Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Conversations with Indie Booksellers, 2/3: Wyn Morris, The Morris Book Shop

Today’s Q&A is with Wyn Morris, whose bookstore, The Morris Book Shop, opened in Lexington in 2008. I’ve known Wyn for a little over ten years now. I was an undergraduate marketing intern at University Press of Kentucky when Wyn left a position at Joseph-Beth Booksellers to become Sales Manager at the UPK. Wyn subsequently left UPK to open, along with store manager Hap Houlihan (another UPK alum) The Morris Book Shop.

The store has moved since I was last there in 2010, and so I’ve yet to see the new location (though you can check out some photos on the store website). My guess, though, is that The Morris Book Shop continues to offer Lexingtonians a smaller, more intimate alternative to Joseph-Beth. If the latter is grand in scale and classic in concept, with the space to accommodate hundreds of fans of cult writers such as George RR Martin or celebrity writers such as Lauren Conrad, Wyn’s store is something different, and perhaps even hipper (though I wonder if Wyn would bristle at that word choice). It’s a place where you can quietly browse, chat with a familiar store employee, and walk out with something you didn’t come in looking for.  

HGJ: I know, in sketch, the story of how you came to open The Morris Book Shop, but I wonder if you wouldn’t mind telling some of that story. Had you always dreamed of owning your own store?

WM: I spent my college years working at a local record store (remember those?), and as a music fan - but non-musician - I found that gave me a platform to share stuff I liked with other people. Sounds a bit simplistic, but the pleasure of handing someone a record and saying “I think you’ll really like this” is a really satisfying experience. Even better when they do like it and come back for more. I made a million mixtapes for a million girls, and every one of them meant something. Plus, I got used to being paid almost nothing.

I signed on as a bookseller for Joseph-Beth when I graduated from UK and sort of just stayed. They were experiencing a period of extraordinary growth and that afforded the opportunity to wear many hats. I learned a great deal about the business of books, and I realized I not only loved it, but I was pretty good at it. When I left after 10 years to work at the University Press of Kentucky I thought I might be done with the retail end of the book business.

But I missed all the other books. If you invited me out for a beer, chances were that you were going to hear about the bookstore I would someday open in Lexington. And it might have stayed that way.

In 2006 and 2007, a series of unfortunate events turned my world upside down. In short, I lost every “adult” in my family in less than a year. The sort of experience that makes one realize that life is indeed very short, and perhaps it was time to stop boring friends with talk of what I was going to do and get down to the business of actually doing something. My friend and frequent co-worker Hap Houlihan was foolish enough to sign up for the trip and The Morris Book Shop was born.

HGJ: What were the most surprising challenges of starting a bookstore from scratch?

WM: I felt like I knew how to “run” a bookstore. Starting my own business was another matter. Forms, fees, lawyers, landlords, banks, publishers, etc... a truly soul-sucking process starting a business is. You’ve really gotta want it, because it’s a gigantic pain in the butt. I still feel like I’m always waiting on the phone call telling me that I’ve not dotted an “i” somewhere along the line and that the government now owns my store.

Oddly, one unanticipated issue was the assumption that we were a used and/or Christian book store. It’s been a very long time since Lexington last had a traditional bookstore under 6,000 square feet, so I guess I understand the confusion. We’ve hopefully sent dozens of customers to Lexington’s many great used book stores, but we ain’t among them.

HGJ: Small bookstores are often celebrated for being “curated,” and it occurs to me, contemplating the huge task of opening a store, that it would be incredibly intimidating to build the stock, even though I consider myself reasonably well read. How did you go about doing that for your store? What are your favorite sections of the store? Do you focus on some kinds of books to the exclusion of others?

WM: Compiling our opening inventory was a hugely collaborative affair. We established a very close relationship with a representative from wholesaler Ingram Book Company (Marsha Wood - a Lexington native) and worked with her to sift through spreadsheets, catalogs, fuzzy memories, etc... and we got damn close! We had to make some leaps of faith, and we were wrong a lot, but on opening day we had a pretty decent selection. My experience at Joseph-Beth and at the University Press really came in handy as we compiled the Kentucky section. I’d crossed paths with many of the region’s authors and publishers, so often the relationships were already in place.

As for actual “inventory control” I’m not sure I do it like anybody else. I do meet with publisher sales reps, and I do look through catalogs (more and more in electronic form), but when I’ve attended sessions on buying at bookseller gatherings I feel like either an idiot or a rogue savant. Most of it goes on in my head, in Google Reader, on my phone, on NPR, in Entertainment Weekly, or the NYT Book Review. I seem to have some sort of filter that retains information about books and lets most everything else pass through. I have a bookselling brain, and it’s of little use elsewhere. I can’t go to the grocery without a list, but I’ll sure as shit have “Sign of the Beaver” on the shelf when your kid needs it for school.

