory days, her bookshop held court to
Ford Maddox Ford
Mr Kennedy’s voice would get such a sound of longing in the telling. As he recounted the near mythic atmosphere, I could smell the Gauloise, the aroma of pure French coffee. Being young, naturally, I asked,
“Did you go there, Mr Kennedy?”
With such loss in his eyes, he said,
“No, no…I didn’t.”
One of my embracing poems is Howl by Ginsberg. Nobody I ever told ever seemed surprised. I guess they’d heard me howl too often. It travelled back from London in the pocket of my jacket. The other travel book was The Hound of Heaven. It had been a collectors’ item, bound in calf with gold trim. When I told Tommy Kennedy of my career choice—the guards—he’d been bitterly disappointed. My farewell present from him was the Thompson book. Nights of drunkenness had marred that beautiful volume.
Charlie Byrne’s comes close to Tommy’s ideal. Some years before, I’d been lurking in the crime section. A student had a beautiful American edition of Walt Whitman. He was peering at the price. Charlie, passing, said,
“Take it with you.”
“I haven’t enough.”
“Ary, settle it some other time.”
Handed him The Collected Robert Frost, adding,
“You’ll want this, too.”
(From The Killing of the Tinkers by Ken Bruen)
Reading is ultimately a private act, and each reader cultivates his or her own unique preferences. In the same way, to “read” the environment of a bookshop is a deeply personal experience, full of history, past encounters, cherished treasures found, time and money spent, conversations begun, and books lived through. Identifying a successor to a bookshop like Shakespeare and Company is akin to following up a classic novel with a work of modern fiction: new narrative devices must be employed to create the same impact.
In truth, a bookshop holds the same appeal for readers as the books themselves. Each person has individual tastes and preferences that manifest in different ways, in the same way dog-eared pages personalize a book. While there may be an underlying zeitgeist that sways readers in a certain direction, as well as an overlying popular opinion that helps influence shoppers, each bookstore ultimately wins over its customers with strategies as diverse as the genres on the shelves. In order to thrive—or in a tough economic environment, survive—bookshops must take their cues from the art form of literature itself. The conscientious development of setting, characters, mood, and theme is a very real factor in the success of a bookselling establishment. In fact, the debate over the endangerment of bookshops could be interpreted as that most important of literary elements: conflict.
The legacy of Shakespeare and Company has taken hold of the public imagination because readers enjoy giving their ideas over to books. The time-and-place details of setting that surround Shakespeare and Company—Paris’s Left Bank, the 1920s, the World Wars, and Odéonia—as well as the cast of characters that move through the story—Stein, Joyce, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald, not to mention Beach and Monnier—provide readers with familiar cues for following the bookshop’s story. If the magic of literature is contained in such details, then surely some of that magic must have leapt from the pages and into the shops themselves. Each personally beloved bookstore will have its own narrative thread.
In comparing contemporary bookshops to the original Shakespeare and Company, concessions must be made to the publishing climate as well as the overall economy. A direct replication of Sylvia Beach’s bookshop is neither possible nor desirable. Even the reincarnated Shakespeare and Company faces competition when the collective literary imagination searches for a new Shakespeare and Company; after all, a sequel rarely carries the same critical weight as an original work. Readers, writers, and buyers of books are keen to reimagine the atmosphere of Sylvia Beach and her bookshop, and each naturally presents their own preferred bookshop as the true torch-bearer of book-lovers’ Paris in the 1920s.
In spirit, all independent bookshops can claim the Shakespeare and Company mantle, and the criteria—new-and-used lending library, cottage industry publishing house, intellectual gathering place, importer of English-language literature, expatriate post office, and book bootlegger—are numerous enough to allow as many interpretations of the Shakespeare and Company tradition as there are independent bookshops left in the world. Any good indie bookshop honors the tradition established by Shakespeare and Company, distinguished in the minds of readers and customers by a matter of personal preference, past experience, and individual migratory patterns.
A century after the Lost Generation fled to the Continent, at least a portion of Sylvia Beach’s cultural inheritance has been bestowed Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop in Galway, Ireland.
A Brief History
Opened exactly seventy years after Shakespeare and Company, Charlie Byrne’s celebrates its twenty-fifth anniversary in 2014. Like its Parisian predecessor, the Galwegian bookshop has also moved locations, hosted numerous literary events, and been portrayed in literature and film during its lifetime. For years, Charlie Byrne’s had its own bookshop neighbour across the street, just as Shakespeare and Company had la Maison des Amis des Livres. Instead of the great American stock market crash and the Nazi occupation of Paris, Charlie Byrne’s has endured the death of the Celtic Tiger and a digital invasion in the world of books.
The host of characteristics that made Shakespeare and Company the bookstore to imitate are updated and replicated in many of the successful indie bookstores of today, and Charlie Byrne’s is no different. Proximity to student populations, clientele that includes well-known writers, wisely curated inventory, sharp-yet-affable staff, and force of personality all contribute to a bookstore’s legacy. In Galway, Charlie Byrne’s is an indisputable cultural touchstone, attracting locals and tourists alike to the three thousand square feet containing “over 100,000 new, bargain and secondhand books” on Middle Street (charliebyrne.com).
Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop began life in 1989 as a bookstall on Munster Avenue, in Galway City’s West End. Charlie Byrne began selling used books during a weekend market, and eventually opened a more permanent presence on Dominick Street in October of 1989. Three years later, the bookshop relocated across the Corrib River to Middle Street. Finally, in 1996, Charlie Byrne’s moved across the street to the Cornstore, an arcaded mall it has occupied ever since, expanding several times over the years.
Charlie Byrne’s does a large trade in used and remaindered books, procured from book fairs and ordered from wholesalers across the English-speaking world. The shop also works with a supplier to fill requests and make larger orders of in-demand books. There is a warehouse in Oranmore, 12 kilometres from Galway, that shelters the overstock of books. The shop fills online orders as well, mailing hard-to-find books all around the world, just as Sylvia Beach once did with Ulysses and other titles.
For used books, Charlie Byrne’s offers store credit in exchange for saleable titles, and an appraiser will make house calls to look at books for an estate purchase. Charlie Byrne’s has also taken to ordering new releases to fill the demand for special events such as Cúirt International Festival of Literature, which spotlights the works of visiting authors. These newer titles are marked with slightly higher price tags than the rest of the stock. Sale and clearance books line the outer shelves of the shop, sheltered by the mall’s atrium and fixed at such a low price point that the inevitable loss of inventory to sticky fingers is negligible, especially compared with the pleasant and inviting way the shelves attract the eyes of casual shoppers and passers-by.
“I think what we’re doing is okay anyway,” Mr. Byrne says of his business model and the future of bookselling. There are a few fundamental qualities that Charlie Byrne’s shares with Shakespeare and Company, as well as many successful bookshops around the world. “It’s a bit of everything: secondhand books, good prices, good service,” Byrne says. “I think the independent stores hopefully will survive” (Byrne).
For a time at the turn of the millennium, the buzzword for bookstores was convenience—oversized chain shops popped up in easy-to-access suburban locations, freshly stocked with all the latest bestsellers and popular fiction, often boasting a coffee bar inside the bookstore itself. These big-box bookshops threatened the continued existence of mom-and-pop independent shops; that is, until online retailers gave them a taste of their own medicine by undercutting both price and convenience. Now, it is the chain bookstores that are struggling.
In the United States, the second-largest bookstore chain, Borders, went out of business in 2011. Borders’ president, Mike Edwards, blamed “the rapidly changing book industry, [electronic reader] revolution and turbulent economy” for the liquidation of the remaining 399 stores (Spector). Earlier that year, UK-based chain Waterstones closed 11 shops in England and Ireland after poor performances in the 2010 holiday season (Page). In a blog post about the Borders closing, Rachel Syme wrote for National Public Radio:
Bookstores are very special places, even the behemoths. They provide a space for cultural dilettantism. You can get lost in them for hours, perusing covers and picking up obscure titles. They are dedicated to discovery and are curated by some of the most dedicated retail employees around (even to get hired at a large corporate chain, one is still required to exhibit a sharp passion for reading).
