In this installment in our series profiling American Booksellers Association Board members, Bookselling This Week talks to Sarah Bagby, the owner of Watermark Books & Café in Wichita, Kansas. Bagby is in the final year of her second three-year term as a Board director.
Bookselling This Week: Please talk about your early experiences with reading and books.
Sarah Bagby: My parents were both readers and we had weekly trips to the library. These visits were on Thursday afternoons, and that was the quality time spent with my parents. We had books everywhere in the house, and on our driving vacations my mother was always reading to my father.
BTW: How did you start in the book business? How long after becoming a bookseller did you begin to feel that you had found a special vocation?
SB: I became a part-time bookseller in college and it stuck. I felt comfortable around books, had the vocabulary for discussing them, and there was a very supportive market in Wichita.
BTW: What was the most important factor that led you to become the owner of Watermark Books & Café?
SB: Carolyn Sakowski and Bruce Jacobs opened Watermark Books & Café in 1977. They were discouraged by most people in the industry and many reps told them it would never work. Why Wichita, etc. etc.? But we’ve sustained ourselves through the opening of four box stores, three of which have closed. Carolyn has since moved back to North Carolina and is president of John F. Blair, Publishers, and Bruce is retired from a family business. I took over majority ownership because I was passionate about the store and didn’t really have any other plan. So here I am.
BTW: When did you first become a member of ABA? What motivated you to join?
SB: Carolyn and Bruce became members of ABA in 1977 and we have maintained our membership since. There was never a question about whether to join or not.
BTW: What do you think are some of the most important changes in bookselling since Watermark opened?
SB: Unlike in 1977, the publishing industry has respect for our store. I remember that when I first started selling books I could be fairly up to date by reading the New York Times Book Review and the Village Voice. Now, there is not one go-to place to discover new titles or read reviews. Booksellers — especially independent booksellers — have become the discoverers of many debut novelists. We can lay the foundation for new authors, and our customers rely on us to tell them what to read … and what not to read. We build trust with our customers.
Talking to our customers is a constant challenge. We could spend all our time on content, so getting that magic balance between marketing and selling is critical.
We have so much support from some of the major publishers for author tours and rep nights, and we’re appreciative of any consideration they give us in helping them to sell books. I would like to see more cooperation between publishers and booksellers. Their support would legitimize us so much in our own markets, and we would be stronger and truly sustainable. Bulk sales make a world of difference and give us more time to write blurbs, and spend time selling one book at a time.
BTW: What are your key goals as an ABA Board member for fostering the book industry, and bookselling in particular?
SB: One of my goals has been to make sure there are processes in place that provide opportunities for all Board members to participate in the Board’s leadership, to partner on projects and to voice opinions that speak to stores in geographies that aren’t necessarily understood by the industry at large.
I’m also very supportive of the LIBRIS insurance program (I am on its Board) and want to be sure every store working with LIBRIS understands the nuances of insurance coverage and how ABA can be an advocate. Anyone with questions about this should call me. Yes, there are many regulations when buying insurance and not everyone will be approved because of risk factors, but there are questions and opportunities booksellers may not know to ask their brokers.
BTW: What are you reading now?
SB: I just finished a book by Noah Hawley called Before the Fall; it is a literary thriller by the producer of the TV show Fargo. I’m halfway through The Excellent Lombards by Jane Hamilton, which is set on an apple orchard in the Midwest. She is at her best: quirky characters, brilliant comic timing, and family property as it moves through the generations. And The Prize by Jill Bialosky.
BTW: You get a day to walk through any city, town, or landscape with any one writer. What writer and what place?
SB: On my first trip to NYC in 1991, Ian Frazier gave four of us a tour of the city, beginning at Grand Central Station. We met and 9:00 a.m. and walked down Broadway, arriving in Battery Park at sunset. He timed the walk so we were at the World Trade Center at 5:00 p.m. to see the masses moving down the escalators to the subway — little did I know how meaningful that memory would become. There was a crime family trial going on so we went to the court house. We ate lunch in Chinatown. He knows everything! That will be hard to top.
I would love to walk around Baltimore with Laura Lippmann; Washington, D.C., with George Pelecanos; Chicago with Sara Paretsky; or L.A. with Michael Connelly and David Ulin. However, I really want to go to Mexico City, and if my tour guide were Valeria Luiselli, I’d book the trip immediately. I thoroughly enjoyed her book Sidewalks.