As co-owner of Micawber’s Books in St. Paul, Minn., editor Hans Weyandt knows firsthand about the power of selling books to customers. Weyandt puts his sales experience and expansive knowledge of everything books to good use in Read This!: Handpicked Favorites from America's Indie Bookstores, a finely assembled collection of top 50 lists from independent booksellers nationwide.
We talked to Weyandt about his new project, the bookstore customer experience, and how shopping offline has evolved in the fast-moving digital age.
Do you consider bookselling a lost art form?
No, I wouldn’t say it’s a lost art form. People have been doing it as long as books have been around really. It maybe became lost for a while, but more from the customer side of things. People got used to shopping online a lot!
But it’s a very different experience for the customer to actually be there looking at the books themselves. All the time I see customers hand-selling books to each other, and I think it’s cool to see customers interacting with each other that way.
Proceeds from the sales of Read This! go to the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE). What are your particular thoughts and feelings about literary censorship?
I’m probably like a lot of booksellers and am sort of on the far end of free speech because I think it’s one of the most important things for democracy and freedom of information. It’s vital to have groups working to provide support with this goal in mind. A lot of people don’t realize how often there are challenges to that freedom.
I think what these organizations do provide to us culturally is really important. For those of us involved, the selection of the foundation was an easy choice. I knew I couldn’t take any money for the book, and I happened to say something about free speech one time, and so the ABFFE just came up naturally.
When did you come up with the idea for the book?
I really didn’t come up with the idea myself. I was approached by the new publisher at Coffee House Press, Chris Fischbach. He’s held just about every position there since he started right out of college as an intern. He’s a friend of mine working in the Twin Cities book world.
Chris said he thought we could make this happen, and I thought of what we would do with these lists, and after I saw what he wanted to do with it, it all made sense. He was the one who really convinced me of it.
Were you at all surprised by the top selections of the booksellers you canvassed?
Yeah, it was one of those things that I was particularly trying to pay attention to. Faulkner wasn’t a surprise to me, and I wasn’t shocked by the amount of times that Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried made the lists. The whole idea made me a little dizzy to be honest. Coffee House came up with a kind of “Harper’s Index” to keep track of the many lists because after awhile I knew I was sort of losing track of everything!
What’s the biggest public misconception about bookstores and bookselling?
Probably I think one of the things that we all have to fight is the impression that people who work in stores are snobs and aren’t going to be able to help you, or that they’re going to be rude. There’s a pecking order when you work in a bookstore, sometimes, and we’re all at the mercy of that. But the golden rule is that you’re never supposed to judge what books customers have selected or asked for.
How has the customer experience changed?
I like to think it’s gotten better. I think over time since lots of stores have closed, we need to provide a different atmosphere. It’s not enough for a store to have a good inventory—that alone won’t keep you around anymore. Twenty years ago, maybe, but now, if you have a rude staff, people won’t come back. Everyone who works in the book industry knows that.
How has Micawber’s Books, your bookstore, stayed afloat in these challenging economic times?
We’re in a great location first of all. It’s a location that supports a lot of small businesses. We’re built into an area where neighbors have a lot of functioning businesses. Beyond that, we constantly change the stock and keep the store looking fresh and new. It means a lot when customers comment that the store looks different often. We are constantly moving things around. We have a small staff that’s really into helping customers in a number of different areas. I don’t think it’s a good idea for a smaller store to compete with the larger stores, however. We do our own thing.
What books currently occupy your nightstand?
I have been reading, quite by accident, lots of prohibition-era books like Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition by Daniel Okrent, and historical novels from the 1930s era like J.R. Moehringer’s Sutton, and Dennis Lehane’s upcoming Live By Night [out Oct. 2]. I’m always putzing around in a couple of different things. But it’s important for me not to read just advanced galleys, so I can relate more to what customers in the store might be looking for.
Are you planning a follow-up edition, perhaps Read This, Too?
Yeah, there’s been some discussion about that. One idea is to create another edition that is primarily for kids and young adult books. I would not be the editor of that, but I would definitely help whoever was doing it. That genre is not my area of expertise, unfortunately. But yes, there is talk about another volume to come.