Small bookstores may be celebrating Borders’ demise … but they also know that this is a sign that these are the hardest of times. Bookstores are fighting for their lives, day in and day out (Syme).
In the stand against bookstore chains and online retailers, independent bookshops became a breed apart. Unable to compete on grounds of price, depth of stock, or the simple matter of convenience, indies had to go back to basics—knowledgeable staff, quality literary events, and an inventory tailored to the community in a way that could not be replicated by a global corporation’s market research. In an article about the Waterstones closings, Benedicte Page wrote in the Guardian:
All high-street bookshops have faced intense pressures from the new, high-discounting retail channels that have opened up in the past decade in supermarkets and online. Yet after years of falling sales and closures, many independents are now flourishing, marking themselves out from the high-discount competition by offering character, wide-ranging live events and personal service (Page).
The very speed of efficiency that allowed chain retailers to multiply across the suburban landscape was improved upon by the websites that may ultimately put big-box bookstores out of business. The homogenized book-buying experience now belongs in the realm of the keyword-searchable, open-24-hours-a-day, buy-a-book-while-wearing-a-bathrobe online retailer. In the bricks-and-mortar game, chain bookshops are now on a more level playing field with the independents. Although bigger bookstore chains still have more buying power when it comes to stocking bestsellers in quantity and obtaining new titles at discount from publishers and distributors, many independents, including Charlie Byrne’s, shake up their inventory with an underrated but highly potent ingredient: used books.
Not all independent bookshops stock used books, and those that do take the sometimes frightening risk of relying on the customers themselves to influence the inventory. In a similar fashion to Sylvia Beach’s expatriate lending library, used bookstores evolved to allow readers who were not particularly attached to the book as a material object to unload tomes for cash or credit toward more books. An especially popular strategy among students, selling to or trading with a shop builds bookish relationships on a budget.
Used books are an environmentally friendly and cost-conscious method of bookselling. Publishers and authors are removed from the equation, as royalties are negated and the copyright is transferred to the buyer under the first sale doctrine in the United States and exhaustion of rights in the UK and Ireland. According to the United States Code on copyright:
The first sale doctrine, codified at 17 U.S.C. § 109, provides that an individual who knowingly purchases a copy of a copyrighted work from the copyright holder receives the right to sell, display or otherwise dispose of that particular copy, notwithstanding the interests of the copyright owner. The right to distribute ends, however, once the owner has sold that particular copy (Justice.gov).
For Ireland and the rest of the European Union, this exchange is covered in common law by the exhaustion principle of intellectual property (Riach 121). Once the initial purchase of a new book has been made, the owner of the book is free to resell it as he or she pleases. This is notably different from ebooks or even downloaded music, which is often illegally copied when shared and has become the source of heated debate regarding copyright in the digital era.
Part of the treasure hunt that characterizes a browse through a used bookstore is that there are no tracking systems to tell exactly what books are in the store at any given time. “I love not having a database so we have to know what’s there,” says Carmel McCarthy, assistant manager at Charlie Byrne’s (McCarthy). The inventory is not computerized, as most used bookstores simply cannot keep track of what titles reside on their shelves. Untold gems slip through the cracks, and forgotten editions of favorite stories can be uncovered unexpectedly. McCarthy continues:
The database would be an utter nightmare to put together, what with all the single copies and treasures that come in every day. Some of the more unusual stuff we put up on Abe and that’s a help for very special titles. It keeps the staff all aware and conscious of what comes through the shelves. And knowing what we have without checking the computer is a bit like a party piece! Customers often express surprise that we can locate books just like that (McCarthy).
Used books account for a large portion of Amazon’s sales, where bookshops and individuals can list their own used inventory for sale and receive a generous shipping credit from Amazon. Used books may see their prominence as the cheaper alternative slip as ebooks become easier to buy and, increasingly, easier to swap and borrow from libraries (Maier). The already complicated matrix of book costs—new, used, bargain, or rare books sold by independent shops, chain stores, online retailers, or lent from libraries—is now faced with a new overlay of digital developments.
Location, Location, Location
Charlie Byrne’s is situated “in the heart of Galway city” on Middle Street, which runs parallel to Shop Street, the city’s main artery for shopping, tourism, and cultural pursuits (CharlieByrne.com). Browsers who enter the bookshop through the Cornstore shopping centre will find at least one backdoor unlocked during opening hours to allow disabled access to the lower levels of the premises, and ramps have been installed at both of the front entrances. Two shop windows face Middle Street and are frequently decorated in celebration of local events, while the main entryway and doors into the shop are covered with posters announcing language lessons, local gigs, and upcoming film screenings. The location a block from the high street provides plenty of pedestrian traffic while still allowing for a quieter ambience conducive to sampling the wares.
Galway’s premiere retail corridor brings in browsers, but in an environment where sales are rapidly moving online, footsteps on the floorboards are no longer enough incentive to keep a shop open. For years, the back entrance to Kennys Booksellers sat across the street from Charlie’s, while the front entrance faced on to High Street, the continuation of Shop Street. This symbiotic relationship allowed shoppers to wander through Kennys and keep browsing right into Charlie Byrne’s, much like Beach’s Shakespeare and Company across the street from Monnier’s French-language bookshop. The slightly different literary niches attracted slightly different clientele, who would then converse and congregate as they moved seamlessly from one shop to the other, allowing for cultural cross-pollination along the rue de l’Odéon in Paris and Middle Street in Galway.
When Kennys decided to shutter the €400,000-per-year retail space on High Street in 2006 and move the business online (and out to Galway’s Liosban Business Park, near the Kennys book bindery), the news made the front page of The Irish Times and earned a four-page spread in the Saturday magazine. Charlie Byrne is quoted as saying: “Businesswise, the closure of Kenny’s is bad news for us. Book shops thrive when they are together. People will go into them all when they’re browsing” (Boland 17).
“The interesting thing about that is for the first six to eight months, maybe even for the first year, it didn’t make that much difference to our business,” store manager Vinny Browne says. Over the years, however, the absence of Kennys did affect the curation of Charlie Byrne’s inventory. “I think that maybe we started stocking the kinds of books that they had previously… people had to get that stuff somewhere: Irish language books, new Irish books, even expensive new Irish history books” (Browne).
The lucrative Irish-interest export business provided Kennys with the leverage to become, in 1994, the second bookstore in the world to begin doing business online (Siggins). This same security in online sales led to the shuttering of the bricks-and-mortar shop twelve years later. Boland breaks down the numbers in her 2006 article, citing 68 books sold in the High Street location, totalling €1724 for the day, while the online business turned over €3587 for 197 books on the same day (Boland 17). Kennys also functions as an Amazon supplier, with its Liosban warehouse serving as a repository for purchases made ostensibly from Amazon.com, an arrangement shared by many high-volume booksellers across the globe.
With Kennys choosing to move online (and out to Liosban), much of the downtown devotion and city centre nostalgia chronicled in the Irish Times magazine article refocused itself on to Charlie Byrne’s. After all, as Boland writes:
Kenny’s insists that its business is thriving and that it is merely changing with the times. But you access an online bookshop via a computer rather than through a front door, and you can’t see the other customers. A visit to a web-based store is solitary and functional. It lacks the physical activity of browsing through real books. There’s no possibility of running into someone you know. You can’t attend a book launch in cyberspace. It lacks, in short, the pleasure of exploring a landmark book shop, in real time and real space (Boland 16).
