McNally Jackson Books in New York City

For the sixth and final installment of our series of interviews, Inside
Indie Bookstores, Jeremiah Chamberlin travelled to New York City to speak with Sarah McNally, owner of McNally Jackson Books.

McNally Jackson Books, located in the SoHo neighborhood of New York City, stocks about 40,000 books at any given time and sprawls over 7,000 square feet. Though founded by Sarah McNally in December 2004, it feels as though it’s always been a part of the city's literary scene.

The store has a sense of legacy, perhaps because McNally herself comes from a family of booksellers, and it’s clearly an integral part of the fabric of the neighborhood. It also feels personal. Every display has a bit of cloth and flowers. The wallpaper that decorates the café is made up entirely from pages of McNally’s own collection of books.

“I want this store to really have a feeling of being so deeply curated,” McNally says. “Because I don’t want to exist just for the sake of existing, but to really feel essential to the culture.”

The store is light and open and modern, yet still warm. From the lighting choices to the side tables, everything feels deliberate, unhurried. McNally Jackson Books is a neighborhood spot. There are plenty of places to sit, and lingering is encouraged.

“When you buy something from a place, the aura of that place becomes a part of the object,” McNally says. “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.”

“When I created my business model,” says McNally, “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.”

The café is always busy, and while McNally admits it’s not a money maker, she says it contributes “spiritually” to the store. “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.”

“The future of our industry depends on the present of reading,” McNally says. “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.”

For McNally, the highest compliment is when a customer says they found and loved books that they would never have otherwise found. “Ultimately, that is my service,” she says. “That can be the only service that independent bookstores provide, because we no longer are the exclusive purveyors of these things. That’s the only real reason why we should exist…. Matchmaking, you know? That’s the bookseller’s role. If we do it well, we’ll stay relevant.”