What do you do when books are “in your blood” and you need to make a living? This is the digital age, remember, when reading is as much about pixels as pages. When even megastores get clobbered on price by the likes of Amazon and other online sellers, and independents have, until recently, been dropping like flies.
Open a book store, of course! Not a big one that’s in a high-traffic location in a space with room for thousands of titles. Do it small, as in very small, tucked away in the entrance to an art framing shop on the far corner of a neighborhood business district – in the not quite hustle-and-bustle of Elkins Park. Sounds like a plan, right?
It did to Lynn Rosen and Evan Schwartz. They opened their Open Book Bookstore about three months ago, and the place has a definite presence, size notwithstanding. “It’s working . . . We’re growing already,” said Lynn. More regular inventory re-orders, more special orders and overall, a sense of embrace by the neighborhood.
“In the beginning, a lot of people coming in would say, ‘Well, I can get this cheaper on Amazon, but I want to support you, support local business, so I’m going to buy this here.’ I heard that a lot. I don’t hear that anymore. Because I think we’ve proven our value to the people who have come to know us.”
Giving attention to titles that many people would not otherwise know about and conveying their passion for a thoughtfully selected inventory is a pretty good way to spend the day. “It’s my dream job!” exclaims Rosen, who runs the store during the week. Not surprisingly, she sees reading as a communal experience as much as a solitary one. The notion of a bookseller as a “live person who can respond to people” and introduce them to new works is what it’s about, she says. “You can’t get that from an algorithm.”
And they’re choosy about their selections. Of the some 400 novels they stock, they estimate that one or the other has read about three-quarters of them. “We want to be able to tell people, ‘it’s here because I love it,'” said Lynn. They’re delighted that they seem to have so much in common with their neighbors. “Nobody’s coming in looking for 50 Shades of Gray, Evan notes with a mixture of pride and relief. They estimate that they sell significantly more fiction, especially for young adults and kids. On the nonfiction side, some cookbooks do especially well, including those of Melrose Park’s Andy Schloss.
Open Book has two and one-half shelves of volumes by local and regional authors, some of them popular items at the store. A Cheltenham author section is also under consideration
Ask them about their store’s small size and they say, “It’s bigger than our pop-ups,” enterprises which they lugged around periodically to and from the Creekside Co-op and the book discussion classes Lynn has led. They enjoy sharing space inside The Frame House and its lively atmosphere thanks to proprietor Cynthia Blackwood, who, upon hearing of Lynn and Evan’s struggles to make a go of their concept, immediately dropped on them her proposal for a sharing arrangement. (An example of why some call Blackwood the mayor of the business district.)
Rosen and Schwartz are big fans of Elkins Park, where they’ve lived for the last 10 years. They love the neighborhood feel and the opportunity to support what’s happening locally – at White Pines, Creekside, the “Elkins Central”cultural space at the train station (another Blackwood-led innovation) and nearby restaurants. “We want to be a part of that,” said Evan. One example is the upcoming “Dinner with a Poem” event at the Park Plates restaurant in Elkins Park.
Authors and bookstores, especially independent ones, have a synergistic relationship and Open Book works to tap that asset by supporting writers through sponsored events and benefiting, in turn, by spurring sales. “Giving them an opportunity to be here and be seen by readers” can cement reader-writer relationships, pointed out Rosen. Another relationship worthy of cultivation is between indie bookstores and publishing houses. Probably Evan’s biggest thrill since the store got off the ground was a sales rep from a major publisher walking in saying, “I heard of you guys!” It was a small but significant signal of recognition.
A further sign of optimism is that sales of print books are holding their own against the digital invasion. Rosen said she had always sensed that real books were not going to go quietly. “But now we see it. There are so many people who haven’t changed their reading habits. They want print books.” Schwartz calls reading still “a tactile experience.”
While they’re clearly wary of digital commerce and book products, as any small indie should be, the two have also, in a sense, gotten in on the action. Rosen and Schwartz crowdfunded the financing for their initial inventory through Indiegogo.com (similar to Kickstarter). Their aim was to raise $5,000, but they ended up raising $8,000 in two weeks. And with a loan from the Hebrew Free Loan Society, they were off and running.
The outlook for independent bookstores is also finally on the upswing. In 2014, the American Booksellers Association welcomed 59 indie bookstores that opened in 25 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. This is the largest number of new stores joining ABA in a single year since the start of the Great Recession in 2008. In another sign of the health of independent booksellers, noted Evan, 29 established ABA member businesses were bought by new owners.
Back in the ’80s, Schwartz ran a bookstore in upstate New York. There he learned first hand not to make assumptions about what your customer base wants, but to observe and listen. His background is in marketing and copyrighting, mostly publishing-related. Right now, with things evolving at the shop, he’s pulling down work doing health-related copyrighting for an agency.
Rosen has occupied multiple perches in the book world as a literary agent, editor, journalist, and author as well as college level teacher in the area of publishing at Drexel and Temple Universities. Teaching inspired the launching of a popular book discussion course at Temple called “A Sneak Peek at Next Year’s Bestsellers.” She’s also well-versed in organizing a range of book discussion events, classes and workshops as creator of Open Book. Rosen, too, has retail experience, having been community relations manager for Barnes and Noble’s first Brooklyn store. Plus, she has book credits, having written Elements of the Table: A Simple Guide for Hosts & Guests.
Upcoming bookstore-related events include: an April 26 talk by bestselling children’s author Stuart Gibbs on his new novel, Evil Spy School, at the Elkins Park Train Station; an April 27 “What to Read Next” class; a May 14 discussion with acclaimed Elkins Park author Nomie Eve on her novel, Henna House; a May 17 reading by Philadelphia poet Sonia Sanchez; and on May 20 “Dinner with a Poem,” a participatory event with award-winning poet Lynn Levin on appreciating poetry at Park Plates restaurant.
For a full schedule and details on events, go here.