Writers in Residence
In a 1920 write-up about Shakespeare and Company, New York Times correspondent Florence Finch Kelly reports that “Miss Beach says that not a little of the service she is able to render to her French clients consists in telling them something about American authors, outlining their lives and giving some idea of the character and amount of their works” (Kelly). As an ambassador for American literature, Beach was engaging in the writer-as-celebrity phenomenon as early as 1919, demonstrating that readers’ curiosity about authors is nothing new. Even Hemingway, upon his first meeting with Beach, reports asking “When does Joyce come in?” in an attempt to arrange a casual encounter with the expatriated author of Dubliners (Hemingway 32).
This eagerness to observe writers in their natural habitat among the books certainly drew many visitors to Shakespeare and Company. When contemporary bookstores host readings and book signings, they are not only providing space for likeminded readers to discuss books, but also allowing literary fans to catch a glimpse of the imagination that created such beloved stories. Since the middle of the 20th century, book festivals have also been growing up around this same idea of gathering writers and readers in the same room (Tivnan).
Many universities and other institutions host writers-in-residence to fill this niche in the literary ecosystem. A working writer on hand to promote the literary arts is beneficial for developing new talent and promoting widespread appreciation for literature. Likewise, centralized workspaces for writers, such as the non-profit writers’ rooms in New York City, Boston, Chicago, and many other cities, as well as public institutions such the Rose Reading Room at the New York Public Library, attract a community of literary talent and dispel the idea of the lonely writer in the garret. A writer-in-residence programme is a way of cultivating and domesticating the casual encounters that many customers seek in bookshops, which are known to attract writers in the wild.
Along these lines, Charlie Byrne’s manager Vinny Browne does not completely agree with the comparison with Shakespeare and Company:
Obviously it’s kind of hard to know what Shakespeare and Co was like in the 1920s, but I’d say that we’d probably be quite different to that. There are bookshops around the world that you go into and you know that they’re good places, and obviously Shakespeare and Co in the 1920s was one of those places, but we don’t really have Hemingway and Joyce and people of that magnitude dropping in because they don’t live in Galway. Maybe not yet. Well, actually we do have a James Joyce that comes in regularly, and actually read in the shop the other day. So we do have a James Joyce, but the point is that the shops in different areas that you go into, you just kind of know they’re the central kind of repository for writers and readers in that kind of catchment area, and that’s what a shop like ours should be, and obviously that’s how Shakespeare and Co was back in the day, but obviously we don’t subsidize writers’ drinking habits. We have enough trouble with the staff (Brown).
Nevertheless, Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop does have a few writers-at-large, from the local poets, fiction writers, and memoirists who have launched books in the shop, to the well-known authors who frequent the shop and have written Charlie Byrne’s into their work.
A coming-of-age novel released at the turn of the millennium by writer Julian Gough features twin sisters, the eponymous Juno and Juliet, who arrive in Galway from Tipperary to attend university. The book chronicles the first year of student life for the sisters and includes commentary on the literary scene in Galway. Two bookshops, Timmy O’Dea’s and Boo’s, sit across the street from one another and comprise the novel’s literary landscape. These fictional bookshops, located on the real-life Middle Street, are clearly modelled on Charlie Byrne’s and Kennys.
Juliet, the narrating twin, invites the reader to observe her student-of-literature lifestyle: “I descended rapidly from the stairhead of the flat, swinging my sturdy Timmy O’Dea’s carrier bag, its clean lines distorted into a polythene polygon by the trapped corners of the books, notebooks and pens I’d hurled into it a random in transit on my sprint from the bedroom” (Gough 228). Timmy O’Dea’s is the fictional version of Charlie Byrne’s, which, although clearly the favorite of the two bookshops, receives less description in the novel than the Kennys stand-in, Boo’s: “I took a deep breath in Boo’s doorway, and teetered. I never felt quite brilliant enough to meet with the management’s high standards. Boo’s practically had a dresscode and door policy” (191).
In a 2011 tweet, Julian Gough fields a question about whether the bookshop featured in his novel is Charlie Byrne’s: “The mean, ideological bookstore? No, that’s based on a shop long ago closed down. The nice bookstore across the road is” (Gough). In his response, Gough evokes the different atmospheres of the two shops, and references the Kennys move online and to Liosban.
Gough uses Juliet’s fictional job search to paint a prose scene of Galway that would be recognizable to anyone who remembers the time when Charlie Byrne’s and Kennys were situated across the street from one another:
On my way across the Salmon Weir Bridge I considered whether or not I should ask for a weekend job in Timmy’s, or maybe in Boo’s across the road. The money would help. A lot. And I’d far rather a bookshop than waitressing for three quid an hour….
Boo’s first. Boo’s stood stiffly in Middle Street on the side that didn’t get the sun. I arrived and stood outside it for a moment. I composed myself, gathered my breath. And crossed the road. I went into Timmy O’Dea’s and asked them for a job, and they didn’t have one (Gough 219).
In the novel, Juliet crosses the road once again and enters Boo’s, but becomes increasingly intimidated by the staff. She runs into a potty-mouthed friend from back home in Tipperary, and the ensuing conversation provokes “Not a kook from the women behind the counter, the two or three other customers, the leading minor local poet who stood now frozen in the doorway,” but does give Juliet the opportunity to exercise her book knowledge in the search for some writing the friend had discovered in prison (Gough 221). Juliet eventually surmises the name of the author—Anaîs Nin—and navigates her friend around the bookshop’s layout. When ready to make a purchase, they approach the counter:
The guardians of ideology leaned over the counter to look down at him. ‘How’re ya’ said Jimmy. He took a roll of notes out of his back pocket, removed the elastic band from around them, ruffled their edges to loosen the tight cylinder of paper, and peeled off a couple. ‘Oh, and a Famous Five. I’ll pick one up on me way out. You don’t do Coke, no? The drink? Pity. Or fags? Ah well. It’s funny the way bookshops only ever sell books, and newspaper shops sell everything, isn’t. Funny that. Ye should sell fags, every fucker smokes when they read, it’s nearly a law of nature. I’d say you’d shift a packet of fags for every book. More. And yer porn’s in the wrong place, I nearly didn’t find it. You’d sell a lot more if people could find it y’know, because it’s bloody hard to get in Ireland. Ah, that’s grand, keep the small stuff’ (Gough 222).
After his brief lecture on the proper running of a bookshop, Juliet ushers Jimmy out the front door, past the aforementioned poet and out on to High Street. As he returns for his Famous Five novel, a gift for his kid brother, Juliet pauses for reflection: “I mentally surveyed the wreckage Jimmy had made of my promising career in bookselling, undecided as to whether to laugh or cry” (Gough 223). Fortunately, when Jimmy re-emerges from the bookshop, he finds Juliet laughing. It is notable that she suffers no such humiliation at “the nice bookstore across the road,” a testament to Gough’s preference for a more democratic nature of bookshops as gathering places.
Galway author Ken Bruen has also chosen to include Charlie Byrne’s in his literary map of the city. The Jack Taylor books, beginning with 2001’s The Guards, feature an ex-garda anti-hero with a voracious appetite for books. Unlike Gough, Bruen does not bother to change the name of any Galway locations in his novels, and goes so far as to give Charlie Byrne himself a walk-on appearance in Book Two: The Killing of the Tinkers. Furthermore, store manager Vinny Browne becomes a supporting character, with reoccurring appearances throughout the series:
Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop has grown and become almost as important as the swans of Galway in the very pulse of the city…. Sylvia Beach would have been proud of those guys.
Vinny was behind the counter, chatting animatedly to a customer. He had that Clinton touch of making each person feel like the most important one. His trademark long black hair was trimmed. He no longer resembled John Travolta in Pulp Fiction, whose character was named… Vincent (Headstone 180).
In the books, Browne provides the occasional clue to help Taylor solve a mystery. When Taylor’s apartment is ransacked and his books destroyed, he quickly calls on Charlie Byrne’s to have his personal library restocked by a bookseller that is well-accustomed to his taste; later, he notes a title Browne has added to the collection as a joke (The Magdalen Martyrs 225).
