Book Culture: An Interview With Chris Doeblin
The book business is divided between two dissimilar yet common elements: art and commerce. As writers, the stories created by them are…
The bookselling industry is classified between two dissimilar yet common elements: art and commerce. As writers, the stories created by them are imaginative, valued subjectively , and interpreted differently. These characteristics don’t particularly follow any Wall Street rulebook, but to make your way or living with writing, the work cannot exist in a pit or an empty space. Whether we like it or not, there is a conventional corporate path to literature that has existed long before any of us. So aspiring authors who wants to leave their footprint in this industry shouldn’t get scared because of the process instead it would be easier for them if they embrace this as part of the bookselling industry nuances and flow of literary communication.
The bookseller is the support on which the reader- writer/buyer- seller/customer — creator relationship works successfully. Seeing how we, as writers or readers , can help their work just improves the elements between us and enables the artistic/literary network and community to thrive further.
So in an effort to learn more, I had an insightful conversation with Chris Doeblin who is a President of New York City based, a local, independently owned bookstore with four locations , “ BOOK CULTURE”.
Chris is a Board Member of American Independent Business Alliance (AMIBA). It is a non-profit organization that represents the interests of local independent businesses, helps communities develop strong local economies through nurturing local entrepreneurs, and promotes citizen engagement in local economic development.
Welcome Chris! Let’s talk about being a bookseller.
Excerpts from the Interview :-
Q1) What’s Book Culture all about? Chris, tell our readers here about its rich history? When and how the bookshop came into existence? When did you realized the inclination towards bookselling business? What was the mission and vision that you had projected for the bookshop?
Chris : Book Culture was founded as Labyrinth Books in 1997 . I started my career in the early 1980s with a brief stint in selling books for Papyrus book store at 114th and Broadway, and then as the receiving clerk in the basement of the old Book Forum which was located across from the main gate of Columbia on Broadway. In the summers, this neighborhood was a ghost town, and bikers “the Harley kind” ruled the West End. When the Book Forum operation began to falter, I founded Great Jones Books, a scholarly book wholesaler located in Yonkers. At the same time, beginning in 1995, a project was set upon to open an academic bookstore to serve the community we knew well, and where we had a decade of experience. Jonathan Cole, Columbia’s Provost at the time shared that vision and with his help, by 1997, we had opened our doors as a bookstore in a Columbia-owned space here on 112th Street, in a building built for the Post Office. All these years later, this locally-owned independent book business continues to thrive.
In the fall of 2009 Book Culture opened a second location, Book Culture On Broadway. There has been an independent bookstore on the corner of Broadway at 114th Street for over fifty years. Now, with the strong support of the Morningside Heights community and the faculty and administration of Columbia University we are carrying on the tradition. Book Culture on Broadway is a true community bookstore. Located in the heart of the neighborhood, we are a meeting place, a fun place to stop and above all, a real bookstore. We feature new and classic fiction and nonfiction, mysteries, cookbooks, graphic novels, home & craft books and travel guides. Downstairs is the Children’s Reading Room, a whimsical space filled with books, toys, games, puzzles, art supplies and plush toys. It is a fun and cozy place to curl up with a book or meet other families.
Book Culture opened Book Culture on Columbus in November of 2014. This beautiful and much loved location was ruined and closed in January of 2020.
In 2017 we opened our fourth location, Book Culture LIC. Long Island City welcomed us with open arms, and the store quickly became fixture of the growing community.
Q2) What do you think makes Book Culture unique, and what can it provide for the local community (in terms of stock/services/events, etc.)?
Chris : Our large selection of books from academic publishers and in academic disciplines is one feature. We also buy and sell used books and a huge selection of discount and remainder books. Our staff is unusually professional and committed as well.
We fulfill the essential role of being an independent source for ideas and literary art. A visit to one of our stores will energize your mind and remind you of the awesome scope of positive human intellectual and literary endeavor.
Q3) What characteristics do you think a person needs to be a successful independent bookstore owner? What has been the key to your success?
Chris : One of the most important characteristics an individual need to have in order to be successful in this industry to be adaptable or be open to innovation. Being a bookseller is not just trading of books , its also involves stepping out from behind the cash register (stepping out of comfort zone) and engaging with our community. We are constantly looking for new ways to connect with the local community, and many of those relationships have started as a result of conversations within the bookstore.
