Standing Room Only
Last month I picked up a book called My Bookstore. Published in 2012, it is a collection of 84 essays by renowned writers, each essay touting the author’s favorite independent bookstore. In my travels over the last three years, I have been in many of the stores, and I have met some of the writers. I love the book. The essays are arranged alphabetically by the author’s last name, and each essay is about three pages long.
Under the “Bs”, on page 22, Rick Bragg, iconic Southern storyteller, writes about also-iconic bookseller Jake Reiss and The Alabama Booksmith, headquartered in Homewood, Alabama, a suburb of Birmingham. I say “headquartered” instead of “located”, because The Alabama Booksmith is wherever Jake happens to be that day, whether out at on event, or, more likely, at his desk in the sprawling, low-slung building at the difficult-to-find location in Homewood. If you go in that door, chances are that you have been looking for that door. Seeing it while just passing by is not very likely.
Jake is The Alabama Booksmith. If you are paying any attention at all, you get that in the first three minutes of any conversation with him. He is eighty-three years old, with the verve and vigor of a man thirty years his junior. He sports a short ponytail, which is either a vestige of his days as a custom tailor (a craft which he left at age 55 to roll the dice with this bookstore—more about rolling the dice later) or maybe left over from the sixties. He has the salesman’s gift. When he starts talking, you want to hear more. And you probably want to buy whatever it is he is selling.
What he is selling is The Alabama Booksmith. Not the business. It is hard to picture the business without Jake. But he is selling the concept—the way things are done at The Alabama Booksmith. “We should not even be characterized as a bookstore”, he says. “We probably have fewer titles than any bookstore in the country.” Get this—every copy is a hardcover (not even one paperback). And every one has the author’s signature on the title page.
That vision evolved in the early years of Alabama Booksmith, which started as Highland Booksmith, located in a more stylish section of Birmingham when Jake, just having turned 55, left his family’s tailoring business. At this point in the story, he usually starts to talk about his affinity for rolling the dice. The guy likes to gamble, and this is his game. If you like to gamble, starting a store like this should fill that desire nicely. To call it a risky business is quite the understatement.
It seems that Jake is doing a lot more than breaking even. Writers, agents and editors all seek the endorsement that comes with having a stack of your signed hardcovers arranged on Jake’s shelves (face-out, mind you, so the covers are clearly visible).
Jake is a great storyteller. When he tells you of the 2009 event where it became apparent to him (and everyone else there) that The Help was going to be a big hit, you feel as if you are in the crowd—or in the car with him as he was scouring the area for more books. You may think that he more-than-dabbles in hyperbole, but I would take issue with that. I am certain that every word he says is true—maybe not 100% accurate, but true nonetheless.
When he bounced out of the back of the store to greet me last Tuesday morning, I tossed him an innocent good-morning. “Everything alright?”, I said.
Jake feigned shocked, answering sharply, “No—absolutely not. ‘Alright’ is terrible. If I were just ‘alright’, I would not have been here at 7:30 this morning so I could do this until 7:30 tonight. I love this. If someone told me that I would have to pay $100 every day to do this, I would do it in a heartbeat. I am a lot better than ‘alright’.”
When my event in Birmingham was scheduled last year, I was hoping I would get the chance to see Jake. But I had no idea that he would reach out to the event organizers at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church so he could sell books at the event. In my former life as a high-school basketball coach, that would have been akin to Coach K or Roy Williams showing up to one of our games.
I talked to Jake before the event and asked him if he wanted me to bring some paperbacks for him to sell at the table. He answered—with some considerable disdain—“No, Dick. I will be selling the book.” And he had plenty of copies of “the book”, each with Carol’s signature, which had been intended for a big event he had organized in Birmingham in March, 2014. She was ill and unable to attend, but Jake has remained a supporter of what we are trying to do. In The Tipping Point (Little Brown 2000), best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell writes about the “exceptional people identifies three types of people who are crucial to spreading an idea or a product. There are connectors, who are capable of starting epidemics.” He explains that there are “connectors”, who know a lot of people and will spread the word. Gladwell says that, if a connector tells ten people to stay in a particular hotel, five of them will probably do it. There are not too many connectors. “Mavens” are rarer still. A maven is such a strong personality, such a convincing person, that, if he only tells five people to stay in a particular hotel, all five of them will do it. In the book business, Jake Reiss is a maven and a connector. If he is talking about your book, you are filled with anticipation about the good things that are coming as you go down the long road. And the salesmen—the consummate salesmen of the world, are the key to starting an epidemic in the book business. You need a core group of true-believing salesmen who can, as the story says, borrow your watch and then sell it back to you the next day. That’s Jake Reiss. All authors are searching for an epidemic. When you have Jake Reiss in your corner, only good things will happen.
I left Jake’s store late in the morning to prepare to go to an event with the Lower Alabama Arts Coalition in Andalusia. On the three-hour drive south, I thought of Jake and his work. I thought of his stories and the way he makes you feel like he is doing you a favor by selling you these wonderful books from his stock. (As I was checking out with my purchase, he said, “If you are going to take these across state lines, you will have to show some ID.”)
With Jake’s enthusiasm and his words about “the book” serving as inspiration on my drive south, I took a few boxes of hardcovers along with some paperbacks to stock the inventory at The Gallery. I told my story, spread some books around the room, and left some for some potential mavens and connectors. In three years, I have learned that this epidemic-spreading business goes slowly. There were not a lot of people in Andalusia. But I left our message with fifty people there. And maybe if they each tell five people and those five each tell five more. Well, you get it. I’m starting to sound like Jake (which would not be a bad thing).
We had some really nice publicity for the Andalusia event. Jim Walker, of Fox 107 FM interviewed me for his morning show. The newspaper, the Andalusia Star News, ran two nice stories in advance of my talk. All of this, along with the organizing skills of Sheila Rhea at the Arts Coalition, made this a lovely evening. Sheila had arranged forty chairs in the gallery space for the attendees. Everyone was happy when about fifty people showed up. All in all, a heartening evening.
The day after the event, The Star News ran a picture and report. Really nice stuff. I had to smile when I read that “Dick Wall talked about his late wife’s memoir, Mister Owita’s Guide to Gardening, to a small crowd at a Lower Alabama Arts Coalition Tuesday night.”
I liked the article, and I know that we made new friends and fans in Andalusia. But what made me smile was thinking of Jake Reiss reading the newspaper article. I knew what he would say. “Small crowd? Forty seats? Fifty people? That’s standing room only.”
NOTE: You can check out Alabama Booksmith at www.alabamabooksmith.com. Jake still has some copies of “the book” with Carol’s signature. Also, check out the Signed First Editions Club as well as Patty Callahan’s national launch of Becoming Mrs. Lewis.