27 January 2011

What Makes a Bookstore Hip

First you must assume that bookstores can be hip. That it's hip to read.  That it's hip to go into a bookstore with the notion of buying a book. That bookstore patronage says more than just "I live over my mother's garage with my sixteen cats and read romance novels all day." (Per the latter, I don't judge. You are probably my most dependable library patron!)

I worked, for an interim between the dehumanizing brutality of airline work and the cool oasis of my current library job, in a very hip bookstore. This bookstore had all the trappings, of course: comfy leather sofas by a fireplace. Flavored coffees strong enough to sprout hair on a bowling ball. Underpaid clerks (mostly PhD lit majors) who were curiously happy to be earning minimum wage. We had a well-read clientele who cheerfully plunked down excessive amounts of money in an effort to reassure someone (perhaps themselves) that they were thoughtful, well-educated and urbane. We had the guy who parked his Humvee across 4 parking spaces. We had the women who bought graphic novel versions of Shakespeare for their four year-olds. We had the guy who looked a little like a vagrant but who was rumored to have inherited a fortune and who certainly bought books in a way that tended to back up that assertion.

I have been in a number of bookstores in my life, from only somewhat bigger than a broom closet (Shop Around the Corner) to mega-emporiums (Fox Books) and can authoritatively state that hipness is more than a glitzy interior design and a gazillion books. Sure, you have to take into account all of the ambience factors, such as the aroma of Arabica , just-right temperature, the faint whiff of printed page mingled with jasmine scented candles (for sale in the stationary department) and lighting which is a genius combination of bright enough to read by but not bright enough that you feel awkward staring at the nude figure-drawing books. Borders and Barnes and Noble both lose hip points in lighting and ambience. And Half-Price Books is definitely too "discount" to be taken seriously on this level. Buying books has to seem elitist, or it loses much of its cachet. Crossing the hip-line has to do with something a bit more illusory.

Having a staff that knows much more than you do about books, indeed much more about current and classic literature than may constitute a dignified social posture, is something of a beginning. Hipness is all about perception, much like the New York Times Book Review is all about actual literary quality. At the tipping point of hipdom, it matters less that you know more about books than whether your public thinks you know. Once you have convinced the consuming public that you are the arbiter of reading standards for the city, you have stepped into the Oprah-light.  The only thing left is to get the reigning local uber-hip, edgy-anarchist newsrag to name you the "Best Bookstore Experience." For some reason, there's nothing like being recommended by the counter-culture to make your rep. Once this starts to happen, baby, you've arrived.

It seems to help, in the bookstore game, if you are family-owned, a one trick pony, a "lone-reed." Corporate conglomeration seems to take all the "sticking-it-to-the-man" fun out of things. However, don't think of successful bookstore owners as readers, one of us. The ones I knew were all about the fancy house in the fancy suburb. They seldom came into the store, and I can't say that I ever saw them actually reading. It's usually best, for the purpose of hip, to keep them hidden away like the embarrassing relatives.

Having established yourself as hip, it takes some diligence to stay on top. It's probably best to monitor who you bring to book-signings. Stick with Martha (oh, yes, you know Martha-who - the Martha that looks good in stripes). Avoid anyone who writes movie-adaptation books. Don't worry about charming, attractive or even human. Sensation sells books.

In addition to promoting books that everyone has heard of, develop the knack for flogging the books NO ONE has heard of and making them sound like to-die-for must-haves.

Don't neglect your stationary department, if you choose to have one. Have items that cannot reasonably be found anywhere else. Book covers woven of real human hair, inkstands made from Lamborghini parts etc. Once you fall into the Yankee Candle trap, you've lost your edge. Go with locally made - the quirkier the better.

The great thing about a truly hip bookstore is that people feel enhanced by having come. Smarter, cooler, smoother, etc. And let's not forget - better informed - which, after all, is the icing on the cake. They get to hang out with interesting, well-read people. They have food they haven't tried. They take home something unique and memorable, both in merchandise and experience.

Not a bad way to make a living.

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