Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Jake Reiss talks about the Alabama Booksmith, signed first editions and so much more

Jake Reiss
The Alabama Booksmith
2626 19th Place South
Homewood, AL 35209

Welcome, the wonderful Alabama Booksmith and Jake Reiss. When I was asking people what their favorite indie store was, your name cropped up and I was told that I absolutely had to talk to you. I'm completely thrilled and honored to have you here. Thank you, Jake.

So, all the male members of your family were booksellers? You must have had a great childhood. I can’t imagine anything more wonderful than growing up in a bookstore and reading my way into adulthood. What took you so long to be a bookseller yourself?

Actually, the bookselling male family members are only from my generation and the next. I became a bookseller late in life after visiting the used bookstore my son was running in San Francisco. He was buying books for pennies and selling them for dollars. This seemed like a quick way to get rich and meet girls. Neither scenario has worked - yet!

I love the idea that you are a bookstore that deals in signed books. What a spectacularly great idea!  How did this come about? Do you ever get requests for books to be signed that aren’t--and track down the author? (I can’t imagine any author wouldn’t be thrilled at the chance to sign a book!)

For the past decade, most of the books we sell have been signed (because of our Signed First Editions Club featuring folks like Philip Roth, John Updike, Michael Chabon, Richard Ford, etc) and visits from major super-stars like President Jimmy Carter, Tom Brokaw, Ken Burns, Pat Conroy, and hundreds more, as well as having Pulitzer Prize winners, National Book Award winners, and New York Times best sellers sign for us in their offices or at their homes). In the last couple of years, almost every book sold was signed, so the natural progression appeared to be get rid of unsigned copies and not put a book on the shelf that isn't signed. Therefore, we completely remodeled our store where all the books are either face-out or on tables and business is phenomenal! Every year for the past two decades has been better than the last, but the first six months of 2012 were up 50% over the same period in 2011. We now have customers in all 50 states and many foreign countries.

As for tracking down writers, we do that through their publicists, sometimes even their editors or agents. We only request new titles at the time of publication. The vast majority of writers are agreeable, especially since we offer them a world-wide audience, a ton of sales, and reporting to all Best-Seller lists. Those we miss are usually because the publicist is so jammed, our offer never reaches the author.

Please tell us about your fantastic club for signed editions (what another great idea, by the way.)

Our Signed First Editions Club is the foundation of our operation and the main engine that drove us to become a bookstore that only stocks signed copies. We attempt to identify the most important book published every month, secure enough first printing copies, and then ask the author to sign. While every title we've selected for Fall 2012 is written by a Pulitzer Prize winner, we also strive to discover truly outstanding books by unknown writers. In February of 2009, we chose first time novelist Kathryn Stockett's The Help. The $24.95 investment has turned into a valuable treasure we've seen selling for up to $2,000. We look for books that might increase in value, make our members proud on their shelves, or be wonderful reads. Sometimes, we do all three. There is no premium for the books. Our price is regular retail as if they were neither signed nor first printings. Books are not charged until they have been signed and are ready to ship. A huge percentage of our members receive their gems as gifts. We like to call this "the gift that keeps on giving".  Gift memberships and regular memberships are available on our web site 

You also have thousands of unsigned titles in your warehouse. How do customers browse those? Do you find that people prefer the signed books?

Actually, we have millions of titles in our warehouse - practically every book in-print. They can be browsed and ordered on our website as can every signed book in our store. Signed copies must be ordered only in the SIGNED COPY area of the site:

You sponsor a slew of wonderful organizations, from the Birmingham Botanical Gardens to the Virginia Samford Theater, and you also encourage your patrons to help out, too.  Can you talk a bit about how and why it’s important for a bookstore to promote and help the community?

In the three centuries our family has been retailing in Alabama (first store opened in 1899), we have been associated with hundreds of non-profits in the state. Whether we're selling clothing, books or widgets we feel community participation is not just good for the business, it's a fundamental of our existence. As a bookstore, many of our off-site events partner with non-profits. We're able to afford them a little publicity and sometimes a little money, and they in turn provide us with a large audience. We receive much more than we give.

What two books are obsessing you now?

A Good American by Alex George (edited by Amy Einhorn, who also edited The Help) is our favorite book of the year and My Bookstore: Writers Celebrate Their Favorite Places to Browse, Read, and Shop coming out next month is a fascinating look at what makes the top bookstores in America tick. It is written by a pack of Pulitzer Prize winners and New York Times best sellers. Yes, we have signed first editions of A Good American and on pub date will have signed first editions of My Bookstore: Writers Celebrate Their Favorite Places to Browse, Read, and Shopsigned by Pulitzer Prize winner Rick Bragg who wrote the piece in the book about our store.

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

Other than blood type, mother's maiden name and shoe size, I believe you covered everything. I doubt your readers would have an interest, so we'll not be forthcoming on those issues.

How can I get you or someone like you to please open a bookstore in my neighborhood? (We only have a small used book store, and though Manhattan is 7 minutes away, it’s not close enough.)

We're there! You can browse our signed in-store copies and warehouse in-print copies on your keyboard or smart phone. After you've selected one signed copy and sent your info, a simple email will bring any book to your doorstep.

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