Saturday, January 12, 2013

Christine Onorati of Word Bookstore talks about opening a new store, bookselling, and so much more

Word is one of the coolest indie bookstores around. In Greenpoint, Brooklyn, it's warm, knowledgeable, cozy, and you feel like royalty when you read there (much appreciated by authors!) I was doubly excited when I heard they were doing so well, they are opening a new store in Jersey City, though I have now made it my mission to convince them to open one in Hoboken. (Hint: I'll work for free every day for a few hours, if you do. I swear.) I want to bow down and thank the amazing Christine Onorati for this interview. And everyone, go visit this fabulous store: 
126 Franklin Street
Brooklyn, NY 11222
718-383-0096 •

It's thrilling that you are opening a new bookstore in Jersey City. Tell us about it.

I am excited about the prospect of opening a new store in Jersey City (even though it's still not a done deal and I'm hesitant to announce it publicly just yet), mostly because I think the neighborhood is really hungry for something like WORD and I'm excited to help define the area with a business like mine. But to be honest, in this day and age I'm not convinced that every neighborhood can sustain a bricks and mortar bookstore. I had a small shop in the suburbs on Long Island before moving to Greenpoint and it was a struggle every single day there. People didn't support small, local business and it was hard to get them to to buy their books where price wasn't the bottom line. So while I'm optimistic about bookselling and hope that there's room for more small, niche stores to open up in areas where there are none, I'm also aware of how much bookselling is changing and I know that the location and the flexibility of the store is paramount. It's not enough to just put books on a shelf anymore and hope that someone buys them. A bookstore has to be so much more than that, it has to be a community hub, a safe haven for readers, a friendly convenient place to buy gifts, a source of knowledge and new ideas, etc etc etc. It's important to be ready to adapt to this changing environment and go with the flow. So what can a neighborhood do to attract a bookstore? I'm not sure. I know that Fort Greene in Brooklyn pinpointed their desire for a bookstore and the ladies who were opening Greenlight were able to partner with them and fill their need. So I guess a community can organize themselves like Fort Greene and prioritize what they want to see open up in their community, and then hope someone steps up to the plate. 

Your store is such a warm, supportive community place. How does a bookstore do such magic?

One of the Community building is one of the most crucial aspects of bookselling today, as I see it. It's important to foster a community of readers, a place where people feel comfortable reading whatever they want and meeting other people with similar interests. It takes time, but I think after 5 years we've developed a really strong community base, through our partnerships with local organizations, our strong social media presence, and programs like the literary matchmaking board and store basketball league. We strongly support our fellow local businesses and organizations like the Greenpoint Soup Kitchen. This pride of our neighborhood comes through to our customers and they feel loyal to us all in turn. I always say it's amazing to me that a customer feels compelled to tweet about shopping in my store, and loves telling the world what they bought and how the experience was. This kind of connection between readers and locals is priceless, it's what makes me feel lucky every day that I have a business where I do. 

I personally feel that the a town without a bookstore just doesn't have a soul. Would you agree?

 One of my brilliant staff members wrote that quote in the FAQ, but I think it does sum up our philosophy of why we love doing what we do. If we all felt indifferent about books we wouldn't choose bookselling as a career. It's a tough job and definitely not the most lucrative. But the joy of finding others that share that love of books is just contagious, and there's nothing like spending a day talking about books to other people who love and appreciate them. And we do genuinely adore our customers. They are smart and unique and supportive and on most days, we couldn't all ask for a better job. 

What three books are you pressing into everyone's hands these days?

I'm not on the floor so much these days, but I can tell you that some staff favorites that we all infinitely adore are Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway, Every Day by David Levithan, Forever by Pete Hamill, and I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen. Just a few of our faves, but I can list many more if you'd like. :-)

What's obsessing you now?

I think that the changing state of bookselling, as I mentioned above, is what I worry about the most. People expect books to be cheap or even free, despite the prices printed right on them. I think that we're lucky to be in a location where people understand small business and know that price is not the bottom line on why they shop where they do, but I'm also quite aware that this is not the norm in most of the country, where many people have to travel miles and miles just to find a physical bookstore. I worry that physical bookstores will continue to struggle and close if we can't keep up with the needs of the public. I dont' think that books are dying, as many predict, but I worry that bookstores, as we traditionally know them, are in danger of extinction if we don't adapt as fast as we can. 

What question didn't I ask that I should have?

I can't think of anything you should have asked about.

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