November 8, 2012 - Melville House - by Kevin MurphyThis is an occasional series that asks some of our favorite independent booksellers a handful of simple questions. The questions are the same, but the answers (predictably) vary. If you’re interested in the business of bookselling, read on for a quick shot of indie insight — this week, it comes compliments of Josh Cook, from Porter Square Books in Cambridge, MA.
1) Could you tell us something of the history of your bookstore? What’s your role there?
Porter Square Books sprang from an irreparable conflict in another store, which caused the buyers and much of the staff to leave. This was in the early aughts, at a time when independent bookstores were closing in droves, but it was clear to all of them that despite everything, they wanted to stay in bookselling. So the buyers became owners (and are still buyers), searched for a place to open a bookstore, and eventually gambled, rather wisely, on Porter Square in Cambridge, MA.
I’m a bookseller, the magazine buyer, and the online presence manager and, yes, I came up with that title myself. Basically it means that, even though I don’t have the HTML skills of an actual webmaster, I manage everything about Porter Square Books that happens online; website, blog, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and whatever else might pop up. I also write for the store’s blog (and beg other people to write for the store’s blog), doing reviews, essay-y posts, and interviews with authors and publishers. I also became the point person for all things ebook in the store, putting a lot of time and effort in promoting our ability to sell ebooks and now Kobo devices and accessories.
2) What got you into selling books? What keeps you inspired, or I guess what keeps you dejected if that’s how you’re feeling lately?
I’ve been a writer (at least self-identified anyway) since I was a teenager, and the only question was, what to do for money until writing paid the bills. After college, I worked for two years as an Americorps Vista Volunteer, in Burlington, VT and when circumstance steered me to the Boston area, I had to find a new job
I wanted to work in a bookstore because I saw it as work that, at the very least, wouldn’t drain the energy I’d need to write; a job where I could get home from a full shift and still be able to put a few hours in at the desk. I happened to land in the Porter Square area right before Porter Square Books was planning to open. I walked by every day until they put up a sign asking for resumes and that was it. Bookselling ended up being much more than a way to pay the rent; by putting me in contact with writers and other people in the publishing community, keeping me on the edge of what’s being written today, and, through galleys and a pretty sweet employee discount, giving me access to more books than I could ever read.
I’m inspired and discouraged by the same idea, it just depends on how I spin it at any given moment. There will always be writers and there will always be readers no matter what form or medium the “book” takes, and so there will always need to be a mechanism that gets the “book” from the writer to the reader. Bookstores are still really, really good at getting books from writers to readers. But those pure impulses, the impulse to write and the impulse to read, don’t interact very well with market economics. Writers will write whether they get paid or not and the inherent cultural importance of reading will ensure that readers never have to buy a new book if they don’t want to. So we have this very strange economy that, in the best circumstances, is a kluge of for-profit and not-for-profit business practices, and in the worst circumstances is exploited by people and corporations with no regard whatsoever for the non-economic value of books. So, on one day, it will look like books and bookselling as we know it will continue for decades and on the next it will look like Amazon will destroy the book industry and on the third I sculpt some kind of reasonable halfway point between the two.
The rest, interesting stuff, at Melville House