Friday, October 14, 2011
Bookseller's Life Is a Real Page-Turner
By JAN HOFFMAN, New York Times
Published: October 13, 2011
TO keep her independent bookstore not only solvent but thriving (revenue is racing ahead of last year by 16 percent), Sarah McNally has a limitless supply of small tricks up her sleeve. And a whirring, wheezing behemoth at her side.
At the determinedly Wi-Fi-free McNally Jackson Books on Prince Street in NoLIta, customers can lie on a chaise longue, reading potential purchases from a selection of 55,00 volumes. The store is known for its 8,300-title literature collection, organized by geography.
Italian, Spanish and Portuguese writers are huddled in one section, Germans and Austrians in another. And in a curatorial geopolitical statement, the Middle Eastern section mingles Arab, Persian and Israeli fiction writers, their boundaries defined only by alphabetized last names.
"The staff and I argue about the Libyans," said Ms. McNally, 36, a tall, ethereal Canadian with brown eyes that nearly subsume her delicate features. "They're in 'African' now, but I'm lobbying for 'Middle Eastern.' "
She will explain her reasoning, leading you with passion and charm through her mind's labyrinthine byways. Not to worry. You will get lost anyway.
The store tour, past the cafe with books dangling from mobiles (book mobiles?), through sections labeled gender, ideas, drugs, graphic novels and pets, arrives at Ms. McNally's grand gambit against the e-book pestilence: a print-right-now bookmaker called the Espresso Book Machine, the only one in New York City (worldwide, there are about 80).
From a cloud library of seven million titles, the Espresso (so named because it prints one book at a time, made to order, speedily) can download, bind and trim a paperback in minutes, for a price comparable to that of a typical paperback. Last month, HarperCollins made a 5,000-title backlist available for the machine. More publishers are expected to follow shortly.
The store also uses it to print almost 700 self-published works a month, and offers "white glove" services for editing and jacket design.
Who else can go to war with Amazon but an Amazon warrior?
Ms. McNally gazed tenderly at the behemoth as it printed "Veiled Women," by Marmaduke Pickthall (1913) for a customer. "Look," she cooed, as mechanical thingamabobs measured and bound the new book. "It's still warm, like cookies fresh out of the oven."
In a phone interview, Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review, observed that Ms. McNally was uniquely poised to withstand Amazon, which, he said, served well those buyers who knew what they wanted, but not those impulse buyers who are open to ardent, articulate persuasion.
"Sarah has a combination of Canadian seriousness, rapacious, wide-ranging intelligence and curiosity, and salesmanship," he said, "and an idiosyncrasy that clearly comes from a deep place."
Ms. McNally sat down at a reading table across from the African-American history section, near children's books recommended by local teachers. She sipped tea, coughing, her thin body shaking.
Bad cold? "Technically, I had tuberculosis," she said with a shrug.
About six years ago she tested positive on a skin-scratch test. She had a latent infection, was not contagious and took antibiotics. But the antibodies will always be present.
"I look pale and weak but I'm actually strong," she said with a sneaky smile. "Lifting heavy boxes, it's the dark underbelly of bookselling."
Warm thanks to NZ-based New York author and reviewer Cheryl Sucher for bringing this story to my attention. Cheryl lives in Hawkes Bay but is presently in NYC visiting family and friends. I first met Cheryl when she was on the staff at McNally Jackson Books, ( I was in there buying books while in NYC on holiday), before she and her husband (a Kiwi) came to live in NZ.