For a while now, I’ve wanted to do a column on independent book dealers. I recently caught up to Randy Glumm owner of The Way Station – books & stuff in Lansing, Michigan. The Way Station is a New York Times best-seller reporting store.
I asked Randy a few questions and got some very interesting answers.
Dennis Collins: You were a successful manager at a major book chain, what made you decide to open your own independent bookstore?
Randy Glumm: I am stubborn and independent and unorthodox. I have always wanted to do this and thought that I had better get busy or I would be too tired if I waited until I retired. A few years back Borders deleted their Community Relations positions. Most corporations follow suit so I was convinced that it would happen to me at B & N so I made the move. I was disappointed in B & N since they had changed policy from when we opened the new store ie; supporting the local writers and poets, musicians… changed to stop supporting them as they should. They wound down or omitted many event, writer’s groups, open mic nights etc. It’s as if the mentality was … okay, we got em coming in, let’s stop the community programs and they won’t notice. My feeling is that the community or talent is at the core of your success. You need to support them. Not just for reciprocal reasons but because it is the right thing to do. It helps, in a small way, to keep them here and not move to one of the coasts or bigger cities. We need to support ourselves as much as we can. The corporations look predominantly to big name writers.
Dennis: What can the independent seller offer that the chains can’t?
Randy: Uniqueness of personality, atmosphere, meeting place, outlet….everything that towns need. Especially downtowns that are suffering. It’s a whole different drummer for people. They feel more comfortable, sort of like Mayberry. I have people meet people in my store who haven’t seen each other for 30 years. It happens all the time. Sometimes the feel is like a huge bulletin board for people to connect with. You display their work, you have signings, readings, other events, you carry their mags, their chaps, their newspapers etc. It’s a good feeling. The used book aura is great. People donate books, chairs, shelves, coffee, cookies. You can run programs that a corporation wouldn’t allow or would take six months of paperwork to approve. If you search for an out of print book for a customer and see the smile or tears on their face if they have had a hard time finding it. If you get it for them at a decent cost, they are happy and to see that joy is a treat. I usually only make $1 to $2 dollars on used/out of print orders. It is mainly a customer service. You can buy author/poet books on the spot without the need for approval. You get volunteers. I am the luckiest man in the world to get so much support. They are delighted I am here. And still, it is one of the hardest things I have ever done. Some days Viet Nam sounds inviting. The financial stress is terrible and I still am not sure I will make it.
Dennis: What does the future hold for independent bookstores?
Randy: I think they are dropping like flies. Many reasons. Some could run better if they could let a couple of employees go and take on more work themselves. It’s hard as hell and I put in 12 to 16 hours a day, often 7 days a week, but I love it, have to make it work or I go under and at my age who will have me? I refuse to be a greeter at WalMart. The big corps, WalMart, etc…everyone is selling books. Amazon is hard to beat and if you don’t sell volumes of on-line sales you won’t make it unless you specialize in collectors, mystery etc… a niche. However, I am seeing and sensing a return to independents and a distrust of the corporate outlets, especially WalMart as the public has to subsidize their employees medical and food stamps, etc, and as suppliers lose out to overseas. I think the return of the indy is happening even as they drop like flies, it will turn. Whether I see it before I die/retire, don’t know.
Dennis: What can readers and writers do to help insure the survival of independent bookstores?
Randy: Adopt a store you like and garner public support for the indy of your choice and if everyone can chip in with book donations, fundraisers, purchases, volunteers, they will make it. But you need a big chunk of the community and the media to get behind you. I am not sure how I got all the attention but someone will get the ball rolling for you. You just might have to ask some of your customers for help.. .like members of the board and be honest about your challenges and they will help. Writers can send people your way, conduct workshops, fundraisers, sign books and give a couple to the store as gifts. They need to tell their friends and neighbors, fellow writers and poets that you need help and then offer their support. I am now in the midst of a world-wide letter to the editor campaign which will run about a 1000 letters to 4 large dailies and 2 large weeklies in every state and around the world bringing attention to our plight and suggesting that big name authors and publishers adopt stores in their home towns/states and shower them with attention; signings, a free book, a fund raiser. Publisher could help more with posters, advertising, a free book now and then, urging their stable of authors pick out a couple of stores to adopt. It will help with their popularity, sales and the publishers will get attention... not just notoriety but financial attention. This will not detract from the big stores as they will do fine no matter what. But we need to share and make the public and the publishers and the authors realize that there is enough to go around but we need some help in getting our share. Have an informal meeting to banter ideas around.
Dennis: This is your space. Is there anything you’d like to say about independent bookstores or your store in particular?
Randy: Don’t give up no matter how depressed. Work with creditors, publishers, and landlords Ask the public for help. Kids interviewed at malls are asking for the old fashioned Town Square atmosphere and the only place they can find it is in down towns. We just need to provide that for them and they will come. People are getting worn out with the malls and mostly the kids. I could go on forever. The city needs to get behind the indy as well with advertising, promos, fundraisers. Anything that helps the indy will help the community.
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