Monday, March 30, 2009

The Book Business 6 (Road Trip 4)

"When we started out, all you had to do was fill the store with good books and the customers came. Business was great. Everybody around here read a lot. So you had these great conversations with customers, they would turn you on to a certain author, or a certain book, so you'd bring it in and recommend it to others. That way you'd get a whole cycle going, and the store practically assorted itself. My partner and I, we had a definite idea about the books we would carry. And what we wouldn't. But we were always willing to learn, right along with our customers."

A living treasure. That's what they designate 'em in Japan, those who devote themselves to one of the traditional arts, someone whose practice embodies the soul of that art, thereby preserving it. It might be Noh, ikebana, playing the biwa, distilling saki, gardening, puppetry, weaving, any of the ancient crafts. Wedding mastery of technique to a profound awareness of one's place in the line.

"You get called to do something and you do it. For me, it was bookselling. It was a great way of working for the community. In fact, it took me into politics. Building a liberal, progressive coalition, learning how to get things done by working together. Brought whites and blacks together, back when it was hard. We were respecting diversity, just like in the store. Last fall, our neighborhood went ninety percent for Obama. I know these people, they're my neighbors and my customers."

Long Tom shows me around his home and the surrounding blocks. He's got a big floppy dog who likes to stop cold whenever a car approaches. Makes walkin him a bit of an adventure when you gotta cross a busy street.

"Roosevelt's Conservation Corps planted these pin oaks back in the thirties. We've got loads of beautiful trees in Durham. See that huge magnolia across the street--in the old days, they'd drape Christmas lights on it. People came from all over to see it. The tree became a local landmark. Finally, the neighbors complained about too many cars blocking the street, so they ended the tradition. I still miss the country, but it was becoming impractical to live out there. It's hard to keep up five acres, especially when you get older and the kids are makin it on their own. Livin in town is a heckuva lot more convenient. This way I'm just a couple of minutes from the store. Even take the bike sometimes."

We talk about the business, which is not great. Like most places.

"Nowadays, it's not enough to run a good bookstore. There aren't enough readers to support it. We lost a lot of our casual customers to the chains and now even Costco, where they can get the bestsellers cheap. But the big blow was Amazon, because that's where the heavy readers go. They still come into the store, but they're not buying like before. So you gotta do all this other stuff. More events, and not just authors, poetry readings, music, wine-tastings, seminars. Thank god for reading groups, they're so important. Customer loyalty sales, couponing, used books, special promotions, outreach to the schools, you try anything that makes sense. People say go on-line, but the website and the e-newsletter take a lot of time."

LT's got a coupla great kids workin for him. I ast him, "Maybe you oughta give them more responsibility for the web? Maybe get them into bloggin and twitterin. Goin on Facebook or Good Reads or Library Thing."

"Yeah, you're right. I should delegate more. But it's tough, we've cut back staff and I'm spending more time in the store than I have in years. Sure, it feels good to work the floor and talk to customers, but I've got to bring the young people along into the business. And they've been great -- they keep askin for more to do. It's just, when can you make the time to do it? I've been followin the stimulus plan, waitin to see what relief they got comin for small businesses. It'd be a great help if there's something we can tap into. Everything takes time."

The big publishers got their own problems, tryin to deliver unreal profits to their parent companies, and the small publishers hardly have a nickel to play with. So Long Tom's on his own as far as the industry's concerned. Hell, the Free Market Boys and techno-savants back in New York are playin with their e-readers ponderin a paperless future -- they couldn't care less about a single bookstore somewhere.

And so it's each community for itself. That's what Long Tom's got goin for his store -- his neighbors, his schools, his fellow merchants, his government. Some combination'll come through. Dontcha agree, poot?

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