One of the most (justifiably) celebrated qualities of the independent bookshop is its unflagging devotion to enriching and supporting the literary culture in their community. Farley’s Bookshop in New Hope, PA has gone above and beyond their community by fiercely supporting the excellent work produced by small, independent presses, introducing their titles to customers who might otherwise never them. Which is just one of the reasons we’re thrilled to feature them as February’s Independent Bookseller That Rocks Our World. Read on to get to know this little indie that’s changing literary lives every day.
Atticus Books: How did Farley’s Bookshop get started and what do you think has kept it going since?
William Hastings: Farley’s was opened by Jim and Nancy Farley in 1967. James Michener and Fred Rogers (of Mr. Rogers fame) helped them to open it then. There had been a bookstore operating for thirty years in New Hope, which is what the Farleys bought out, making New Hope the site of a continuous independent bookseller for over seventy years. This year Farley’s will celebrate its 45th anniversary. It is currently owned and run by Jim and Nancy’s two daughters, Jennifer and Rebekah, and managed by Julian, who has been here almost thirty years. All this longevity comes mostly from community support: there are many people around here who won’t buy their books anywhere else. There’s a sense of community and family here. It’s amazing to talk to people who were given books from here when they were children and are now buying books for their children from Farley’s. The other part of it is a dedicated staff. No matter who has worked here, everyone has given a bit of themselves to the store. Early on, Jim and Nancy cultivated an environment where employees could pursue their interests and bring their loves to the store. While Jim and Nancy were certainly in charge, it would have been out of place, and still is, for an employee to just sit back and work the register. That combination of deep staff involvement and a die-hard customer base built from the ground up is what has made us last.
AB: What do you think is the most distinctive about the store? What sets it apart from other booksellers, even other indie booksellers?
WH: This goes back to staff involvement. Each of us designs and daydreams projects that match our own interests. For example, one of our staff members, Mike, loves science fiction. He’ll do the ordering for the section, design displays, bring in special displays (steampunk or horror or foreign short story anthologies), work with publishers and distributors. It’s his space and while we all have a hand in it, when you go back into science fiction you’ll notice Mike’s personality everywhere. We’ve recently started selling ARCs for a dollar and giving all the proceeds to local charities. The first one we gave to was a local cat shelter where Mike volunteers. This is how the store is run: find something you love and cultivate it. A staff member, Lauren, is a children’s librarian with a local school district. She and Rebekah have carried on Nancy’s legendary children’s book section. As I write this, another staff member, Kristina, is in the children’s picture books re-arranging a display. We all mark out a bit of turf and everyone helps keep it going. It’s a free-flowing, idea-charged atmosphere where we are allowed to take risks and that has allowed us to have a very unique and deep stock, unlike anywhere else. And it has been that way since the beginning.
AB: What kind of a home is New Hope, PA for a small independent bookshop?
WH: Couldn’t ask for better. New Hope has long been a place where artists have found themselves comfortable. Henry Miller began his book The Air Conditioned Nightmare here, Charlie Parker once had a home in the county, Abbie Hoffman’s final years were in New Hope, and there is still a vibrant writing and artistic community here. Gerald Stern lives across the river, Christian Bauman lives in the area, Dennis Tafoya and Lee Harper aren’t too far away. Beyond that, it’s a small tight-knit community that also prides itself on its eclecticism and diversity. Even with the changes the book world has seen lately, there’s still a sense around here that we need our Main Street, otherwise we won’t have much of a town.
AB: One interesting feature of the shop is your focus on small presses. Where does the interest in these smaller presses come from and what do you see the value of promoting titles from houses like Press 53 or Black Widow Press?
