Thursday, November 20, 2008

Interview: Chris Doeblin of the Independent Booksellers of New York City

Last month, as I was working on a book store guide recently published in the New York section of the Onion AV Club - posted here - I sent some questions to the owner of the academic shop Book Culture, Chris Doeblin, about the Independent Booksellers Of New York City, a trade alliance he recently helped found. Over e-mail, Doeblin writes about IBNYC's origins, their push for an "I Love My Indie Bookstore Week," and more. (Edited for length and clarity.)

But first, some breaking news: IBNYC affiliates will celebrate "America Unchained" this Saturday.

From the Friends of the IBNYC Facebook page: On Saturday, November 22, communities around the country are urged to “unchain” for just that one day—to maximize the impact of your dollars and inject potentially millions more into the local economy through joining other residents to do their shopping, dining out and other business only with locally-owned independent businesses. IBNYC bookstores throughout the city welcome you to their stores that day - and some will be sponsoring special events, which are listed here:

Peter Holslin (PH): Tell me about the history of IBNYC – who started it, when, and why?

Chris Doeblin (CD): I initiated a couple of conversations with Beth Puffer, General Manager at Bank Street, Henry Zook, owner of Book Court and Sarah McNally, the owner of McNally- Jackson booksellers. Each of those conversations was enthusiastic and supportive, so with Sarah and Jessica Stockton from her store, my Exec. Manager Annie Shapiro and marketing manager Kelly Amabile, we invited the rest of the stores in NY, got a space a Random House and had our first meeting in May. Over 20 stores were represented.

My initial reason, still holding by the way, is to create an organization that can, over the long term, gradually raise public awareness of the benefits our stores offer to NYC and to create a shift in interest and dollars spent to independent business. It's the cultural greening of literary/retail NY. The group will do this gradually through public presentations and events, articles in local media etc., and by publishing a guide to our businesses, a map [and] a web site.

We get to work together, which is a wonderful thing. The level of professionalism, acumen and experience that we find in the meetings we've had is a joy.

PH: What's been going on with IBNYC lately? Are there any events coming up? Is the list/map expanding?

CD: We just had our third meeting and several new stores came- The Strand and Powerhouse Books. Several weeks ago we came out at the Brooklyn Book Festival. We just completed our proto map and guide, complete with our logo. Among our long term goals are the creation of an "I Love My Indie Bookstore Week" that would be filled with events, guest booksellers, free books author visits and of course publicity. Over time, I think this is something we can really build on and get our message out. It's better to shop at the Independent Local Bookstore. We also are aiming to perfect our guide to stores in the map form and on line.

PH: How have people responded to the alliance?

CD: Very strongly! We've set up no hurdles in terms of attendance or dues and we continue to have people come to us to attend meetings or join. We've got a long way to go, but as long as we have a sufficient and sufficiently diverse number of volunteers for the board and our committees, we should carry on for many years.

Many from outside the booksellers group, people on the publishing side for example, are very supportive. I have also received a great deal of support from other booksellers in other parts of the country that participate in independent business alliances. Steve Bercu from the Austin bookseller BookPeople, for example, wrote to me. AMIBA has been very supportive and we've decided to ally with them to make our incorporation easier and to share in their wealth of experience. I am really impressed so far.

PH: Can you tell if the alliance is yet bolstering independently-owned bookselling businesses in the city?

CD: So far, yes. I think, for example, the people we reached at the Brooklyn Book Festival have re-elevated their consumerism towards independently-owned book shops. I think once we have a successful "I Love My Indie Bookstore Week" and get masses of people thinking about the benefits of having our shops in our communities, we'll start to say we are on a roll.

PH: How have independent booksellers in the city been affected by and chains like Barnes & Noble? Are these seen as scourges, the death knells of independently-owned bookselling?

CD: The effects of the B&N and other chain stores expanding is over, long over. There will be more and more closings of their stores following the several that have already closed. And given this recession on the horizon, Borders could be closing all its locations by the spring of 2009. This of course won't be all good news for the indies, as publishing corporations react to those losses. But the independents alive today in New York are strong, professional, savvy at marketing and much more likely to survive the upheaval ahead.

Amazon is a monster and yet many of of us benefit from selling through Amazon. Of course, that continues to affect us. Of course, the tide of consumer sentiment that supports the inherent good one does in shopping at local indies is only beginning to come on and for a city like NY, with so much available within walking distance, I estimate that we're also at the end of the purely negative effect that Amazon has had. It has been nearly 12-13 years. But yes, many many books are shipped into NY to our clients and neighbors. But, you see, we're past the thrill of ordering on line we are already at a point where going into an IBNYC bookshop is a wonderful and valuable experience. What a joy it is to spend time and visit in one our shops - that sentiment has only grown more acute as choices have diminished. We benefit from that.

PH: Do you have an idea of how independent booksellers have been affected by the recent economic crisis?

CD: It's too early to tell, but book stores have historically done very well in recessions. I remember the 80's and early 90's and it's a good niche to be in.

PH: How do you envision the future of independent bookselling in New York City—and how will this future affect the city's literary culture and diverse civil society?

CD: I continue to see intelligent, successful young people choosing bookselling as a career and turning from other work to this work. This is the most optimistic indicator to me. I also sense a growing worry amongst publishers that they are losing control, fiscally and over their authors and marketplace. The answers for many of the publishers lies in the indies. They need a diverse marketplace for retail.

I see a literary and civil marketplace that embraces and nurtures more carefully some of the aspects that do rebound the benefit or our communities and the kinds of lives we can lead in our city. Indie bookstores and all bookstores to a great extent are certainly part of that. We are part of the cultural code that people want to live with and share. Over time, authors, publishers and readers will gradually and continually grow even more supportive of indies in particular. A very small upturn in our businesses would have a huge affect on our perpetuity, our job creation, etc.

A little change will have a huge impact. So I think for those of us that don't have our pants on fire already, the future is bright.

No comments: