Monday, September 10, 2012

Conversations with Indie Booksellers, 1/3: Brooke Raby, Joseph-Beth

I spent some of the best and hardest years of my life in Lexington, Kentucky, learning how to be a married woman, learning how to be a writer, and finishing my undergraduate degree at University of Kentucky. So I continue to have a soft spot for Lexington. It’s not my hometown—my birthplace—but it’s the home of my growing up. It’s also the place where I learned to embrace rather than reject Kentucky, to see that it’s a state worth being from and worth writing about.

When my first book of stories came out in 2009, I was able to appreciate in a brand new way just how vibrant the city’s literary and arts community is. I gave a reading at Lexington’s major independent bookseller, Joseph-Beth, but I also signed stacks of books for the new independent store, The Morris Book Shop. I read and offered a workshop at the Kentucky Women Writers’ Conference, which is the oldest women writers’ conference in the country. The local free arts and entertainment circular, Ace Weekly, published a huge spread to publicize Girl Trouble and my events in town, and the Herald-Leader also came through with great coverage. It was a heartening way to launch a book tour and a promotional campaign, and so I’ve felt for years now the deepest gratitude to my friends in Lexington. But not just gratitude—pride, too. Lexington’s literary scene is truly something special, and I’d like to do my small part to let people outside of Kentucky know just how special it is.

To that end, this week I’m running a series of Q&As with three Lexington booksellers: Brooke Raby at Joseph-Beth, Wyn Morris at The Morris Book Shop, and Crystal Wilkinson at The Wild Fig Bookstore.

Today’s Q&A is with Brooke, who is Marketing Manager at Joseph-Beth. Joseph-Beth has been a Lexington institution for twenty-five years. The store, which is the hub of the Lexington Green shopping center, is huge, with two sprawling levels, escalators, a domed, skylit ceiling, and a cafe. The lower level opens on both sides to adjacent restaurants, which all front a manmade lake with a fountain feature. The design and scale are perhaps closer to a big-box chain store in a shiny-new shopping center than the heroically small indie many of us envision as model for the kind, but Joseph-Beth maintains the indie spirit by community engagement, an emphasis on local and Kentucky writers, and hiring a knowledgable staff (like Brooke) who cares deeply about the value of hand selling.

Brooke and I go back—way back. To Stevenson Elementary School in Russellville, Kentucky, in fact. And so it was strange and nice that Brooke was Events Coordinator at Joseph-Beth when Girl Trouble came out.

HGJ: You and I have talked a little about how we lost touch and lost track of one another after high school, even though we were both going to UK, and it occurs to me now that I don’t know much of the story of how you got into bookselling. I know you worked at Jo-Beth part-time as an undergraduate because I ran into you there when I went shopping. You majored in English, right? I’m thinking a little now about my own experiences working part-time at University Press of Kentucky, and how there was a point when I thought that it would be great to stay there, and have a career in university press publishing, and it just didn’t turn out that way. At what point did you decide, “I think this is what I could do with my life?” Did you know all along that you wanted to use your English major to work in the book industry?

BR: Yeah, we did lose track of each other, but such is life, and adulthood, I suppose. But, anyway, my studies in English actually brought me to JB, but not directly, or in a deliberate manner like most adults. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my English degree besides use it to get the hell out of college. But, I had a couple of friends in my post-Reformation lit class that worked at JB, and I had just left my job at a law firm, so I applied, thinking that if they worked there, it was probably pretty cool, and I liked reading, etc. Not being from Lexington, I didn’t have the perspective on JB that other people did – the idea that it was so ingrained in the community and such a gathering place and, really, a cherished institution. I had been there once or twice, and of course, thought it was gorgeous and special. Little did I know.

Honestly, I can’t pinpoint a “eureka!” moment with bookselling. In some ways, it’s like being a doctor or a chef or a clergyperson – it chooses you. Books choose you. This life chooses you. And you just kind of hang on and enjoy the ride. Let me be clear: in no way am I saying that what I do is as difficult as what a doctor does, only that the universe has a way of putting you where you need to be.

HGJ: Are you still events manager at Jo-Beth? What was your trajectory through the ranks there, and why is this the position that seems to be right for you right now?

