Saturday, November 24, 2012

Nicola Rooney of Ann Arbor's Nicola's Books talks about favorite books, building community and so much more!

I bumped around a lot in college, transferring three times, once for a failed love affair, and the next time because I wanted to be in Ann Arbor. I went to Brandeis for two years, then decided that a small college was not for me (there was something about coming down to breakfast and having all 2,000 of the students know what I had down the night before and with whom that got me). I had a friend in Ann Arbor and went to visit and the day I did, I had the same visceral reaction I would later have years later when I finally moved to Manhattan. I knew I belonged. I graduated from the University of Michigan and I stayed there for a few years. Ann Arbor's a culturally enriched community and when i was there, it was filled with bookstores. It still is, and one of the best is Nicola's Books.  I'm honored to have Nicola Rooney, the owner, here, talking to me! Thank you! And visit Nicola's Books online or in person at 2513 Jackson Avenue, Ann Arbor. (734) 662-0600.

Tell me about all the changes that have happened in Ann Arbor in terms of books! 

In book terms, the closure of Shaman Drum, and then the bankruptcy of Borders, combined with Barnes & Noble's apparent strategic decision to concentrate on electronic rather than paper books leaves Nicola's Books as the only bookstore in Ann Arbor carrying the full range of genres.  My thought is that the lack of bricks & mortar stores in Ann Arbor, particularly downtown, has driven many people into the clutches of  Internet bookselling.   Buying your books on the web is convenient, but it inevitably leads to a narrowing of the types of books you read.  You tend to search for what you know about.  It is hard to find a book or an author that you didn't even know existed, whereas in a bookstore your eye can be caught by a display, or a bookseller can introduce you to a book you had never heard of. 

A few years ago, the major source quoted by readers for where they got their book recommendations was the bookstore.   Now the major source is word of mouth from friends, most of whom are suggesting backlist titles that they have read and liked.  Social media and other web based sources are growing slowly, but are still a small part (about 12%) of the total picture.  What is missing is the source of information about front list - newly published books, which is where a good bookstore excels.  This ought to have the publishers worried - how are new titles going to be publicized and promoted if bookstores are not there to perform that function?   We have seen a significant increase in business since the closure of the three Borders superstores in Ann Arbor, but by only a small fraction of the total volume that Borders was selling.  Where have those book buyers gone?  On-line, or do they not buy books at all any more?

Our store has expanded sections such as poetry and literary fiction as a direct consequence of the closure of Shaman Drum.  Our magazine selection has grown in response to requests from customers.  We continue to expand our Children's Department, to keep up with customer preferences, but non-fiction other than Biography and History are still declining.   Our inventory is sales driven - if books continue to sell, we continue to stock them.  We bring in a wide variety of titles, but half the books we sell in a given year sell only one copy, so we keep our inventory wide in order to offer variety to our customers, and we operate a reordering system that aims to maximize the chance that the title you want is actually on the shelf.   We do still special order titles that we have not got in stock, and many of them arrive within 2 days, so we can get the more obscure or older titles that our customers may request.

Your store is such an integral part of the community. Can you talk about that, please?
We have always tried to support schools with fundraising through book fairs, both in the store, and by taking books out to the schools for parents and students to buy.  We have taken many authors in to schools when they are on tour promoting a new book - our ideal author visits one school in the morning, one in the afternoon, and then comes to an evening event at the store to achieve the best coverage for publicity and sales opportunities while they are in town.  We bring books to events at the Libraries in Ann Arbor and surrounding towns, and to author events sponsored by other organizations of all kinds.  In some cases, we have been collaborating with annual events for many years.   We have been active in supporting both the Kerrytown Bookfest, held every September since 2002, and the Ann Arbor Book Festival, which is currently reinventing itself.  I served on the Board of Washtenaw Literacy, a local adult literacy non-profit, for 10 years and we still fundraise for them by matching the value of donations of customer loyalty coupons, and by offering a percentage of sales to them if a customer requests it.  We hold regular information sessions for potential tutors in the store, and we sponsor their annual fundraising auction.   Our store is also the meeting place for writers groups, for book clubs and Master Gardeners lectures.  

