Inside Indie Bookstores: McNally Jackson Books in New York City

Jeremiah Chamberlin

Why are you rethinking your mission or your model? Is it an issue of overhead?
No, it’s an issue of staying ahead of whatever is happening in the book industry, because right now we’re having our best year ever. We’re doing really well. But my fear is that remaining a general store, what people may actually want is an extraordinary literature section. So maybe we should get rid of photography and art—because you see other places selling it—and just have an enormous literature section. Maybe we get rid of music and film and have an enormous poetry section. Maybe we really dedicate ourselves to becoming the most extraordinary literary bookstore in the country.

Though remaining a more general bookstore appeals to your mission as a neighborhood store.
Yes, exactly.

Whereas the idea of being the best literature store in the country would perhaps be a large draw
—to tourists, to the whole city.

There would be tradeoffs either way.
Yes! I know. I’m feeling very torn. One of my friends is the VP of marketing at Harper, and when we went out to lunch last week I talked to her about this idea. She said, “What does that mean, the ‘best’ literature section in the city? What does that mean?” She said, “You’re never going to have more books than Amazon, so are they still a better bookstore?” So I’m feeling conflicted.

But you’re talking about hand selecting rather than carrying everything.
Yeah, that’s the idea. That was always the concept in this store. But if you read Ken Auletta’s recent essay about e-books in the New Yorker [“Publish or Perish: Can the iPad Topple the Kindle and Save the Book Business?”] he quotes [Carolyn Reidy of] Simon & Schuster as saying that in a three-month period, online retailers sell copies of 2,500 of their titles that aren’t stocked in bookstores anymore. So I haven’t seen the chains as my competition since I opened. I don’t see Barnes & Noble as my competition.

Your competition is online.
Entirely. That’s partly because there isn’t a chain near my location, of course.

So do you feel more pressure from online bookselling or the digital book?
Online, online.

But what about e-books? Is that something that you have any interest pursuing?
Yes? [Pause.] Yes. In typical Sarah McNally fashion, though, I feel like I can’t do it until I figure out a whole new exciting revolutionary way to do it [laughter], which I probably never will. So I’ll just end up doing it off the ABA [American Booksellers Association] Web site. We’re setting up on the ABA site now. Though we don’t love any of the templates, so we have to do it ourselves from scratch, which is a big hullabaloo.

But, yes, I definitely want to do it. It’s just very hard. I mean, talk about comparing competition based on price! When you start getting into e-books and you’re selling online, people are a click away from platforms like Amazon that are already established. I’ve never felt that as a bookstore you should rely too much on the concept of loyalty, but maybe I’m wrong. I’ve always said, “Shop from me because I’m better, don’t shop from me because you feel sorry for me.” But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’ve been wrong all this time and ultimately I’m going to come back pleading for their loyalty. [Laughter.]

But if there are already established online retailers like Amazon and Powell’s, do you think that spending all these resources to develop a Web presence is the best use of the ABA’s time and resources, or might Shop Local First campaigns and educational programs like Winter Institute benefit booksellers more?
It’s an excellent question, and I don’t know. Sometimes I look around the store and I think, “This is a good bookstore.” We opened without knowing what the hell we were doing, but somewhere along the line we’ve become a good bookstore. And I feel confident that we’re a good bookstore. But who cares in 2010? Does anyone care whether you’re a good bookstore? Is that enough? I don’t know. And if that’s enough, then Winter Institute is more important. If that’s enough, then Shop Local is more important. If it’s not enough—and I don’t know whether or not it’s enough—then I think it’s important that we at least try online bookselling.

And if loyalty is based on some kind of chivalrous notion of sympathy with the culture, then selling e-books is maybe irrelevant to that. I mean, you’ve seen my store. We have seven thousand square feet in New York City. I’m obviously paying a lot of rent. Clearly I’m not a completely incompetent businessperson, and yet every day people come in and ask if we take credit cards. As if I’m just sitting here stroking my cat, with my abacus. [Laughter.] So partly the idea of selling e-books is a symbol of something.

And one thing that the ABA platform is great about is the ability to upload your whole inventory onto its Web site every day, so you can have what I think is necessary: a terminal in the store the customers can use to look up books themselves.

Like a kiosk.
Yeah, and from that kiosk you can buy e-books. You can place your order or you can see whether the book is in the store. Because I believe that for every customer who asks, there are a hundred who get confused and leave. I mean, our literature section is broken up by region—French literature is its own thing, as is Mediterranean, European, African. If you can’t find the African literature section and you want The Power of One, nine out of ten people will leave. But if they have a kiosk, it will give them the confidence to go to a staff person if they can’t find something. Or they’d be able to download it on the spot.

And I am someone who reads books on my iPhone. I started doing this because I only had one hand when I was breastfeeding. [Laughter.] But I only read what’s in the public domain. This is another thing that worries me—I won’t spend a penny on e-books. So I end up reading old British stuff. I’m reading The Woman in White right now on my phone, but I’m finally buying the book today because I can’t stand it anymore. While it’s great to be able to read in the dark, there’s something really depressing about going to bed with your phone and reading a book on it. [Laughter.] Although you do have moments of immersion where the medium is lost.

That suspension of disbelief.
You do. You come in and out of it. But it’s still depressing. Especially because I’ve realized how deep my relationship is with books. When things get tense in a book, I think you start doing things like stroking the edge of the pages. When you do that on your iPhone, the next thing you know you’ve frozen the thing. [Laughter.]

But it has made me believe in multiple platforms. I remember publishers once suggesting that if you buy the book you also get the e-book and maybe the audio, too. I remember thinking, “That’s stupid.” But now I don’t think so, because I’d love The Woman in White in audio for when I’m cooking, I’d love it on my phone for little moments when I’m waiting in line or when I’m nursing—which is, admittedly, a very specific situation—and then to also have the book for when I’m sitting in my reading chair or in my bed. Have you read Lee Siegal’s book Against the Machine?

No, I haven’t.
He makes an excellent point in it that whether you’re buying sex toys or lawn mowers or books or clothes for your kid, the retail experience is completely the same online. Whether it’s sordid or boring, it’s the same. And that is what is so wonderful about retail—when you buy something from a place, the aura of that place becomes a part of the object. I’m sure if you went through your bookshelf you could remember where you bought every single book, and somehow it affects how you feel about that book forever.

And I would love to be able to create an online bookstore that actually felt like a unique experience. So I do have a dream of selling e-books and having an online store that actually has ambiance. But we’ve been so focused these past few years on renovating the physical space that I really haven’t had the time. For the first couple of years it was such a tremendous act of creation. Coming from a bookselling family, I had enormous confidence that I knew how to run a bookstore. That confidence was almost entirely misplaced. I realized how shallowly I had inhabited my parents’ business.

You didn’t know what they were doing, or you didn’t realize the extent of what they had to do?
The latter. And the former. [Laughter.] Because I felt like I was doing so much, but I was merely moving snow around the tip of the iceberg. When you work for other people, you don’t realize how much you’re passing by.

How much thought goes into every decision.
Yeah. Every square inch of a business.