Denver's The Tattered Cover began as a tiny little store and quickly morphed into one of the diamonds of the industry. I'm thrilled to have had the chance to talk to Jackie Blem. Jackie, thank you so much for such a wonderful, wonderful interview!
How do you think books save us?
Caroline, I think we've all been saved from something by a book at one time or another. Saved from loneliness, hard times, ignorance, what-have-you. Or, if not saved, transported to exciting places, into new lives, different times, situations we would never have imagined without books. I really can't remember a time when I could not read. I've never NOT learned something from a book--even the 1-penny romance paperbacks the library in my hometown sold on Valentine's Day taught me about new things and places. So imagine what it was like for me, now going on 13 years ago, to get hired on at Tattered Cover. Even on my worst days, I love my job. How many people can say that?
You're celebrating your 40th anniversary, which means you are really doing something right. On your website, there are such wonderful archival photos and stories and remembrances from people. What would you say is the key to your amazing success?
We are actually 41 now and going strong. The role of books and booksellers has changed drastically in those many years, and TC has rolled with the changes. What has remained constant, and the backbone
of Tattered Cover, is Joyce Meskis' philosophy. She believes that a bookstore is a community resource, a gathering spot for people and ideas. We've been referred to as "Denver's Living Room," and a lot goes in to making each Tattered Cover store a comfortable place for people and ideas. Great care goes into what goes onto our shelves' as we have a huge and diverse community to serve. The same goes for our many author events at each store (numbering between 500 and 600 in any given year between the three stores, with a whopping 57 events this month, October 2012). We do not believe in aggressive sales techniques--we don't pester folks with constant questions, but we make sure that we are seen and available if customers need help of any kind. Coming to Tattered Cover can become a whole day event, and whether a customer leaves empty handed or with bulging bags, all are treated the same and equally welcome. Don't get me wrong--we are
still a business with bills to pay, but Joyce isn't looking to be rich (does any indie book store owner think that's even possible?), but we are all working to make sure our doors are open for a long, long time to come.
As for favorite events of mine, I have to say that any day that Christopher Moore is in the house is a good one--it's a comedy show and a history lesson combined. But my favorite one of all was a surprise event--Bill Cosby was in town, years ago, and we got a phone call that he was coming to our Cherry Creek store to hang out and sign books if folks wanted them signed--he'd be there within the hour. We decided to keep the secret and when he got there, we just seated him at a table in the cafe near the most popular entrance to the store and just let folks discover him for themselves. It was so much fun to see their faces, and soon there was a crowd laughing and chatting, with Bill having a ball playing with the many kids in the store as only Bill can. It was truly a magical day. But I've never once been sorry to be at any book event--there's always something good that comes out of it. And, as a book seller, I find it helps me sell books if I can talk to a customer about the authors as well as their books. It's really helpful for debut authors, since they are an unknown quantity to the average person who walks through our doors. If I can give that person a back-story to this new voice, I can pluck at their curiosity and help launch a new author. So I go to as many events as possible and I have never regretted a single one.
That's one of the magical things about being Tattered Cover--our availability to bring in so many authors for our customers. It's a treat for them and a boon for the booksellers. It's also one of the greatest drives for me as both a bookseller and a book lover (and, honestly, a book blogger)--I now can name a great number of authors I
have met, and some have become actual friends of mine. I am honored to know so many people who have created these wonderful things that have become my loves and a major part of my life. I really understand how
lucky I am. But for smaller indies, there are still possibilities. More and more authors are willing (and often eager) to do Skype events for book stores, which requires some technology but can go a long way in their customers' esteem and loyalty to those stores.
I loved seeing all the notes from luminaries like Betty White (who said, "you really know how to spoil a girl"), Erica Jong, Julia Child, and as a novelist, I have to say that the indies do more than just give authors a place to read and connect to readers. You make us feel special. So I want to ask, what can authors do to make your job easier?
My advice to the writers is to relax, don't read too much of the book to your audience, but do tell them why you wrote it, anecdotes about writing, your writing process, your next idea, etc. They can read the book for themselves. They want to know about YOU. Just breathe, be yourself and go with the flow.
