NEW YORK – In 1974, Gayle Shanks was a 23-year-old idealist raised on the activism of the previous decade and anxious to make a difference herself.
So she opened a bookstore.
“Books had changed my life and I assumed they could change other people’s lives as well,” says Shanks, whose Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe, Arizona, is now among the country’s leading independent sellers. “I really imagined this as a place where people would come and talk about ideas and books, and I still see it that way.”
Bookstores have a long history as allies and nurturers of social movements, and a generation of owners came of age when works ranging from Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22” to Eldridge Cleaver’s “Soul on Ice” were an integral part of the uprisings of the ’60s and ’70s.
Shanks, Mitchell Kaplan of Books & Books in Coral Gables, Florida, and Kris Kleindienst of Left Bank Books in St. Louis are among many baby boomers who founded stores with little sense of how to run a business, but a profound sense of purpose. They are now pillars of a smaller but still vital independent-bookstore community, and models for the wave of younger owners who have opened stores in recent years.
This generation “basically invented the contemporary independent bookstore, and persevered through some very hard times,” says Oren Teicher, CEO of the independents’ trade group, American Booksellers Association. “The key to it was they always understood the store wasn’t only about buying and selling books, but a way to engage with the community.”
“I feel like Mitch is my mentor in a real way, and Gayle and these other people I can call on any time for advice and guidance,” says 40-year-old Sarah McNally, owner of McNally Jackson Books in Manhattan. “What’s amazing to me isn’t just how they started their stores, but that they survived.”
Kleindienst, co-owner of Left Bank Books since 1977, began as a sales clerk at the store three years earlier when she was just 21. Left Bank was founded in 1969 by graduate students at nearby Washington University, and Kleindienst was among the first employees. As the original owners dispersed, Kleindienst and fellow clerk Barry Leibman stepped in.
“I couldn’t separate what I do for a living from who I am,” she says. “I am a writer, and an avid reader and I got a bachelor’s degree in women’s studies. But I kept my day job at the store; it was very integral to my identity.”
With real estate far cheaper and superstores, e-books and Amazon.com well into the future, starting a bookstore in the ’70s and ’80s was often no more complicated or expensive than buying a car. Shanks opened Changing Hands with an $800 bank loan and around $1,000 from personal loans. The original space was 500 square feet, rented at $125 a month. Books were arranged on shelves that Shanks and others assembled out of recycled wood.
“We ran it on a shoestring,” Shanks say of Changing Hands, which now has some 13,000 square feet and a second store in Phoenix.
In taking over Left Bank Books and assuming the debts left by the previous owners, Kleindienst arranged a ’70s edition of a Kickstarter campaign, soliciting $5,000 through small donations from customers, and then securing a $5,000 bank loan. The store was 800 square feet, and the shelves had duct tape covering the nails.
“We had negative net worth at the time,” she says. “There were no assets to speak of. The only asset we had was our customers, the community.”
Kaplan, co-founder of Miami Book Fair International and winner of an honorary National Book Award for service to the literary community, quit law school in the late 1970s and opened Books & Books in 1982. He was also teaching high school English at the time, and brought in friends and family to help out at the store.
“I just said, ‘I’ll open a bookshop,’ the way Mickey Rooney was going to put on a show. I didn’t know what I was doing,” Kaplan said. “Almost every book seller of my age probably has the same exact story. Nobody started out saying to themselves, ‘Books, that’s the secret to making money,’ the way the guy in ‘The Graduate’ says ‘Plastics.’ ”
The arc of many baby boomers’ lives is one of rebellion giving way to acceptance and conformity. For Kaplan, Shanks and their peers, the story is one of adjusting to the times without giving in to them. Watching thousands of stores close down, first from superstore competition and then from the Internet, drove them to think more like business people. But favorite works and current events remind them of why they became book sellers.
“This past year really brought it home,” Kleindienst said, remembering how she joined protesters against the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, and how the store established a reading list of books about race and civil rights tied to the Black Lives Matter movement.
“We were very involved in the Ferguson events and we were able to do what bookstores can do best – to be a place where conversations happen and people can take things to a deeper level.”
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