Rebel (Bookseller) With a Cause

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Andrew Laties

Veteran bookseller Andrew Laties, currently of the Eric Carle Museum Bookshop in Amherst, Massachusetts, and formerly of the now closed Chicago Children's Bookstore, has taken the natural next step for a nearly lifelong bookseller -- he's added his own book to the shelves. Rebel Bookseller: How to Improvise Your Own Indie Store and Beat Back the Chains is published by Vox Pop, a micro-publisher/bookstore in Brooklyn, New York, of which he is part-owner. It tells the history of many of the major events affecting independent booksellers during Laties' more than 25-year career; recaps his own experience as a bookseller; and serves as a guide and caveat to prospective and new booksellers.

Rebel Bookseller is divided into 10 "rants" about the industry, which offer blunt words of warning and inspired encouragement about the bookselling profession, and 10 chapters of industry history through the lens of Laties' own story: He started bookselling at age 19 in 1979; co-founded the Children's Bookstore, the Children's Bookfair Company, and the Children's Museum Store in Chicago, all of which had varying life spans; he also co-founded the Eric Carle Museum Bookshop, which he manages. Along the way he taught at ABA's Prospective Booksellers School for 10 years and was honored with a Lucile Micheels Pannell Award for creatively inspiring children's interest in books and reading. During his bookselling career, Laties has witnessed some rather dramatic ups and downs in the book industry.

"I asked myself, 'Where's our industry's story of the past 20 years?,'" said Laties, who talked with BTW from his home in Amherst, Massachusetts. He decided that someone should tell that story. He didn't consider himself to be a writer, but he found himself in a "strange situation" where he was surrounded by writers and was working for a writer, Eric Carle, who asked him to write the book. Encouraged by Carle, Laties decided that his taboo on writing was "silly." In telling his own experience, he's been informed by his colleagues that he has told the story of many longtime independent booksellers.

"I wrote about what I needed to know during my first year of bookselling, but which I had to discover for myself over 20 years," explained Laties. This included learning that, rather than sticking to hard and fast rules, a more successful and satisfying strategy involves creating a bookstore as a piece of art that similarly reflects the individuality of the artist/owner.

He describes the book as not quite a "how-to" manual. "I don't like prescriptive, educational textbooks," he said. "I have a different approach. I studied improv theater and free jazz improvisation. So I believe techniques of improvisation are much more useful in business than rules."

These techniques can be broadly summarized as his "Three Rough Rules of Rebel Bookselling."

The first, Laties said, he's been practicing for years: "Adapt, Don't Adopt," which he sums up as, "Don't do what I say, but take what I say and tinker with it to match your specific circumstance."

The second rule is "Sell More of What's Selling," or SMOWS. The ABA Booksellers School taught this for years, said Laties. "The interesting thing about SMOWS is that you can spin the word, and it still says the same thing. That works out well because what it means is that you have to keep spinning, you have to constantly note what's selling in your store and put yourself completely at the service of the customers."

Laties' third rule is "Buy Low, Sell High" with a twist. "It's a fairly standard idea," he said. "But I interpret it to mean that you have to turn nothing into something, something like what a writer does, or turning your dreams into a business. It's not simple in a financial sense. You have to create something whole cloth, and to do that you have to be deeply creative."

To help spread his message, Laties is holding a "Rebel Bookseller Road Show" at Vox Pop and other independent bookstores, including the U-Conn Co-op in Storrs, Connecticut. At the Road Show, Laties will be giving classes in "radical retail," which looks to ignite a "grassroots revival of community bookselling." The ultimate goal, said Laties, is to inspire prospective booksellers to take the leap and "spark the launching of 10,000 new independent bookstores." A bookseller is like a "teacher, mentor, professor, or therapist," said Laties. "I want to teach people that this can be a profession for them, that their gift might be recommending the books that they love. People should know about that."

Booksellers can order Rebel Bookseller directly from SCB Distributors or through Ingram, Baker & Taylor, Bookazine, and Partners Distributors. --Karen Schechner