In a 2009 profile by The Galway Independent, Browne praises Bruen’s use of the shop in his novels, saying:
Ken has been a regular into the shop for years. He used to come back from England in the early 90s with big bags full of great crime novels for the shop in Dominick Street. He started off by self-publishing his books and now we get Americans coming in asking ‘Is this the Charlie Byrne’s from the book?’ (Galway Independent).
Browne says visitors to the shop also tend to ask if he is the character:
It’s good fun, because then you say, ‘Yeah, I’m the guy’ and then they go ‘You’re the guy?” and people get very excited about it. Because I think it’s interesting for them to find the place that’s in the book. I think for people, locally, they know who I am and where the bookshop is, but I think for tourists it’s an extra blast. And it is, I think. Ken is very big in America, much bigger than he is in Ireland, even (Browne).
Browne hosts The Arts Show with Vinny Browne on Galway Bay FM, mentioning in one discussion about the possible “product placement” of Charlie Byrne’s in novels that “Ken has done that a few times in The Guards, where the Taylor character comes into the shop to buy a book because nothing else is working for him” (Scanlon).
The popularity of the Ken Bruen novels means knowledge of Charlie Byrne’s expands to people who have never visited the city, just as that of Shakespeare and Company. The Jack Taylor stories have recently been adapted for the television screen, with three mini-films airing in 2010 and another two airing in 2013, and more plans for production of the remaining stories in the series (JackTaylorFilms.com). The television series is filmed on location in Galway, including a scene at Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop.
The popularity of Charlie Byrne’s is also recorded in the numerous travel guides—and now, travel websites—that promote the shop as a reason to visit Galway. Lonely Planet, The New York Times travel section, and websites like Yelp and TripAdvisor have all contributed to the traffic through the doors and footfall among the shelves of Charlie Byrne’s. Any day-in-Galway list of recommendations is sure to mention the beloved used bookshop on Middle Street, as The New York Times did in 2005 and 2012 (Slavin and Spiegel).
Indeed, for any traveler in a new place, the local independent bookshop can be a portal into a culture. Self-published books, local authors, small magazines, and the posters hung on the windows provide a quick taste of the flavor of a city. At Charlie Byrne’s, the window displays feature local happenings and interpret them in new, bookish ways. Tourists who want the local experience of Galway gravitate toward the bookshop; yet another occasion when a good, central location in an artistic, urban area is vital to a bookshop’s cultural cache.
“I love how many people say they wish they had a shop like it in their home town,” says Carmel McCarthy, who has worked in Charlie Byrne’s since 2003 (McCarthy). Local bookshops attract local characters, who always seem to have news of interest to artists and intellectuals. A knowledgeable, friendly staff can provide recommendations for food and drink, music, and galleries. Not only can travelers see what locals are reading and view the quirky ephemera that decorates the nooks and crannies of Charlie Byrne’s, they can also unburden their luggage of heavy books and replenish their supply for under a tenner. Non-English readers have their own section of the store, a testament to any establishment’s positive word-of-mouth publicity on the backpacker’s trail.
Just as the reputation of Charlie Byrne’s benefitted from a write-up or two in The New York Times, so did that of Shakespeare and Company. In an issue of the newspaper dated December 26, 1920, a column entitled “American Literature in France” reports to readers:
An American young woman, Miss Sylvia Beach, daughter of a Princeton clergyman, has started upon the second year of an interesting experiment which it must have taken some courage to initiate but which has been very successful. She has a small bookshop and lending library, which she calls “Shakespeare and Company,” devoted entirely to English and American books, which she has established in the heart of the Latin Quarter… (Kelly).
Galway’s own Latin Quarter is also located on the Left Bank of a river, the Corrib in place of Paris’s Seine. According to the Latin Quarter Committee, a local commerce group supported by the Galway City Council and Failte Ireland, Galway’s Latin Quarter “is defined by some of the city’s most historic landmarks and stretches from the Spanish Arch at Long Walk to O’Brien’s Bridge to St Nicholas’ Church and back (via Buttermilk Lane) to An Taibhdhearc on Middle Street,” an area that includes Charlie Byrne’s (McCarthy and TheLatinQuarter.ie).
In his March 2013 “Word for Word” column in The Irish Times, Eoin Purcell, then the commissioning editor of New Island Books, writes:
About the only advantage bookshops now have is that they are physical venues, places where people can go to seek entertainment, information and knowledge from real people who, with luck, know things (and most good booksellers do know things).
This means changing from being sellers of physical books alone and becoming something more, purveyors of ambience and experience, which is something no online retailer can offer (Purcell).
When Kennys bricks-and-mortar closed in Galway, the poet Mary O’Malley was quoted in The Irish Times Magazine as saying: “I’ve launched all my books here, and I’m and orphan now for the next one” (Boland 17). Charlie Byrne’s has long hosted book launches as a cheerful way to sell books and make a social gathering of the event, and the “orphans” from Kennys have no doubt been welcomed with open arms. “Events and readings and that kind of thing are really important for a shop like ourselves as well,” says Browne. “Kennys used to do quite a lot of that, so a lot of the kind of people that would have launched a book at Kenny’s in the past had to launch it somewhere. And some of them did launch it out in Liosban but obviously some people preferred to stay in town” (Browne).
Even the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, appreciates a good book launch. “Events, I think are really important in business now, more so than they used to be,” Browne continues:
We’ve had some great events down through the years, a lot that featured Michael D launching books, he must have done about a dozen or fifteen different launches in the shop over the last ten years. He’s incredible…. Michael D would turn up and do it and have read the book and do a proper job, so. That’s why he’s president (ibid).
In the current climate of social media fatigue, it would be easy for bookshops to hide behind the dusty-yet-distinguished technophobe stereotype to avoid such Web 2.0 pitfalls as an embarrassing Instagram feed, a lifeless Tumblr, or a website that has not been updated since 2003. However, the marketing device overused and exploited by large corporations and chain stores is actually the very thing that can build communities in the modern independent retail environment. As they face the threat of online retailers luring away customers with lower prices and higher convenience, bookshops would be wise not to disregard the internet entirely.
Social media is important to any business or organization that promotes a sense of belonging, and Charlie Byrne’s is no exception. Certain tech-savvy members of what Browne refers to as “the younger generation” of the staff tend to take the initiative in expanding the store’s brand online. “It is very important,” Brown says of the shop’s social media presence. “You get a lot of feedback from people who use it, so it’s very important that somebody is doing it. But I’m grateful that it doesn’t have to be me” (Browne) The Charlie Byrne’s website, powered by WordPress and designed by a staff member, is extremely attractive, easy to navigate, and full of information about the shop. The Twitter and Facebook accounts remain consistently active with news of upcoming events or even large shipments of noteworthy books.
With the social media economy based on clout and etiquette, the community bookshop promoting another local business also carries a lot of weight. Charlie Byrne’s lends its support to student publications and productions, locally owned restaurants, and every type of artist imaginable. Facebook groups allow the Charlie Byrne’s Book Club members to keep track of the latest book and even continue the conversation long after the meeting. Charlie Byrne’s shoppers from around the world can keep an eye on happenings at the shop, see the latest window display, and read about the time Dylan Moran (known for his role as curmudgeonly Irish bookseller Bernard Black from the BBC4 show Black Books) came into the shop for a browse, thrilling fans of bookshops—actual and fictional (facebook.com/CharlieByrnesBookshop).
Independent bookshops are in good shape for adapting social media, which is based on the same power of personality and relationship-building techniques that indies had to develop to survive the onslaught of big-box stores. The internet does create competition in the form of online retailers, but also provides great opportunity to create communities of readers. If a bookshop’s reach is not limited by geographical boundaries, then perhaps buyers will think twice before making an impulse purchase from Amazon, and instead drop in for a visit to their favorite bookshop, even if they have to do so virtually from halfway around the world.