People are sometimes surprised by my relatively lowbrow taste in literature. I read mostly fiction, and while I happily anticipate the new Michael Chabon or Junot Díaz, I’m just as likely to be found curled up with a good zombie story, graphic novel, or an old John D. MacDonald or Elmore Leonard book. My personal tastes have little to do, however, with what you’ll find on the shelves. Our customers have led us, and will continue to lead us, where we need to be. Lexington’s reading habits are what curate The Morris Book Shop’s stock.

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?

WM: Handselling is bookselling at its purest. “What should I read next?” “THIS! I think you’ll love it!” I think it’s why we do what we do. You learn through the years to cater to each particular customer, but also to not pander - a Nora Roberts fan might find that they love Jennifer Egan or Ann Patchett, or someone who’s finished with Roberto Bolaño’s entire output might adore Richard Stark’s Parker novels. This is the fun part. This is why we do what we do. The parent who rolls their eyes and says “all he wants to do is read”? - we’ve got that covered. “I’ve just finished all three Fifty Shades of Grey books - what now?” - done. “Do you have any books on hot air ballooning?” - yes, one. The Balloon Flying Handbook by the FAA.

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 The Morris Book Shop’s role in that scene?

WM: I have to give a tremendous amount of the credit for Lexington’s thriving bookstore scene to Joseph-Beth. For many Lexingtonians, Joseph-Beth has always been here. A bookstore has always been a place you go - to browse, to socialize, to have coffee, to pick up chicks, to research deck building, to meet superstar authors, to BUY BOOKS.

Lexington has also always had a thriving community of authors that it can be easy to take for granted. I honk and wave at my neighbor Nikky Finney on my way home every evening. Ed McClanahan walks by my house twice a day. We bump into Bobbie Ann Mason at the grocery. Silas House, C.E. Morgan, Erik Reese, Maurice Manning, and others are friends and customers. Crystal Wilkinson owns a friggin’ bookstore here! And Holly Goddard Jones sends me a lengthy Q&A and knows I’ll take the time to attempt to answer thoughtfully. Writers & books are just a part of our everyday life here in Lexington, and the community is dedicated to supporting them. Our role? Matchmaking - let’s get these people together!

The “Shop Local” movement has also taken hold in Lexington in a major way. As Lexington’s only locally-owned and operated new bookstore, we helped found Local First Lexington just over four years ago. There are now almost 200 member businesses. Folks here seem to really be concerned with shopping local, knowing where their money is going and trying to keep it here in the community, and I think Local First has done a great deal to educate consumers about how best to go about that.

HGJ: Let’s talk a little about events. 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?

WM: Events are sort of a necessary evil for both authors & booksellers. We’ll never be the place that the publishers send their superstar celebrity authors. We choose instead to focus on mostly local talent - authors, poets, and musicians - and have had a great deal of success partnering with local organizations to bring authors in for events outside of the store. In September alone we are selling books at offsite events for German street artists Herakut, a Hospice benefit featuring Patrick Swayze’s widow Lisa, and the annual Kentucky Women Writers Conference with Ruth Reichl, Karen Joy Fowler, Kelly Link, and many others.

I’ve been fortunate to hear bestselling author - now fellow bookseller - Ann Patchett speak quite eloquently about the importance of booksigning events to an author, and I can’t begin to hope to do the same. The sense that an author is winning over one reader at a time is quite valid, but it must often feel like banging one’s head against a wall. I’ve seen that connection between author and reader many times, most recently at a book launch for Lexington author Gwenda Bond - you see one customer with the hair standing up on the back of their neck as they speak with an author. All kind of worth it in my opinion. If we sell a few books, well all the better.

HGJ: I know that you moved to a new location recently. What was the purpose of the move? What is your vision for The Morris Book Shop in the coming years?

WM: Our move to the Chevy Chase neighborhood has been huge. When folks from elsewhere ask about the area, I’ll usually tell them that, in a bigger city, we would be downtown. We’re surrounded by older residential neighborhoods, very close to UK’s campus, and there are about a dozen restaurants and bars within walking distance. You can pick up some Mediterranean food or a fresh baguette, snag a bottle of wine or a growler of craft beer, rent a movie at an actual video store, grab some Graeter’s ice cream - and, of course, buy a few books before heading home.

We also paid particular attention to the design of the store, and I think we’ve built a bookstore that looks like no other. American bookstores have come to all look a certain way over the past few decades, and we willfully went for an entirely different vibe. Local artisans and designers crafted nearly every element of the store, and I think we’ve got something really special.

In the coming years, we’ll basically be following where our customers lead us. This city has embraced us more than I ever imagined, and I look forward to what we’ll build together.


