Profiles in Courage: Chats with independent bookstore owners, Part I

Christin Evans
Christin Evans and Praveen Madan, owners of the Booksmith bookstore in San Francisco.

[What do typesetters, shepherds, and independent bookstore owners have in common? That's not the setup for a bad joke – just a recognition that many traditional professions are under pressure these days, not the least of them the business of owning and operating your own bookstore. Facing the pressures of heavy competition from chains with deep pockets, a hesitant economy, and – most recently – assault from the likes of Kindle and the iPad, it is perhaps not surprising that membership in the American Booksellers Association has dropped almost 50 percent over the past 10 years (from about 2,700 members in 2000 to about 1,400 today). Over the course of the summer, the Monitor will be checking in with some of America's most beloved neighborhood booksellers to see how they are surviving or – occasionally – even thriving, in difficult times.]

Like hard-core journalists who run into a war zone just when everyone else is struggling to get out, husband-and-wife team Christin Evans and Praveen Madan made an unusual decision three years ago. They left high-paying consulting jobs in the corporate world – and bought an independent bookstore. Now happily ensconced as owners of Booksmith San Francisco, Evans took a few moments to answer questions from Monitor book editor Marjorie Kehe. Here are excerpts of their conversation:

Q. Why, in this day and age, would anyone leave the corporate world to buy an independent bookstore?

A. I can’t answer that question for everybody but I can answer that question for us. Praveen and I both had reached a point in our career where we were very successful at what we did, which was help big companies get bigger. And we were very fortunate that we also could take some time off to consider what we wanted to do next.

And getting into independent bookselling for us was not the obvious choice. We did a lot of ideating about what our interests are, what our passions are, what we’d be excited about pursuing together as a couple. Bookselling was not obvious but it was one thing that came up and that we both kept coming back to. We both are readers and we both found ourselves spending a lot of time at bookstores.

We came from a background of helping companies apply technology to their businesses but also we are both MBAs so we both had business training and background. We basically said, what is it that an independent bookstore does? And we started to ideate about all the things that independent bookstores could do to create a sustainable model for their business, and the more that we got into that ideation the more we said there are a lot of things that bookstores should be trying to see if they can survive relative to the chains and Amazon.

I think it’s an incredibly exciting time to be in this space right now. I feel like I’m an entrepreneur in the Wild West in a way, on the frontier, because we’re seeing some really exciting things. We’ve built really strong ties with some local authors who are experimenting with self-publishing and promotion; we are working with established authors with new methods of promotion, whether that’s live streaming, video, using social media. In some ways technology allows us to enhance and enrich the community which already exists around the bookstore, so where there are opportunities to do that we’ve been actively experimenting and participating in that.

Q. How do marriage and co-bookstore ownership go together?

A. People that know us describe us as a great team. We’re very complementary. Certainly we were workaholics before in our old life, but now we’re workaholics and we’re working on something that we’re very passionate about and enjoy working on together.

Q. How do you keep your staff happy?

A. We look for people that are passionate, excited about what we’re trying to do here. They also do a good job of keeping each other motivated. I don’t know how much of a role we as owners play in that. Having a great manager is part of that. We do a lot of fun things like celebrating birthdays and being aware of each other’s lives and being aware of each person that makes it feel like – it’s a little bit cliché – but that makes it feel like a family.

Q. What advice would you give to someone thinking of opening or buying an independent bookstore?

A. You should really do your homework. Talk to people in the community who already patronize that business. Talk to people who would patronize your business. Local authors. Talk to sales reps. Talk to distributor representatives. Really understand what you’re getting into. Because a lot of people have a dreamy notion of what running independent bookstore might look like and one of the paradoxical things is that you almost have less time to read than you did before. Think about all the things that need to happen and then triple that number and that’s how much you’re going to be struggling to get done.

Q. What’s the best thing about the job?

A. The best thing about owning an independent bookstore in San Francisco is being part of this community. I was a reader and in some ways I was sort of disconnected from the author. I was disconnected from other readers. And now I’ve found so many other interesting people. Praveen and I both like to say that we’re idea people, we’re driven by ideas. And by virtue of being a member of the community that surrounds an independent bookstore you find a lot of other like-minded people, literary-minded people that are interested in ideas, in literary experimentation, in the long written form.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.

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