The same social media that distracts would-be readers can be harnessed to promote the act of reading. The same online games that occupy so much time can be incorporated into fictional worlds that were first created on the page. The very ebooks that are currently replacing the printed book can, with any luck, be incorporated into the business model of independent bookshops. It is in this area that bookshops have the most room to grow, and the most to gain.
Chapter Three: A Business Model for the Future
I had this crazy idea. Actually, I had it about two years ago when I fell in love with a Berlin building that had a tree growing out of the back of it. In my research about the abandoned building, I discovered that it had originally been built in the 19th century as a mortuary for the nearby hospital. Then the Nazis took it over and used it for storage. Then the East Germans took it over and used it for a bureaucratic office. I decided I had to buy this building and open the Bookslut Literaturhaus of Sex and Death. (Don’t worry, we would burn some sage in there. Maybe bring in a priest.)
After reading Sarah Schulman’s The Gentrification of the Mind, and watching Berlin turn into Brooklyn, I’ve become more determined to open the Bookslut Literaturhaus of Sex and Death, although Charles, our managing editor, insists it should exist in Chicago so he can go, too. (Maybe we will open Literaturhaus Zwei.) Schulman writes about the need for radical spaces, for the mixing of people from all nationalities and economic backgrounds, for places to perform and fuck up and converse, and not just recreate the socioeconomic climates of our childhoods in our social circles.
So I’ve decided my demented little building is not big enough, but perhaps the abandoned 19th c. hospital next door would be for what I want. (And really, someone should take it over before it’s turned into luxury condos.) I want: low rent apartments for writers and artists, who can teach or mentor or help rehab the building in exchange for rent. A performance space/reading hall. An extensive library. Classrooms, not for MFA-style workshops but for classes on history, international literature, art, etc. There’d be rooms to stay in for traveling writers and bourgeois people who just want to look in on the action and they would be charged more. There’d be a bar and cafe, of course, because it’s going to be a steady diet of Hungarian rose wine and goulash. And of course a large section will house Bookslut/Spolia offices and inevitably a publishing company/bookstore. I’ll do the tarot readings in the library.
I will of course live in the mortuary.
I am five seconds from Kickstarting this fucker, although then all of the money would go to Paypal, and yuck. But rewards would be like, we’ll name a barstool after you. Or, a couple nights for free. From there I can raise my enlightened crones-in-training army, and we can have our little radical space within the workings of capitalism. Who is with me? You’d be a fool not to run away and join our circus.
(From Blog of a Bookslut by Jessa Crispin)
Ideally, a bookshop of the future will closely resemble Shakespeare and Company and Charlie Byrne’s in the fundamentals. There should be a mix of new and used titles, especially as printed books become rarer and more people seek to collect beautifully bound artifacts or even a waddle of Penguin paperbacks. As a gathering place, the bookshop should continue to host book events for the community, perhaps becoming more creative with its offerings. The staff should be knowledgeable but not pretentious, friendly in a non-intrusive way, and eager to help customers ferret out an elusive book. The inventory should be well curated and arranged in an open plan that allows for maximum browsing.
As for technology, bookstores absolutely must keep up with, and adapt to, the changes in their readers’ lives, adjustments that involve incorporating smartphones, tablets, and ebooks into the book-buying experience. The bookshops of yesterday and today have been well-suited for their time and space, but the book market is rapidly evolving. As reported in a survey of the 2012 American publishing industry, “eBooks grew 45% since 2011 and now constitute 20% of the Trade market, playing an integral role in 2012 Trade revenue” (Sporkin).
Greater connectivity in the digital ages means that personal recommendations and word-of-mouth marketing are more important than ever to the retail environment. At present, avid readers make requests of their local bookshops and sell their own libraries back to used booksellers. A successful bookshop reflects the literary taste of the surrounding community. As retail moves online, this sense of community is in danger of being lost, and bookshops must develop ways to track reader input. The preponderance of data and metadata is the upside of the digital revolution; but with great power comes great responsibility.
Most importantly, bookshops must take note of their place of privilege at the intersection between art and commerce, and honor the advantage this gives them over other types of retailers. Creativity is forced to dig deep in a bad economy, and a creative industry undergoing seismic shifts also has the most potential for new ideas. In a radio interview following the Galway Arts Festival premiere of Riverrun, a dramatic reading in the voice of the River Liffey from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, performance artist Olwen Fouéré comments on the current economic and cultural climate in Ireland:
It may be a difficult time for the infrastructure, but a really good time for artists because it’s very often at times like this that people’s values system starts to change and they begin to see the value of the non-material, which a lot of art is…. Whether it’s the creativity that flourishes or whether it’s people’s need for that alternative view of the world, so they find it through art (Fouéré).
Bookshops are ultimately part of the infrastructure for the art of literature, the final link in the distribution chain between the creator and the reader. Booksellers would do well to remember this purity of purpose in the struggle for survival, regardless of the outcome.
As purveyors of books, bookshops simply cannot compete with the depth and scope of the online outlets. The ease of access, at all hours of the day, to nearly every book ever published, is a wonderful capability of the internet that should be celebrated. Long-forgotten books that no bookshop would ever intentionally stock (although they could possibly be uncovered during a browse through a used bookstore) can be found with a click or two online.
Instead of fighting a losing battle to compete with this type of selection, bookshops must focus on curation. A local bookstore should serve as a sort of gallery for books, giving space to the new, exciting, or simply unmissable. Support of local authors can be the niche that bookshops fill in the book world. Bricks-and-mortar bookselling will become more about the overall feel of a shop, the atmosphere and other intangibles that a shop offers.
At Charlie Byrne’s, Vinny Browne says:
I think bookshops will really have to really work hard at getting their mix of titles right. I think that’s just the way the business is going. Big independent booksellers, big, multiple, chain booksellers I think are a thing of that past. It’s smaller shops that have a bit of personality and other things going on as well” (Browne).
A successful bookseller offers a good selection of books, recommended to the individual customer, tailored to the specific community, and in-touch with the zeitgeist at large. Readers are for the most part open-minded intellectuals, curious about the larger world around them, while at the same time craving a third space in the community where they can meet with friends and feel welcome. Well-informed booksellers stay on top of industry trends, prodded by market forces, professional obligation, and personal curiosity.
Bookseller Felicity Rubinstein writes for The Guardian in an opinion piece about Independent Booksellers Week 2013:
This is counterintuitive, but you are far more likely to discover a new favourite writer in a small, curated shop with a well-read bookseller who knows your taste than you are in the mind-numbing virtual city of books that online retailers offer. I have yet to meet anyone whose cockles are warmed by the words “customers who bought items in your recent history also bought…” (Rubinstein).
Many online shoppers are spoiled for choice in an internet market that can prove unbeatable when searching for a particular hard-to-find title. For the reader who simply likes to browse for something new, however, it can be overwhelming. Online retailers can steer many shoppers in the wrong direction at the whim of search engines and digital marketing strategies. Most online booksellers have access to a reader’s buying habits and the metadata of millions of books, but no cross-listing of themes and buzzwords will approximate the intuitive recommendation of a bookseller who recognizes which writing style resonates with particular readers.
If the physical book becomes more of an objet d’art, some bookshops may move toward rare and nostalgic book sales, a different sort of selling experience that focuses on preservation and protection of the item. Bookstores will need to remain focused on the physical book, as they certainly cannot compete with the variety of ebooks available online. However, in order to end up on the winning side of the ebook revolution, bookshops would be wise to find a way to offer them as part of their own inventory.
As bookstores become well-curated galleries of books, there is the danger of attracting a certain type of shopper. One common complaint among bricks-and-mortar booksellers during the digital era is that of being treated as showrooms for online booksellers. Showrooming is the term retailers have adopted to explain the tendency for customers to browse a physical shop—with its staff, heating, plumbing, and other overhead costs—for new and interesting products, only to return home and purchase the selected item from an online retailer. The term derives from luxury retailing, where expensive products such as cars or jewelry are put on display in a welcoming location, but actually stocked, sold, and delivered from a more economical space.