Anonymous said...

As a personal friend of Wyns son, I can say that they are all just wonderful people, and I love the Morris book shop. There really needs to be more places like this that are really revolutionary. It really is just a fun and exciting environment. Any time you walk through the door, you can't help but smile a little. Everyone's so nice and it just has a healthy, happy atmosphere.

Somehow, even with the hundreds of people that come in every day, everyone wants to think of the Morris book shop as their little secret. In fact, we love it to the point where it has almost a cult following. Every Mini Cooper and Vespa (not just Wyn's) in lexington has the infamous "Morris Book Shop." bumper sticker next to their "I buy local" one.

But anyway, what I'm trying to say is thank you for writing this. It's just one of those things that make you say "I'm proud to be a Lexintonian."

Buddy Harris said...

Informative series, Holly. And timely. Mr. Morris seems to have a good head about him, and I'm always intrigued by the machinations of the indy bookstore.

I had a horribly awkward encounter with a clerk at the indy here in Durham a few weeks ago over my request for the new Moleskin/Evernote journal. I'm a Moleskin junky and asked the clerk whether she knew if the store would get any of the new ones in that are supposed to sync up with an iphone app. She asked me what Evernote is and I said it is an iphone app that allows you to...blah, blah blah. To which she replied, "I don't do "e" anything, so I don't know about any new "e devices. " It was like I was talking to Golem and she was stroking her hardback like her precious. She was so effin' snarky ...I sort of just begged off and slunked out.

The point of this as it relates to your series is not so much about how indies have adapted to the ebook movement, but rather, how some have and some haven't, and it seems easy for the bad ones to blame all their troubles on bad markets and epublishing and what-not, when really some owners are just bad business people incapable of altering the battle plan. What's irritating (to me at least) is that even the bad ones can shroud their incompetence in righteous indignation.

I don't think the best indies are going anywhere, because books are just part of what they're selling. They understand that and nurture experience. It was interesting, also, to see the rep from Joseph-Beth talk about the threat from the Wal-Marts of the world...

Thanks for the post, and best of luck to Mr. Morris.

Holly Goddard Jones said...

To the first commenter, thank you. I had that bumper sticker, too, on my rattletrap Kia Spectra, and then it (the Spectra) was hauled away to charity this summer. I'll have to get another.

Buddy, it sounds like you got a rude employee, which always sucks. But I guess I don't quite grasp what you mean by "altering the battle plan." If the employee had been polite when she told you the store didn't carry the item, would you still be angry? Were you put off by the person's attitude or by the philosophy that a certain kind of Moleskine notebook isn't something this particular store would want to stock? If the latter, I don't know. It seems to be a kind of slippery slope before you make the store over in the image of a B&N, which is going to have the full range of available moleskins, a coffee bar, a selection of board games, and a large remainder section with yellow markdown stickers. Maybe that's what bookstores have to do to succeed--but then again, B&N isn't doing too well, despite all of these offerings, and Borders has already imploded. If the e-book revolution, Amazon, and bad markets aren't to blame for that, what is?

Buddy Harris said...

Yeah, the journal thing sucked up too much of my argument’s energy, because that was really just the catalyst for what I see to be the bigger issue. It seems to me that as long as independent bookstores are selling only books – or tangible commodities, e.g. journals, pens, pads, books, games, mugs, or anything else – they’re sunk. The good ones sell experience, lifestyle and community – and they curate, as you discussed with Mr. Morris. I know the market for indies is just terrible, but I’m quite sure the ones that are smart enough to rework their strategies and attend to their store’s ethos are doing better than the ones that just cry in their beer over Amazon.

This particular bookstore I’m talking about (that you don’t really like it either) has made some really bad decisions. It reminds me of all the small business owners that say they’re going out of business because of the Obama administration’s environmental regulations or something. Those regulations probably are really tough to deal with, but there are a lot of companies making a lot of money because they’ve been smart enough to deal with the new regulations. Maybe bookstores are different in that they’re typically started by people with a passion if not business acumen.

Come to think of it, maybe my annoyance (not really anger) with the clerk did have something specific to do with that particular type of journal. If you haven’t seen it, it’s pretty cool. It looks like any other moleskin on the outside, although the cover’s a little fancier, but the paper is techno-infused with some gizmo so that when you write on it, the handwritten text can be easily captured/interpreted by the app when you photograph it. So say you jot down an idea or line or list or something in the journal, then you photograph it, and whatever you wrote is turned into usable text. I’m kind of excited about it because it fuses the old with the new. It’s literally a product that bridges the gap. So, yeah, maybe there is a metaphor in there. Of course, this is all easy for me to say, right?
You go, Terry Gross!

Matt said...

These interviews make me really want to go to Lexington.