Wednesday, May 11, 2011

In Defense of the Bookstore: Changing Hands

Meteorologically speaking, I’m predisposed to a reading climate best described as mostly cloudy, with a chance of showers, breaking occasionally for strolls down by the water. When a friend told me about a bookstore in Tempe, AZ, I was dubious – In the desert? As if. That is, until I got e-hold of bookseller Brandon Stout, at Changing Hands.

Changing Hands exterior

The store, a pillar of literary culture in the American southwest since 1974, gushed from the pipedreams of three alternative school volunteers. And, being volunteers, Tom Brodersen, Gayle Shanks, and Bob Sommer kept their community service in mind as they determined to create an outlet for hard to find books. Dealing in new and used books, Changing Hands overwhelmed its original space by 1978, expanding twice within just a few years, and eventually covering 5,000 square feet. In the next twenty years, they would open a second, much larger location.

In that time, the bookstore developed from a small outfit into a collective of friends, a worker-owned operation. Since then, with all the expansion, a core group of decision-makers was determined, taking on employees from then on, still heavily valuing fairness and involvement from all bookshop workers. Staying open for over three decades, the bookstore has seen its fair share of recessions and changes in the book business, and to have expanded so much in that time—incredible!


Changing Hands interior

Still, bookseller Brandon Stout is willing to claim, “right now is the most exciting period in history to be a bookseller.”

Anyone who’s glanced at the New York Times Book Review, New York Review of Books, or clicked on over to Salon or Huffington Post knows that books are yet again changing, in some ways nearly on par with impact of the original Gutenberg printing press. E-commerce and e-books are seeing a significant upswing compared to bookstores and print media, traditionally published authors are going self-pub, self-published authors are signing six figure contracts with big presses. It’s enough to make your head spin.

“It’s all changing so fast, and yet by working hard, being creative, and by loving books, authors, and readers infinitely more than chain stores do, or any online algorithm that ‘recommends’ your next read, indies remain a vibrant part of their communities,” Stout says.

And it’s community that Changing Hands has always concerned itself with, from the very beginning. The bookstore has benefited schools and organizations in support of education and the arts, generating an impressive list of recipients positively impacted by the participation Changing Hands has had in their fundraising.

In addition, the store plays host to over 300 author events offered throughout the year, big names like Barack Obama and David Sedaris to local authors—Stephanie Meyer alert! the Twilight author hails from Tempe—and indie press darlings, like Brady Udall, whose novel The Lonely Polygamist (an intricate and enchanting piece of fiction, in my completely objective opinion, and now out in paperback) is currently a finalist for the Booksellers Choice Award.

Sherman Alexie signs latest War Dances

“As far as connection goes,” Stout offers, “there's no substitute for author events. Yes, you can chat on Facebook or Twitter (provided it's not a personal assistant hosting the feed, as is often the case), but meeting your hero in person? Shaking his or her hand? Having your book signed and your picture taken? Take that, social media. Hell, take that, internet!”

Which isn’t to say Changing Hands escapes the World Wide Web altogether. “We got a late start on the social media front, so I made catching up a priority last year. Our Facebook community, which is approaching 8,000 fans, is particularly vibrant, because that's where our customers are, people who actually live in the area and come into the store, or might be induced to come in.”

They keep a Twitter feed, too. “Twitter is the sexy platform, right?” But there’s an inexplicable trend Stout points out: “I love our Twitter community, but in our case at least, it's an entirely different audience than Facebook. Very few locals. Other booksellers tell me the same about their own feeds.”

That such a distinction becomes apparent to someone like Brandon Stout goes to show how closely he and his colleagues are paying attention. It cultivates a sense of community for readers much in the way that friendships use social media to enhance relationships, an added ease in communicating events and other points of connection, while not diminishing the enriching power of those real life interactions.

As to why he remains passionate about bookselling, Stout puts it succinctly, if only in someone else’s words:
Patton Oswalt spoke at the store yesterday. When someone asked him why he persevered for so long as a young comedian, why he endured the crappy clubs, hostile or apathetic audiences, the lousy pay, he said, "I wanted the lifestyle long before I wanted the success. The lifestyle of a stand-up comic. Most of all, I wanted to hang out with other comedians, which is the best version of life you can live. When I was finally able to support myself by doing what I love, that was it. I'd already won. The success is just gravy." Substitute "bookseller" for "comedian" and there you have it, really.

3 comments:

L.L. Barkat said...

This is terrific. I love your humor, and I love the vibrant personality of the featured bookseller. That final quote was wonderful. (Substitute "poet" or "small-press publisher" for me. :)

HisFireFly said...

I agree with L.L. -- replace bookseller with poet/author and it still rings true!

Michael Dodaro said...

About the same time that the Changing Hands Bookstore was getting started, I opened a bookstore in Seattle called Windhover Books. Because I took the name from the poem by Hopkins, I had many conversations with people who also loved that poet’s work. Of course, I also sold tons of espionage novels, horror, and romance out of the piles of used books that came in the door. The place never made much money but it paid for my office space; I continued to run another business during the few years the bookstore survived. This was Seattle just before the coffee-shop business went ballistic in the way of the stock market of that era. Had I seen it coming I could have added an espresso machine and made a good living. But the place served another purpose at that juncture in my life when I had escape a raging alcoholic wife. All things considered, sleeping in the back of the bookstore was preferable to home. I’ve come to think of the whole enterprise as a success!