Inside Indie Bookstores: McNally Jackson Books in New York City

Jeremiah Chamberlin

So in what ways did you either model yourself after or consciously decide to do different from your parents’ bookstores?
What I modeled after them was their philosophy to be event-driven. That’s the engine of their marketing and publicity. We also use our café—like they do their restaurants—as the event space, whether that’s a good idea or not.

But what’s funny is that my favorite bookstores that I’ve loved shopping in are crazy junky old used stores with books piled everywhere, with the owners smoking, and all the books smell like cigarette smoke. I love stores like that. Yet if my staff leaves anything lying around, I’ll say, “Get rid of this mess! We have to keep everything clean!” It’s so funny. You can sit in the quiet of your mind and say, “I will be this sort of spouse, I will be this sort of friend, I will be this sort of daughter.” Then you go into daily life and you are exactly the spouse, friend, and daughter that you have no choice but to be. The dominant personality is indomitable, and I believe that bookselling is the exact same way. You can say, “I will have this kind of bookstore,” but you can no more control that than what kind of person you are.

So is what we see here the best or the worst of you? [Laughter.]
It’s beyond my control. This is the only bookstore I could have, I think. It can be no other way. It’s like when you have to wear someone else’s shirt. Even though you think it’s a perfectly nice shirt, somehow it’s humiliating. You wouldn’t think, “God, that person shouldn’t leave the house in that shirt.” But your leaving the house in that shirt becomes totally unbearable. It’s exactly like that with your bookstore. You can’t wear someone else’s clothes and you have the only bookstore you can have.

Another thing I’d like to talk to you about is China. In January of 2008 you traveled to Beijing with several other American booksellers: Karl Pohrt of Shaman Drum in Ann Arbor, Paul Yamazaki of City Lights in San Francisco, Rick Simonson of Elliot Bay in Seattle, and Allison Hill of Vroman’s in Pasadena. How did this come about?
Well, I’ll tell you. Mitch Kaplan [of Books & Books in Miami] put together a bookselling panel at the 2007 Miami Book Fair and he brought us down. Allison wasn’t a part of that, but the rest of us were. And afterward Karl said, “We need to take this on the road!” Meanwhile, Lance Fensterman—who works for Reed Exhibitions and who used to be the Director of BEA [BookExpo America]—was talking to the Chinese equivalent of BEA, which is enormous. He was asked for a list of booksellers to give an educational panel to Chinese booksellers, and so he thought of us. He also asked Allison to join the group because she’s an extremely impressive woman. She’s a very, very smart businessperson. There were also several British booksellers.

So we went to Beijing, and it was wonderful. The Chinese were so gracious and so hospitable. We stayed for over a week, and for most of that time they had arranged every single meal of every day, as well as tours. It was amazing. We met so many people and we were fed so well.

In addition to the trade show, did you also visit individual bookstores?
Yes. We met the CEO of the second largest bookstore in the world, which is enormous—it was like ten Barnes & Nobles. Their mandate is to stock every single book published in Chinese. Period. I cannot give you a sense of the magnitude of this store. People had shopping carts. You couldn’t even move in this store it was so crowded. And when we went to the conference room to talk with the head of the store, the conference table was so enormous that the far end of it was on the horizon somewhere. [Laughter.] The place must have been a hundred thousand square feet. It was enormous.

But that’s atypical.
Well, that was a state-owned store. When you walk in, all the communist texts were right there in front—Marx and Mao and Engles. But then we also visited the City Lights of China, which is now state-owned but was not originally. They published all the Beats. We went to an academic bookstore that was beautiful, run by a professor who’d been locked up after Tiananmen Square and who now had this amazing bookstore.

Are all the bookstores state-owned?
No, this is what is so interesting about Chinese cultural control. Some of the publishing houses are state-owned, some of the bookstores are state-owned, but not all of them. Still, it’s enough that the government nudges the direction of the culture without having complete control. We talked to the wonderful man who runs the academic bookstore, and we said, “Why don’t you have more events? Because all of our stores use events to get the word out about our stores.” And he said, “I have some, but I’m already under surveillance. If I have too many then they’ll crack down.”

Other than the influence of the state, how does Chinese bookselling compare to bookselling here in the States?
It was really like bookselling twenty-five years ago. Remember what middle class retail used to be like? Go back to our early teenage years. It wasn’t nice before the Banana Republicization of retail. I remember even when I opened this store people kept coming up to me, saying, “It doesn’t feel like a book store. It feels like a restaurant or a clothing store.” And I thought, “Why can’t bookstores be nice?” It’s ridiculous. [Laughter.] So retail is changing in China. There are more and more Western chains, and there’s a lot of money suddenly. So there are more and more high-end stores that are beautiful. Retail feels very 1982 there.

So if you went back to China ten years from now, do you think their stores will have evolved in the same way that ours have?
I hope so. That’s what I gave my speech about. Online retail is just now starting to impact their businesses. It really is like a snap shot of our own history. So they are going to have to figure out how to make their stores feel necessary. They’re about to come up against the same challenge that we’ve been fighting. And the only way I know how to do that is to create an attractive physical space. My customers tend to also say it’s the staff.

What’s been the greatest challenge in the first six years of business?
I don’t know. Everyone always asks me that. Because it’s all gone so well, really.

For me I guess it might be competition over author events. It’s really hard to get the A-list authors in New York. Barnes & Noble always gets them. I also find management really a challenge. It’s not, you know, native to my personality to tell people what to do. I remember reading The Gospel of St. Thomas when I was quite young. There is a line in it that says, “Jesus said, ‘Be passersby.’” And I thought, “What a wonderful idea, just to be a passerby.” I mean, we’re all so meddlesome, you know? And I think being raised by my mother, who was a retailer—once you’re a retailer you’re always going into other people’s stores thinking, “Why would they choose that carpet? Why would they have their staff do it that way?” Or constantly looking at ways that things can be done better because that’s the only way to survive as a store is to be always on the lookout for any little thing that you can do better. It’s a constant act of regeneration. If you stop, you’re dead.