Broadside Bookshop in Northampton, Massachusetts, was the first bookstore I visited after moving to western Massachusetts from my native Lebanon in the summer of 1983. I liked the welcoming staff, the small space, and the shelves piled high with books. Even though my Arabic and French education hadn’t exposed me to the English-speaking authors on display, I felt that I was viewing a collection curated with love and intelligence.
I made it a point to visit often. The civil war was still raging in Lebanon, but the bookstores had remained open, providing havens of stability and reason in a shattered country. I went to Broadside for the same reason I went to the bookstores in Beirut during breaks from the fighting: to lose myself among the shelves and forget the difficult world outside. I was struggling to find something to tether me in my new and unfamiliar life. But books I knew. A friendly staff member would offer to help or simply let me browse to my heart’s content, and the world would get a little brighter. I read and was drawn into the magical circle of belonging.
The region of western Massachusetts known as the Pioneer Valley is home to many colleges. The New York Times describes it as “arguably the most author-saturated, book-cherishing, literature-celebrating place in the nation,” featuring many bookstores to satisfy book lovers. Located in the same spot on Main Street since 1974, Broadside is a Northampton icon and a popular destination for locals. It is part of a network of local bookshops that are rooted in their communities, their excellent customer service providing a welcome relief in an increasingly automated world.
Bruce MacMillan, the shop’s original founder, died in 2001 after leaving the store to four of his employees. Bill Clements is one of these owners. He has been with the store since 1992 and agreed to meet with me. We’ve known one another since the late 1990s, when our sons attended the local Montessori school. After catching up for a few minutes, we began the interview.
There are many bookstores in this area and they all seem to coexist. Why do you think that is?
There aren’t as many as there used to be. I moved here in 1982. For the first ten years that I lived in Northampton, there were four stores that sold new books. Now there are only two.
The town has changed. Rents had risen even before COVID. There are a lot of empty storefronts. It was never like this before. On Thursday nights, the entire town used to be open, but now there isn’t enough street traffic to support it. In fact, for the first time, we are considering not being open late once our winter hours end in a month or so for the rest of the year. We’re usually open until 9 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, and we’re debating whether to keep that up. There aren’t enough people. It’s much more difficult to run a store and make enough money to keep it open. There are fewer places to shop and hardly any retail. It is driven primarily by restaurants in the evenings. I’ve recently traveled and seen a lot worse, so we’re fortunate, but it’s not what it used to be.
What effect did COVID have on sales?
At the start of COVID, Channel 22 did an interview with store owners. They followed up with them after COVID, and we were the only store they originally interviewed that is still in business, out of 4 or 5. So yes, it’s been difficult for local businesses.
Your store will be celebrating its 50th anniversary next year!
The community values us and people here have always gone out of their way to support local independent businesses in general. Because of the politics of the area being what they are, people are aware of the corporations and the big box stores and they know this is not the lifestyle they want to be around as much. They want it, but they don’t want only that. They want us as well. So we really are valuable to them, and they realize that we want to be around for them. That’s a big thing for us. Before the founder of Broadside, Bruce MacMillan, passed away, he made it possible for the store to be passed on to us, and in doing so, he was aware of the legacy of the store. We, too, are very aware of the need for this to continue, and in fact we’re probably going to be in transition in the next three years or so. It will be a generational change, and a lot of stores don’t survive that. When the owners of a store want to retire, they try to sell and find that it’s not easy. Fortunately, we’re setting up things now that will put in place people who will be carrying it on.
So the key is to stay local?
Yes, as well as the politically aware locals who recognize our value as a kind of third place outside of home and work to gather and create community. We’re seen that way. We are not the only ones, but we are part of that.
How do you give back to the community?
We have a non-profit program where we sponsor a non-profit that we feature in the window once a month. We offer them space to be noticed and recognized by people walking by, and give them the money we have raised to help them out. It’s a very popular program. We also provide books for the schools and hold regular reading events featuring local authors.
A book is born. How do you decide which books to display?