Getting more bookstores into a community is not easy.  Readers have grown so comfortable with buying on line, or downloading into their devices that they have neglected to realize that a bookstore has to turn a profit to continue to exist.  Bookstores are not libraries.  Bookstores are not supported by local taxes.  Bookstores offer employment to local people, and hopefully generate a return on investment to the owner.  Staring a bookstore is a major investment, and a risky one.   Until readers accept that if they want to have a wide range of authors to choose from, and a guide through the increasingly cluttered world of self published books, then they have a responsibility to take their book business to the place that provides those services - a bricks and mortar bookstore.  On-line sellers give nothing back to the community, they don't care about your personal book preferences and they cannot provide the same joy of discovery that is easily achievable in a bookstore.  If book buyers do not value the features that a bookstore offers, then bookstores will continue to decline - that's free market economics in action.

Every author I know always wants to know, how can we do our part to have the best author event ever? 

Our preference is to minimize the reading part, and maximize the conversation part.  Few authors are accomplished readers in our experience.  Leaving time for in depth Q&A is important for us, and we think that our audiences appreciate that part of the event. Having more than one author at an event can be tricky, unless the two authors know each other well, or are at least similar in stature.  It can be uncomfortable if your authors are not well balanced, if one is clearly more compelling to the audience than the other; then it needs a sensitive moderator to keep things under control.  Discussing the process of creating a book, from the actual writing to the difficulties of getting a manuscript accepted, seem to be of interest to many audiences at our events.

Which three books are you currently pressing into everyone's hands? 

I tend to read fiction, and I read many books that are good plain vanilla stories, no surprises, no rough patches, nice comfortable good reads that don't jolt or disturb your view of things.  The ones I really like are the ones that do not follow the predictable path, the ones that I go back and re-read - sometimes many times.  My old favorites include Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, and The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason, both intriguing stories paired with masterly use of words and definitely not predictable.  My all time favorite is Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond series, but I think I've sold that to all my customers who might like it!
My current ones are:

Deborah Harkness'  two books in the "All Souls" trilogy, "A Discovery of Witches" and "Shadow of Night" - not your usual style of vampire novels.  The vampire in question is a professor at Oxford conducting research into the evolution of the four species, humans, witches, daemons and vampires, from a common ancestor.  Study of blood groups and mitochondrial DNA is essential of course.  So is time travel to Elizabethan London, training in alchemy and intimate friendships with Marlowe, Shakespeare, Dee and Raleigh to name a few.  These books are great for Ann Arbor -  the author is a respected academic whose field of study is the development of science and medicine out of witchcraft and alchemy in Elizabethan Europe.   The combination of the author's intellectual stature and historical expertise with the commercial popularity of witches and vampires is a heady mix ideally placed to broaden the reading range of members of a University town that can take itself a little too seriously at times.   (I have a PhD in Engineering from Cambridge, so I feel qualified to challenge the academic ego once in a while!)

The Art Forger by Shapiro - a novel examining the art world, and asking questions about the definition of great art, both modern and historical; authenticity, is forgery ever justified? are the best forgers the ones who have not yet been outed, when does duplicity spill over into criminality?  It's an unusual combination of a good entertaining read, combined with the posing of some questions worth pausing to examine with some care.

Garden of Evening Mists by Eng.  Set in Malaysia after the end of WWII, when unrest and guerilla activity was still fairly common, the book perfectly evokes the spirit of an oriental brush painting, then contrasts it with memories of the brutalities of the war. Without ruining it, I cannot describe the final resolution of the novel, but to me it seemed absolutely in keeping with the mood of the narrative.  I am recommending it to anyone who will appreciate the writing and the conjuring up of a time and place that few of us have direct experience of, but which gives the reader a feeling of absolute authenticity. 

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