In order to keep the bookshop breathing , booksellers collaborate with writers. Whenever we conduct an author event, we have to properly coordinate store and technology setup, introduce the author, photograph the event, manage the book signing, then take it all down and put the store back together again. There are also some not-so-glamorous tasks like taking out the trash and recycling, dusting and vacuuming the bookshop.
Q4) What do you love most about being a bookseller? What do you think is the role of an independent bookstore, or the role of booksellers at an independent bookstore?
Chris : Being around books and ideas , right at the nexus where new writing and new thinking meets the public is living next to the fountain of human culture. One of the fun benefits of bookseller life is that publishers send us advanced reading copies for books that haven’t been published yet. It’s exciting to be one of the first to read a forthcoming book by a debut novelist. In return, we write and share reviews with publishers and the book industry and get a feel for what books we want to carry and recommend in the store that season.
Q5) What’s your bookselling philosophy?
Chris : Make a beautiful and comfortable space, attractive to all the senses, focus on the calm and pleasure of your visitors, pack it with all the books and merchandise that you can. Never rest, clean train service invest repair improve think review and on and on every day.
I think we pride ourselves on being extremely welcoming to anybody who’s interested in reading. I think some people get intimidated when they walk into a bookstore, especially if they haven’t been to a bookstore in a while or ever. We pride ourselves on feeling as un-intimidating as possible, greeting people when they walk in, smiling, being very welcoming. Putting the effort into customer service is something we really pride ourselves on. Not only helping people find a book that can change their lives, but also just welcoming them into the space is sort of our philosophy.
Q6) Do you think it’s important for a bookseller to be actively involved in the community? If so, how are you involved in your local community?
Chris : Yes . I think a bookstore , more than other stores, can be a representation of communities by proposing books and ideas, by creating legitimacy and giving voice.
Online algorithms might recommend additional books to purchase, but they aren’t a substitute for the conversations that lead to personal recommendations from booksellers you know and trust.
Beyond recommendations, independent bookshops offer the full book experience. You might be able to exchange few messages with an author online, but in a bookstore you can meet the author, hear them read from their book, ask them exciting questions, buy a copy of the book and go home with a signed, personalized copy. You didn’t just buy a book, you had an experience and made a memory.
Q7) Is there a novelist that you think deserves more attention/readership than he or she currently receives? Do you have favorite books and authors, or a genre that you’d like to share? What are your favorite books you consistently recommend to customers?
Chris : I have most recently read and been moved by Marilyn Robinson and Elena Ferrante and Ta- Nehisi Coates.
Q8) How do you feel about the way technology is affecting book readership and book purchasing?
Chris : One of the things technology has done is make it far easier for people to connect with others. Social media allows readers to connect with and follow their favorite authors, stay on top of big news from the book industry, discover new and diverse authors, and interact with other readers. Podcasts are an increasingly great way to keep up with book news and reviews, genres, analysis, writing, and more. It’s a wonderful time to be a reader!
Surveys continue to show that although technology is convenient, print books remain much more popular than e-books. Although technology provides convenience, print books give us a break from the technology and distractions in our daily lives. Many of us spend the majority of the day in front of computers and devices, and print books provide the escape so many of us crave from our devices while also allowing us to escape into a completely different place and time.
Q9) What do you think the future looks like for independent booksellers? What do you think you and your fellow independent booksellers need to do maintain triple bottom line? How Book Culture is reinventing themselves? Developing an Algorithm to Predict a Bestseller, maybe ☺
Chris : I continue to see intelligent, successful young people choosing bookselling as a career. This is the most optimistic indicator to me. I also sense a growing worry amongst publishers that they are losing control financially over the authors and marketplace. The answers for many of the publishers lies in the indies. They need a diverse marketplace for retail.
I think a continued focus on community involvement and author events for independent bookstores is important because it’s not enough to just be a place where people pick up books anymore. They have to be more invested , we have to be more than just a place where people come to pick up a physical book. Small changes will have a huge impact. So I think for those of us that don’t have our pants on fire already, the future is bright.
Thank you all for reading and a big thanks to Chris Doeblin for collaborating in today’s post!
If any of my readers here , wish to know more about the bookstore and their work. Do open the links mentioned below . They have a wonderful informative , articulated and well-curated website.
Website : https://www.bookculture.com/
Facebook : https://www.facebook.com/bookculture/
Instagram : https://www.instagram.com/bookculture/
Twitter : https://twitter.com/bookculture