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Annie Philbrick, Bookstore Owner - Part 3

Real Talk Publishing: The People Behind the Books

Annie Philbrick, Bookstore Owner - Part 3

When Annie Philbrick was telling the story of Bank Square Books at a panel on store succession, a fellow panelist exclaimed, "To buy a bookstore never having owned one before --- and never having worked in one before! That’s crazy!” Her response? "Yeah!"

Crazy or not, Annie has owned the legendary Mystic, Connecticut bookstore since 2006, and since then has made it even more of a community institution: she's expanded the space, hosted some unforgettable events and made sure her cocker spaniel makes customers feel at home.

Below you can find the third part of Annie's REAL TALK Publishing interview, where she talks about some of her recent favorite books, advises aspiring bookstore owners and talks about the store's amazing recovery from Hurricane Sandy.  If you missed the earlier parts of the interview, read Part 1 here and Part 2, here!

TRC:  Do you have any special programs for kids?

AP: Not as many as I wish we did. We’re really heavy on the adult side as opposed to the kids side. I have one young boy who I’ve read to since we started running the store. He’s 14 now and we started when he was eight.  We used to read all The Boxcar Children, and now we’re into the whole Fablehaven series.

We do some story time, but there are a lot of churches and nursery schools around that tend to do that, so we didn’t get as much of a draw.  We work with Candlewick every summer on a Where’s Waldo? contest. We put little Waldos around the town in different stores, and when the kids find them, they get a stamp on their card. That’s a fun program!

Kelsy has some teens who come in and read the galleys --- they pick out a couple of galleys that they want and write little reviews of them. They think it’s really exciting.

What’s also really fun is that we watch a lot of kids grow up. They came into the store when they were younger and now they’re 10, 12, 13, and we get to watch their reading interests change.

TRC: Do you have a book club for adults? Can you tell me about it?

Yup! It’s now called Circle at the Square --- we asked people for title suggestions! We launched it six or seven months ago and we got about 40 responses. We had 20 or so people come at first, and now we have about 10 people who attend. We pick books through June, and it meets on the second Thursday of every month. Sometimes we take the summer off, but I think this year we’re going to keep going. It’s  been good --- and it’s been fun! People like it. And it’s a real discussion as opposed to having wine and talking about everybody else.

TRC: Can you tell me about some books that you’ve read recently that you really liked?

Obviously all of the John Green are really big, and FLORA & ULYSSES. THE DAY THE CRAYONS QUIT is a fabulous one; I read that to my little nephew at Thanksgiving, and what a terrific book! There’s another great one that came out called JOURNEY by Aaron Becker. It’s not HAROLD AND THE PURPLE CRAYON, but there are no words in it and a thread goes through it. It’s a great story.

For adult, I read mostly fiction. But I just read a new one by Hampton Sides --- IN THE KINGDOM OF ICE --- which is coming in the fall from Doubleday. The editor is Bill Thomas, who I have a reading relationship with. It’s the story of the U.S.S. Jeannette, which is a ship that went up to discover the North Pole through the Bering Sea. It’s a fabulous narrative nonfiction, historical adventure story.

And then I read the new David Mitchell, THE BONE CLOCKS, in which the ending just sort of stuns you. I had never read him before, and parts of it are kind of “out there,” but every other chapter brings you back to the real day-to-day story, and there’s a really powerful message in that book.

There’s a new one I know that Random House is really hot on called LOVE ME BACK by Merritt Tierce. It’s really raw, it’s very erotic and it’s really, really good writing. It’s very terse and very honest, and it’s great.

There’s a great summer one that I just finished called BITTERSWEET by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore. It’s set in Vermont and follows this dysfunctional, very wealthy family full of secrets. It’s a really good summer read.

We actually have a luncheon at the store [at the time of the interview] for an author named Beatriz Williams. She wrote A HUNDRED SUMMERS and now has a new book out called THE SECRET LIFE OF VIOLET GRANT, which is very good historical fiction.

