Inside Indie Bookstores: Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee

Jeremiah Chamberlin


On average, how many books do you carry in your store?
Bookstores have been fibbing about this question since Gutenberg. I recently saw a new store that opened say they have fifty thousand titles. We have twenty thousand individual titles, though it looks like we have three times as many books. The quest for having the most books is over. Amazon won, with virtual numbers. In short, I’m not telling, though I sort of already did.

What are the best-selling sections in your store?
We’re a general bookstore, so, like just about every general bookstore, we mostly sell general fiction. We’ve been able to improve sales of mysteries and science fiction since taking over Schwartz as well. We sell about as many books from our humor section as we do from our philosophy section. That seems funny, but really, what is funny?

What were some of the best-selling books at Boswell in 2009?
It should not be a surprise to any indie bookseller that we sold huge amounts of Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Probably our best-selling offbeat paperback fiction title was David Rhodes’s Driftless, which is a wonderful, prizewinning novel, as well as being quintessentially Wisconsin. In cloth, our most popular books were Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs, and Sherman Alexie’s War Dances. The latter two were helped by very high-profile events.

Are there any books you’re particularly looking forward to this summer or fall?
I’m hoping that my two spring faves, Brady Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist and Frederick Reiken’s Day for Night, turn out to be books that we can sell well through the holidays. I’ve already got booksellers clamoring for Great House, the new novel from Nicole Krauss.

How do you think the rise of e-books and digital reading devices will affect your future
I’m not an ostrich—of course it will cut into my sales. I think they will affect airport and textbook stores first. I also am hoping our smaller size will make us more nimble. Some folks think e-books will kill the hardcover, but I think the mass market is more at risk—it’s a short jump from disposable to virtual. It’s not all worry—advances in technology have brought down the cost of short-run printing, making it cheaper for publishers to adjust prints as the numbers change. I also believe that the trend will not mirror music. Our audience is older, and because you don’t need to keep a device for traditional books, I think there will be more crossing over between e and non-e. I’m hoping that publishers will get the message and improve the quality of their traditional books. There’s no better advertisement for an e-book than a book whose pages are so thin that I can see through them.

What is the most unique or defining aspect of Boswell Book Company?
People who don’t know me sometimes refer to me as Daniel Boswell. That’s of course not the case, but in a sense it is. The store is close to a half-century of my book and idea obsessions, plus the brainstorms and hard work of my booksellers, together with the whims of my customers. It’s very much me, but I hope it will also live on after me. All you have to do is say to yourself, “This is the most important thing you will ever do,” and it should fall into place.

What do you think most people would be surprised to learn about bookselling?
It’s no surprise that many of the details are like any other job. Paying book invoices is like paying clothing invoices. Opening boxes of books is like opening boxes of groceries. Satisfying your regular book customers is not dissimilar to satisfying your customers as a lawyer. Wait, it is different. Most other businesses have figured out how to sell information, but we still give it away.

What has been the single biggest challenge in your first year of business?
It’s a variation of the eyes are bigger than the stomach. I couldn’t get done as much as I hoped. There’s always year two.

Where would you like to see Boswell in five years?
I’d like to be in business, culturally relevant, and anchoring a somewhat thriving, traditional urban neighborhood. Not too thriving, of course, or all the indie stores will be replaced by chains. And I’d like the store to have expanded somehow, but not with more branch stores. I did that for the first half of my career.

Jeremiah Chamberlin teaches writing at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He is also the associate editor of the online journal Fiction Writers Review.


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.