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Building Relationships in the Literary Community

An Interview with Jake Reiss

by Pam Kingsbury



A visit to The Alabama Booksmith is a mini-vacation. Located in Homewood, the bookstore specializes in the promotion of Alabama authors, is a member of the Booksense consortium, and an oasis for any book lover.

Owner Jake Reiss refers to customers as "guests" and treats them accordingly. Works by Alabama artists, and soothing jazz provide ambience. The store's layout invites guests to sit down and spend time with a good book.

Reiss and his employees are helpful yet never intrusive.

One of Alabama's most beloved writers, Anne George, started every tour at the Alabama Booksmith and the astute reader will remember Jake Reiss and his "book store gang" had cameos in several of her works, as well as the dedication in one of her last books. Many other fine writers have long term relationships with Reiss, his employees, and the bookstore. The Alabama Booksmith is a popular stop on book tours and has been mentioned in the acknowledgements of several books, most recently,
Stories from the Blue Moon Cafe' II and Life is a Strange Place by Frank Turner Hollon.

You were trained to go into your family's business in Mobile? How did you get into the book business?

I still make my living in America's oldest family owned custom tailoring business. We're in our fourth generation and 104th year. As my friends call "my strange venture into the book business" came about when my youngest son returned to Atlanta after managing a fantastic bookstore in San Francisco for ten years and opened his own store in Atlanta. We helped him a little financially and went around with him as he purchased used copies to stock his store.

At the time, I was not much of a reader, but the used book business appeared to be a fun way to make a little extra money and meet nice folks, so we tried it. We hired a cadre of brilliant book people to run the place, and I merely dropped by on occasion. Our original operation, The Highland Booksmith, in the bohemian section of Birmingham's southside was 100% used books.

How long have you been in business in the Birmingham (Al) area?

We opened September 22, 1990 and moved to Homewood October 16, 1999.

What trends have you noticed in the book business in the last dozen or so years?

The exact same trends that are happening in every phase of our lives. Most Americans' buying habits lean towards malls and the internet and away from the individually run business. We foolish booksellers like to think that our product is different and real readers will continue to patronize real bookstores and not the big boxes and on-line robots who might as well be selling widgets and monkey wrenches and put Dr. Zhivago in medicine..

However, there actually may be something to that dream. Our business has increased every year since we opened our doors. Much of the credit for that phenomenon goes to BookSense, the organization of independent booksellers in all fifty states who have come together and reversed the diminishing market of the independents in our field.

How does having an active literary community with reading groups influence business?

While giving BookSense considerable credit for any trend-bucking our store might achieve, the active literary community and reading groups are major reasons for our yearly increases. We participate in dozens of conferences around Alabama that combined with our in-store events account for the majority of our sales. Reading Groups monopolize what's left. There are over six million reading groups in America, and we have more than our share in Alabama.

A tremendous part of our effort in operating the store goes to the reading groups we serve. When a group registers with us, we will:

       Help in title selection with a myriad of lists of reviews of good books.

       Check with publishers to verify the availability of selected titles before an announcement is made to the group's membership.

       Stock enough of their selections for every member.

       Sell to their members at a 20% discount.

       Put their book on our two-wall display with the group's name in case a member forgets the month's title.

       Send out an e-mail to every member when the books arrive.

       Post on our web site if the group is seeking new members.

       Offer a free, private, beautiful meeting room that can accommodate from 5 to 75, available when the store is open or after hours.

       Serve complimentary wine when groups meet here.

       Give away Reading Group Guides.

       Give away free advance reading copies.

Whew! I think you see you pushed our "hot button" when you asked about reading groups. In case there's a single group in Alabama reading this interview that has not registered, please inquire at . Our store may not work for everyone, but we surely work for every reading group.

Do bookstores have any influence over the literary community?

From a bookseller's prospective, we probably overestimate our influence.. Unfortunately, with the busy lives we lead, booksellers, writers, and books don't carry the influence we did before television, the internet and all the mundane mass diversions that limit or eliminate our reading time. In our reading group's discussion last month of John Adams, it was pointed out that there were 300 bookstores in Philadelphia during Revolutionary times when the population was 30,000. That same ratio would put 1,000 bookstores in Birmingham today. Unfortunately, booksellers have diminished in importance somewhat.

I'd like to think the independent booksellers in our community have a positive influence by promoting books and writers of quality and local interest regardless of the economic consequences.

