I’ve always been an avid reader and bibliophile. I have been selling books since my first job in a used bookstore right after graduating from the University Of Washington with a degree in Comparative Literature in 1987, which makes for twenty-four years of bookselling.
My partner, Sean Carlson, who also worked in the same used bookstore and was an English major, cab driver, and student activist when I met him in college, and I opened Pistil Books & News, a retail bookstore in 1993. Pistil Books & News was located on Pike Street on Seattle’s Capitol Hill in an area that was in transition from “auto row” (warehouses and repair shops) to independent small businesses, bars, coffee shops, clubs, and restaurants during Seattle’s “grunge” years. Pistil Books & News was a 25,000 volume used and new neighborhood bookstore which also sold magazines and zines and was known for its support of alternative publications and culture. During our seven -and-a-half years as an open retail shop, we held regular author readings, displayed art on the walls by local artists, and published our own zine, Pistil Prose, with its popular feature “Retail Hell,” which is excerpted on our website. During this time, we also exhibited and sold books at book fairs such as Northwest Bookfest, Seattle Poetry Festival, and the Bumbershoot literary stage. We learned-by-doing all aspects of running a retail store including purchasing, supervising employees, and the joy of bookkeeping and taxes.
We began selling books online during our time as a retail store, first beginning to list on Abe in 1996. By April of 2001, internet sales were about a third of our business and when we could not renew our lease on terms we were happy with, we decided to close our retail store and become an online-only business. In just a month and a half, Sean transformed the unfinished basement of our home – in the same neighborhood as our retail store – from a low-ceilinged space with a dirt floor into our current lovely 13,000 volume warehouse/office with parquet floors and eight-foot shelves moved from our store. We now sell our books on a dozen different bookselling websites. We joined IOBA in 2006, and I worked on the membership committee for about a year in 2009.
Although we were sad to close our retail store, and miss the daily community involvement and human interaction of a retail store, we have found running an internet-only bookstore to have its own rewards. As a retail bookstore, we were open 80 hours/week. I worked full-time and supervised a number of employees, including one employee, Tim Ridlon, who still works for us part-time fifteen years later. Now both Sean and I work about half-time, and we also employ Sean’s brother, Troy, part-time as our packer and shipper (he takes all our packages to the local post office on foot with a handcart). We now have more time to travel, both for business and for pleasure (usually we combine both), and to read. In addition, running an online-only store has substantially lowered our operating costs. We have found closing our retail store to be a sound business decision; we have watched as numerous local brick-and-mortar bookstores have closed over the last ten years due to the changing nature of the book business and increasing overhead costs.
As an internet bookstore, the kinds of books we stock has changed quite a bit. We have learned over the years what kinds of books hold their value in a marketplace of intense seller competition, megalisters, and robot pricing. We carry a lot of books that we have a personal interest in – Sean picks up titles on alternative building and energy (he has five acres at the edge of the Cascade Mountains he is working on putting a garden and cabin on), and alternative/radical politics. And I can’t pass up vintage children’s library bindings with their buckram covers and cool illustrations. We also like period books of pop culture. One of our favorite finds was a copy of Andy Warhol’s Index Book, discovered in a box under a table at a library sale. This is a piece of pop art itself, with pop-ups, a vinyl record, and other objects of the time (1967), including supposed LSD tabs. We also have a copy of the controversial 1975 sex education book, Show Me by photographer Will McBride.
We have our own website, www.pistilbooks.net, which includes virtual readings by local authors in the form of audio files, a blog on reading and bookselling, and The Museum of Weird Books. We also have an annual outdoor book sale, which gives us a chance to get back in touch with the community and neighbors. In addition, we have recently begun co-hosting salons with another bookseller friend in which small groups of people come together to eat, drink, and converse on themes with a literary bent. I have also been quite interested in printing and the book arts, and have taken classes on bookbinding and printing, including letterpress, monoprints, and screen printing. I re-bind old library books into blank journals, with the help of Troy, which I sell online and in a local shop. I was also able to take the class The History of the Book, 500-2000 at Rare Book School at the University of Virginia, thanks to an IOBA scholarship.
For us, the biggest challenge in online bookselling has been the advent of the megalisters and digital versions of books, which have driven the down the value of books that we used to be able to sell for $5- $15 to nothing. It’s not easy to predict the changes that will occur in the trade in the next 5 – 10 years, but we have a hard time believing that the megalisters’ business practices are sustainable, even with a large portion of their stock being gathered for free or next-to-free. Also, if many people read digital versions of books and fewer physical books are printed, we could see “common” books actually increasing in value down the road. Our biggest problem right now, guess what, is storage space. Maybe we’ll move to the middle of Montana and sell everything for one dollar from a huge automated warehouse.