When Borders announced that it would be going out of business, an op-ed piece appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In response to Borders’ announcement, Frank Reiss wrote:”[that it] would be going out of business was a lot easier for me to understand than how such a store ever got to be so big in the first place.”
Yesterday I stopped by A Cappella Books in the historic, artistic neighborhood of Little 5 Points in Atlanta to talk to owner, Frank Reiss, about the future of bookstores. Mostly we talked about books. When we did get around to talking shop, he surprised me by championing not, per se, the rapid growth and large-scale success of independent bookstores (you know, now that Borders has closed and we can get back to the way things used to be), but rather, a return to their humble origins.
“Bookstores used to be and, for the most part, should be kind of small, on a scale to the role they play in peoples’ lives,” he said. “Even for the most avid reader, the bookstore is only going to play a pretty small role in peoples’ lives. The idea of these gigantic stores never really felt right – from the get-go, and I’ve been selling books for over 30 years. I mean, my thought was: what’s the big deal? People don’t really buy books this much or love books this much for bookstores to be anchoring a shopping mall.”
I confess, I hadn’t gone to this independent bookstore expecting to hear its owner proclaim, with a shrug and a smile completely devoid of resentment that “people don’t really love books all that much.” That really, he’s just a humble guy in a humble shop and that’s all any bookseller should expect. Perhaps I’ve been in the book blogging bubble for too long, with it’s extreme waxing and waning from cynical Doomsday predictions and boycotts of all e-readers to overly-perky optimism and romantic fetishizing of books and “the magical stores they occupy.” Needless to say, my talk with Reiss was a revelation. And not just for his refreshing look at what a bookstore is and what it can reasonably expect to be in the future; it was equally refreshing hearing about some of the creative efforts A Cappella is taking to stay relevant in the neighborhood they serve. (Scroll down to where Frank talks about their foodie events at Restaurant Eugene, where attendees are treated to a signed book and a four-course meal inspired by the book.)
But, as I say, mostly we talked about books.
Do you believe there’s a future for bookstores?
I do. I think except for in big cities, there isn’t that glorious of a past. They’re humble little stores. That’s what their future will be. Their future will be someone who’s in a position, either they’re in retirement or they don’t need much income, and they can run a nice little neighborhood bookstore. But that’s the extent of it, and that’s what this has always been. As long as it can last, that’s about all it will be.
What do you think your role is here in your neighborhood?
Our role to some extent has evolved. I think we’re just an outpost for people who like books. Our selection reflects the kind of things we like, the kind of things people around here tend to like. It can’t be everything everybody wants. I think this neighborhood is an outpost for people who don’t like mainstream culture, and I think books, for the most part, aren’t really mainstream culture. We used to be exclusively a used and out of print bookstore, so these were books, the out of print ones at least, that the publishers had determined, “well, not enough people want this, so we’ll stop printing it.” But we’re less that now. We don’t sell a lot of Best Sellers. We do sell some, but even within those we sell what we think are some of the more unusual ones.
Do you sell a lot of books from independent press or books by local authors?
Some. I would say the economics of it are such that we don’t carry as many books by small, independent presses as I wish we could. I just don’t have the resources to stock books that I don’t have reason to think we’ll sell a few copies of. We’ve certainly tried it over the years, and when we get them used we can buy them cheap and sell them cheap.
We do have great relationships with local authors. But, again, the economics of it are such that, if you open your doors to local, especially self-published authors, you’re just inundated by them. I would say, most of the local authors we carry have already reached some level of national renown.
What have you read recently that you want to press into customers’ hands?
The most recent book I read and really loved was Robert Olen Butler’s most recent novel called A Small Hotel. He is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and a few years ago he had a rather public divorce from his wife who is also a novelist of some renown. I had heard before reading it that it was pretty close to being autobiographical, but it doesn’t read like that. It reads like a really well-constructed novel about a marriage in a state of divorce. I thought it was beautifully-written and a compelling piece. Not be any means an uplifting book, but I thought it was really well-written. Anybody that can relate to the emotions in there, I think, would get a lot out of it.
What’s selling well in the store?
We’ve been selling a local author, Melissa Fay Greene, really well. Her most recent book, No Biking in the House is about her family, which includes four biological children and five adopted children, primarily from Ethiopia. It’s very humorous, a kind of family story – you can imagine a house with nine kids of all different ages and backgrounds. It’s been a Best Seller for a while for us.
There’s also a book called The Breath of God. It’s a novel sort of in the vein of The DaVinci Code. It’s by an author called Jeffrey Small and it’s about the missing years in Jesus’ life when really there’s no historical documentation about where he was from adolescent years to being a young man. This book posits that, based on one theory that was popular in the early 20th century, he spent some time in the East studying Buddhism and Hinduism, and that’s what informed his philosophy, which we think of as Christian. It’s fiction and a murder mystery, but it’s a lot of fun. We’ve sold a lot of copies of that.
What kind of titles are you resurrecting?
We still carry a lot of used and out of print books but that’s not our focus as much anymore. We buy books daily and I would say most of what we sell used is not necessarily out of print it’s just second hand, cheaper books. I would say that, because of the economy, that side of the business is doing really well right now. We always sell a lot of good classic literature. We have a lot of young, college students and recent college graduates: Dostoevsky, Camus, Aldus Huxley, Orwell.
Tell me about some of your events. Are they a big feature in the store?
We definitely depend on them and they’re not, for the most part in the store. Being so close to the Carter Library. we do most of our events over there. It’s a great venue. They have a theatre that seats 150-200 people. We go there, mostly, for topical events on political and some historical subjects. We have two Pulitzer Prize winning authors coming this fall, Butler being one and William Kennedy being another. We’ve had Jon Meacham, who’s the editor of Newsweek. We’ve had several war correspondents who were in Iraq, Richard Engel from NBC, Dexter Filkins from the New Yorker. Topical things of that nature have always been a big thing that we do there and part of what we’re interested in.
We do a series at Restaurant Eugene of, not exclusively food books but books that have a food connections. Those have been great. It’s a full four course dinner that the chef prepares and is inspired by the book. The author appears and everyone who comes gets a signed copy of the event. It’s kind of high-end, but a great evening.
We have a series over at the Highland Inn called the Ballroom Book Bash. Again the book isn’t necessarily related to music, but there’s usually a way we can make a connection and get a band to make it more than just a plain ole’ signing and reading. The most recent one of those we did was a book about Karen Carpenter and we did have a band that played – it sounded great – old Carpenter songs.
Even though a lot of books are kind of serious, I think books are fun and there should be a sense of books being fun with the events we host.
Five authors from the South you would love to have dinner with?
Well I’m fortunate to have had dinner with a lot of my favorite authors, but if we’re talking living or dead, you know, like many people in the south, my favorite author is Flannery O’Conner. I’m also a huge fan of Charles Portis who had a resurrection of fame with the movie True Grit. He’s from Arkansas. Those are the easy two. Let me think….well, I’m a big fan of Rick Bragg and I’ve gotten to know him some over the years. I think he’s a great writer and would be a great dinner companion. Umm… I’m trying to not think of friends. Missouri doesn’t count as the South, does it? If it did I’d say Calvin Trillin who’s a native of Kansas City, but he spent a little bit of time in the deep South covering the Civil Rights Movement. If I could have dinner with Calvin Trillin, that would be a thrill. Walker Percy, would certainly be one. It’s very male dominated, although Flannery O’Conner’s in there. I really enjoyed reading Carson McCullers, so I think I’d probably have her around.
(Photo of Junkman’s Daughter via LittleFivePoints.net)