Walking down Ponce de Leon after my visit to Blue Elephant Book Shop, I found myself thinking for the millionth time since starting this blog that independent booksellers are some of the bravest people I know. When all the world seems to be telling them that bookstores are becoming obsolete, they stay open, not out of any hope of getting wealthy, not out of stubbornness (well, maybe a little of that), but because they love their work and believe in the power to do good through books.
But that’s not what Laura Keys would say.
“I’m just one of those book fools, I guess,” she says in response to my question: Why did you open a bookstore in 2008?
“I didn’t know the economy was going to fall out. I know that ebooks are changing the face of the book business, but I think that there still are people who really like real books. I wanted to be in that place, I guess.”
That place is a small home on Decatur’s main road, where the living room is padded wall-to-wall with shelves and the center is maintained as a homey sitting area, complete with a cheerful, artificial fireplace. What used to be a back bedroom is now a children’s reading room. In the non-fiction section I spot a few local interest books, including a cookbook of recipes from Atlanta’s famous southern tea room, Mary Macs.
The sections are small and filled with a conservative number of titles, handpicked by staff members. Many of their best sellers are hand-sold, bought upon a staff member’s recommendation.
(As a member of the generation that grew up with big box bookstores (where booksellers did not necessarily read the books they sold), I had to ask myself: Is this method of hand-selling books rare nowadays? Of course it’s not, nor is it unusual. It is a reflection on myself and my generation that it still comes as a pleasant surprise whenever I buy a book on a stranger’s recommendation. In my Generation Y-er’s mind, this gets logged away under the “new experience” file. Which is odd, really. When you think about it.)
“It’s not a surprise to me, but it might be a surprise to someone else,” Keys says. “If we really like [a book] and we get behind it. We have customers who trust us and I try not to ever abuse that trust, so we’ll do pretty well with titles that maybe other bookstores do not.”
For Keys, a proprietor who knows all too well the difficulties of running a bookstore, the news of Borders closure is upsetting.
“It always makes me sad when any bookstore closes. I don’t know whether it will effect my business at all, whether some of those people will come and shop here or whether they’ll go some place else, but I want every bookstore to be healthy and thriving.”
In spite of everything, she’s “guardedly optimistic.” Especially with the Decatur Book Festival coming up, which she describes as “an exciting time” when “everybody’s in a good mood for the most part. It’s a fun change from the day-to-day operations,” she adds with a laugh.
While hopeful that the festival will raise Blue Elephant’s visibility, she says, “We don’t really look at it as a huge financial bonanza. We look at it more as a way to be embalmed in the book community in Atlanta, meet knew people and just have fun.”
Thank you, Laura! Want to find Blue Elephant Book Shop during the festival? They’ll be handling the books for authors speaking at the Old Courthouse. I’m sure they’d love to see you.