Wednesday, November 10, 2010

An Interview with an Independent Bookstore Owner

I recently asked Natalie Johnson, owner of Black Cat Books in nearby Manitou Springs, Colorado, if she would be willing to answer a few interview questions. She obliged, and her answers are below. The above photo is of me signing my first book in her lovely store, and in my post below about the AAUW Authors Day event, you'll see a photo of Natalie. On with the interview!

1. How did you get into the book selling business and acquire your own store?

I sort of fell into the bookstore business. I moved to Manitou Springs eight years ago and decided that I wanted to live and work here. Since there aren't many job opportunities in Manitou, I had to create my own. When I looked back on my life experiences, it was clear that this is what I was born to do. Several years prior to moving out here, I wrote a thesis on chain bookstores, had worked in several bookstores, ran a community center in Seattle and had been a waitress on and off for most of my working life. All of these things came together and I opened a community-centered bookstore with a license to sell wine and beer.

2. Tell us more about your store, including its history and location. Also, what types of books does your store stock and specialize in?

The building that Black Cat Books inhabits was constructed in 1890 and was once a milk dairy. The original grain elevator is still here and there are many nooks and crannies that once had some sort of "cow" function. The rock walls and small spaces are great for climbing into with a book and glass of wine. We are located in the center of downtown Manitou Springs near the Stagecoach Restaurant.

We try to carry a little of everything at Black Cat. I carry new and used books and have best sellers as well as locally written "unknown" authors. I also base my book collection on local favorites. I try to carry everyone's favorite book or author.

3. What characteristics do you think a person needs to be a successful independent bookstore owner? What has been the key to your success?

Wow. These days I feel like the book world is a crazy place to venture into at the moment. I would suggest that they wait a year or two and see how everything plays out before opening an independent bookstore. It appears as though some of the large chain stores might be going under. This would leave a huge niche to be filled in the market.

I think that a lot of the characteristics of a bookstore owner are similar to those of any small business owner. I think that my biggest asset is my stubbornness. I am not sure that I would have a liquor license were it not for this particular quality. I also love people and reading. I enjoy talking about books and work A LOT. I am also very involved with the Manitou Springs community. I believe that this is a must for a small bookstore.

Keep this in mind: I picked up a book titled "100 ways to live to be 100" and the fifth item listed said, "Do not own your own business."

4. What do you most enjoy about being a bookseller?

Talking about books and surrounding myself with people who love to read and talk about books is by far my favorite part of the job. After five years in business, I can count the number of days that I have had to drag myself into work on one hand--not too shabby.

5. What do you least enjoy about being a bookseller?

I often have to read books that are not in a genre I enjoy. I have a difficult time reading books by local authors who write about things that are not interesting to me. However, this also means that I am exposed to new and different ideas that I would not have considered or read otherwise.

6. What is a typical workday for you and how many hours a day (or week) do you devote to your business?

I typically work about 9-11 hours a day. In the summer I work about 65-70 hours a week and in the winter about 50-60 hours a week. This does not include running errands for the shop and the local organizations that I volunteer for in the community. I take care of almost all aspects of the shop including cleaning and accounting. A typical day involves cleaning, organizing, ordering books, planning events, bookkeeping and if I am lucky, a little reading. I will get very cranky if I do not fit in at least a little reading every day.

7. 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?

Without a doubt. I am actively involved with the schools, city and library. I currently sit on six boards and have been on as many as eight or nine at a time. This includes Author Fest, a yearly event for the Manitou Springs Public Library. Over fifty authors give presentations on everything from reading to publishing to writing a great fight scene. Join us the first weekend of October at the Cliff House for Author Fest 2011.

8. What do you think the future looks like for independent booksellers? What do you think you and your fellow independent booksellers need to do to survive?

I think that things actually look pretty good for us. I believe that the chain stores are on their way out and all books will be purchased online or from small stores like Black Cat. The key is to find a need within the community, reading-related or not, and provide that service as well.

9. What advice do you have to offer to an author who would like to conduct an event at your store?

I always read the book before agreeing to a signing. Please bring a copy of your book with you and be prepared to leave it. I also suggest that you invite a few key people to "hang" out and either distribute materials or stir up the curiosity of onlookers during a book signing. Snacks are a good idea too. I would also dress for the weather. Sometimes the best thing to do is to be outside on the sidewalk. Also, figure out a quick catch-phrase to describe your book to passers-by. Be prepared to talk about what you have written in an interesting way.

10. Could you tell us more about you as a person, your likes, dislikes, family life, etc.?

I love to connect people and get things done. I am fairly active and enjoy a good game of soccer. I love reading short stories and anything on economics. I am not a night person and have to struggle to remain alert for the last hour or so that I am open in the evenings. If you have a complex question, I would refrain from asking me after 8pm. I love goat cheese and can be easily persuaded to do things for a good meal. My family is incredibly supportive and live in the Chicago area. They typically come out to visit 3-4 times a year. I am surrounded by friends who try to help me maintain a life outside of the shop and for that I am truly grateful. I always joke that it takes a village to run a bookstore, but I think that just might be the truth.

11. Is there anything else you would like to tell my blog readers?

I typically have about 15-20 events at the store every month. For more information about the "goings on" at Black Cat, visit the website. Also, we love special orders and event ideas. We are on facebook and have a monthly newsletter that we can mail to you or email. You can sign up for the newsletter through the website. I am open most days from 10am-8pm with extended hours during the holiday season.

Black Cat Books
720 Manitou Ave.
Manitou Springs, CO 80829


DeAnna said...

Good stuff.

Mare F said...

What a great interview. Very interesting. I one day hope to open a book store and this has definitely made me rewrite my list. Thanks.

Maryannwrites said...

Enjoyed the interview a lot. The dedication Natalie has to her store and to books is so evident in this post. All of the bookstore owners I have know share that passion for books and authors and readers and love to bring all three together.

N. R. Williams said...

Great interview Beth. I'm so glad that what isn't good for the Big guys will be wonderful for the independents.
N. R. Williams, fantasy author

Beth Groundwater said...

Thanks for your comments, DeAnna, Mare, Maryann, and Nancy!

Vickie said...

This is so cool and such great information. My favorite indie bookshops are High Crimes in Boulder (Cynthia's online only now) and Mystery Lobers Bookshop in Pennsylvania. When I am down in Manitou Springs again, I'll drop by.

G.M. Malliet said...

Eye-opening, the long hours you put in! Thank you for being there, for authors and for readers.

Maryelizabeth said...

Nice interview. Community connection is definitely key. I'm envious of her cool building!

Shannon Baker said...

I LOVE Natalie's book store. She graciously hosted Carol Berg, Janet Fogg and myself last February and though the weather was iffy, the day was one of my favorite memories. Her store is so warm and welcoming. Go there, everyone. But give yourself lots of time to sit and read.