BR: I am not, although as Marketing Manager, I do oversee the events (including our fantastic PR/Events Coordinator, Michael Cruikshank), as well as general branding, traffic-driving, and what is probably the largest aspect of my job, community relations. I was PR/Events Coordinator for three years, and the amount of experience and knowledge I gained in that position is just immeasurable. I began here in November of 2000 as a seasonal part-time bookseller, went permanent part-time in January of 2001, and then full-time in June of 2003, after graduation. Most of that time, I had worked primarily in the music department, but also on the floor as a bookseller. In October of 2004, I was relocated to our (now-defunct) Pittsburgh location to be the music manager and stayed there for 13 months, where I learned tons about managing a store and staff. Upon my return to Lexington in November of 2005, I took over as the Local Product buyer, and that is where the bulk of my knowledge about publishing came from. In January of 2008, I was hired as the PR/Events Coordinator, and in February 2011, I took over as Marketing Manager for the Lexington store. The advantage of being in a position like this is that you can work directly with decision-makers in the company to build the sort of bookstore you would want to go to. I also get to go to bat for a lot of our community organizations and partners and say, “This is what Lexington is doing, this is what is important to us – how do we help? How can we be a part of it?” That can be a very rewarding thing.

HGJ: As an author, I hear a lot about the importance of the “hand sell.” My publisher encourages me to do events, for instance, because they think it’s so critical that I meet the booksellers and make them want to put the book into a customer’s hands. What does “hand-selling” mean to you? Is it a matter of being knowledgeable enough to match a customer with the book that’s a right fit, or is it important to you to spread the word about books you love?

BR: Oh, the hand-sell. Yes, it is a very important thing, for both authors and booksellers. I know booksellers that have sold hundreds of copies of books on their own, based solely on their affection for that title – debut novels especially. Lots of authors I’ve talked to have said the same: you get the right booksellers on your side, and they can do as much for you as any advertising. I work with one of the best hand-sellers in the business, and watching him is just inspiring. One of my favorite things was when an international bestselling author asked this bookseller for his elevator pitch so he could use it! For me, hand-selling is like the best of both worlds, in that you’re doing something great for your store, the author, and the publisher, and you get to share something you’re passionate about with someone whose mind is open to it. In terms of best fit versus books you love, there’s definitely room for both. We encourage our booksellers to have a couple of great hand- sell titles in multiple subjects (because, let’s face it, trying to sell fiction to a vehement non-fiction reader can be a waste of everyone’s time). It makes you a better bookseller. As booksellers, the ultimate goal, of course, is to perpetuate great books, but there’s the very practical aspect of making sure a reader leaves your store happy. So you really treasure those customers who come in looking for guidance. That’s when you unleash the bookseller/hand-selling nerd. And then when booksellers get together, you discuss your hand-selling arsenal – it’s fun.

HGJ: Let’s talk a little about events—I know Joseph-Beth does a lot of them, including special events for children and that sort of thing, not just readings. What is the purpose of the in-store event? When an author like me gets discouraged, coming in to read to a couple of souls and one kindly store employee, are we wasting our time or doing some kind of good for our books? What do you think the events mean to the customers? What are the ingredients for a successful in-store event?

BR: The purpose of an in-store event, whether it’s an author or non-author event, is to provide an experience. Now, admittedly, the hope is that those experiences will translate to sales (because without sales, you have no bookstore, no publishers, and authors are going to have a much harder go of it than they do now), but when you give people something they can’t get somewhere else, they’ll come to you, and that gives you the opportunity to build trust and rapport and therefore the opportunity to put new books and authors on their radar. I know that frustrated feeling you’re talking about – booksellers get that too, especially when we finally get that author whose ARC we read months ago and have been blubbering on about forever and then three people show up to hear them. It’s not fun for anyone. But in the end, you’ve created more awareness than you would have if you hadn’t done that small tour or that event. And that kindly bookstore employee may end up being like my colleague who picks up on your book and sells seventy-five of them in the following months. On a personal level, I love it when an author blows up and we get to say “Oh, yeah, we had them a few years ago for their first book. You should have been here. It was really cool.” For customers, again, I think if you set up a program of authors, they begin to trust that you’re a bookstore that cares about books and the community, and that makes you special and valuable. For avid readers, in-store events mean getting to meet their literary heroes, or a fun place for their kids to read and play, or learning something they didn’t know. The ingredients for a great in-store event  can be a little tricky. What I always tell authors, especially those who are just starting out, is that you have to be willing to toot your own horn. You’ve done this amazing thing that most humans haven’t done. Odds are, if you’ve gotten as far as getting on with a publisher and being sent on tour, you’ve got something special. Promotion, being passionate about your book, and being willing to talk about the experience of writing your book are key elements on the author’s side.

HGJ: Lexington is a city that has managed in recent years to have several thriving independent bookstores among, if I recall, at least a couple of the chains, such as B&N. The city where I live now, in comparison, has only one Barnes & Noble, one large used bookstore, and a scattering of very small used bookstores, even though Greensboro is comparable in size to Lexington and also a college town. Why do you think it is that Lexington can support this sort of book scene? What is Joseph-Beth’s role in that scene?

