Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Chris Livingston of The Book Shelf talks about changing things up, his three fave books, and his obsession with The Hobbit

  • Chris Livingston owns the amazing The Book Shelf (162 West 2nd Street, Winona, MN. (507) 474-1880). The store does all kinds of wonderful things, including a Dinner With The Author evening  planned with Julia Pandi for Memoir of Sunday Brunch--which seems like a wonderful, delicious way to interact with an author. I'm thrilled and honored to have Chris here. Thank you, Chris!

    How do you see the bookstore changing in the next few years?
  • My staff and I regularly try to change things up with respect to author events. We even, on occasion, host an "author-less" event. If we can come up with interesting ways to present books and authors to our customers, we will pursue it. We host the more traditional "reading and autographing," but we take advantage of the great restaurant we share space with to host meal events with authors as often as possible (although, in some cases, patrons are coming for the food as much as for the author). We have found that events work best here in our community if we can partner with other organizations. Example, if we are considering hosting an event for a health-related book, we might partner with the local clinic, physician, acupuncturist, YMCA, etc. We list them as the sponsor, and only ask that they help us promote the event. These partnerships have become critical to not only successful events, but in continuing to allow us to "infiltrate" the community as a whole.
    What’s your community like and why is it the perfect place for a bookstore? (Not that anywhere is not a perfect place for a bookstore!)
    Winona is an interesting city. Two universities and a large technical college are located here, along with several thriving manufacturing industries. It is located in the southeast corner of Minnesota, along the banks of the Mississippi River in the beautiful bluff country. Winona is also an arts-tourism based city, playing host to The Great River Shakespeare Festival, Minnesota Beethoven Festival, Midwest Music Fest, and the Frozen River Film Festival. The combination of intellectual and arts/culture interests in the community play right into a bookstore's target demographic.
    Our store continues to evolve. We continue to diversify our revenue streams in order to ensure steady cash flow. We have published our own book, now in its third printing. We continue to reach out to corporate accounts. We travel throughout the state with travelling book fairs for conferences. All of this is necessary just to keep the lights on and books on the shelves. We have added Kobo e-readers to our lineup and now offer over 3 million e-books through our website. Physically, we plan to expand our children's section (for the third time), as it continues to be the best performing area of our store. We have already added new toy and game lines, as well as a 30% increase in stocked book titles. It seems we are always looking to modify and improve on what we are doing, even if some changes don't always bear fruit.
    What three books are you insisting everyone read these days?
    Only three? From what seems like a never ending list of great books this season, I will give you one novel, one picture book, and a piece of nonfiction.

    Fiction: "The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving," by Jonathan Evison, because not only is it a great, well written novel, but because we all need to root for a loser on occasion. My picture book for the season is "Nightsong," by Ari Berk and illustrated by Loren Long. It is such an endearing story of a young bat who is a bit scared of taking his first flight by himself out of the cave, and is encouraged by his mother to use his "good sense," both literally and figuratively. The book's illustrator, Loren Long, is my current favorite. Just a beautiful story with phenomenal illustrations. From the nonfiction side of things, don't miss Susannah Cahalan's "Brain on Fire." Cahalan explores her dramatic descent into madness and live-saving diagnosis that almost came too late. Her narrative is fast paced and sharp, and will grab you right out of the gate. Riveting.
    I think one of the most wonderful things about indie stores is that the sense of community. You get to know your customers and can often anticipate what someone might want to read. Plus, your store becomes a destination. When people ask for recommendations, do you give them what they want all the time, or do you ever stretch the boundaries and suggest something that might broaden their reading horizons?
    Well, in the end, I am a salesman. If someone walks into my store, and asks for a specific book, that is what I deliver. However, the best part of my day is when I get to help a customer navigate the thousands of titles on my shelves in order to walk out with something that will bring them back in next week asking, "I need something JUST LIKE THAT." My answer is, inevitably, "There isn't anything just like that, but I can help you find the NEXT great book you will love." I am always amazed on how much my customers trust my judgement, and I am sure my case is not an isolated one. It happens at independent bookstores all over the country. We truly love books, and our passion for the books we love is what has launched the careers of countless authors. I am in love with David Mitchell and David Rhodes, Louise Erdrich and Hillary Jordan, John Steinbeck and Charles Dickens. I will sell a copy of Fifty Shades, but try to put a copy of "The Time Traveler's Wife" into their bag as well. I read Mary Oliver poems out loud in the middle of the store, and then walk interested parties over to Minnesota's own Joyce Sutphen. David Foster Wallace is my hero, but then again so is David Sedaris. Damn. I really love my job, don't I?
    What's obsessing you now?
    The Hobbit. It is, in fact, the book I've read the most times in my life (upwards of a dozen, I think). I'm reading it now to my children, and am working through the new book "The Hobbit and Philosophy." The prospect of the first film's release next month has me feeling like a kid on Christmas Eve again. Oh....and by the way, I am handselling the book this season to everyone. If you've read it, you need to read it again before seeing the movie. And if you haven't read it.....well, I have a solution for that. Oh, and then come back and talk to me about it, so I can get all excited again.

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