A few short months ago, Atticus Books took the liberty to create the much-needed and indecorously named Facebook page, “Independent Booksellers That Rock Our World.” Dedicated to the brave and passionate souls who, despite the ever-present naysayers, strive to make our world a more literary place, the page, like the bookshops themselves, serves as a gathering place for those engulfed in the trenches of book selling, buying, reading, recommending, and, of course, the all-important aim of staying in business.
As part of this effort to introduce, enshrine, and indulge these tireless entrepreneurs, we’re introducing the first in a series of exclusive interviews with indie booksellers on the front line. By picking their minds and hearts, we hope to provoke interest and insight into all aspects of the trade, from the mundane to the visionary.
First on the list is Donna Allen, owner of the legendary Maple Street Book Shop, New Orleans’ home for independent thought and excellent books since 1964 (making it the oldest indie in the city!). A former history professor and current book enthusiast, Donna shared with us the incredibly unique and admirable nature of a bookseller’s life in one of America’s most eclectic cities.
Maple Street Book Shops’ one sentence mission statement… is to provide our customers with friendly and knowledgeable service to fulfill their literary needs.
An indie bookseller succeeds when… they meet and exceed the expectations of their customer base.
Being an independent bookseller in New Orleans… is never boring. In comparison to other American cities, we have a very unique atmosphere; one that often inspires creativity in people. Writers are but one of the many groups that have contributed to our rich cultural heritage. In turn, Maple Street Book Shops heavily support local writers and their work. As the oldest independent bookstore in town, we are honored to be part, albeit a small part, of the history and culture of this great city.
Compared to the university teaching you’ve done, how does owning a bookshop compare?
While I don’t have many opportunities these days to lecture hour upon hour about the Roman Empire, there is one major similarity between teaching and owning a bookstore. The amount of paperwork involved with both professions – who knew that there would be so much paperwork involved with owning a bookstore.
Bookselling as a career… is truly a labor of love. One does not enter this profession to make tons of money.
Your dream employee… would have to be John Kennedy Toole. His “Confederacy of Dunces” remains a top seller at Maple Street Book Shops – thirty years after publication. If he worked for me, I would have him sign each and every one of his books. Also, his last place of residence before his suicide was around the corner from the shop – very convenient.
A bookshop’s relationship with the community…
Indie bookstores are very important to a community for several reasons. First, they are locally owned and operated, which means a greater percentage of the money stays within the community. Indie bookstores also act as a community gathering spot. Book club meetings, author appearances, readings and signings, and events for children are held on a regular basis and all are free and open to the public. Therefore, bookstores are more than just a supplier of books. We (Maple Street Book Shops) are honored to be part of the New Orleans community for the past 45 years – on to the next 45 years!
The biggest obstacle facing indie booksellers today… is the threat of price slashing by large chain stores (i.e. Barnes & Noble, Borders, Target, Wal-Mart). Indies simply can’t afford to continuously sustain deep discounts.
The best kind of customer…is a satisfied customer. Satisfied customers often become repeat customers.
And the worst…is the one that you can’t satisfy, no matter what you do.
Your growing popularity on Facebook and Twitter…helps us to expand our demographics, especially to areas outside of the city. The sites help to introduce us to like-minded people around the globe. Additionally, we have numerous New Orleanians that have yet to return since Katrina, following us on both sites.
Recommending books… is what separates us from the large chains. We enjoy taking the time to learn about our customers and their reading preferences. As a result, we are better prepared to serve their future needs.
The book that you wish sold well but doesn’t… is actually a series of books published by Harvard – The Loeb Classics Series (both Greek and Latin). In the past four years, I’ve sold no more than 5 books from the series.
The Amazon Kindle… thankfully, has yet to become popular with our customers.
If Barnes & Noble has a meltdown… I plan on throwing a HUGE party!