Front Porch: How’s business?

Carson Moss: Sales remain level with last year. We have not seen growth, but avoiding any decline in revenue almost feels like a victory these days.

FP: What is the most enjoyable thing about being in the bookselling business?

CM: Easy question for me: giving book recommendations. Who doesn’t enjoy sharing a favorite author or book with an uninitiated reader?

FP: What is the hardest part about being in the bookselling business?

CM: Like any other retail business, we will stock what is popular. While it is inadvisable to fall into the trap of judging the public’s taste, there can be frustrations in watching worthwhile books go unread while other titles receive greater publicity and backing from the publisher. As a bookseller you have the opportunity to hand-sell, and give small-press books a platform to reach new readers, but there are so many titles published every year that most end up slipping through the cracks.

FP: How have reading tastes changed over the course of your time? Are people reading more or less? Has what they are reading changed? Do people buy different kinds of books? Why are they buying books? Entertainment, utility, knowledge, some combination?

CM: I have worked at the Strand for nine years. Even in that short span, I believe there have been three separate alarms raised in various media outlets about the reader becoming an endangered species. This is not the case based on what I’ve seen. Our store is crowded every day, and we are well-supported at author readings and signings.

Instead, the shift in reading has taken place within formats; hardcover sales have slowly eroded over the past few years, while paperbacks have become even more popular. Cost and convenience are usually cited as the reasons. Of course, the growing market share of digital books has been well-covered. Fiction remains the bestselling book category, with young adult fiction comprising a larger piece of that pie than previously. The memoir has remained a strong seller, even after a number of Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and Running with Scissors knock-offs flooded publishers’ lists. I couldn’t point to a single reason people are purchasing books, but entertainment would have to rank high on the list, followed closely by topical interest in a subject, e.g. Afghanistan history, American economic policy.

FP: Another way of asking that same question: How central is reading to people’s lives?

CM: We have regular customers who visit the store every day to pick through the stacks of just-purchased used books. And we have customers who have no doubt decided their money can be put to better use elsewhere these days. Sometimes it is hard to have a good perspective on the average reader as a bookseller since your co-workers and colleagues tend to be book nerds.

FP: As a used bookstore, have you had opportunity to observe a change in what people are selling back?

CM: The change has been noticeable in the volume that is sold back to us. We get everything back. For the past ten years, there has been a tremendous increase in the number of sellers bringing books in to the Strand. Perhaps fewer people are building libraries in their apartments, or they don’t feel a strong enough attachment to what they are reading to keep the book. The one guarantee in the used book business: one year’s must-have read will become next year’s shelf stuffer. I will never need to buy a copy of The Da Vinci
Code from the publisher again.

FP: We are in the midst of what I call the zombie-vampire phase of books. How have you observed fads in the history of books? Are there fads that have stayed that surprised you?

CM: Publishing is not much different than the other creative arts industries. Movie studios, television executives, or A&R reps see a success in their field and attempt to duplicate it. Likewise, every year there are a few more books printed about Abraham Lincoln, Charles Darwin, battles of World War II and the Founding Fathers. Perhaps there are completists who continue to buy these volumes, but it seems improbable. As a buyer, it is baffling and a bit disheartening to see. But you have to be aware of what’s in the news: once President Obama mentioned in 2008 that he wanted to emulate Lincoln, all those biographies became worth stocking for two months.

Topical fads are the most obvious. The interest in Islam and the Middle East that became prevalent among customers in 2001 slowly waned, until by 2004 it was books criticizing the Iraq war and the presidential election that were in high demand. Currently, the proliferation of books about the economic collapse appears to have saturated the market, while even a few books about Obama and the 2008 election continue to sell (among many that don’t), like The Audacity to Win and Game Change.

FP: Is there a particular writer who has surprised you, either in the longevity of their career, or in their quick decline?

CM: Decline may not be the correct word, but the disinterest around the publication of new books by William Vollmann surprises me. Partly due to his proclivity, as well as his refusal to repeat himself in his non-fiction work, he has lost the readership that celebrated his work in the ‘90s. He is certainly not unknown (he won the NBA in 2005 for Europe Central), but I hope that he gains wider recognition among readers again someday for the inventive and fascinating writer that he is.

FP: How do you see the role of the bookstore within the literary community? Do bookstores have certain responsibilities to the communities they serve? Have the changes in the publishing industry affected your ability to fulfill those responsibilities?

CM: It is difficult not to feel marginalized, as an independent bookstore, between the onslaught of Amazon, the wave of wholesalers and grocery stores that now sell books, and the explosion of the digital market. We can offer the obvious things, such as author events and book clubs, to foster a better sense of community with our customers than those competitors can, but we cannot compete with their pricing books as loss leaders. If we wish to survive, we must distinguish ourselves by sharing the passion and knowledge of our customers.

It may not be enough, frankly. Many publishers will prioritize shipping a title to Amazon over an independent store, and Barnes and Noble may be the publisher’s first choice for a local event. The publishers need those outlets to stay in business, and we are much smaller accounts compared to their national exposure. That doesn’t alleviate some of the frustration felt as an independent bookseller, but it’s a reality we have to face.

FP: Given the proliferation of Amazon, self-publishing, and so on, how do you see the role of bookstores for writers?

CM: I would say it’s a platform to engage with their readers, but so many writers form their own websites, Twitter feeds and Facebook pages that that advantage appears to be diminishing. The Strand is lucky to be in New York, always a destination on a book tour and home to many writers. Hopefully we can provide some “Library of Babel”-like inspiration.

FP: When people defend books, as opposed to digital literature, they almost always invoke the book’s solid form; something they can hold, annotate, curl up in bed with. These very things strike me as the arguments against books as well: that they’re heavy, cumbersome, environmentally unfriendly, and, in the case of printing books and then destroying the unsold copies, extremely wasteful. What’s the compromise between these two positions?

CM: Print on demand is already being embraced by publishers, and a couple independent stores have purchased the Espresso book machines. I would not be surprised to see backlist stock slowly erode from publishers’ warehouses, until they outsource the printing at the moment of a retailer’s order. Currently that is cost-prohibitive, but the business model you describe is not sustainable. With a more targeted approach, I don’t see why the printed book cannot survive alongside its digital companion.