Before that, we must decide which books to buy. We order from a company that provides catalogs for all major and minor publishers. The criteria are the author’s track record and, if nonfiction, the subject’s track record. If it’s fiction, we also look at the track record in that genre. We have knowledgeable and experienced buyers who understand what works and what doesn’t. Everyone has their finger in the wind. Publishers don’t know what will work or not, so they put it out there. Most of the books published do not make any money. It’s great that they’re publishing so many writers, but only a small percentage of the successful books drive the whole engine and pay for the ones that are losing money, which accounts for about 80 or 90 percent of the total.
And yet books keep getting published.
It’s an interesting model, and it has its ups and downs. Another major factor is the escalating financial crisis. I attended a conference in Seattle three weeks ago, and the main topic of discussion was what we should do about it, and where this is all going. The rising cost of books is a big concern. Novels are selling for almost $30, and non-fiction can cost up to $45.
That leaves out a lot of people.
That’s a big concern. Going back to the business of bookselling, we order the books and we put them out. Some will succeed unexpectedly through word of mouth, while others will be carried because they are written by well-known authors. In a way, the rich get richer. We make a point to stock works by local authors. We accept books, even self-published books, from walk-in authors. We have a consignment program, and we carry these books for a small fee. If they sell, we order more. If not, after a year or so we ask them to take them back. This creates a local connection. Most of our reading events are by local authors. We have a lot of authors in this area.
Books have a different business model than food or clothing. The books can be returned. The publishers accept them back at no cost. If a book doesn’t sell, we return it and that’s it; we pay the return freight, which isn’t cheap, but there’s no discount on them. We can keep the books flowing that way, but you must stay on top of it. Ordering, returning, culling, and reviewing records on a regular basis. If a book hasn’t sold in three months, it is returned. It’s a judgment call whether you continue to carry it after selling one in three months and for how long.
NPR and the New York Review of Books are both important venues for book promotion. We have a very popular bookcase where we keep titles that have been reviewed by NPR. Many people get their recommendations from them. It’s a constant flow.
On the subject of “the rich getting richer,” I’m wondering how small presses fit into the picture as you decide which new books to purchase. Small presses frequently publish writers from underrepresented groups like women, minorities, and lesser-known authors. Keeping in mind that booksellers are trying to survive in an increasingly difficult economy, do you believe they have a role in highlighting some of these lesser-known voices in an effort to broaden the literary playing field?
It is part of our mission as booksellers to carry lesser known and marginalized authors. This is made easier by the publishing and book distribution industries: publishers are making a substantial effort to publish women, minorities, and lesser known authors, especially after the wake-up call of the controversy over the publication of American Dirt several years ago. There’s been far greater diversity of voices published since then. Distributors are carrying small presses so we have easy access to them. The bookselling business is always about a balance between carrying what sells–we need to stay in business, of course–and doing our job as purveyors of culture(s), writ large and small. We are very aware of the need for the latter.
I’m one of those people who prefer to have a book in my hands rather than read on a screen. Do you think that’s still true for most people?
Yes. a lot of people are mixed. They do both, but it’s circumstantial. If they’re on a plane, it’s an e-book. If they are reading genre fiction, it’s often e-readers, partly because people tear through a romance or mystery in a short time, and do they want to spend $17 on it? This drives which format they use. Many people discovered in the last 10 or 15 years, when e-books looked like they were going to take over the world, that the readership went up and then plateaued. That’s because a lot of people like the feel of the book. Astonishingly, I heard years ago that young people were getting tired of their screens, and it was almost a relief for them to have a book in their hands.
Hopefully, that is true. Our readership skews older, but there are many young people who come in to buy books.
I believe that people are not reading as much as they used to. Is that consistent with your experience?
I just read an article in the New Yorker about the decline in college enrollment in the humanities. In an interview, a Columbia English professor said that he used to read five novels a month. Then he bought a cell phone. Now he’s happy if he reads one book per month. If someone like him is reading this much less, imagine what it’s like for other people! We’re all reading blogs, responding to emails, and listening to podcasts. Few people read the long form, although people continue to write them. How many people nowadays read Dickens?