TRC: And a quick YA/Middle Grade interlude from Kelsy April, the kids’ buyer at Bank Street, who answered the question by email:

Kelsy: I just read SINNER by Maggie Stiefvater (Scholastic, July), a novel in which she revisits the world of SHIVER, LINGER and FOREVER. This time it's all about Cole St. Claire and his love interest, Isabelle. It's a funny, fast-paced, hardcover love story that fans of SHIVER will love! Stiefvater has some of the best dialogue and I love her character development. 

SWIM THAT ROCK (Candlewick, April) is a stellar middle-grade title about a boy named Jake trying to save his family's diner after his father disappears. With the help of his family, friends and a funny pirate, Jake tries desperately to catch enough Quahogs in the Narragansett Bay to pay off the debt on the diner. It’s a brilliantly told coming-of-age novel for both boys and girls alike, and a great summer read.

DOROTHY MUST DIE (HarperCollins, May) is a twisted take on the Wizard of Oz. Imagine if Dorothy went back to Oz after her story is finished. Imagine if Dorothy became evil and hoarded all of the magic and turned Oz into a miserable, desolate place. Well, that's what Amy Gumm finds when she is whisked away to Oz in a tornado that snatches up her trailer home in Kansas. This fast-paced, thrilling, just-a-hint-of-romance pager-turner will have you racing to the end to find out what happens. It’s an impressive debut from author Danielle Page.




TRC: Would you have any advice for aspiring booksellers or bookstore owners?

AP: Well, it’s interesting --- I think if someone wants to open a bookstore, they should do some research and talk to their regional organization, and the American Booksellers Association (ABA), which can help them get started. And if you’re passionate about it, just to do it!

And for aspiring booksellers, go work in a bookstore.  You won’t necessarily make a lot of money, but it’s a very rewarding business. When we bought it, we didn’t do much research at all. I was on a panel about store succession at a conference because I had bought Bank Square Books. Green Apple Books from San Francisco was on it because they had a different business model for buying the store, and the third person was from Score, a volunteer organization of retired executives that help people with businesses.

I can’t tell you how many people have come into the store and said “I love the smell of books! I just love holding a book in my hand.”  

As I was telling the story of buying the store and how I had never owned a bookstore, the person from Score said, “That’s really risky. To buy a bookstore never having owned one before --- and never having worked in one before. That’s crazy!” And I said “yeah! But I’m still here.” And it’s still here. We’ve turned a corner since 2008 and now we are really on the publishers’ radar, and we are strong.

 What’s interesting is that you’re going to have to educate some customers and remind them that you’re there, and that shopping locally is good. This is because, for example, when Borders opened stores across the country, it shut out a lot of the smaller guys. And then Borders closed and those regions didn’t have any bookstores. So if there wasn’t a close enough bookstore, people tended to go online to get their books. If one chooses to open a bookstore in one of those communities where people have been trained to shop online, you’re going to have to educate them to bring them into your store. But I think it’s possible. I think people sometimes get tired of being online.  I can’t tell you how many people have come into the store and said “I love the smell of books! I just love holding a book in my hand.” Maybe they have a reading device, but people realize what it’s like to have a book in their hands. And a book makes a perfect gift for people.

TRC: Are there any qualities or personality traits that make a good bookseller?

AP: One has to be comfortable interacting with people, talking to people and being in the public. If you’re shy or a real introvert and can’t really talk to people, it’s going to be hard for you to be in a bookstore because, for the most part, people come in and they want to talk to you.

We did have a young teenager working for us one year who we discovered just really couldn’t talk to people, so we found jobs for him in the back. He was a nice guy, but just wasn’t gregarious, and you have to be. I have what I call my “young hip booksellers,” who are in their 20s, and they’re hip --- at least they think they are.

All who work in the store are very different. And I think that  helps because I might not appeal to one customer, but that young bookseller with their tattoo showing might appeal to that guy who’s looking for something.

But you know, I don’t have a strong dress code, or a policy where you can’t have a tattoo if you work here. For me, having a diverse employee base helps make the store a little more diverse. All who work in the store are very different. And I think that  helps because I might not appeal to one customer, but that young bookseller with their tattoo showing might appeal to that guy who’s looking for something. I think it’s great to be diverse. If you want to try bookselling, you should give it a shot.

