Big Ideas and a (Relatively!) Little Bookstore

Clifford watches over the Scholastic book store
Clifford watches over the Scholastic Book Store

After weeks of talking about books, Summer Publishing Institute students hit the road to see how books are published and sold. The 100 students split off into groups to visit publishing houses like The Penguin Group,  Macmillan, Abramsbooks, The Hachette Book Group, and Scholastic Corporation, where the company’s beloved character Clifford was on hand to greet the visitors.

Administrative Assistant Emna Belgasni guided our group from the twelfth floor, roof-level atrium to ground level; in between we were shown board meeting rooms, the company library, and vibrant displays of best-selling books like the “Harry Potter” series.  It was not your typical, staid working environment: incredible student artwork – all made by winners of the Scholastic Art Award, a prestigious award program for young students pursuing creative studies-lined the walls and a red “Box for Big Ideas” was set up in the cafeteria.

To learn more about publishing from the retailer’s point of view, we later visited McNally Jackson Books in Nolita.  While McNally Jackson is today one of the largest independent stores in the city, co-owner Sarah McNally explained that starting up wasn’t easy.  “It was horrible,” she said.  “Most of the reps didn’t pay me any mind.” Having to compete with stores like Barnes  & Noble was what she called “the real tragedy” because publishers put most of their efforts toward  selling to the chains.
In order to get things rolling, McNally realized she needed to be different.  Early on, she and her staff developed  precise and creative ways to buy and present books. The magazine rack is meticulously stocked with mainstream and alternative choices; books  are categorized by the nationality of the author to more easily enable the discovery of less-known writers and cultures.  McNally feels that people do want to read, but are often overwhelmed by the choices. That’s  why her unique shelf organization is so essential.  She compared the  MJ ambience to that in wine and music stores.  When you walk around MJ, it’s obvious much thought has gone into presentation: you won’t find books sloppily stacked on the floor (“Would you buy anything else off the floor?” McNally asked)and the sections are not as generic as at a B&N.  “Luck, gambles, and educated guesses” is the formula  McNally and her staff use to pick and promote the books. Once they even created a display entitled “Good Books/Bad Covers” to urge buyers to look beyond a book’s exterior.

Independent Bookstore McNally Jackson offers great reads and an event program, too.
Independent Bookstore McNally Jackson offers great reads and an event program, too.

One of MJ’s biggest attractions—and points of differentiation from the chain stores—is- their unique lineup of events. This week, there is a talk celebrating independent publishing as well as visits from authors and editorial directors including Sasha Abramsky, author of “Breadline USA: The Hidden Scandal of American Hunger” and Viking Editorial Director Molly Stern.  “I’ve always envisioned this store as a literary community center,” said McNally, sipping coffee in the store’s cozy corner café, as folk music played softly in the background.  “The chains can’t do it the same way.”

by Phil Scillaci Kropoth

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