Where I’m from in Virginia, Wal-Mart is the closest bookseller by seventy miles. So spending two months in a city full of bookstores, both big and small, indie and chain, is nothing short of wonderful. The role of the bookstore is nothing to belittle, either. As Barnes & Noble buyer Edward Ash-Milby said, “We’re selling ideas.”
How those ideas are sold varies from bookseller to bookseller and region to region. During an organized visit to the Barnes & Noble Union Square store, NYU Summer Publishing Institute students heard from Ash-Milby and Sallye Leventhal, two of the retailer’s top buyers. Each offered up plenty of insight into their strategy for picking and purchasing titles. Of course, with a bookselling giant like Barnes & Noble, shelf-space and selection are in no short supply. “If there is an audience for the book, we carry it,” said Leventhal.
Barnes & Noble does more than just offer an incredible amount of books; we learned how they help customers make selections through the strategic placement of titles on tables, end caps, and other eye-catching real estate in the store. Buying for Barnes & Noble isn’t just about picking compelling titles that will sell, but knowing how to position and sell them. “Customers want to know what to buy sometimes,” said Ash-Millby.
While the layout and selection at Barnes & Noble stores across the country are pretty predictable, the indie bookstore scene is vast and varied. During another foray into the world of Manhattan bookstores, a group of us went to visit the indie giant The Strand, which boasts 18 miles of books, stocked on towering shelves filling four floors; The Strand offers everything from rare collectible editions of books to bestsellers.
“When I first saw [The Strand] on a visit to NYC at 11 years old, I was struck by how much it wasn’t like anything we had back home in Alabama—a bookstore with multiple floors? Crazy! But I found myself coming back to it over and over again because I felt I could always find something new there, either in the ever rotating tables up front or just by stumbling into a corner of the basement floor that I didn’t know existed. Plus they use their status to promote important [social and cultural] messages through author visits and public outreach. They’re really making sure that they contribute to the community in ways outside of being just a bookstore,” said student Nick Patton.
On the opposite end of the indie spectrum is the quaint Three Lives & Company bookstore serving the West Village with an equally community-oriented approach. Another group of SPI students chatted with owner Toby Cox, who shared stories of everything from a regular customer with his own designated chair parked at the end of a bookshelf to the never-ending struggle to display books so they sell. The 625 square-foot space is less the Disney World of books and more the curated library of a well-read grandfather.
The shelves of Three Lives are packed mostly with literary fiction and popular nonfiction, but there is quite the expanse even within that narrower scope. I loved Three Lives so much that I left with four books: Nell Zink’s Nicotine, The Best American Poetry 2016, The Moth Presents: All These Wonders, and Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s The Inexplicable Logic of My Life.
While Three Lives has served its community since the 1960s, the new Amazon Books is the most recent addition to New York City’s bookstore scene. Its presence has made the book publishing industry and some SPI students alike unsettled.
“Their business model for the store consists of only top selling items, meaning every item is something most people have rated four stars or higher. It also has customer reviews on the book. And every book faces forward like you would see it on the Amazon website,” said student Jesika Fisher.
Students observed that the store seemed to use the physical location as another facet to drive consumers to its website and encourage signing up for a Prime membership, offering discounts to those with Prime.
“Half the fun of exploring a bookstore is finding a new book you wouldn’t have otherwise or getting lost checking out the shelves. At Amazon, it’s more of an echo chamber,” said student Mike Gorman.
Despite the emerging fears of a depersonalized, digitized book-buying future, indie stores like Books of Wonder provide a welcome respite and resource for fans of children’s literature. “Hearing the owner speak, I felt his passion, which creates that sense of wonder. The store was very inviting and had a really personable feeling,” said Jennifer Slagus. “It was really awesome to go into a place that has so much character.”
Whether you’re seeking the variety and reliability that Barnes & Noble offers, the community spirit of indie bookstores like The Strand, Three Lives, and Books of Wonder, or whether you feel like taking your online shopping into the real world at Amazon, New York City boasts book-buying experiences for every kind of reader. So, no excuses for not picking up a great summer read!
By Maggie Stough