Sunday, March 22, 2009

On the love of independent bookstores - an interview with Kim Allen-Niesen of 'Bookstore People'

We love independent bookstores. We have about 25 of them in our bookstores program, which means customers at these stores have the opportunity to pay to plant a tree to balance each book they purchase in the store and receive our sticker at the counter. And we're not alone.

Bookstore People is a blog that is full with love and appreciation to independent bookstores. It's mission is to "highlight independent bookstore
s wherever we find them to encourage people to visit them and buy their books from them." This great blog is run by Claire LaZebnik and Kim Allen-Niesen, who share the love both to books and to bookstores.

I was very excited to learn about this blog and I asked one of its co-founders, Kim Allen-Niesen, to help us get to know Bookstore People and to learn more about the state of independent bookstores in these difficult times.

Hello, Kim. Can you tell us about your blog - how did you start it and why you chose to focus on independent bookstores?

Claire and I have known each other for years and whenever we see a new blog by women we always say, "we could have done that!" Last summer, we decided to go for it. We didn't have a topic, there was lots of discussion about motherhood and wine, but Claire is a writer and I'm a reader dipping my toe into writing so pretty quick we decided it would be a literary blog. I wrote an essay that I was sending out for rejection about how I always visit independent bookstores when I travel, Claire knew about the essay and suggested we build our blog around independent bookstores.

So how independent bookstores are doing these days? are they relatively more exposed to financial distress because of the downturn?

Times are hard for independent bookstores, they were hit by the big box stores, then the Internet and now the recession. They are closing across the country every week. However, it isn't a hopeless picture. Bookstores are also opening and expanding across the country. I see examples of stores broadening their activites to appeal to new customers. For example, Changing Hands in Tuscon organizes a hiking series which by their clientele attracts readers who tend to discuss books on the trail.

There is a growing movement started by the American Booksellers Association called Indiebound that equips and encourages bookstores to link with other independent businesses in their area and educate the public on the need for local, community based businesses. That movement is gaining ground. I've heard from more than one person that writing a blog about bookstores is beating a dead horse, but I'm seeing a vibrancy that is encouraging.

Kindle 2 was just launched two weeks ago - how do you see the influence of electronic content on independent bookstores? do you read ebooks at all?

My husband gave me the original Kindle for Christmas in 2007, I'm not a huge fan. I keep thinking I should try again, especially when I travel. I can't tell you how many times I've had to ask someone to help me put my carry-on in the overhead bin because it's so heavy with books. In my opinion, for independent bookstores to thrive they need to figure out how to participate in the e-book market.

Some publishers are doing that right now, HarperStudio will be offering e-book and audio book versions for $2 each if the customer buys the paper book. NelsonFree will give away the audio and e-book versions with the paper book. It is my understanding that the customer will buy the book in the bookstore and then buy or receive a code to get the other versions. I don't think the e-book will replace the paper book, but I do think it is here to stay.

All in all, how do you see the future of the book market? is it optimistic or gloomy?

It's in transition, there are certainly those who sing a funeral dirge for the publishing industry but again, I don't think so. Experts with far more knowledge than me think the publishing industry needs to cut out the fat, change some of their policies (eliminate returns, publish less frequently in hardbacks) and use digital technology to its fullest benefit.

I've seen several suggestions that the expectation of the level of profit in the industry needs a reality check. Ultimately, people aren't going to stop wanting stories and reading, but how that is done with the intertwining of new and old formats is far from decided, but the industry must learn to re-vamp to meet new challenges and demands.

What is your favorite independent bookstore?

The Gallery Bookshop in Mendocino, CA, it is where I dream of living and working when life is too crazy. It is one of the first bookstores I wrote on the blog,, and it is the bookstore I write most frequently about in other forums.

What's the best thing that ever happened to you in a bookstore?

Actually, it happens over and over again, the thrill of wandering through marvelous books and finding a terrific one that I've never heard of before. Those actually are my favorite bookstore experiences, when I talk to someone at the store and they recommend to me a book the store is handselling. It occurred most recently at Laguna Beach Books, the owner recommended Hunting and Gathering by Anna Gavalda, a book that was new to me and that the store had hand sold 550 copies last year. I left completely thrilled.

Will you ever be caught at Barnes & Noble?

In a pinch, I was in one last night actually. It was 9PM and we needed to pick up the next Rabbit book by Updike so there was only one option, B & N. However, whenever the cashier asks if I am a member of their "club," I answer no and then tell them how I feel about businesses requiring their customers to pay to be in a club to receive a discount.

You're an avid reader, but also a fan of bookstores, so I can't avoid this question - what you like more, books or bookstores?

Whenever I'm in a bookstore I usually tell myself that I should be spending the time reading not shopping, but I can't stop myself. Thank goodness it's books I like shopping for rather than shoes or jewelry, or we'd be in the poor house. There is a similarity between the rush of browsing in a good bookstore and reading a great book, although for me reading is far more solitary an activity because I'm talking to people in the bookstore (I talk to customers about the books they are picking and the staff about their business wherever I am, I've even stopped by tables in restaurants to ask people what they're reading and what they think of the book). So, I'm stalling because my head says I like books more and my heart says no, it's the bookstores.

You're also a writer - what are you working on now?

Claire is the true writer, her novel The Smart One and the Pretty One came out last September and was just sent out for another printing, it's selling very well. Yesterday, Growing Up on the Spectrum: A Guide to Life, Love, and Learning for Teens and Young Adults with Autism and Asperger’s that Claire co-wrote was officially published. She has one novel that she has been working furiously on and she recently sent it to her agent to begin the outside editing process. She is very excited about writing her first book in a new genre, young adult.

Thank you, Kim!

You're welcome to read Bookstore People at


Raz @ Eco-Libris