Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Carl Lennertz (HarperCollins)

Of pirates, flames and holding hands

Many are surely to write about Books & Books’ place in the Miami community, but I wanted to tell everyone about this wonderful store’s place in America’s community of booksellers, and especially Mitchell Kaplan’s efforts to keep hundreds of bookstores around America open and thriving.

As everyone knows, the rise of the chain stores, price clubs and amazon led to the closing of hundreds of independent bookstores in the 90’s. The situation was so dire that the American Booksellers Association started a major marketing campaign to communicate the importance of the independents to the publishers, the media and the public at large. Mitchell was on the board of ABA and later served as president, and he was one of the leaders in this successful campaign to give voice to the remaining thousand independent bookstores. I worked on this campaign with Mitch and his fellow booksellers, and together we made it work. Independent bookstore decline stopped, and in fact, almost a hundred stores have opened each of the last two years. The independents’ power to discover new writers, always known to some, is know understood and appreciated by all, and many new books hit the new Book Sense Bestseller list higher than the New York Times list, giving the stores more clout and recognition.

Just as important, the existing indies, like Books & Books, have almost all remodeled, moved to new, larger quarters, or opened new branches. This is fantastic news to authors, readers and publishers, who all benefit from an eclectic, vibrant local AND national independent bookstore community, and for many years, Mitchell has been one of the voices of support, enthusiasm, action and solidarity. Mitchell was also at the helm of the ABA when a new 3-day education summit was launched, attended by the 400 best booksellers in the land. We in publishing still talk about that first landmark meeting that is now an annual tradition.

Why is this situation so unique in the annals of American business? What other business do you know sees competitors pull for each other and give away their best ideas? Sees store owners and managers get on planes to help other stores survive? No other business save independent bookselling. I find that extraordinary and wonderful every day I come to work at a publishing house in New York.

Recently, I was asked to take a visual test to pick some photos that represented independent bookstores to me. I picked two obvious ones: a flame in an open palm and a pirate flag, but then I chose two others that epitomize what being a Mitch Kaplan or any indie bookstore owner these days means. One was of someone handing a cup of coffee over a fence to a neighbor, and the other showed two people holding hands out the windows of speeding cars. These are wild times in the book business, but the owners of independent bookstores hold the fire in their hands and are rebellious in nature, but they share all they can with each other on this crazy, wonderful ride that is the written word.

Carl Lennertz
The Publishing Insider

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