I like bookstores. Used bookstores. If you don’t, then just keep it to yourself.
Or maybe this video will spark a passion you never knew you had for musty old buildings full of rotting paper and sweaty misfits. In my book, there’s nothing better, so I found this excuse to spend quite a lot of time in three of the places. So here is Kerry’s attempt number two at audiovisual journalism: a report on three used bookstores along South Broadway in Denver: Mutiny Information Cafe, Fahrenheit’s Books, and Broadway Book Mall.
A caveat: the video is still agonizingly amateur, unguided and independent, too long, and may require you to turn your volume up and down about five times throughout. But I’d argue it’s a tad more “investigative” than my first one, in which I essentially turned my work commute into uninteresting, drug-free gonzo journalism.
The industry is far deeper than I imagined. A used bookstore is not as simple as a guy selling paperbacks out of a box: from a business perspective, there is so much to be considered in terms of collecting, pricing, appreciation, outreach, hosting events, forging relationships, and creating customer loyalty. It’s a difficult industry that can barely afford to pay employees, so stores have to get creative in order to survive.
Broadway Book Mall builds clientele by building relationships. Strong relationships with book sellers is already part of its business because, unlike the other two stores, BBM fills its space by renting shelves to nine independent booksellers. These booksellers have their own incentive to market and network, so the store automatically has nine people’s personal connections as loyal clientele. The BBM owners, Ron and Nina Else, also bring their own and their store’s collections for many fairs, festivals, and events, where they can sell books, meet people, and attract visitors to their store.
Fahrenheit’s Books fills a smaller but more valuable niche: antique books. Not that you can’t find recent bestsellers or pulp paperbacks in the small store, you most certainly can, but whereas nearly everything at BBM and Mutiny sell for under $5 or $10, Fahrenheit’s has books that will sell for $20, $50, $100 plus. It’s true, many people who just wander into a bookstore aren’t willing to pay that much, but some are, and much more are on sites like AbeBooks.com.
Mutiny Information Cafe brings people in by being much more than a used bookstore. As a coffee shop with ample seating, an art gallery, a record store, a pinball hall, and an active nighttime all-ages concert venue, Mutiny defeats any excuse not to go. The concerts are completely free, the coffee is cheap, and the whole place is a pleasure to be at. It just happens to have a huge selection of books, and owners Joe Ramirez and Jim Norris just hope people will buy some regardless of what brings them to the store.
A big way that any bookstore attracts customers and builds relationships is by hosting book signings. Most bookstore owners are collectors in their own right, or at least started out that way, and many have long-standing relationships with authors. Other owners meet authors at fairs, events, or in their own stores and become friends from there. Either way, hosting a book signing helps both sides tremendously: as a writer, you can promote your work and meet or make fans face-to-face; as an owner, you can promote your store and build customer loyalty. And as a reader, you walk away with a signed book that will be worth something some day, even if just the memory.
The beautiful part of the used book industry is that this doing-what-it-takes business sense never gets competitive, at least from what I saw. Along Broadway, the three bookstores each fill their own niche. They help each other out however they can, sending customers down to the other stores which might have their ideal book. They are members of common organizations like the Rocky Mountain Antiquarian Booksellers Association that work to promote all its member stores equally. Three stores selling essentially the same thing within two blocks of each other, without competition or collusion. They look out for each other.
Here are my Broadway Book Mall buys, all under $4. Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen, The Pearl by John Steinbeck, Short Stories by Robert Louis Stevenson, All Quiet On The Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, Black Boy by Richard Wright, and Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edgar Allen Poe.
I got these from Mutiny Information Cafe, cheaper than my coffee. Maggie: A Girl of the Streets by Stephen Crane, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey, The Great Dialogues of Plato by, well, Plato, and Listen, Yankee: The Revolution in Cuba by C. Wright Mills.
I couldn’t pass up these first editions from Fahrenheit Books, pricier than the others but not too bad, all things considered. $15 and $20. Still, this project being over is good for my wallet. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, and Master Harold…And The Boys, a great, three-man play about Apartheid by South African playwright Athol Fugard. And my copy is signed by the man who, for a while, played Sam on the Broadway stage…