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
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
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
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
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
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
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:
title selection with a myriad of lists of reviews of good books.
with publishers to verify the availability of selected titles before an
announcement is made to the group's membership.
enough of their selections for every member.
their members at a 20% discount.
their book on our two-wall display with the group's name in case a member
forgets the month's title.
an e-mail to every member when the books arrive.
our web site if the group is seeking new members.
free, private, beautiful meeting room that can accommodate from 5 to 75,
available when the store is open or after hours.
complimentary wine when groups meet here.
away Reading Group Guides.
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
firstname.lastname@example.org . 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
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.
2626 19th Place, South
Birmingham, AL 35209
For more information or to be added to the mailing list, please visit:
Pam Kingsbury, All Rights Reserved