According to a 2011 survey by the Codex group, “28% of book buyers reported doing just that, with 34% of digital book buyers using the tactic and 24% of print readers” (qtd in Milliot). In a free market, smart consumers are completely justified in their quest to find the lowest price available, and the trend clearly cannot be ignored:
Nook owners are the most likely to browse in store and then buy an e-book, with 43% of Nook owners reporting doing that, a figure that indicates Barnes & Noble’s strategy of using its stores to promote e-book sales is working. But with no bricks-and-mortar Kindle stores, 33% of Kindle users reported looking at titles in stores before buying an e-book, and 39% of readers who bought either an e-book or print book through Amazon had browsed in a bookstore before doing so. (Milliot).
Online retailing is ideal in many ways. There are no heating or air-conditioning bills, no customers-only bathroom policies, no maintenance or up-keep for the wear-and-tear of a physical shop. The online bookseller can, as a result, sell a book at lower cost. Consumers will predictably seek out a lower price on a given item, which seems logical in the short-term. In the long-term however, price penetration strategies, such as the $9.99 price limit on all Kindle ebooks during the early, crucial days of the Kindle’s introduction to the market, mean that lower prices drive smaller competitors out of business. There will be no alternative option if and when Amazon decides to raise prices.
The expansion to include ebooks in a retail plan is something leading booksellers, such as Barnes and Noble, Waterstones, and Eason have all experimented with to date. Some bookshops are attaching QR code readers to their bookshelves, which gives the shop a cut of the sale, even if it is made online (Webb). In the next few years, it is possible that bookshops will begin to feature a type of ebook sales point. Bookstores can also bring “the vast inventory of titles available online into the physical store via a print on demand (POD) machine, such as the Espresso Book Machine,” which can manufacture a book, from printing to binding, while the customer waits (ibid). Showrooming ultimately brings potential customers through the door, and it is up to bookshops to capitalize on the relationship-building opportunities.
The bookshop has been and always will be a gathering place for readers and the people who love them. The sense of community among overstuffed bookshelves is the very essence people are wishing to protect when they lament the demise of the contemporary bookshop. An online retailer cannot hold someone’s mail like the original Shakespeare and Company, or provide a bed for the night like the Hotel Tumbleweed at the current incarnation. In the area of sales, Amazon and Smashwords are considerably less supportive of student publications and self-published authors than the staff at Charlie Byrne’s.
Online retailers eliminate the moment of serendipity that can only occur in a retail environment where not every aspect of the shopping experience has been tailored to the shopper’s preferences. A bookshop may not have the title a customer wants, but a staff member can suggest a different book on the same subject, which may turn out to be a better choice. The customer might overhear a conversation about favorite books and comes away with a brand new author to follow. A local author could launch a book, and a customer who happens to be in the shop at the time might decide to pick up a copy.
Literary festivals are reliant on local bookshops for providing venues for festival events, not to mention selling the relevant books in a central location that can easily be visited by festival attendees between events. An online retailer, though likely to price the book for less, would be unable to offer the quick turnaround an author needs after doing a reading and earning a few more fans. Most authors and poets prefer to sign print books as opposed to ebooks, although well-known literary luddite Jonathan Franzen has “deigned to sign his name on Amazon’s e-book reader” on at least two well-documented occasions (Wickman).
Just as Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company circular newsletter kept subscribers abreast of new inventory, fellow writer’s book deals, and other happenings on the rue de l’Odéon, so can social media keep customers loyal to a modern bookshop. It gives the staff another chance to engage with the public and share their knowledge, while continuing to build the bookshop’s brand in an organic way. Every bookshop would benefit from having at least one designated social media guru on staff. Charlie Byrne’s has done an admirable job harnessing its social media, extending the reach of the shop to customers who have visited the store once on holiday and given it a quick thumbs up on Facebook. They are now treated to news updates and photos of the shop, which they can recall fondly and recommend to friends.
Social media sites that are specific to books are also growing in number and popularity. As online book clubs and virtual friendships are developed through shared reading, bookshops have the opportunity to wade in with their customers and offer the insight, advice, and recommendations they would normally give in the shop to online buyers who have never even been there.
Forgetting for a moment that social media is distracting readers from the weightier tomes that would ideally be occupying their time, any use of the internet that keeps bookshops connected to their customers can easily become a digital extension of the bookshop itself. The very intangibles that readers love about the classic bookshop can be transported online—everything, that is, but the smell of the books and the feel of the pages. Booksellers must nourish this at all costs, going so far as to embrace the loathed internet to stay in touch with their constituents.
If customers wish to use bookshops as showrooms, then perhaps they can do so without leaving the comfort of their own homes. If the bookshop has an active enough Instagram account or Facebook feed, viewers can see the goods as shipments arrive at the shop and help themselves to whatever online prices they please. It will not hurt the bookshop, as the online viewer was unlikely to visit the bricks-and-mortar shop in the first place, but contributes to the sense of community a bookstore offers.
Of course, sense of community does not pay the bills, and if the community moves online, where Amazon is one click away, booksellers are simply wasting time trying to build a social media brand. The way to leverage an online presence into book sales is to draw customers to the shop, chiefly by promoting events. The word-of-mouth news that characterizes social media means that people who have not been in the shop for ages can learn about book launches, author signings, or book club meetings that might bring them back into fold.
A sites like Goodreads can become a valuable resource for a bookseller. Bibliographic information linked to individuals who have read or are interested in reading a specific book can build community in a way that helps bookstores. The 2013 sale of Goodreads to Amazon crushed the hopes many users held for that site, but the fact that the online retailer spent “a reported $150 million to buy up Goodreads, a social network for book nerds with a devoted but far from enormous 16 million members” signals that there is value in online communities focused on books (Weissmann).
At the time of the Goodreads buyout, Rod Spillman of Salon wrote:
Most members saw Goodreads as an unbiased haven for books, a place where they could profess their bookish love free from the ugly noise of commerce. And the noise has certainly been ugly the past few years, with the closing of Borders and many independent bookstores, the consolidation of the corporate publishers, the e-book pricing wars. In the background of all this ugliness has been the rise of Amazon and their unabashedly thuggish way of doing business.
The Amazon-Goodreads news came as a shock to many of us. But what were we thinking? Did it never occur to us Goodreads members that what seemed like a book-lover’s paradise was actually a fantastically valuable chunk of pure data just ripe for the mining? Businessweek, using past valuations of other acquisitions like LinkedIn and Pinterest, puts the deal’s worth at $880 million to $1 billion, or a minimum of $55 for every user (Spillman).
Other booksellers would be wise to pay attention to wherever readers gather online, as future incarnations of Goodreads will likely follow. No small, independent bookshop can process the volume of data Amazon harvested with the purchase, but the word-of-mouth recommendations and sense of community fostered by Goodreads members are of lasting value.
Whether they are interested in print books or ebooks, online customers leave a distinct trail of browsing and book-buying patterns, while bricks-and-mortar bookshop customers do not. Online buyers readily hand over their information to retailers, and bookish social media sites such as Goodreads or LibraryThing provide a wealth of information about reading patterns. Digital cookies, shopping carts, and wish lists gather extraordinary amounts of data about readers, while bookshops rely on getting to know the people who buy their books.
A common complaint in the publishing industry is that publishers do not have the luxury of simply selling a brand. Each customer is a one-off sale, with no loyalty toward a particular publisher, unlike a brand of toothpaste or laundry detergent. Rather than wagging the long tail with their customers, building up lifelong allegiances that can pass from one generation to the next, publishers have to sell each book on its own merit. No one cares about the last successful book they published, and readers rarely take note of the publisher.
As the book moves up and down the publishing chain, this becomes less of a problem. Certain authors maintain a following that will prompt readers to purchase every book they write, while a successful series can spin off into an entire franchise of non-book commodities. So, too, can bookshops trade on their reputation and past success. If a customer was happy with the last book they bought in the shop, or even had a pleasant experience browsing, then they are likely to return.