WH: The interest in the small presses grew out of our reading them. The more we read and the more we saw in the small press world, the more we realized that there is a whole, vibrant, literary world out there that is producing some of the finest literature around. After the 2008 crash, many of the major publishers shucked mid-list authors and the small presses picked up these great writers and gave them good homes. People often bemoan the state of contemporary American literature and we can’t figure out why. There’s too many good things happening with small presses for that to be true. The value of promoting the small presses is myriad. First, you are helping to keep a vital literature alive. Whether it is through promoting a press like Archipelago Books that prints mostly literature in translation, or a press that prints nothing but poetry, the promotion of these presses keeps them alive, which keeps their books out in the world for people to fall in love with. This helps to keep the authors writing and the great surge of vitality alive in our literature. It is, as someone once said (Pound?), through a country’s literature that its essence, its own vitality is either made relevant or not. The small presses have long been the opening ground for writers that went on to much larger presses. Sherman Alexie began on (and still publishes with) Hanging Loose Press and look at what has happened recently with Jaimy Gordon and Paul Harding. Keeping the small presses on the shelves means that our customers have the ability to see where great writers started out, where they are publishing now and where the next great writer might be. Focusing on these presses also allows us to have a stock that other stores don’t have. And it allows us to hand-sell and recommend books computer databases can’t recommend because they haven’t read the book.
AB: In the age of Amazon and e-books, how does an indie bookstore like Farley’s stay relevant? What do you see as your strongest advantage over big-box retailers like Amazon?
WH: Indie bookstores stay relevant, and will always be relevant, because they offer all the things Amazon and chain stores can’t: personalized recommendations and service, diverse stock cultivated by individuals and the ability to give back to a community. Shopping locally means you pay local taxes. This money then goes back into the community in the form of good public schools, teacher salaries, police departments, ambulance squads and fire departments. New jobs are created. We like these things and we live in a system that requires taxes in order for these things to operate. When you shop at Amazon you are taking money out of the community you live in. When you shop at chain stores a smaller percentage of money goes back into the community. Part of staying relevant is reminding people that where they choose to spend their money is a powerful decision, a decision that decides the future of the place they live in. If you want good schools and safe streets you need to shop locally. And part of staying relevant comes from the personalized service you get at an indie bookstore. No algorithm can replace a good bookseller’s knowledge of their customer base. People come in and ask for recommendations and we can give them something they have never heard of, and even may be wary of, but that we know they will enjoy based on previous interactions with them. You will never get a left field recommendation like that from a computer or a chain store whose employees are not as invested in their workplace as we are. We forget these things at times, but indie bookstores, like great teachers, can change lives. Above my head, as I type this, is a letter from a boy who was given Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac by his aunt. She had come into the store needing a high school graduation gift, told us about the boy, and we gave her Leopold’s book. She trusted our recommendation. In the letter, which she copied and gave to us, the boy wrote: “Out of all the gifts I received that night, I felt that the one you gave me truly meant more than just money. It is something that will help me further than just buying bed sheets at Bed, Bath and Beyond. Your gift will actually provide me with a larger base of knowledge for my career ahead.” That cannot, and will not, ever happen with Amazon because shopping online lacks the element of the personal. In an indie bookstore it is the mingling of personalities that changes lives, one book at a time.
AB: What’s your fondest memory of the bookstore?
WH: It’s all the small things: the smell of coffee from the French bakery down the street on a winter day after one of the staff has made a run down there with an order from everyone else and returned; it is the Christmas-like feeling of opening a new shipment of books; the laughs late at night when we are the only store in town open as late as the bars; listening to Lee Morgan on a rainy afternoon; the dust in the corners that reminds me I don’t work in a chain store; talking books and sharing bottles of wine. There’s a sense of life here that you feel happy to be a part of.
AB: And the memory of which you’re, say, least fond.
WH: The passing of Jim Farley this past September. That is a large presence missing from the store, though in many ways he’s still in every inch of this place.
AB: What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned so far in your years as a bookseller?
WH: I’ll quote Sam Cooke: “If you want to really roll, you’ve got to do the thing with soul.”
Great interview. I’m a big fan of indie bookstores. The smaller presses help keep them alive and vice versa. There is a thrill in finding new work that speaks the language you are waiting to hear.
New Hope is a special town. When I was in high school in Easton, Pa. we would sometimes drive down 611 on a whim just to hang in a hip community.