novel tactics: death of indie bookstore has been greatly exaggerated

This article will attempt to avoid the phrase, "in these tough economic times." Over the last few decades, Cleveland has stood weary under the yoke of economic disadvantage, making entrepreneurial pursuits in this town the purview of the boldest, the bravest, and say some, the craziest. Unless, of course, you happen to be in the asphalt or salt business; those guys always seem busy regardless the season.

This article also will attempt to steer clear of the cresting wave of civic boosterism that lately has been rippling through local print and online media. Of course, everyone likes good news. And certainly, Cleveland abounds with all matter of wonderful things. There's a nationally-celebrated food scene, a vibrant arts and music scene, ambitious sustainability movements, glorious cultural institutions, and three pro sports teams that stoke our local pride (even if they never manage to claim the ultimate prize).

This article will, however, showcase a subset of savvy, thick-skinned entrepreneurs whose work can also be filed under "Great Things About Cleveland: Bookstores." Subtitle: "Strategies of Survival."

Bookstores in the region have never just been about musty piles of aged tomes. Many times, these haunts became the equivalent of blue-collar salons. Cleveland might never have breathed NYC's rarefied literary air, but there's always been a hunger in this city not just for the written word, but for the company of those who enjoy it. Indeed, the rarer the treasure, the more passionate the treasure hunter. Consequently, this city's got some serious bibliophiles, hence repeated inclusion on lists of this country's most literate cities.

That well-read community, in fact, is what Cleveland's indie bookstores have always fed. The rise of e-books and the extinction of big box chains like Borders have certainly affected the public's perception of our city's bookstores. It has not, however, unduly affected enthusiastic booksellers and their clientele.

Community Space

Suzanne DeGaetano, proprietor of Coventry Road's beloved and venerable Mac's Backs, explains that "sidelines" -- activities that aren't immediately tied to book sales -- are not only needed by booksellers, but an essential part of what she calls the "browsing culture."  While preparing for a teen book club event on a recent Saturday morning, DeGaetano says, "The events we do create a symbiotic relationship, reinforcing sales and community at the same time."   

In addition to poetry readings, which have been a staple at Mac's since it opened in the mid-80s, DeGaetano makes a point of opening the space up to use by and for the community. "We feel that's part of our mission," she says. "I love promoting authors to our readers and customers. Our location, in the Coventry neighborhood, connected to Tommy's restaurant, has really helped us out."

Mac's, however, is also adapting to the times. "Very soon, we'll be partnering up with the ABA [American Booksellers Association] so that people can buy e-books from us," DeGaetano adds. "We want to be part of this changing technology, so we're very excited about this."

Center Stage

Jane Kessler, owner of the 36 year-old Appletree Books in Cleveland Heights, has a different tactic for staying in business. "We go out to where the authors and readers are," says Kessler. "We recently had a presence for a signing with Andy Borowitz and Mary Doria Russell, and that worked really well for us. We'll go to libraries, schools, cultural centers... wherever the authors are making an appearance."

As she rings up another customer, Kessler says, "Our big competition was never those big chain stores. It's actually Amazon. Because of their size and speed, those guys are hard to fight. Furthermore, they can also operate tax-free. Even though I know many people will use Amazon, I tell people to split their orders between us and those guys."

Go Cheap or Go Home

Located in Ohio City, two-year-old Horizontal Books fights the good fight simply through competitive pricing. Instead of utilizing sidelines to attract customers, owner David Kallevig works on selling his books as cheaply as possible. "Our pricing structure makes many of our books cheaper than e-books," he says. "People ask how we're able to keep our prices so low; we simply work really hard at cutting our costs and offering the best deals."

In addition to moving books off the shelves, Horizontal replaces them just as rapidly. "We get about 200 new books every day," notes Kallevig. "We make sure our inventory changes from week to week. Customers comment on the wide variety of titles we have on our shelves."

It also doesn't hurt that Horizontal snagged a storefront in one of the most trafficked neighborhoods in town. "We love this neighborhood," he says of Ohio City. "Because of the West Side Market and the restaurants that have opened on West 25th, we get tourists that come in town to visit. That's great for us."

Bottoms Up!

Dave Ferrante, owner of Tremont's four-year-old Visible Voice Books, also benefits from being in a well-travelled 'hood, admitting that events like ArtWalk and Arts & Culture Festival definitely help support the business.

"But we've got our own events, too," he adds. "When it's nice out, we have live music in our courtyard. We've got a community meeting space upstairs, where we've had book signings, film showings, and urban farmer conferences. We try to get people to enjoy the whole space."

That is pretty easy to do when your space, a combination beatnik hangout and vacation cottage, happens to sell wine. "Of course, our sideline is wine, so we offer wine tastings that sometimes act as charity fundraisers. The idea is for people to hang out, drink some wine, listen to music, and hopefully, check out our selection of books."

Each bookseller interviewed for this article -- and there are many more in Cleveland where they came from -- never expected their stores to survive solely as literary vending machines. Poetry readings, book signings, live music, and even glasses of Australian chardonnay aren't merely novel tactics to get feet through the door. Rather, they're an essential component of book culture. That culture, in turn, only makes Cleveland a richer, more illuminated place in which to live.

Edward Angel Sotelo is a musician and freelance writer who has been known to work -- and perform -- at Visible Voice Books.

Photos Bob Perkoski
- Images 1 - 5: Horizontal Books with owner David Kallevig (images 1, 3 & 5)
- Images 6 - 9: Mac's Back Books with owner Suzanne DeGaetano (image 6) & John McMahon (image 9)
- Images 10 - 15: Visible Voice Books with Courtney Smith (image 13)

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