Booksellers do not guard their best secrets: they are a generous tribe and were quick to welcome me into their fold and to give me advice. I was told to hang merchandise from the ceiling whenever possible, because people long to buy whatever requires a ladder to cut it down. The children’s section should always be in a back corner of the store, so that when parents inevitably wandered off and started reading, their offspring could be caught before they busted out of the store. I received advice about bookkeeping, bonuses, staff recommendations and websites.
While I was flying from city to city, Karen [Hayes] was driving around the South in a U-haul, buying up shelving at rock-bottom prices from various Borders stores that were liquidating. I had written one check before I left, for a hundred and fifty thousand dollars, and I kept asking if she needed more money. No, she didn’t need more money.
At the end of the summer, Karen and I finally settled on a former tanning salon a few doors down from a doughnut shop and a nail emporium. Unlike the property managers we had encountered earlier in our quest, the one responsible for this location was a business-savvy Buddhist who felt a bookstore would lend class to his L-shaped strip mall, and to this end was willing to foot the bill to have the tile floors chipped out. The space was long and deep, with ceilings that were too high for us to ever dream of hanging things from. The tanning beds were carted away, but the sign over the door stayed up for a ridiculously long time: Tan 2000. I went to Australia on yet another leg of my book tour, leaving all the work on Karen’s head.
In Australia, all anyone wanted to talk about was the bookstore. Journalists were calling from Germany and India, wanting to talk about the bookstore. Every interview started off the same way: Hadn’t I heard the news? Had no one thought to tell me? Bookstores were over. Then, one by one, the interviewers recounted the details of their own favorite stores, and I listened. They told me, confidentially and off the record, that they thought I just might succeed.
I was starting to understand the role the interviews would play in that success. In my thirties, I had paid my rent by writing for fashion magazines. I found Elle to be the most baffling because its editors insisted on identifying trends. Since most fashion magazines “closed” (industry jargon for the point at which the pages are shipped to the printing plant) three months before they hit the newsstands, the identification of trends, especially from Nashville, required an act of near clairvoyance.
Eventually, I realized what everyone in fashion already knew: a trend is whatever you call a trend. This spring in Paris, fashionistas will wear fishbowls on their heads. In my hotel room in Australia, this insight came back to me more as a vision than as a memory. “The small independent bookstore is coming back,” I told reporters in Berlin and Bangladesh.
“It’s part of a trend.” My act was on the road, and with every performance I tweaked the script, hammering out the details as I proclaimed them to strangers: all things happen in a cycle, I explained—the little bookstore had succeeded and grown into a bigger bookstore. Seeing the potential for profit, the superstore chains rose up and crushed the independents, then Amazon rose up and crushed the superstore chains. Now that we could order any book at any hour without having to leave the screen in front of us, we realized what we had lost: the community center, the human interaction, the recommendation of a smart reader rather than a computer algorithm telling us what other shoppers had purchased.
I promised whomever was listening that from those very ashes the small independent bookstore would rise again. What about the e-books, the journalists wanted to know. How can you survive the e-books? And so I told them—I care that you read, not how you read.
Most independent bookstores, and certainly Barnes & Noble, are capable of selling e-books through their websites, and those e-books can be downloaded onto any e-reader except for Amazon’s Kindle, which worked only for Amazon purchases. So you can support a bookstore in your community and still read a book on your iPad. Say it enough times and it will be true.
Build it and they will come. In Melbourne, I gave a reading with Jonathan Franzen. I asked him if he would come to the bookstore. Sure, he said, he’d like to do that. Down in the Antipodes, my mind began to flip through my Rolodex. I know a lot of writers.
Extracted from The Bookshop Strikes Back by Ann Patchett (£1.99, 9781408847503), published by Bloomsbury to celebrate Independent Booksellers Week 2013.