TRC: You mentioned the ABA before . Do you keep in contact with other booksellers? How do you keep in touch, and what do you talk about?

AP:  We talk about books and we talk about authors --- just what we’re talking about here. We see each other a lot at trade shows.  The regionals --- like the New England Independent Booksellers Association --- all have fall trade shows where booksellers get together.  There’s a tradeshow floor where the publishers display their books, there are author events, there are education programs that the regional organization puts on and education programs that the ABA puts on.

There are also education programs throughout the year, including The Winter Institute, which is approximately three free days full of education, such as how to hand-sell, advanced Edelweiss, how to manage inventory, cash flow…the whole gamut.  There’s also a big author event with 50 or 60 authors and dinners --- it’s fabulous. It’s limited to 500 booksellers so it doesn’t get too big, and as long as you get there, it’s free.

You come out of there just energized. For us in Connecticut, the first quarter ---  January through March --- is the quietest, so to go to this in January or February reminds  you why you’re doing what  you’re doing, and just strengthens that independent bookselling community. Because you’re not just with your region --- you’re with booksellers from all over the country and sometimes from all over the world. We had some people from Europe and Australia and New Zealand come, and we’re all doing the same thing. We give each other advice.

The New England Independent Booksellers Association do peer reviews, where a group of booksellers will go to another store and just give them suggestions. We asked for it after we’d owned the store for about a year, and I was just completely overwhelmed. They were all great suggestions, and some of it was stuff that we thought about doing but never really confirmed that we should do. Everyone was just being helpful.

TRC: Can you tell us how Bank Square Books was affected by Hurricane Sandy?

We got flooded and were closed --- it was a nightmare. We moved all the books out so we didn’t lose many books. This was a huge amount of work  and we did it with the help of the community. We had to replace the whole floor and half the walls, and what was so moving was that when we were able to reopen and move in, booksellers came from all over New England and helped us put the books back into the store, in addition to all of the community. We couldn’t have done it without all of those people.

We were closed the three weeks before Thanksgiving, and when we opened back up, everybody was like, “Thank God you’re here.” And even when we were closed, the phone worked. Most of the time we didn’t answer it, but sometimes we’d answer it or I’d get a message saying, “Do you have this book?” One woman actually called, and I said, “You know what? I don’t even have any books in the store. They’re all in storage because we were flooded.” And she said, “But can’t you go look and see?” And I said, “I can’t! The computers are in my garage!”

The folks at R.J. Julia, a bookseller in Madison, CT, printed a book on their Espresso machine and gave us proceeds, which was very nice. And we were able to make a PayPal Sandy Relief donate button on the website, and people donated about $10,000. Some authors did, a lot of locals did, a lot of my sales reps did, and it was very moving. Despite the nightmare, it was really incredible to see the response that we got from everybody.

TRC: Do you have any plans for the future of the store?

AP: Well, we expanded last October, so a lot is focused on managing that. It’s great, and it allows us to expand our non-book selection. And part of the reason I was convinced that it would work was there was a study out by the Book Industry Study Group that 21% of all book sales come from displays, and with the additional room, we could display more books. A lot more books. 

The Other Tiger --- the bookstore in Westerly about 20 minutes away --- closed, and everyone was like, “Annie, why don’t you buy the store? Why don’t you buy the store?” And I said, “I don’t want to buy the store. I’m really happy with what we have.”

It’s work, but you can really be creative about it in a lot of different ways. And that’s what I like about it... 

My goals I think are to manage the inventory better, to tighten it up. We curate our selection, but the tricky part is how to curate that and have something for everybody who comes into the store. So that would be one of my goals --- to continue figuring out how to do that better.

It’s hard just to be complacent and say, “I’m just going to sell books.” It’s work, but you can really be creative about it in a lot of different ways. And that’s what I like about it --- being creative and keeping it fun. The guy who’s worked here the longest asked, “Do you think everybody’s happy in here?” Since we now have every-other-Monday staff meetings, I put that on the agenda --- is everybody happy working here? --- just to check in with them.  You know,” if you’re not happy, tell me why you’re not happy, or maybe you don’t want to work here.” It seemed fine. It’s just keeping tabs on people. Making sure it’s still fun for everybody