Larry Portzline, author of Bookstore Tourism: The Book Addict's Guide to Planning & Promoting Bookstore Road Trips for Bibliophiles & Other Bookshop Junkies, takes to the road for an author tour to four of the Southwest's premier, independent bookstores.
By Larry Portzline
Usually when I take a road trip to visit independent bookstores these days, it's with 40 other bibliophiles on a chartered bus. But recently I had the chance to go solo for a four-city author tour in the Southwest U.S. to promote my "bookstore tourism" project and book.
My hit-and-run itinerary included Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe, Arizona; Bookworks in Albuquerque, New Mexico; BookPeople in Austin, Texas; and Beauty and the Book in Jefferson, Texas. For my first real author tour, albeit a brief one, it was a real treat hanging out with the booksellers at each of these locales, browsing their stores, signing copies of my book, and talking to audiences about the potential of bookstore tourism.
Two themes seemed to emerge from these events, which consistently morphed from my prepared presentation into a freewheeling discussion about indie bookstores in general and their competition with the "big box" chains and online retailers in particular: 1) the country needs more grassroots efforts to support reading and literacy at the national and local levels; and 2) bookstore tourism could be an effective, enjoyable way to accomplish that.
Authors -- especially first-timers like me -- can't help but love that kind of validation.
Here are some highlights from my trip.
Day 1: Changing Hands Bookstore, Tempe, Arizona (www.changinghands.com)
After getting into town, I went to Changing Hands and sat with three of its co-owners -- Gayle Shanks, Bob Sommers, and Pinna Joseph -- outside Wildflower Bread Company, an awesome bakery and sandwich shop that adjoins the bookstore. We discussed all things literary and all things Tempe, and later I got to do the same with co-owner Susie Brazil over Chinese food across the street. I also got a guided tour of the bookstore from marketing wiz Cindy Dach, who originated the annual "First Fiction Tour" for new authors a few years ago. Cindy gave me the lowdown on what Changing Hands is up to these days: selling new and used books side-by-side a la Powell's; growing its sidelines and gifts as a customer draw; and wondering how much further the children's department is going to encroach on the rest of the store. Cindy also runs a weekly writing group for teenage girls -- one of many offerings that has earned Changing Hands the "Best Bookstore" title in Tempe several times.
The author event that evening was a special occasion for me because it was a double bill with John Villani, author of The 100 Best Small Art Towns in America (Avalon). John's take on communities that value and support small business and the arts is right in line with my vision of Bookstore Tourism, and our presentations jelled very well. We also agreed -- as did the audience -- that booksellers need to do more to educate consumers about what they'd lose if independent bookstores disappeared from these communities.
Gayle paid me a great compliment when she called Bookstore Tourism "a wonderful idea" and hoped out loud that people around the country will embrace it.
Day 2: Bookworks, Albuquerque, New Mexico (www.bkwrks.com)
The author with Bookworks' owner, Nancy Rutland.
My presentation at Bookworks turned into an excellent discussion about competition in the bookselling industry. Owner Nancy Rutland added her own assessment of the situation, noting the loss of indie bookstores not just in Albuquerque, but all over New Mexico. The audience seemed to like my suggestion of organizing a "reading and literacy summit" -- like the one I'm planning in Harrisburg [Pennsylvania] -- so Albuquerque's booksellers, libraries, schools, media, and other organizations can start to work together and support each other's efforts.
Afterward, I browsed Bookworks for a while and had a chance to observe Nancy and her employees on the job. Nancy's energy and enthusiasm is infectious, whether she's discussing the value of locally owned businesses or explaining to a new bookseller how to weigh a customer's books for shipping. The store's atmosphere is warm, friendly, and relaxed, even on a busy Saturday afternoon with customers running back and forth between Bookworks and the Flying Star Caf next door. It's a real reader's oasis.
With Steve Bercu outside BookPeople.
Day 3: BookPeople, Austin, Texas (www.bookpeople.com)
When you visit BookPeople, it's easy to see why it won Publishers Weekly's Bookseller of the Year award in 2005. From its eclectic inventory to its young, fun-loving staff, from its WiFi caf to its diverse customer base, BookPeople has helped to put this Texas college town on the literary map.
Owner Steve Bercu made headlines a few years ago when he teamed up with a neighboring record shop owner and started the "Keep Austin Weird" campaign to ward off a chain store's planned invasion. So I was thrilled when Steve came to my event and joined our discussion about how bookstore tourism can help independent bookstores and boost local economic development efforts.
Later, Steve showed me around BookPeople's offices, joking that his 90 employees are "a family, but a dysfunctional one at times." We talked about the store's excellent displays, including one for Banned Books Week with yellow caution tape surrounding charred books (just props, of course) and copies of previously banned titles like To Kill a Mockingbird, The Diary of Anne Frank, and Harry Potter.
You can hear the carefree atmosphere at BookPeople every time an employee gets on the store's intercom system -- which is often -- and cheerfully asks about the location of a particular book, requests assistance from a co-worker, or announces that an author event is about to begin in the community room.
Oh, and don't miss the massage chair on second floor.
With Kathy Patrick outside her combination beauty salon and bookstore.
Day 4: Beauty and the Book, Jefferson, Texas (www.beautyandthebook.com)
Driving up Route 79 from Austin to a part of the country they call "ArkLaTex" (for the three states it encompasses) is an adventure in itself. I traveled through towns that could have been right out of The Last Picture Show and saw actual cowboys corralling cattle next to the highway -- not something that a writer from the East gets to experience every day.
Kathy Patrick's combination beauty salon and bookstore is the headquarters of the Pulpwood Queens Book Club, which now has over 1,000 members in Texas and eight other southern states. The shop is a mix of Hollywood kitsch and Dixie charm, from the Marilyn Monroe posters on the wall to the collection of extravagant hats that Kathy keeps on display. Adjoining the salon is Books on the Bayou, where octogenarian bookseller and local historian Fred McKenzie holds court with stories about Jefferson's past. Kathy knows a little about bookstore tourism herself, having organized a European trip for her members last year that included visits to numerous bookshops and literary sites along the way.
Doing my author spiel while sitting in Kathy's salon chair was a new experience, although thankfully she didn't make me wear a styling cape, or the requisite tiaras that her members usually wear at meetings. She'd arranged for some of the members to attend, including a couple of chapter presidents from just up the road in Linden and from nearby Shreveport, Louisiana. Later the group had dinner at one of Jefferson's favored tourist spots: the Hamburger Store, where they specialize in three sizes of hamburgers and fresh, homemade pies (I recommend the chocolate cream with meringue).
A book-addicted author like me could get used to this kind of travel. It almost made me wish I'd brought 40 other people along for the ride.
Almost, but not quite.
Larry Portzline of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, is a writer, a part-time college instructor, and the author of Bookstore Tourism: The Book Addict's Guide to Planning & Promoting Bookstore Road Trips for Bibliophiles & Other Bookshop Junkies (Bookshop Junkie Press). Visit his website at www.bookstoretourism.com.