How does having a relationship with a writer help both the writer's sales and the bookstore's sales?

Gee, that's my favorite question. If this store is different in any way from all the others - it is our relationship with writers. From the day of our first signing, we have tried to do whatever it takes to create a great experience for authors.  While we always want to sell lots of books, our primary aim is the writer's comfort. We're flattered these talented folks chose to spend their valuable time with us and feel it is our obligation to treat them as our honored guests. Frequently, an unknown writer becomes well-known and in-demand and does not forget a few kindnesses along the way. You mentioned Anne George at the beginning of this article and she was a shining example.

To specifically answer your question, most of our sales come from our events. We send out over 4,000 invitations to each signing, as well as alert the local media. In cases where it is warranted, we notify statewide media. Our web site is becoming more and more important and we're in the process of developing a web site in conjunction with independent booksellers all over the South to advise everyone in the region about author appearances. This should prove to be an amazing tool.

We always ask the writer to sign copies for stock and on occasion will sell more books afterwards than actually at the signing.

Your local paper has a local bestseller list. Would you like to discuss the list and how a book gets on the list?

The Birmingham News provides a terriffic service to its readers with this locally generated list. All eight major booksellers in the area report and every store's vote is worth the same. Our number one seller for the week may have only sold a few dozen copies whereas one of the big chains may have sold hundreds, but that's still only one vote. To further even the playing field, each chain is only given one vote, regardless of how many outlets they may have. This way, an independent bookseller has a good chance of landing its writers on the list. The public then gets a fair view of the types of books being sold at different venues. We support their method wholeheartedly.

The Alabama Booksmith is very active in literary events statewide ........

I touched on that a little above. Writing Conferences around the state are singularly important not only to us as a bookseller, but they give Alabama's literati a chance to meet the writers up close and personal and gives the writers an opportunity they may not otherwise have to talk openly about their work and answer readers' questions.

We've had a few events televised nationally on C-SPAN and hope to do more. Whenever it happens, we hear from folks around the country. Maybe the most important television involvement we've had started June 1, when we began underwriting "BOOKMARK" on Alabama Public Television. While we normally suggest turning off the TV, or throwing it away, we strongly request everyone in the state reserve Sunday afternoon at 1:30 for thirty minutes of literary refreshment. Don Noble won an Emmy for his work and the reason is evident when you watch the way he handles himself and the wonderful authors we meet on Alabama Public Television.

Over the years he's interviewed such super stars as Toni Morrison, Ray Bradbury, James Dickey, Eugene Walter, Pat Conroy and over a hundred others. I'll promise everyone reading this interview they will enjoy BOOKMARK. DVD's of each show are available by calling 205.870.4242 or e-mail .

Handselling is probably the biggest reason readers select independent bookstores. Would you like to talk about the importance of your employees' approach to handselling books?

We're pretty good at author events, parking and access is great, our inventory boggles the mind, and even our building is pretty snazzy, but we wouldn't still have the doors open if we didn't have the smartest, nicest, most helpful, and best read staff in America.

We only have one Phi Beta Kappa, but there's usually an employee available who can answer almost any question about any book. Our diversity of reading habits serves us well. We take great pride in being able to discuss our books. Unfortunately, the pay is considerably lower than the high notch we set on our entrance bar, and the selection process weeds out the vast majority of applications.

We consider hand-selling ultra important. We are thrilled when we identify a great book by reading the advance copy months before the book is published and then watching our sales climb before that title is even a blip on the national scene. Without naming names, we've pre-picked a ton of winners and consider hand-selling like an adoption agency. We want to be sure we put the right book in the right reader's hands.

What would you still like to do at the bookstore?

That's the easiest question of all. We'd like to find those other brilliant, well-read, nice folks out there who are willing to contribute so much for so little and complete our staff and catch up with all the "stuff" we have on our "to do" list, but haven't quite gotten to yet.

Alabama Booksmith
2626 19th Place, South
Birmingham, AL 35209
Monday 10:30 AM  to  6:30 PM
Tuesday 10:30 AM  to  6:30 PM
Wednesday 10:30 AM  to  6:30 PM
Thursday 10:30 AM  to  6:30 PM
Friday 10:30 AM  to  6:30 PM
Saturday 10:30 AM  to  6:30 PM
Sunday Closed

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2003, Pam Kingsbury, All Rights Reserved