Black Dog & Leventhal Names “My Bookstore” Scholarship Winners

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This week, Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers announced the winners of its “Why My Bookstore Matters” Winter Institute scholarship contest. Launched in September in celebration of My Bookstore: Writers Celebrate Their Favorite Places to Browse, Read, and Shop, which was published this month, the contest offered booksellers the chance to win one of three $2,500 scholarships to Winter Institute 8. A major portion of the scholarship funding was generously donated by the authors who contributed to the book.

Black Dog & Leventhal’s contest winners are Michael Redman of City Lights Bookstore in Sylva, North Carolina; Joan Trygg of Red Balloon Bookshop in St. Paul, Minnesota; and Sam Kaas of Village Books in Bellingham, Washington.

Each of the winners will receive $2,500 to cover the expenses for two booksellers — themselves and another staff member — to attend Winter Institute 8, to be held in Kansas City, Missouri, from February 22 - 25, 2013.

“We received so many wonderful essays, as well as a handful of really creative video submissions,” Black Dog & Leventhal Publisher J.P. Leventhal said. “One of the things that became clear from reading the submissions is how dedicated independent booksellers are to servicing their neighborhoods, and how much work they put into this, from outreach to local schools to hosting both in-store and off-site events almost every night of the week. Not only are booksellers curators of ideas, they are cornerstones of communities.”

The contest, which was open to booksellers at all ABA member stores, asked entrants to express their feelings about why their bookstore matters in a maximum of 1,000 words or no more than two minutes of video or audio.

Needless to say, when informed this week of their win, the booksellers were ecstatic. “For a small bookstore such as the one I work in, this scholarship provides an opportunity that may not have been otherwise available,” said City Lights’ Redman. “Thank you, Black Dog and Leventhal, for your generous support of independent bookstores and booksellers. I’m eagerly looking forward to the Winter Institute!”

Red Balloon’s Trygg said, “I feel like a seven-year old who’s won tickets to Disney World! I’m very excited and happy that Red Balloon will be going to the Winter Institute. Thank you, Black Dog & Leventhal for this opportunity!”

And Village Books’ Kaas summed it up: “I’m honored to have been selected, and proud to say that I work for the coolest business on earth, and for some of the coolest business people. Indie bookstores, for me, are far more than an occupation — they’re a lifestyle, a calling, something to believe in, as hokey as that sounds. I’m glad to have a community around me that believes in them the way that I do, and I look forward to meeting that community in Kansas City.”

Thanks to Black Dog & Leventhal, here BTW presents the winning essays.

Why My Bookstore Matters, by Michael Redman, City Lights Bookstore

The reason my bookstore matters is, in a general sense, much the same reason that all bookstores matter. It has been remarked that the purpose of fiction (and by extension all writing) is to make us feel less alone. If this is true, then bookstores are the conduit by which this fellow feeling occurs. More specifically, my bookstore plays an integral role in the life of its community. We are located in the southern Appalachian region of the Great Smoky Mountains and, despite the relative geographic isolation of our town, we make possible not only cultural awareness of other communities, but also cultural dialogue with those communities. As readers and booksellers we have discovered what we share in common with, and how we are different from, the denizens of the Ozarks, police detectives in Japan, airborne firefighters half a century distant, children in far flung places worldwide and more and more communities too numerous to mention here. In turn, we have eagerly offered the stories and perspectives unique to our region to the rest of the world by promoting the great novelists, poets, dramatists, short story writers, historians and researchers that our community seems to be very rich in.

Independent bookstores are in a unique position to be able to do this, wherever their community is. Because booksellers, owners, authors, and customers are often well known to each other, not only can books be recommended to people who have just been greeted by name, authors made to feel as if they are doing readings in a very hospitable family’s living room, and friendships begun and maintained over days, months, and years of book selling and buying, but business decisions can also be made at the local level, benefitting both the bookstore and its community. Recently much has been made of the “buy local” movement for reasons ranging from the practical to the political to the philosophical. While we all rightly share a concern over the homogenizing influences of online retailers and large multinational corporations rendering the independent bookseller as archaic as a slide rule, we must remember that this same scenario offers us opportunities to become involved in our communities at a deep and mutually beneficial level. Remember, these concerns we have as sellers and readers — in other words, our concerns both financial and cultural — are shared with others in our communities. Independent bookstores, emerging as we often do from the cultural vanguard, are not well-served by adopting the posture and attitude of victimization. A customer is not duty bound to buy from us. If we wish our communities to support us, we should invest in them as much as we wish to be invested in. And this is something that we, again, are in a unique position to do that online retailers are not: we have an intimate knowledge of what is needed where we live and how those needs can be met in our position as booksellers. I’m very proud to say that my bookstore is very involved in our community in this fashion, working with our local university, community college, public schools, and libraries to serve our town.

