January 18, 2013
Hilary Lowe of Literati Bookstore on her transition from sales rep to bookseller
by Claire Kelley
Construction has begun in Ann Arbor as Hilary Lowe and her fiance Michael Gustafson forge ahead with their plans to open a new independent bookstore this spring.
Having worked with Lowe at Simon & Schuster, I was curious to hear about her move from publishing to bookselling.
How do you think you will transition from being a sales rep of a major publisher to being a bookseller?
You have many roles as a sales rep, but primarily your job is to know your books and translate that knowledge to your stores. As a bookseller, your job is to know your books and community, and then translate that knowledge to customers. But in addition to that knowledge, as a bookstore owner, your primary job is to run a business. You wear many hats of all equally important value — manager, buyer, marketer, bookkeeper — juggling those responsibilities is the more daunting challenge, with a steep learning curve. Luckily, for me, a lot of that learning was gleaned from very generous people, most importantly co-owner (and former sales rep) Rebecca Fitting at Greenlight Bookstore, and all the Greenlight staff, who provided valuable knowledge on the many aspects that make up a successful bookstore.
What did you learn from that job that inspired you to start a bookstore?
Working as an independent bookstore sales rep solidified my desire to open a bookstore. I loved working with indie bookstores and I admire them greatly. The impact they make in their communities and the cultural fabric of their towns is inspiring and encouraging. Their passion for the written word is unmatched and translates into everything they do. For me, as a lover of books, there is no greater feeling than passing along a great book to a fellow reader. While working as a sales rep, I loved finding just the right read for a specific buyer, knowing that they would evangelize about it to their customers. When I stepped out of the corporate atmosphere and worked in a bookstore, having that one-on-one with readers and customers, I knew that this is what I needed to do.
How will that experience help you run the day to day duties like ordering books and organizing events?
As a sales rep, seeing the how/why of the ordering process for over 60 stores was extremely informative. Every store has their own philosophy, which informs their inventory and, subsequently, their clientele. The buyers are savvy, but they also know when to have fun and take a chance on a new and exciting piece of work. The challenge is mastering the right balance. That is something that will be touch-and-go in the beginning. We will do our best to have the appropriate inventory, but we won’t know for sure until our customers are in the store buying. The same goes for events. It will be a learning process to see what our community wants and needs. But growing up in ann arbor definitely has given me an initial idea what the community will respond to, but obviously, you won’t totally know until you open. In my career as a sales rep, I was lucky enough to see the hard work that goes into the planning and execution of events at many stores across the country. I’ve seen the whole spectrum of author events from large, carefully orchestrated events to smaller thoughtfully creative readings and each one requires meticulous organization.
What do you say to people who think that physical books and retail business is slowing?
I tell them it’s evolving. The dominant narrative is that books, and therefore, bookstores are dead. But this is not the full story. Yes, Borders is dead. And perhaps the chain bookstore itself is dead, with B&N closing stores (at least four store closings were announced in December). But indies are thriving. A New York Times article announced it last month and NPR reported on it at the end of November. ABA indie membership is up and growing exponentially since the close of Borders. New stores are starting and current stores are evolving to keep up in the ever-changing publishing landscape. And business is good.
What specifically are the needs of the Ann Arbor community and do you have any information from your research about opening a bookstore that makes you feel more confident about your future success?
Ann Arbor has always been a book town. At one point, Ann Arborites used to brag that they had the most bookstores per capita in the country. Growing up here, so many of my memories involved making a trip to local bookstores. There are a number of fantastic used bookstores downtown like Motte & Bailey, Kalidescope, West Side Bookshop and Dawn Treader. And great niche stores like Aunt Agatha’s, which sell new and used mysteries, and Crazy Wisdom, which focuses on spirituality. But, in the downtown area, there are no general indies selling new titles. Being such a literate and enthusiastic book community, there was a major void in the marketplace after Borders closed three stores, including the 40,000 square foot Border No. 1 downtown. And, a few years earlier, the local downtown indie Shaman Drum had closed. So we thought this was something the community was missing and represented a good market opportunity. Before we fully pursued it, I wanted advice of a bookstore owner who recently opened. At that point, I approached Rebecca Fitting, co-owner of Greenlight Bookstore, which opened in 2009 and is doing extremely well. She encouraged us to pursue opening the bookstore and mentored me during the process. The insights I learned from Rebecca and while working at Greenlight further convinced me of the viability of the independent bookstore as a business model.
But it wasn’t until we actually moved back that I knew for sure that this was something we must do. Every person that we’ve met laments the loss of Borders and Shaman Drum and is looking for a new bookstore downtown. I’ve had so many conversations, phone calls, emails from residents telling me that this is what the area wants and needs. And they’ve all offered to help, which is amazing. BINC, the Book Industry Charitable Foundation, has introduced us to former Borders employees with a wealth of knowledge. Nicola Rooney, owner of the general indie Nicola’s Books in Westgate Shopping Center, gave us important insights into bookselling in the area. As did Keith Taylor, local poet and University of Michigan professor, who was a former employee of Shaman Drum. Steve Gillis, co-founder of indie publisher Dzanc Books, connected us to many great people involved in the book community. The list is long. We’ve been buoyed by the enthusiasm of these organizations and individuals in the book community and the Ann Arbor locale at large.
Ultimately, I think that is what matters the most.
Claire Kelley is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House.