This sort of behavior produces a pattern that is difficult to track, especially for used bookstores that cannot pin down their inventory. The metadata available inside each ebook creates a visible trail for online retailers to follow, often rendering a customer as little more than a credit card number and a list of search terms. If bookshops can incorporate these digital markers, perhaps through a Goodreads-type application, they might be able to harness their customers’ purchasing power in different way.
A valuable resource underused by many bookstores is the employee recommendation. Bookshop employees are among the brightest and most adventurous of readers, and their customer service skills ideally serve to remove any unfairness or mean-spiritedness from their critiques. Many bookshop employees are excellent bloggers and creative writers of their own account. Though they cannot fill the role of the professional critic, who is charged with protecting, promoting, and progressing the cause of literature and should never be replaced by customer reviews or consumer interests, booksellers are full of helpful information and need to be moving online with their recommendations. A well-written blog post by a passionate reader, followed by a link to the book’s ordering information on IndieBound or even the bookshop’s own website, could advance the art of bookselling well into the digital era.
It seems reasonable to assume that if booksellers’ recommendations outshine those of an online retailer, then there must be a way to bring bookseller recommendations online. If an online book buyer’s metadata can be interpreted by a computer algorithm, then a well-read human might do just as well. Most readers would prefer soliciting a personal reading recommendation from an entity that also reads books for pleasure, not for data.
Bookshops draw readers together and create a sense of camaraderie around books. The irony, of course, is that reading is an activity that is almost always done alone. Occasions of reading aloud aside, books usually require a quiet environment and a comfortable place to sit. Vary rarely do people gather together in order to read. Reading is done independently, so the sense of community that is so vital to bookstores’ existence is counterintuitive.
Book clubs, literature courses on campus, and entire literary festivals are focused on events where people gather to discuss books and socialize. It seems strange, then, that these activities are cutting into the time one has available to read. Perhaps this is why literary types are so committed: average readers can spin through a bestseller a week, put it away, and move on with their lives. Literary types tend to dwell on discussion of the same authors, the same books, the same academic topics ad nauseam.
It might be possible that the readers who keep a bookstore afloat are not the talkative, extroverted characters that show up every couple of days and contribute to the atmosphere of the shop, but rather the quiet, introverted types who bring home a stack of books from every visit and finish them without comment. In politics, this group is termed the ‘silent majority,’ a term used most famously by U.S. President Richard Nixon to describe citizens who are less vocal about their views, but nevertheless turn out to vote and contribute to campaigns.
The silent majority in the bookshop is less likely to engage in the influential activities that shape a literary community; this may be crucial in the trend toward online purchases and the increasing importance of metadata. One charismatic customer may have the floor in the bookshop for 30 minutes, but there is no accounting for how many silent showroomers have come in for a browse and returned home to purchase the book online before the local intellectual celebrity has finished his diatribe.
Bookshops need community and loyal customers, but as is often the case in the outside world, the quiet types tend to be overlooked. These are the very people who have found a home on the web, and in the discussion surrounding the survival of bookstores, their muted influence should not be ignored. Amazon silently profits from every purchase, every search, every mouse click made by the less-vocal portions of society.
Writing, too, is generally understood to be a solitary activity. Yet communities of writers—the Lost Generation, to name one well-known example—are the heart and soul of literary movements and entire cultural epochs. Bookshops that host writers are likely to draw in curious readers, as Shakespeare and Company did in the 1920s and Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop still does today. A few of the advantages bricks-and-mortar bookshops still have over the internet are their buildings and book-lined rooms. Lending office space to writers, whether professional or amateur, could be a way to cement a bookshop’s place in the community, and perhaps literary history as well.
In 2012, the Big Green Bookshop in London launched its own writer-in-residence programme. Ellie Levenson, journalism lecturer and author of The Noughtie Girl’s Guide to Feminism agreed to hold office hours in the bookshop on Tuesday mornings, offering informal workshops and casual advice on the writing process (Campbell). Though not actually living on the premises, Levenson is available most Tuesday mornings and encourages her readers to “Come and see me. Bring biscuits. And buy books” (Levenson).
Similarly, a writing community in South Carolina offers writer residencies that “include a community service element,” such as hosting workshops and working at the Hub City Bookshop in exchange for ten weeks of writing time in the project’s designated Writers House (HubCity.org). Vinny Browne notes that the Salmon Bookshop and Literary Centre in Ennistymon, County Clare, offers live-in accommodation for poets as well as “a presence to the press on the street” (Browne). These developments in the literary community are the type of service-oriented relationship between bookshops and writers that should be encouraged.
Depending on the space available in each particular shop, writers could pay for premium offices that remain secluded from the hoi polloi of book buyers, or agree to a less private but also less expensive alternative, such as an accessible room with office hours posted on the door, or perhaps a desk set up in the middle of the poetry section. Far from becoming a literary theme park, with various characters wondering about and posing for photos, bookshops could instead focus their energies on one writer-in-residence at a time, nourishing each one through a particular project, such as the completion of a particular book or simply the research phase of a work in progress.
Writers are not the only literary luminaries who could use office space in clean, well-lighted, city centre locations. Bloggers, editors, and literary magazine publishers are all increasingly working from home as freelancers. As the workforce moves into cyberspace, more and more people are looking for office space in the real world, and coffee shops are rapidly evicting wifi squatters. Gone are the days when, as one beloved literary chestnut has it, an unpublished author could sit at a café table, sipping the same cup of coffee for hours while conjuring the world of Harry Potter. Coffeehouses are now crowded with laptop jockeys who “consider the price of their coffee to be their ‘rent’ and a guarantee that they cannot be kicked out of the establishment” (Hall).
If a bookshop became the haunt of a particular blogger, or served as a postal address for a literary magazine published by a three-person team, readers all over the globe would learn about the shop’s existence and develop affection for the spiritual home. Not just writers-in-residence, but editors-in-residence and bloggers-in-residence could offer caché to an establishment. The bookshop itself would be a common area for creativity and hotbed for literary activity. In a world where everything seems to be moving online and bookshops are threatened by internet booksellers, it would be a delightful reverse of fortune for the workforce that has been displaced by the digital revolution to find office space in such an old-fashioned locale as the neighborhood bookshop.
For most of the 20th century, English and Irish booksellers had an arrangement about prices with publishers, spearheaded by the Society of Authors, the Publishers’ Association, and the Associated Booksellers of Great Britain and Ireland. “On January 1, 1900, these three organizations brought into force the Net Book Agreement, under which publishers could force booksellers to sell their books at a fixed price” (Rose 348). The Net Book Agreement was banished in the Nineties to make way for an American-style free market. As a result, supermarkets and big-box chains could sell cheap paperback versions of bestsellers as loss-leaders, effectively changing the literary landscape forever.
In a 2010 Guardian article calling for the reinstatement of the Net Book Agreement, Sam Jordison asks:
Is it better to have a thriving independent book sector and broad range of titles than a few cheap bestsellers? Our French cousins came to that conclusion in 1981 after an abortive attempt to destroy their NBA equivalent—and their bookshops have weathered the storm far better than ours (Jordison).
Questions of book price-fixing recently arose again in a 2011 lawsuit by the Department of Justice against several big publishers, including Apple, who had allegedly colluded in a new type of price-fixing agreement for ebooks, designed to allow publishers to better compete with an Amazon monopoly. The DOJ lawsuit, although well-intended, actually prevented the industry’s biggest players from using their weight to stop Amazon, and effectively cleared the way for the internet retailer to roll over the competition and run away with the ebook market.
To take note of developments from the country that nurtured Sylvia Beach and Shakespeare and Company, the French government recently began subsidizing bookshops and allowing for grants to assist failing bookshops in times of stress. “The government, [French Culture Minister Aurélie] Filippetti insisted, wants to make certain that France ‘never suffers the same fate as the United States’ with ‘the collapse of several [bookshop] chains and the ensuing difficulties for publishers’” (Abrams). A step beyond the price-fixing of the Net Book Agreement and its French equivalent, literary types in France seem to be arguing that the bookshop is a public space that deserves to be protected by public money.
