One chapter ends and another begins…
While I am sure there are quite a few professors who left academe to open bookstores, I am not sure how many have spent their careers shouting, “5, 6, 7, 8…!!” For, you see, I have spent much of my life since age 22 teaching and choreographing jazz dance. It is not something that I aspired to as a child growing up in Long Island, New York. Rather, it was something that happened to me along the way to a career in music or theatre, both of which I was interested and involved in since childhood.
Because I was not athletic (far from it, since the coach always had to place me on one or the other dismayed team), dance did not seem to be the life I would wind up pursuing. But, because the community college I attended after graduating high school (and after being transplanted to Miami, Florida, at the thirteen-year-old peak of adolescent angst) had a P.E. requirement, and dance was an option, I began dancing. Figuring that I would need dance for theater, I tried a class and was hooked. Now, some 35 years later, and after a B.F.A. in dance and a Master’s in philosophy and art, I have taught, choreographed and performed in so many places. From New York’s Alvin Ailey school to heading the dance program at Interlochen Arts Academy; from Alaska (where a certain female singer was a student of mine that I brought to the lower 48) to teaching in Israel, Germany, Italy, Japan, and Hawaii (even a master class at Barack Obama’s Alma Mater, Punahou School); to across the USA. Besides my role as teacher I also recruited talented students from schools in a 20 to 38 state tour each year (really built up those frequent flyer miles!).
My final full time professorship was at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, where after ten years I was denied tenure. A chapter closed. My wonderful wife, Joanna—also from New York, but teaching outside of Dallas—and I met through the personals there. My experience at SMU was a sign to return to the east coast, and Joanna accepted a position teaching at St. Mary’s College in Southern Maryland. And there is where the next chapter opened.
A whole county with no used bookstore? How strange! Maybe this was the time to try my hand at creating my dream in the county seat, Leonardtown. (Actually, I lie: there is one other used bookstore in this area. Before I opened, Joanna and I went to innocently check out the competition and quickly discovered that while the front room had an odd collection of mass market paperbacks, the real “meat” of the operation was in the back room through a curtain marked “you must be 21 to enter.”)
Fenwick St. Used Books and Music
I can hear my father joking about my mother “always having her nose in a book.” Maybe that is where I inherited my love for literature; I don’t know. I do remember reading the book that launched my full immersion in a life of reading: Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. I must have read it shortly after it was published. While I enjoyed reading from an early age, that book really affected me because of its exploration of morals and customs, and of how we would act if brought up in a totally different world. This begins to explain why I studied philosophy.
Folks who visit my shop describe it in many ways. More than once I have heard that it reminds them of Shakespeare & Company in Paris. Others just love the many quotations I have posted around the shop. All seem to love the many categories of books. I am a generalist, although I do have some nice rare and signed books, including a section of vintage children’s books. The centerpiece of my shop is the old bar. My shop was a real bar for 30 years—it seems quite a rowdy one—and the actual bar was brought down by steamship from Baltimore over 70 years ago. Quite the conversation piece, and some old timers immediately place themselves where their favorite stool was. And to quote a recent article about the shop, “where the products are more likely to be inscribed than imbibed.” There is even a drive-through in the alley, where one could purchase alcoholic beverages through a window, which is still there and something I still have not figured out what to do with. (An audio book for the road, anyone?).
Since I have visited at least 100 used bookstores across the US (and many in Europe) perhaps I have in mind what I like to call the archetypal bookstore. I know it is a place that I have created from all I have experienced before. I take pride in meeting and exceeding my customers’ reading needs and recommending authors that might interest them. Even though it is time consuming I do order books that I do not have in the shop, as I feel this is a necessary service. My shop has become a focal point of the reading and music community (I am also a musician and sell vinyl records and cds in my shop, featuring local talent as well as vintage jazz, blues and rock). There are also the local poets that meet once a month for an open mic. I enjoy helping my customers and I know they appreciate what I provide. They show it in so many ways.
I started listing online almost from the opening of my shop. Abe was the first. I quickly learned of Alibris and others, and currently list on those as well as IOBAbooks, Amazon, Choose/ZVAB and my own site. The credo to which I have adhered is that I will not list books that are readily available. If there are more than 25 copies of it and the prices start low, I will skip it. My minimum price to list online now is $20. Like many others, Amazon seems to sell more books than any other site. I sell fairly esoteric titles there. Also, I must say, sales are good there because of name recognition. I know from experience that even college professors look to Amazon first.
I started a list serv for owners of brick and mortar shops four years ago, because I could not find a consortium online. To date, I have over 250 members from all over and I am very proud of the group’s intelligence, kindness and success. It has been quite a wonderful resource for those of us with brick and mortar as well as online book sales. http://finance.groups.yahoo.com/group/oldbookstore.
In addition to my full-time work with my shop and online sales, I am a wedding officiant. I create custom wedding ceremonies for couples wanting something unique and different. www.creativeweddings-somd.com.
I have spent the last year on the membership committee of IOBA and I have found it very rewarding. I am honored to be part of this organization, which is upholding the highest standards of bookselling online. I hope that through the ongoing dialogue and profiles of online sellers, we can all benefit from this excellent organization.
Joe Orlando operates Fenwick Street Used Books and Music in Leonardtown, MD.
IOBA Standard, Fall Edition 2007, Volume 8, No. 4.