I keep hearing about the death of reading, but I refuse to believe it because I still see so many people reading on the subways, and I also think humans are hard-wired to love great stories. Do you agree?
Absolutely. And I highly recommend the book "The Storytelling Animal" by Jonathan Gottschall about this exact subject. We are perhaps (though, who knows for sure?) the only creature who can imagine things, so of course we love stories. Some like them with pictures, but for me, I like the printed word so that my imagination can soar.
There's been so many times that I've walked into an indie and the right book was put in my hands at the right time by a bookseller--literally books that saved my life. While, it's easy to keep track of the major books that
come out because of all the press, how do you track the little gems that might slip under the radar?
It helps to have great sales reps--several of ours will talk to us about "sleepers." It's also keeping an eye on the trades and industry newsletters--as the store blogger, I get somewhere between 100 and 200 emails a day. I am a very fast reader when it comes to those, but my eye will catch something new and it goes on a watch list for me to research. I read the back of pretty much every ARC (Advance Reading Copy) that comes into the store, looking for stuff I might like but also looking at what all is coming out and figuring out if that is something I want to at least feature on the blog. I have a million (only a slight exaggeration) lists based on pub dates and subjects, etc. It also helps to have an amazing staff that read all sorts of things--we get a lot of heads up from each other. We are NOT shy about handselling, and have mastered the "if you like this, you'll probably like this book too" talk. Using the well known to help sell the unknown is a book selling must as far as I am concerned.
I also love that Tattered Cover is so much of a community fixture, and that you also give back to the community with things like "shop for a cause." What do you think the responsibility of a great bookstore is?
I think that it is very important to know your community, and pay attention to what it cares about and what changes are happening to it. It needs to be a safe place for everyone, and the best possible range of ideas should be represented, at least for a general bookstore. Be willing to research something for a customer, be willing to order something you don't usually carry. Take risks, but make them educated risks. We are selling ideas, fictional or otherwise, and we must be good stewards for them all. It's easier said than done, of course, but it really is vital.
What's in the future for the Tattered Cover? And what three books are you excited about now?
In the very near future, TC will be selling Kobo ereaders and partnering up with Kobo ebook catalog. For a technophobe like me it's all a bit scary, but I've committed to buying one and trying out the e-verse as a book lover as well as a book seller. Our TC Press, which is an Espresso Book Machine, is really picking up momentum, especially after we began running memoir writing workshops. It's helping us make great strides with bringing in more local authors than ever, which seems to really up the energy at our Historic Lodo store, where the EBM lives. Eventually we'd like to see some TC authors being printed through the press as well. As for the rest, we remain cautiously optimistic about books, book sales, and bricks and mortar book stores.We are determined to remain a vital force in bookselling, not just a showroom for on-line retailers. If all those readers out there are like me, then we'll all be just fine.
As for books I'm excited about, I'm actually collecting books for a project. It seems like the short story is trying to make a comeback. There are soooo many new books coming out now and over the next few months I've
decided to start a regular feature about them on the blog. The books I've got in the pile so far:
When It Happens To You by Molly Ringwald, out now
This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz, out now
Rondo and Fugue for Two Pianos by Lawrence Dunning, out now (local author)
Recapture and Other Stories by Erica Olsen, out this month
Blasphemy by Sherman Alexie, out now
Better Living Through Plastic Explosives by Zsuzsi Gartner (December)
Tenth of December by George Saunders (new edition coming out in Jan 2013)
Siege 13 by Tamas Dobozy (Feb 2013)
The Beautiful Indifference by Sarah Hall (Feb 2013)
The book I'm reading now: "Sutton" by J.R. Moehringer. This one is a great example of the power of an author talk. When I first learned about the book, I wasn't the least bit interested. A book about a bankrobber? Not my cup of tea. But I heard him speak recently, and he truly sold me on the book. It's fantastic.
This is a personal question--I live in Hoboken, which is a lively urban area, just a 7 minutes subway stop into the heart of Greenwich Village, but we only have one used bookstore and I am desperate for another. How does
someone encourage an entrepreneur to open a store?
That one is beyond me, Caroline. I'd say contact Ann Patchett--she's become the indie book stores' spokesperson, and she does it well. I'm sure she'd have some ideas for you. She's very accessible.