Furthermore, as booksellers we are able to establish bonds with an amazing cross-section of our community. All of us who work at our store enjoy at various times the company of teachers, writers, restaurant owners, animal rescue workers, political activists, mothers and fathers, artists, ministers and pastors, musicians, conspiracy theorists, the old and the young, people who have lived here all their lives and people who have just arrived or travelers who are just visiting. Just as rewarding as selling a recently discovered favorite book are the conversations to be had with any of the above customers. Especially fulfilling to me is being able to track down that hard-to-find or out-of-print title that a customer has been searching for and learning what led them to an interest in the book. Customers who I know are able to enrich my own reading far more than I am able to do on my own. 

If this essay has highlighted and emphasized the concept of community to the exclusion of other equally important roles the independent bookstore fills, it is only because community involvement is something at which my bookstore excels, contributing to its continuing longevity. As the world continues to become smaller, the communities independent booksellers serve will only become larger, affording new opportunities for the cultural involvement that led us all to become passionate about book selling in the first place.

Red Balloon Bookshop Matters, by Joan Trygg

I came to work at 12:30 yesterday, and walked into a day at Red Balloon in full swing. Customers were browsing, the phone rang, balloons from the morning storytime rested on the ceiling waiting for little hands to claim them. What I saw, heard, and did that day gave me a glimpse of why our bookstore matters.

When I came in, we were already working on orders from two elementary schools that will host local author and illustrator Nancy Carlson. Nancy has also asked us if we can link to her website. People could purchase her books from us, and she would come in and sign them. We began a list of URLs for her books on our website. Two parents from another elementary school came in and began selecting books for the bookfair they will be having next month. We have worked with this school for a number of years, and past bookfairs have been successful for both of us. Another school, in out-state Minnesota, placed orders for books for an early intervention reading program designed for at-risk students. We’ve worked with this program closely to help develop their reading lists as well as to be the go-to supplier of titles for schools across the country.

A favorite sales rep stopped by with ARCs for spring and recommendations for us. A public librarian came in to browse; she often tells stories for us at the store, combining, as all our storytellers do, a knowledge of how to connect literacy and pre-literacy skills with the joy of reading. A woman from Pennsylvania called. She is only recently literate, but she shops by Internet and telephone at our store regularly, because, she says, people here are friendly and helpful. She is a storyteller, too, and brings books she purchases from us into preschools and care centers for the elderly. She often shares struggles she is having in her life, and she can count on having a patient listener here when she calls. We processed online orders, including one for an e-book. We posted a newspaper article about a local author who has recently published a historical novel for young adults on Facebook— she will be reading and signing in our store next month.

That evening, we helped some grandparents choose books for their four grand-daughters, by age and interest. A mother asked for advice for her eight-year-old son who wants to read Fellowship of the Ring. (We recommended he try The Hobbit first.) A new picture book came into the store that made us squeal a little, so we pinned it onto a Recommended Reads board on Pinterest. A toddler came in with her parents and sat down on the steps, ready for storytime... she’d obviously been here before. We gift-wrapped. We found books for a teacher who needed to talk to young children about death, because their classroom chicken had been eaten by a hawk on their playground. As we rang up her purchase, she chatted with another teacher at the counter who commiserated with her. An elderly man planning to meet his wife in the store chatted with us about their 58 years of marriage, how she still loves children’s books, and how, because of her, he had met Tomie dePaola and Maurice Sendak. The Books for Africa donation box waited for books; boxes and bags and stacks had already been picked up by volunteers. A woman who works at an art museum asked for books based on the senses, as their museum had been receiving more requests for tours with young children, and they needed to expand their library. She left with an armload of books and a promise to return. We closed the shop 10 minutes late to accommodate last-minute shoppers.

There are few things as important as how we raise the next generation. Books and literacy play an important role in that task — witness studies linking illiteracy with prison time. Red Balloon Bookshop matters because we are a vital link between children and their future. By putting books in their hands that they will read, through parents, other family members, and friends, through teachers, librarians, and directly to them, we support literacy and education, thinking, and imagination. By connecting kids with authors and illustrators, we introduce them to the process of making books, and inspire not only reading, but their own writing and illustrating dreams as well. We are now seeing young adults return. They tell us the store smells the same, but that it is smaller than they remember. They exclaim over favorites that are still on the shelves. And they bring their own children in for storytime and shopping. Parents who are now grandparents return, too, and tell us memories of when they brought their children into the store and say how glad they are we are still here. We make young readers and adults part of the book community by being a “third place” in a relationship that can last their lifetime.