BR: It’s an embarrassment of riches we have in Lexington. At my last count, we have four independent used bookstores, one chain (B&N in Hamburg), one chain used (Half-Price in Hamburg), and two indies. And then, of course, college bookstores, and our library bookstore, and the bookstore for International Book Project. So, yeah, we got books, y’all. You’re not incorrect about Lexington and Greensboro being similar (although our head buyer will argue that Lexington is much more comparable to the Research Triangle), in that we do have similar populations, multiple institutes of higher learning, etc. I will add the following:

- Lexington consistently ranks in the top ten in the U.S. for college education rate, which means that we have a large number of people to whom reading and literacy is important. With that high level of education tends to come a higher level of disposable income, and that is a good thing for all of us.

- While Greensboro has more colleges/universities than Lexington, UK does pull in a larger student population (a smidge over 26K as of 2008), and we also pull from Transylvania University, and regional universities and colleges, like Asbury, Georgetown, EKU, Midway College, Pikeville, Berea, etc. And to that end…

- Lexington serves as one of (arguably) three shopping/education/medical hubs for Kentucky. Eastern and Central Kentucky look to Lexington for things they can’t get or do in their own communities.

- Kentucky has a phenomenal literary heritage. I mean, look at us. We’re awesome. Wendell Berry, Barbara Kingsolver, Silas House, Robert Penn Warren, James Still, Nikky Finney – the list goes on. I had a great conversation with an author from Tennessee who told me that he was consistently surprised at how many authors were from Kentucky, and how amazing it is that one state could produce that much talent. I think that plays a role in how we look at books and bookstores.

- Lexington loves Local. That’s a big deal here.
There are probably a million other reasons that I’m not smart enough to see, but these are the ones that come to mind.

HGJ: I understand from Facebook that Jo-Beth is undergoing some renovations. What kind, and what was the impetus?

BR: We’re making some dramatic, but necessary and good changes. We have this big, beautiful space that we love and our customers love, but the challenge is always finding ways to utilize that space in the most efficient ways - what makes the most sense for our customers, or how can we improve a space with less-than-stellar sales, or how do we avoid clutter, things like that. Plus, it’s been a minute since we refreshed the store. We’re making some very smart section moves, including an expanded cooking and home section (it’s basically built just like a kitchen you would have in your home, only without pesky appliances) that will allow us to make more room for tables in our restaurant that will overlook the lake. New sections will have information desks, so instead of having to walk all the way to the front of the store, you can get help right where you are. We’ll also have a new coffee bar at the front of the store. Our in-house restaurant will be totally renovated, with more lakeview seating. Next year, we’ll be refreshing our Kids’ section too. I could probably spend a fair amount of time listing the changes, like our fiction move and the new travel section and such, but these are the big ones. I’ll happily give anyone who comes in a tour, replete with sparkling commentary, free of charge.

HGJ: What, in general, do you think is the place of the brick-and-mortar bookstore as e-readers take off and Amazon keeps siphoning off bigger chunks of the market? Do you agree, as some have theorized, that independent bookstores will become more central to the bookstore as chains like Borders close and B&N moves more of its operations to the internet and Nook?

BR: Let me start by saying that I think there’s room for both e-readers and print books. I have tons of friends who do both, and I know lots of folks in publishing that do both. Not to say that e-books haven’t had an effect on bookstore sales, but personally, I’m much more troubled by the fact that you can get any new book at the grocery or Walmart or, of course, Amazon, for a higher discount than bricks & mortar bookstores can afford to give, and that is attractive to people. That being said, this is where bookstores will really prove their worth. Events, knowledge, service, handselling, environment - they’re all so central to the bookstore experience. Independent bookstores have proven time and again that we do all of that better than our larger, publicly-traded friends. Chain stores have generally not made service or experience their focus, and this is when the chickens will come home to roost on that issue. B&N was smart, in that they realized that with their size and proliferation, they had to make up that gap between print book sales and e-book sales, and made the decision to develop their own e-reader. Borders did not, for whatever reason, and maintaining a company that big with that many stores was just not possible without a way to make up the losses from multi-channel distribution (Amazon, Kroger, Target, Walmart) and the burgeoning e-book market. In the meantime, through all that, indies are still here, doing what they do best, which is trying to sell books people want and providing that whole experience. Not to mention, when’s Amazon gonna invite you to meet George R.R. Martin, or Jimmy Carter, or Bill McKibben in one of their warehouses? They’re not.


applegac said...

Holly, this is such a fantastic interview! I saw that you posted these while I was out of town, so I've been saving the reading of them for a day like today when it's damp outside and I had the time to give them my full attention. I don't know when you got your training as an interviewer in between all your other skills and talents, but this is just so good! This makes me want to visit Lexington badly. I grieve for the independent retail bookstore that doesn't exist in Greensboro.

Holly Goddard Jones said...

Thanks, Risa! I think you and Matt would really like Lexington. Brandon and I had a great four years there.