Inside Indie Bookstores: Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee

Jeremiah Chamberlin

Prior to opening Boswell Book Company, you spent most of the twenty years of your bookselling career as a buyer. How is it different now running your own business?
In ’96 I ran our Mequon store, which is now Next Chapter. At one point David Schwartz had said to me, “You can’t really know the business until you run a store.” And it was really a great experience, though a very different experience from what I’m doing now because back then I was still sort of a faceless person. My customers didn’t really know who I was. I didn’t really meet people as much as I thought I would. But I liked doing it and I didn’t really want to go. But then they started talking about moving the downtown store here [to Downer Avenue], and John Eklund decided he wanted to be the person to open this store instead of buying. So they asked me to come back and buy full time.

What year was this?
The Downer store opened in 1997. But then John left to be a sales rep after three months, and I became disconnected from bookstores for a while. I mean, I was in the stores—I worked events, I worked Christmas, I worked sales, I pulled returns—but a lot of the time I was in an office. At one point we had six stores, and so it was just enough to get all the frontlists done. Sometimes I bought backlist, sometimes I returned. But it’s good because I did a little of everything.

Then, when David died, Mary McCarthy took over the stores and she ran them for a few years. David died in 2004; his mother died shortly afterward. He had already brought in Mary, but he didn’t know he was sick yet. I knew that I couldn’t run the stores. I couldn’t do it. I just didn’t have a broad enough skill set. I was very shaky with finance—I felt like I was very micro on the books. All I cared about was what books were coming out, how we sold them, and getting rid of the ones that didn’t work. That’s all I cared about.

I had thought about leaving Schwartz around 2000 to start a bookstore somewhere, but I thought, “I don’t know where I’m going to get financing from, and I don’t have the contacts, and I don’t have the media connections, and I don’t have the customer base.” How the hell do you build this? But by the time I knew Schwartz was closing for sure, I thought, “Maybe I’m ready to do this.”

At what point did you realize that Schwartz, as an entity, was under…
Under siege? Of course I didn’t believe it. I thought, “Maybe we can turn this around.” And the first year we cut our losses pretty substantially.

What do you mean by that?
I think we cut about a hundred thousand off our losses. We got rid of things like 401k matching, we got out of a partnership we’d gone into where we were managing the inventory for a hospital off-site gift shop, and we had to close the Bay View store. You know, we did various things to save money.

But when did this trouble begin? When did you start to see that you would have to start making serious changes?
I think we all knew when a Barnes & Noble closed for a year in Bayshore and we had a better year. Then, when they reopened, we were losing more money again.

Were they remodeling?
Yeah. The mall where the store was located went from a mall to a “style center.” They sunk maybe twenty million, thirty million—it could be two hundred million, three hundred million, for all I know—into the project. Whatever it was, it was a huge amount of money! It doesn’t even matter how many zeroes. It was so many zeroes that it was just unfathomable to me, a person who has to worry about, you know, a hundred dollars. I had to replace our accounting computer for a thousand dollars recently and I cried myself to sleep over it. [Laughter.]

So when they reopened and your sales fell once more, the writing was on the wall.
Right. We couldn’t compete with them. We used to discount books pretty aggressively, but we weren’t winning that war. And even though Barnes & Noble had cut most of their in-store discounting, between the Internet and the mass merchandisers we knew we had to get out of that side of the business. Because any customer who cared only about price would go somewhere else.

Speaking of costs, has the American Booksellers Association ever considered becoming a distributor for its members? If so, they’d be able to get the same discount structure as these big competitors. Or would the discount that you gain be lost in the administrative process?
Absolutely. It’s not big enough for it to be worth the while. And they’re not flush with cash; they have to decide what their mission is too. The number of stores has gone down in the last few years, and they have to see what gets the most bang for their buck.

And what is that right now? Where is the ABA focusing their efforts?
They seem to focus a good amount of attention on Winter Institute. It’s about three years old. They bring a minimal amount of people, they bring a minimal amount of authors, and there’s three days of workshops on topics like technology, profitable magazines, social networking, renegotiating a lease, buying strategies, etcetera.

Does it help your store?
The workshops really help us. And certainly the connections. I have a lot of booksellers that I’ve met at these events who I regularly email. In the last day I’ve talked to Marie at Vroman’s [in Pasadena, California]; I’ve talked to Kathy at Tattered Cover [in Denver, Colorado]; and I got an email from Miriam at Powell’s [in Portland, Oregon]. I also talked to Linda at Galaxy [in Hartwick, Vermont].

What do you discuss?
What books are working for us, mostly.

So there really is a lot of communication going on between booksellers.
Much more than there used to be. I don’t know if there’s more with Facebook than there was with e-mail, but—

But you definitely do make in-store decisions based on these conversations.
Absolutely. I always want to know what people are reading and what’s working. And that’s partly me. I just like being a connector. At Schwartz one of my favorite things to do was find out what everyone was reading and send that information to the publisher. Also, to tell people in one store what somebody else in another store was doing. We had become very, very successful at selling huge quantities of weird books.

For example, we helped make Elegance of the Hedgehog. There were four or five independent stores that just started selling the book like crazy, and pushing it. Newsletters and blogs and stuff like that. It’s really interesting how you can see some of these books move if you work really hard. If the book’s right, and it really delivers, and you’ve got enough people behind it, you can make this book jump to another market.

To me, that’s the whole idea behind a bookstore. I know that several of my friends at other independent bookstores don’t like this, but I feel like we’re a lab. We have to be ahead of the game; we have to move on to the next thing when everybody else is still selling it; we have to find the next thing. For the publisher to pay attention to us we have to be the specialty electronics store instead of Best Buy. We have to be the place where, you know, people say, “Wow! I have to go there because they’re going to tell me what to read. Because two years from now I’m going to hear from everybody about Water for Elephants, but I heard it from my independent bookstore first.”


Boswell Book Company

This is a wonderful interview, but there's another thing that Daniel Goldin is noted for: His enthusiastic support for local authors. Having published three books, I know personally that Daniel takes great interest in what we are doing, constantly inquires about our progress in writing, and makes the store available for our readings. I had a reading at the store in April for my novel, "Dino's Story," with a crowd of 115 people. That was largely because of Daniel's support. Milwaukee is proud to have Boswell, and we hope it has a long and prosperous life.