 As a small business working together with other neighborhood businesses, we also make kids part of our local community. We worked with the restaurant across the parking lot to celebrate Julia Child’s birthday with sweet treats and coupons good at each other’s businesses. We’ve done a scavenger hunt with clues at nearby shops. We’ve called other indies when we think they might have a copy of a book we don’t have in stock, and put questions out on Twitter because someone is looking for a title and we can’t figure out what it is (Hennepin County Library came through for us on one memorable occasion.) Through us, kids learn firsthand that we are not isolated individuals looking out only for ourselves, but that we work together to create a community that benefits all of us. Red Balloon matters because kids matter. And because books and community matter to a full — and happy — life.

Why Village Books Matters, by Sam Kaas

There is a story you’ve undoubtedly heard before. It goes like this.

I work at this great independent bookstore. It’s been a cultural institution in my hometown for over three decades. When I was a kid, I used to get so absorbed in the various adventures of Tintin ensconced in the back room I wouldn’t notice when my parents walked out the door. As a teenager, I saw Sherman Alexie and Garrison Keillor there, and got my first tastes of Kerouac and Kesey (I continue to feel lukewarm about both of them), as well as David Foster Wallace (whose writing and worldview knocked me flat and woke me up to the real possibilities of language) in the fiction stacks. Now I’ve worked there for more than two years, and I still can’t help feeling excited to walk in the doors every day. To put it plainly, my bookstore just rocks. We’ve got a staff full of urban farmers, hockey aficionados, barefoot knitters, and Geoff Dyer obsessives. We’ve got a powerhouse of an events program, an Espresso Book Machine, not just one but two cafés, and an entire section devoted to “Undead fiction.” Customers have written poems about our store. A House Hunters International camera crew once filmed a local couple buying a book about Norway in our travel section. We hosted Rick Steves in a 500 seat auditorium on Super Bowl Sunday and sold the place out. One of our longtime patrons describes the atmosphere as “a little like walking into the Cheers bar,” and even though I’m too young to remember Cheers (if I want to be honest, I’m even a little too young for Frasier) I understand what she means. If you step out of the dreary Northwest weather and into the warmly lit foyer of my workplace, you’ll find a couple of us hanging out around the counter, drinking way too much coffee and quoting Coen Brothers movies, arguing about whether we actually like Jonathan Franzen, and discussing the finer points of why Mudhoney is the most underappreciated grunge band of all time. Often, we’ll know which book you’re looking for, and where it is, and if we have a used copy and what kind of shape it’s in, without ever looking at the computer. We can give you a jump if your car breaks down, and tell you where the best Mexican food in town is. Come in a few times, and we’ll learn your name. Bring in your dog, and we’ll learn his name too.

This is why my bookstore is great, and why it’s well-loved and appreciated by locals and tourists alike, and this is why independent bookstores all around the country (and indeed the world) are incredible places to work and be. But why does my bookstore matter?

We talk a lot about this these days. How do you keep an independent bookstore relevant, and sustain that great atmosphere without going broke? What is the future of bookselling?

This is the part of the story that might not be so familiar. It’s the part where my store starts to stand out, and offer just a little bit of hope for the future of independent bookselling. Because instead of just asking those big, tough questions about the future, my store has made a direct investment in it by hiring young people like myself who love this crazy business and its crazy people, and who want to learn it and live it and sustain it for years to come.

There are six of us, all under the age of 25. We’re all students or very recent graduates of the University in town. A few of us were hired when we were in our late teens, and one when she was still in high school. We’re compulsive alphabetizers and handselling gurus. A couple of us have major caffeine dependency problems. We all consider our work to be way more than just a college job. We’re the next generation of great indie booksellers. My bookstore matters because it’s here that I have learned about and fallen in love with this business, and because it’s from here (and, I hope, from other stores staffed by passionate, well read, excessively caffeinated young people) that my peers and I will secure a future for bookselling.

Not that it’s going to be easy. I’ve worked in this business long enough to know that the common misconception my customers, friends, and classmates have of my job, namely that I “just get to hang around and talk about books all day,” is so far from the truth it’s almost funny. Being a bookseller means long hours spent with catalogs. It means having to jury-rig malfunctioning plumbing, and looking through boxes of used James Patterson paperbacks that smell like they’re playing host to some sort of deadly mildew. And it means being questioned by people for carrying books containing ideas and situations and language that they are personally uncomfortable with. It means standing up for those ideas, because a free culture and a free society simply cannot exist without them, and because we know that the best way to learn and grow is to have your opinions, however humble or otherwise they may be, challenged.

Independent bookstores have been standing up for free speech, and for artful discourse, for decades. They’ve been community centers and gathering places and occasionally wedding chapels. As the climate for small businesses, not to mention the face of the industry, changes, it won’t be easy to adapt and continue the grand tradition of indie bookselling into the twenty-first century. It won’t happen overnight. But hiring young people and teaching them the trade is a great start. Encouraging them to apply what they know about how the next generation will use bookstores to move that trade forward is also a definitive step in the right direction, and my bookstore matters because that’s just what we’re doing. We matter because together, we can and will succeed.