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A Rant about The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap

August 30th, 2012  |  Published in Bookselling  |  6 Comments

Wendy Welch, the owner of The Tales of the Lonesome Pine Bookstore in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, is looking for someone to run her shop for two months while she embarks on a book tour to promote her forthcoming book, The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap. Applications are due September 1.

As gigs go, this one is not especially attractive. As Ms. Welch told Shelf Awareness: "Our shop is in a small rural community of 5,400 and it doesn't do
enough trade to hire someone in at a living wage. Plus we have two dogs
and three cats on staff. So what we're offering is complete room and
board for a person or couple (from laundry soap to the occasional pizza
delivery) in return for him/her/them watching the shop for October and
November, when most of the 'road trip' activities for the book take
place."

So you get to work five days a week and take care of an incontient, senile cat, in exchange for a box of Tide and pie now and again from Pizza King. Awesome!

But it could be useful experience–in how NOT to run a bookstore.

By Welch's own account (I read an advance copy of the book, to be published on October 2), she is a lousy bookseller. The job, after all, is to SELL books. If after five years, you don't sell enough books to pay yourself–let alone an employee–and you have to get a teaching job for the benefits (as Ms. Welch did), you aren't a bookseller, you are a hobbyist.

As hobbies go, entertaining neighbors as Ms. Welch and her husband do, in a book-lined room of their house, is a pretty good one. And if Ms. Welch had decided to leave it at that, more power to her. But she is about to go on the road promoting a book extolling the wonders of her late-in-life career as a bookseller, and she presumes to speak for all of us in offering her opinions.

This post, for what it's worth, is a rebuttal of those ideas. I left the book on the plane, so I can't quote from it (nor should I, as
it has yet to be published), so the quotations are from the Tales of the
Lonesome Pine store blog, which is pretty much like the book.

Ms. Welch's basic idea is that bookstores are idyllic community resources free from the taint of lucre. "What WE booksellers do is important…WE represent an open
market of free ideas, with value tied to meaning more than money," she writes (emphasis added, to show that she pretends to talk for all of us). In another post she says, presumably implying vows of poverty and years of penance done at the store, "Bookslinging is a hard way of life, but boy it’s a good one….WE’re like nuns and monks…"

I reject the notion that going into bookselling should be like taking a vow of poverty.

Consider the bigger picture, using Ms. Welch's forthcoming book as an example.

In the book, she mentions (brags?) that she sold the rights for the book for more than she expected. So she got paid to write the book and it will sell for $24.99 per copy. That's not just love, is it?

Her agent took 15%. Again, money, not (just) love.

The editor who bought the book gets a paycheck, health benefits, paid vacation, and a retirement contribution, as does the publicist, marketing manager, etc. They aren't working for love.

Nor is company that will print the book, nor are the employees who work the presses. Nor is the company that manufactured the paper. They all expect to get paid. And rightly so.

So why is it that Ms. Welch believes that the bookseller at the end of the chain between author and reader should work for love and the occasional pizza and not worry about making money? It's an insulting and intellectually bankrupt view. That attitude may well be why she doesn't make money selling books.She blames her store's dismal finances on the small population of her town. But somehow that town supports two pizza parlors, a McDonalds, a Dairy Queen and several dozen other businesses whose owners, I'm pretty sure, are making money, writing paychecks, and paying their mortgage. (Ms. Welch's funding for her bookstore adventures came from a lucky real estate purchase and sale).

Ms. Welch believes that she has created a "community" bookstore and says that mission in life is to be "to be [a] lifelong advocate for books and the people who sell them." As long as they don't expect to buy a house or send their kids to college while selling books.

She believes her unprofitable store is so important to her town that she can't close it for two months while she goes on a book tour. She thinks the town loves her store because so many people tell her how wonderful it is (and most of those comments are transcribed in her book).

But here's a secret: I've been in hundreds of bookstores around the country–some good, a few great, a handful dismal, and too many simply drab. And in every single one people tell the owner, "This is such a wonderful bookstore." It's what people do. They say nice things to shop owners. Shop owners believe them at their peril. If your shop is really valued by the community, those well-wishers take the next step and give you some of their hard-earned money.

Eureka Books in neither the oldest (at 25 years), nor the most financially successful of the seven established bookstores in our rural county of 150,000 people. However, I think we have earned the adjective "community" because the community supports us and we in turn support the community.

Here's how we have invested back into our community, in tangible, measurable ways, over the last quarter century (many of our bookstore colleagues have invested even more):

Salaries paid to employees: Roughly $1.25 million
Books bought from local residents: A million dollars, give or take
Rent and other goods and services bought locally: Close to $2 million
Taxes paid: A million dollars, give or take
Books sold: 750,000 volumes.

I agree with Ms. Welch that bookstores are a "place where people…unite in
believing that commercial viability isn’t the sole criterion for ranking
an idea’s importance." She seems to take it a step further, believing the commercial viability itself is not of any great importance.

