Inside Indie Bookstores: McNally Jackson Books in New York City

Jeremiah Chamberlin

So was it the solitary process of editing that was difficult for that twenty-something version of yourself, or was it the ethos of publishing that you found didn’t fit your temperament?
I always liked the editing. No, I found the office environment very trying. Growing up I’d been working in bookstores since I was twelve, so the thought of being stuck at a desk in an environment where the only people you interact with are the other people who work with you in the same office every day for years…I couldn’t imagine it! So that aspect of it was very difficult. Also, the formality of meetings and the strict, strict hierarchy is something I made sure that my store has never had. I never try to make anybody feel that, just because I’m the boss, my opinion on something stands. I always try to keep it a dialogue where everyone is putting out their best ideas—from how a display looks, to how we’re going to take off in a whole new direction for our Web site, or whatever it might be. I always try to have a conversation. But in publishing, it’s a much more hierarchical environment. I had bosses that were so high up that I’d never even met them. They’d never even set foot in the office in all the years that I was stuck there with these people, and yet one word from them would completely change what I had to do. Similarly, my opinions—if I was even asked for them—would be filtered up through three, four, or five people.

Do you think it might have actually been harder for you to work in publishing because of your bookselling background, considering how closely you’d been connected to readers before?
I do think so. I also came to see how abstract the idea of a book can become around a conference table. Because that can never happen in a bookstore—you’re constantly having readers come back to you and say, “God, that book sucked.” Or, “God, this book was great.” And before a person buys a book, many have to engage with it. They have to open it up, read it. The first page has to be there.

Do you feel that publishers think about getting books into the hands of customers differently than booksellers do?
Hmm. They try different things with different books, so there’s not really a single answer to that question. The way that Algonquin gets its books into people’s hands, as with A Reliable Wife or Water for Elephants, is very different from the way that Random House tried to get Yann Martel into people’s hands. It’s a completely different route. It’s also hard for me to answer because I’m in New York, so I interact with editors in a way that I think the rest of the country might not. I mean, I will have editors come to the store and put a book in my hands and say, “Please read this.”

Not just a sales rep.
Right. And so there is that difference. But the good editors are sending notes to booksellers around the country, saying, “This is something special.”

Putting books in the hands of readers is also more individualized in a bookstore. As a bookseller, you learn your regular customers so well that you know their tastes. At the store I used to run, for example, we’d often set aside new titles for particular individuals.
I don’t know if I know my customers that well. In some ways I do. The way I do is that I believe every person contains multitudes, and so I draw on the multitudes within me even more than I do the knowledge of the customers themselves. And I feel like that is what does not happen in publishing enough—people do not draw on the multitudes within themselves. Paying three, four, five, or six million dollars for a second book by a writer that’s not a good book means you’re drawing only on numbers, and that’s not what sells books unless it’s one by James Patterson. That’s why it was so hard for me to stay in publishing. Obviously I’m doing a very particular kind of bookselling, but I do feel that publishers should ask the book to speak first to their own heart. I think that’s what readers are asking, and that’s what buyers are asking. I’m sure you hear this from every bookseller you speak to—that they’re selling the books that speak deeply to them.

Also, something that people don’t think enough about is that the future of reading depends on the present of reading. The future of our industry depends on a healthy present. I’ve heard it time and again from customers—and I’ve found it in my own life—that when you read a book that’s not very good, you don’t rush out to read another book. But when you read a book you love, you rush back to continue the trend. So every mediocre book that’s pushed with great blurbs—

is one more leak in the boat.
It is one more leak in the boat. [Laughter.] Great blurbs from the author’s friends when the book is not that great is discrediting the entire experience, which is bad for all of our futures. And there are so many ways in which I feel that publishers are not really fostering that future. Do you know Richard Nash? Richard was the editorial director at Soft Skull Press and he’s a consultant now. He was here recently talking about how the paper in books gets worse and worse and worse every year, and he called it “the endless shitification of the book.” [Laughter.] It’s so true, right? I mean, they’re publishing on newsprint. Newsprint! Not the small presses, incidentally. Very few small presses are doing that, despite the fact that they’re the ones that don’t have any money. So I’m suspicious of these arguments by the mainstream that they have to.

So it’s short-term versus long-term thinking.
Which there is a lot of.

A few minutes ago we were talking about multitudes. Do you consider this a general bookstore?
Yes. I mean, we are. I’m considering not being a general store anymore. I remember Karl Pohrt [of Shaman Drum, in Ann Arbor, Michigan] saying to me once, “We sell books. We only sell books.” And I sell all sorts of stuff—I sell wedding planners, and I sell pet books, and I sell SAT guides. I sell self-help, health, humor, business, sports. I sell all of this stuff. When I created my business model, I articulated that we could be a destination bookstore in the same way that Barnes & Noble is a destination bookstore. We would have everything they did, but we’d simply be more selective—as a favor to the consumer, not a disservice.

And so I spent years pushing that on the public and trying to get this idea across. But increasingly, even in just the last five years, online retail has become normalized. Everyone buys from eBay. And I’m sure there are regular customers of ours who buy from So I don’t even know if anyone wants that in a bookstore anymore, if anybody wants a reliable general store.

I mean, think of ten years ago—nobody bought online. Ten years ago my techie geek friends bought online, and nobody else did. And twenty years ago, even fifteen years ago, if you wanted a book you needed a bookstore. It was that simple. If you want the book, you need the bookstore. And that seems sometimes prehistoric now in terms of how far we’ve come.

In a city of bookstores like New York, in an era where you don’t need a bookstore to buy a book, what was the mission behind opening this store?
It was very much to be an event-driven independent. I mean…my own vision is starting to seem so hackneyed and dusty at this point. I really think I need to reimagine this store, and I’m in the process of doing that. Imagine a community center for books that’s very event driven. And we do still have four, five, six, seven events a week, as well as story times and book clubs.

So it’s very much a neighborhood bookstore.
Well, and more than that. I mean, a place that is actually comfortable—there are chairs, it’s very spacious. That might not seem like an important thing, but in New York it’s a big deal. We had the radical idea of giving people chairs. [Laughter.] The chains took out all their chairs because people were falling asleep in them, and literally dying in them. So we wanted to have a place, you know, where you could sit and relax and look at books. It was almost like taking the bookselling strategy that everyone else around the country had already figured out and bringing it to New York.

Which seems so ironic.
Right, right. In retrospect I felt so inspired, but when I look at my five-year-old or six-year-old vision, it was really not revolutionary. [Laughter.]

And the café has been busy all morning. Is it a part of the success of the store?
Not financially, but spiritually.

It brings people in and it adds to the atmosphere.
And it brings so much energy. Just the movement and the talking and the people bring real vitality to the store—people don’t want to walk into an empty bookstore.