The Literaturhaus model, begun in Germany in 1986, has not yet caught on in English-speaking countries, yet these “houses of literature” emphasize reading, discussion of books, and other creative pursuits over the sale of books. Coffee is included, as well as ample meeting space and room for works of art. “Despite occasional financial difficulties, the literature house concept has established itself so well that it’s been exported to other European cities, including Prague, Copenhagen and Oslo” (Soltau). Perhaps the English-language booksellers will gravitate toward the German-language trend for the haus of books, just as Sylvia Beach learned from the bookselling strategies of her French mentor and Monnier’s own maison of books.
“I think the reason that books survive is because they’ve been in the culture for thousands of years,” Browne says. “Technologies always needed power, they always needed something like that, but the book doesn’t. All you need is daylight and your ability to read… People like the physical act, the tactile thing of having the book in their hand” (Browne). Indeed, ebook sales growth has levelled off in most recent reports by the Association of American Publishers, partially due to the bursting of the “early adopter” bubble as well as the ebook format settling into a role as “a complement to the printed book, as audiobooks have long been, rather than an outright substitute” (Carr).
Browne notes that most readers of ebooks also still buy a mixture of ebooks and print books:
An interesting thing that even keen embracers of the new technology, they want their children to read physical books. They don’t want them to start reading ereaders, even if they are very keen ereader users themselves, they want their kids to read physical books initially. (Browne).
Nevertheless, ebooks still make up 20 percent of the trade market, and one way bookshops can embrace ebooks is by teaching customers how to create ebooks (Sporkin). The democratizing power of the ebook is something that bookshops can and should promote, even if they can survive without ebook sales. For a technology that will soon become as commonplace as loading an iPod or personalizing a blog, the process behind ebooks is still a mystery to the average reader. If bookshops were to get in on the ground floor of this ebook revolution, there will surely be a place for them in the ebook future.
A computing station with all the necessary desktop publishing and ebook file creating software could be accessible on a membership basis, like Sylvia Beach’s library. For a small fee, and with some heavy monitoring of files and internet usage, customers could rent time on the bookshop’s computer and craft their own ebook. One trained employee could hold office hours and allow paying members to use the computer and the software to format their own ebook. Most of the work would be done individually and at the author’s home, requiring little more personal equipment than a text editor and perhaps some image files. Training would be provided, and a knowledgeable staff member could be on hand to answer questions and prevent any meltdowns.
The final product could be assembled on the bookshop’s community computer using InDesign, exported as an EPUB file, and run through a free ebook converter such as Calibre to create an individualized ebook. This process avoids Amazon’s CreateSpace and Kindle Direct Publishing platforms, allowing for a certain freedom of choice, producing files that stand independently but still easily be converted to Kindle-compatible files should the author wish. Once the ebook is created, it could be sold from the very same computing station within the shop, as well as on the shop’s own website, giving the sale back to the bookshop and nurturing an enhanced community that is still connected by books.
If bookshops decide to get into the publishing game like Sylvia Beach did all those years ago, they are likely to find a market of people eager to break into ebooks. Just as self-publishing has allowed the average reader to become a published author for a small fee, ebook production is having a levelling effect on the publishing process. Anyone can write, publish, and most importantly, share their written text with the world for little-to-no cost, once the start-up fees have been covered.
The digital revolution is forcing the publishing industry to change its ways. The antiquated model of nepotism and elitism embraced a wilful ignorance of the digital realities, which could have been addressed years ago. Publishing is seeing a shake-up that can only be for the better, forcing it to catch up with other industries. Newer technologies and an energized workforce can bring fresh ideas to the table. There is little to lament for the publishing industry’s long overdue meltdown, and now is that time for rejuvenation.
At the same time, the art of literature could be undergoing a transformation, and bookshops have a unique viewpoint. Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier invested in the next generation of writers partially because they could not afford anyone else. At Charlie Byrne’s, Carmel McCarthy adds:
Not being able to afford such a hectic social life affords more time for reading, while being out of work would facilitate time for both reading and creative writing if one is of the bent, and also would perhaps foster a more philosophical approach to life when one is down on luck or struggling financially (McCarthy).
In a February 2013 column entitled “Why don’t we have a perfect bookshop?”, author Manchán Magan proposed a new bookshop model to Irish Times readers:
What we need now is a charming old building in a prime location near the Liffey – not a landmark building that needs to be venerated but an overlooked gem. It should be spacious but warren-like, with separate areas for new and old books and unusual genres. It needs to have small spaces for public readings, for book groups and for launches, plus a cafe that at night turns into a wine and Irish tapas bar….
The shop would have a small core staff supported by a revolving team of aspiring writers and book lovers who were visiting the city and, in return for their help, would be allowed to sleep among the book stacks at night, like the Tumbleweeds at Shakespeare and Company….
After the first year the shop could launch a literary competition and perhaps invite one of the main literary journals – the Dublin Review, the Stinging Fly or Irish Pages – to share its premises. Once it has settled into itself it could start a boutique imprint, publishing a choice selection of titles it believed passionately in (Magan).
Magan’s proposal hearkens back, in more ways than one, to the bookshop model exhibited by Shakespeare and Company, but fails to look forward to the new developments in the digital realm. As for Charlie Byrne’s branching into publishing, Browne says it is unlikely: “Most bookshop operators just don’t have the time to be publishers as well. If you own your own premises, it makes a huge difference to what you can do around things like that” (Browne). In the coming years, a bricks-and-mortar presence will be the most valuable attribute an independent bookshop can possess.
“Books are no more threatened by Kindle than stairs by elevators.”
(From a tweet by Stephen Fry)
Bookshops of the past, though often glorified and heralded as the last bastions of civilization, still struggled to survive. This is not a new phenomenon, as books provided little financial wiggle-room when it comes to sales. Bookshops have always had to supplement their services, from branching out into the publishing business to moving inventory online. It is sound business practice to evolve with a changing market and not expect to be propped up by the nostalgia of even the most loyal customers.
A successful business transaction is one that leaves both parties feeling as though they have gotten the better end of a deal. Retailers part ways with the products they stock in exchange for customers’ money. Customers, in turn, have a need or want met by the purchase. The space between, however, is where booksellers act as curators and protectors of the art of literature. Buying cheaper books online makes financial sense, but members of the literati are concerned with what happens when market forces seize control of book production. If literary innovation stagnates, the reader eventually suffers from issues not articulated in financial terms.
Bookshops will survive the digital revolution. There will not be as many bookshops, but city landscapes are changing due to a great many factors, and not all bookshop closures are caused by Amazon or ebooks. A bookshop must compete for its survival, and any business that expects to survive on goodwill and artistic merit alone deserves to be closed. On the other hand, attempting to beat the online booksellers at their own game is a race to the bottom and a guarantee of failure. Bookshops that attempt to do so will take their dignity with them when they go.
Putting aside very real fears about money and job security, the book industry is undergoing the most exciting transition since Gutenberg. The bookshop should become a resource in the time of the digital shift, in order to help readers, as well as themselves, embrace the changes and not be blindsided by them. Customers are just as confused as booksellers in this time or transition, perhaps even more so because they are not privy to the non-stop industry chatter that book professionals hear, read about, and deal with every single day.
Bookshops have to rely on curation, community, and creativity. All the things that go into a good book also go into a good bookstore. Customers are following their wallets and, one hopes, their own personal taste in literature to determine what books to buy and where to buy them. If bookshops cannot dominate in terms of cost, at least they can appeal to taste and appreciation. Helping customers to develop that taste, as well as educating them on the nuances of navigating the digital divide, is the best hope bookshops have for thriving in the coming years.
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