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

Amie Mechler-Hickson
Daniel Goldin, owner of the Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee.

[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.]

When the Harry W. Schwartz Bookshop on Downer Avenue in downtown Milwaukee – in business since 1927 – shut its doors, Daniel Goldin didn’t grieve. He reopened the store as The Boswell Book Company. As Schwartz’s longtime book buyer, Goldin knew the business – and he knew it well enough to understand how large a gamble he was taking. Goldin recently took a few minutes to talk with Monitor books editor Marjorie Kehe about life today as an independent bookseller.

Q. How much do e-books worry you?

A. You know, I’m not really that worried. And I don’t think I’m being an ostrich. I feel like I have about a year [to figure out how to] deal with this. We have a lot of customers who really work hard to give us their business. I feel like there could be a system, a website that would let customers [buy e-books] from their independent bookstores in a way that could work for us. E-books don’t really compete with our core business. I’m glad I’m not an airport bookseller – I think they should be really worried. And I’m glad I’m not a mass-market book retailer because the people who buy those are not worried about having copies for their libraries. Independent bookstores rely on a different kind of customer.

Q. So you feel like you have a year to figure it out?

A. Oh, I don’t know – I just made that up! I’m not very good with numbers. But what I do know is that the big news on e-books right now is how fast they’re growing. But still, the numbers are very small. I think we have time to come to understand how to deal with it.

Q. What does an independent have to do to survive these days?

A. Well, you know, that’s a tricky question for me because I came from a store that didn’t survive. I change my mind all the time as to the best strategy, as I think most people do. But I think what counts is that we put as much personality into the business as possible. My staff are all book-obsessed people. But I tell them that the bookstore is about the people who come in here as much as it is about the books. The customers are coming here because they like our vision of what a bookstore should be. That doesn’t mean I’m catering to every desire of every customer. If I did, then we’d be a milquetoast kind of place. I think I know who my core customers are and it’s my job to make them as happy as I can.

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

A. I love when I can connect the right customer with the right book. I love compliments – I thrive on them. Nothing makes me happier than when a customer comes back and says, “You recommended this book and I never would have read it otherwise, but I absolutely loved it.”

Q. What’s the worst thing about your job?

A. Oh, I don’t know. I’m a panicky sort of person. But I’d be a panicky sort of person even if I didn’t own a bookstore.

Q. What would you say to someone about to buy a bookstore?

A. Make sure you know what you’re getting into. It’s not as easy as it looks. Work in a store before you buy it. First you need to learn to pay the bills, deal with returns, fix your computer system when it breaks, try to get a loan. A lot of people come in here and say, “Oh, it’s my dream to open a bookstore! Maybe someday when I retire….” What I want to tell them is, “First try lifting a box of books and see how it feels. Those boxes are a lot heavier than they look.”

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.

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