I disagree. I want a community with a well-funded police force and good roads. I want the men and women who work here to make a decent wage. I want our local landlord to have enough money to keep up this important historic building. And I want our community to be exposed to the broadest swath of ideas in the world.

None of that is possible if we, as booksellers, don't run our businesses well and profitably. Successful local businesses give communities character. The more successful we are, the more taxes we pay, the more employees we can hire, and the better our community will be. And the more successful we are, the more books pass through our hands into the hands of readers, which in the end is the point. To me, that's what a real community bookstore is all about.

And if I ever have to leave town for two months, I won't ask someone to do my job for free. I'll hire an extra employee, find a pet sitter for the cat and the chickens, and let my replacement buy their own pizza and laundry detergent with the living wage I'll pay them.

–Scott Brown

Responses

  1. Natashawing says:

    September 3rd, 2012at 4:39 pm(#)

    Right on, Scott! There’s got to be a profitable way to do business or why else own one? Making money is not amoral – it’s a way to continue to provide a product you believe in and what customers want. I like your way of thinking. She shouldn’t play the martyr and get free employees.

  2. Slatecreekbooks says:

    September 4th, 2012at 9:18 am(#)

    How do you feel about volunteering in general? A lot of organizations, from churches to libraries to the job-training program for disabled people where I used to work- have paid employees and staff, but also use volunteer labor. In some cases, the volunteers and the paid staff are performing different tasks, but not always.
    I don’t see this “store-sitting” gig as any different than an unpaid internship, or house-sitting/caretaking in exchange for room and board.
    I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with wanting to make money or be paid for one’s labor. But people do a lot of things in return for something other than a cash wage, or for no pay whatsoever, because they enjoy them. I volunteer sorting donations of clothing for those in need, and I’m sure that there are people who get paid for doing the same tasks at chain thrift stores. Am I a fool for working for free? Is the group I volunteer with taking advantage of me by asking for vounteers? I don’t feel they are. I am free to accept the work on the terms offered, or not. So is everyone who responded to Ms. Welch’s offer. Since she has said on her blog she’s had lots of repsonses, it seems there are a lot of people out there who think it would be fun to hang out in a bookstore all day with some furry friends and meet new people. Remmber Tom Sawyer and the fence that needed to be whitewashed?

  3. Michelle Burnett says:

    September 7th, 2012at 12:32 pm(#)

    I think you make some good points here. However, you may want to consider switching to decaf, as you seem very amped-up over something that really doesn’t affect you, as you don’t live in Stone Gap, VA (and for the record, I don’t either; I had not heard of Ms. Welch’s store, or yours, until I read an article in the L.A. Times). I found the tone of this post inappropriately mean-spirited and more than a little bit holier-than-thou. We can’t all run hipster-approved, snottily-curated bookstores in big markets. Your indictment of Ms. Welch and her store would be a little more compelling to me if your bookstore seemed a little bit more relevant, in all honesty. If you want to spend time worrying about stuff people have posted on the Internet, Mr. Brown, I’d spend more time worrying about your Yelp reviews. Just a helpful suggestion.

  4. Dougbrunell says:

    September 22nd, 2012at 9:16 am(#)

    Great rebuttal to the world of Ms. Welch. I have no desire to visit her bookstore after reading that. I want bookstores to succeed. As a writer, I want to be able to make my living from my books. (Still working on that.) She sounds far too dismissive of something she deems as so important.
    On a related note, I really think you should update this blog more frequently, perhaps focusing on some of the more interesting books that come into your store. Perhaps I’ll visit today and drop a dime or two.

  5. Dougbrunell says:

    September 23rd, 2012at 8:12 am(#)

    So I did come in and buy a book. Was actually going to buy two (one for research on my new manuscript, the other for pleasure), but I had to budget myself. Pleasure won out. Thanks for having a friendly, well-stocked store.

  6. admin says:

    October 30th, 2012at 6:29 pm(#)

    Thanks for all the comments.

    To reiterate a couple of points: 1) Ms. Welch is that she has written a BOOK (not a blog post) in which she describes her own experiences and offers lots of advice and opinions about bookselling. I have actually read the book.

    2) In that book, she offers advice and opinions about bookselling generally. I disagree with much of what she says, which was the purpose of my essay above. I think such commentary is perfectly reasonable.

    To SlateCreekBooks, volunteering is great. All the organizations you describe working for are CHARITIES. Tales of the Lonesome Pine is a BUSINESS. That’s a big difference. Also, there’s the small matter that you can’t volunteer to work for a business. It’s against federal labor law; and you can’t call shop-sitting an internship – interns must be supervised by law.

    Regarding Michelle Burnett’s observation, “We can’t all run hipster-approved, snottily-curated bookstores in big markets.” True enough. If she is referring to Eureka Books, I’d like to point out that we are in a struggling mill and fishing town of 25,000 people. To find a bigger city, you have to travel 4 hours north or south or 3 hours east (the Pacific is to the west). That’s not so different from Big Stone Gap.

    Scott Brown

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