Are you seeing these changes reflected in sales?
Somewhat. But we had our best year ever two years ago, as did almost everyone. Because of the outpouring from the community following COVID, 2021 was far above any other year. Last year was not as good, but it wasn’t bad. Things are sluggish this year, but we hope sales will pick up.
The opening keynote speaker at this year’s ABA (American Booksellers Association) Winter Institute conference said that there are currently 530 new independent bookstores in the pipeline nationwide. The book industry suffered significant losses during the 2008 recession, which didn’t really level out until 2012. But, since then, there has been a steady increase in the number of new independent bookstores opening, proving that it is a viable business model. The real indicator is that Barnes and Noble has been struggling. It used to be the big box stores were our main competitor before Amazon became the boogeyman. The independent stores won that battle to the point where Barnes and Noble hired the guy who turned around BigBox books in England. The way he did it there, and is now attempting to replicate his strategy at Barnes and Noble, is by giving power back to the actual managers of each store á la indie bookstore model, rather than corporate dictating what you buy and where you display. It’s all about reinvesting in the local community.
I wonder if they’ll succeed. Barnes and Noble feels cold and big to me.
It may not be able to fully replicate us. Also, customer service is what sets us apart and was the bedrock of our turnaround. Indie bookstores are staffed by people who know books and are trained booksellers. That’s what we have that the big ones don’t.
Aside from buying books, how do we support our local bookstores?
Attend events. Join book clubs that are sponsored by the stores. We don’t have one but others do. Mostly, it’s by financially supporting us.
And don’t go anywhere near Amazon!
That’s also mixed. It’s similar to what we said about e-books earlier. This was the message at the Seattle conference: get used to Amazon. Your best customers are buying from Amazon. It’s very difficult to resist that whim in the evening, when you go over to your computer and hit the button. It’s amazingly convenient. There are also a large number of people who do it for the lower cost and do not bother with us.
Bookshop.org can scratch that itch.
It’s good that you know about it. That’s a measure of its success.
Is it helpful?
The guy behind Bookshop, the one responsible for the whole enterprise, gave a presentation at the conference. He said that COVID really increased the success of Bookshop. It was the right time to start it. He was trying to give booksellers a platform that would not necessarily be able to compete with Amazon, but would at least allow us to stay in the game. He was successful, and part of it was the timing, with COVID triggering community support. Bookshop has grown five times since then. It is spreading and incredibly generous. We aren’t very active with it. But we get two checks from them each year with no effort on our part. They pool money and then divide it among the participating stores. And the customer can get the book by mail while still supporting independent bookstores in general. If you want to support a specific store, you can do so by choosing one when you first log on to the Bookshop website.
Do you have a favorite section in the store?
I’m a non-fiction guy. I love history, especially local history.
If you had infinite space, what would add?
I would have more sidelines. (Laughs.) There was a flattening out of sales in the 1900s and the downturn in 2008. Both times, the ABA highly recommended that we make up the difference by increasing the number of sidelines and not rely only on books. The founder of Broadside, Bruce, was a book guy. He had literally one spinner rack of cards from one guy in Maine. That was it. I’m naturally inclined toward liking the old-fashioned kind of stuffed place where you walk through and see something different at every turn. The store reflects my cluttered mind, I guess. (Laughs.)
It feels like a small library to me, and the sidelines are just part of the decor.
I keep stuffing things in here, much to the chagrin of my colleagues. They’re always rolling their eyes. We do have a filter, and we try to keep it to things related to words. We try not to have anything way out there. We still want to have some sense of dignity and integrity as a bookstore. (Laughs.)
Phone: (413) 586-4235
Thérèse Soukar Chehade, author of Loom, has spent the last two decades teaching English Language Learners at a public school in Amherst, MA. She lives in Granby, MA, where the autumn foliage still fills her heart with gladness. Her upcoming novel, We Walked On, will be published by Regal House in the fall of 2024.