After the 2009 closing of Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops, an 82-year-old Milwaukee institution, the stores’ general manager, Daniel Goldin, opened a new bookstore at one of the old Schwartz locations. Goldin combined the Schwartz legacy with his own indie-bookselling vision and opened Boswell Book Company. We talked with Goldin about hosting killer events, reimagining King Lear, and handselling The Professor’s Hat, The Illusion of Separateness, and more.
What is Boswell Book Company known for?
I think we have an interesting selection of books and a layout that is fun to browse. We probably have held on to more seating than a lot of bookstores, as we’ve tried to have some community focus (and make the store look less empty on off-peak hours). And like many indies, we pack in a ton of events with a selection of authors that range from international to hyperlocal. While we do most of the events at the bookstore, we also work with libraries, universities, museums, restaurants, galleries—pretty much anyone within a reasonable commute who will help promote the event, get folks out, and get them to buy some books to support the whole process. But the underlying goal is to spread awareness of the store and convince at least a small selection of attendees to check out the actual store itself.
Which was your favorite all-time event and why?
I really like events that are a bit out of the box yet are infused with the spirit of the book. A number of years ago, author Manette Ansay asked to do a paperback event with us for Good Things I Wish You, and I replied that I don’t like to do the same standard event for the hardcover and paperback of the same book; it’s just hard to get out a repeat crowd. Let’s do something different. So she put together a combination reading/concert that we held at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music that integrated music from Clara Schumann (the subject of the novel). This was my jumping off point to our recent event with Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven: we worked with a theater troupe who opened with the scene in King Lear that starts off the novel, which led into a reading and closed with an integrated reading/dramatization of two other scenes. And I have to include our event with Amy Stewart, where we hosted an event at the Great Lakes Distillery for The Drunken Botanist and her talk was deconstructing the cocktails served at the event.
Can you give us two or three highlights of the bookstore’s history (without using promo copy)?
We opened in 2009, following the close of Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops, which had an 82-year run. The original store was just a block from where we are now, though for most of the store’s history, they operated in downtown Milwaukee, as well as in various suburbs. The store’s name comes from James Boswell, an ink-drawn logo they used since 1973. When the family decided to retire the name, they let us include the logo in the asset purchase. So far, not too much has changed. We gave up a little space to a Starbucks expansion and replaced the heavy-duty carpeting after many years of wear. As for the future, who knows? There are a lot of development pressures in our neighborhood and, well, the only constant is change.
What is your favorite spot/section of the store?
A bookseller of course has several yardsticks to measure favoritism. Our cookbook section gets a lot of enthusiasm, including a particularly treasured compliment from a well-known food critic. It has this weird old display fixture that was originally created for art books at the downtown Schwartz store. It’s in an area of the store that has an alcove-like feel, and the sections that are displayed with it—crafts, gardening, and health—make the whole area seem homey. And of course I like our staff-rec cases because they are infused with the character of our booksellers, informally known as Boswellians. I am partial to staff-rec sections with shelf talkers, though I understand why many bookstores don’t do them. It’s really hard to get some folks to write them, though I think once there’s shelf-talker momentum in the store, it becomes an unstoppable force.
According to the ABA, indie bookstores have increased their numbers in the past five years. What gives your bookstore and indies in general their staying power?
I’ve had a number of theories about this, and I still think bookstores should work on ambience building and discovery. But in the end, everything in our business is about connection. The only thing that keeps a store like ours alive is by forging relationships with customers, publishers, writers, other retailers, media, nonprofits, everyone. But you need to have a good bookstore that someone wants to have a relationship with, too. We have to know going into this that we’ll never have prices as low as our online competitor, and we’ll never have the virtual selection or the convenience. I see same-day shipping as another competitive hurdle we’ll have to fight against.
So we’re basically left with a few kinds of customers. The first wants an experience in the store, and if everything is perfect—the weather is good but not too good, they found a parking spot, they were in our neck of the woods for some other reason—they will come into a bookstore, and we’ll get that sale. The second customer wants some connection, either occasional or constant. Our beloved Friends of Boswell visit regularly, want to talk about the books they read, bring gifts for booksellers, and are all-around evangelists for the store in the way we couldn’t be ourselves. Every store has these kinds of folks and they should be treasured.
Just one tiny story about one of my very favorite couples. They moved back to Milwaukee after years elsewhere, only to find that their beloved Harry W. Schwartz was closing. They tentatively embraced us, which slowly evolved to full hug. Now alas, B. is fighting a losing battle with cancer. And what was their game plan? To sell the house and move into a condo, but specifically, one that was two blocks from the bookstore, a place for K.
What are some of the bookstore’s top current handsells?
Right now, our handselling is all over the place. You can sell a ton of The Girl on the Train if everybody read it and loved it, but even if you didn’t have a good read, you can sell half a ton. I’m always looking for a book that has multiple recs from different kinds of people. And I’m always looking for books that I think will appeal to our customers that have, nonetheless, barriers of entry that make them difficult to sell for other retailers, Internet and otherwise.
There were a few books in the last couple of years that I thought every bookseller could have gotten behind but didn’t blow up the way I thought, most notably The Professor’s Hat and The Illusion of Separateness. We have sold well over 200 of the first and over 300 of the second. Several of my booksellers particularly loved The Paying Guests in the fall, but that’s a book that had major bestseller momentum, so it’s hard to gauge our individual efforts. It’s easier to acknowledge that we blew out the French picture book Before After. Right now, one of my booksellers is doing her best to blast off a novel called Jam! on the Vine, while another is pushing How to Be a Heroine. I’m hoping we can have enough booksellers get behind Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen. I have a lot of enthusiastic customers for this book and think I can get at least four booksellers championing it. On the kids’ side, we have been evangelists for The Boy in the Black Suit. Several recs, a book club talk (for adults), and an upcoming packed day of school visits will not only give us great sales, but will have the effect of multiplying sales in the marketplace at other channels.
What is your ideal busman’s holiday?
I really like nothing better than traveling to other cities and visiting bookstores in the context of all the other delights that urban centers have to offer—riding public transportation, visiting cafes and other local points of pride, whether that be a park or a quirky independent supermarket. I’m obsessed with the history of department stores, and there’s nothing better than reading old newspapers in the library on microfilm and then figuring out what happened to all of them. I have expanded this enthusiasm to include historic bookstores. I’m hoping to add a day onto Book Expo America to see as many New Jersey bookstores in a day as I can manage and recall a long ago trip to Newark when I got to see the Hahne’s department store before it closed.