Bindlestiff Books is the 6th stop on my Independent Book Store tour. In an effort to bring awareness of how vital these places are, I’m interviewing the great folks who manage them.
Founded in December 2005, Bindlestiff Books, is a volunteer-run neighborhood bookstore in West Philadelphia. They fill their shelves with carefully selected children’s books, literary fiction, graphic novels, art, cookbooks, history, labor studies, politics, and much more.
Housed in a pleasant blue building from 1925, their store front window is appealing and redolent of the early 20th century.
Another notable feature that adds to the store’s bygone charm is a Books and Buildings mural by local artist, Jonny Buss. Outlined in a turquoise frame, the warm and cool colors within commingle a friendly and bookish community.
As an all-volunteer enterprise, Bindlestiff Books’ hours can be unpredictable, but they are available Tuesdays (3:30—7:00), Thursdays (Noon—3:30), Saturdays (Noon—7) and Sundays (Noon—5).
You can also contact them at 4530 Baltimore Avenue, Philadelphia PA 19143; Phone number: 215.662.5780; Email: email@example.com to see if they’re available at other times.
Jon Bekken, one of the store’s representatives, took some time to talk a little about Bindlestiff Books and its fundamental contributions to the community.
Hello, Jon, welcome to Angel Kiss Publications. Thank you for agreeing to do this interview.
Thank you for having me.
What motivated you to open an Independent Book Store?
We like books, we had a building, and the neighborhood needed a bookstore. There were book stores (new and used) catering to the universities, but nothing serving long-time West Philadelphians.
Can you tell us a little about Bindlestiff Books?
We’re a volunteer-run bookstore, aimed at serving people who walk or bike around the neighborhood.
We carry a fairly wide selection of new books (many of which are discounted); our strongest sections are children’s books, literary fiction and science fiction, politics and history, but we also have Spanish-language and bilingual children’s books, graphic novels, art, African-American, labor, education and gender studies.
We deliberately choose all our books; we don’t have space to carry everything, so we think about what we like and what we think our friends and neighbors would like.
What’s involved with running an independent book store?
It’s mostly about the books, of course. Following new releases, talking to people about what they’re reading, reading the reviews, etc.
But that’s the fun part; the challenge is keeping the store open (recruiting volunteers, organizing the space, managing the finances).
Is competition with online retailers difficult?
They have been able to use their market power to demand special terms from publishers, and so sometimes we can sell books for less than the wholesale price.
But now that happens only for a handful of titles; investors tired of losing millions of dollars every year to establish a monopoly position.
Many people want to hold a book in their hands, to read a few pages, to get a sense of whether it’s the right book for them before buying it. And we’re here for them.
How do small book stores compete with Amazon and Barnes & Noble?
By curating the books, helping people winnow through the tens of thousands of books published each year to find things worth reading.
And of course some folks are on their way to a birthday party or heading out on a trip and need a good book right now.
It’s not clear that B&N will still be here in ten years. They’ve been closing stores across the country and lost tens of millions on their efforts to go digital. They just got bought by an investment firm that is placing a former independent bookseller in charge.
But he’s also running a smaller book chain they own in Great Britain and claims his approach is basically to let managers run stores as if they were independents.
But the whole point of the chains (and of Amazon) was merchandising–targeted promotions, rapid turn-over, books as a disposable product.
I’m not sure how you meld monopolization and merchandising with what people love about bookstores.
What makes your store unique?
We reflect the neighborhood, bridging the community that was here before the developers tried to rebrand our neighborhood and the folks who have been moving in in recent years.
Our volunteers are people who love books, and our selection is as eclectic as they are.
What are your biggest sellers?
We sell a lot of children’s books, a lot of fiction, a lot of books on politics and current events. But we don’t carry lots of copies of any particular title.
We post a best-seller list to our website each month, and a book can often make the list selling 3 or 4 copies. Rather than focus on a few titles, we try to have a broad selection of outstanding books in the areas we stock.
Do you have promotions throughout the year?
We do occasional Giant Book Sales on overstocked titles and sell select new books for $1.00 during the Dollar Strolls down Baltimore Avenue.
Do you have author book signings?
We’ve cut back on events, and now only organize readings when we can partner with someone or have a very clear picture in our mind of who will turn out.
If we’re doing an event with an author, we try to put together something that stands out–the author of a history of Philadelphia transit workers at the Transit Workers Union hall; a book on the clipper ships and the magnates who ran the trans-Pacific trade at a Victorian mansion that’s been converted to a B&B.
What advice would you give to authors just starting out?
The writing is the most important thing, but once you have your book think about how you want to publish it.
Today anyone can print a few hundred copies of something that looks kind of like a book, the challenge is to connect your book with readers.
Look for publishers who have done a good job with similar books, or talk to authors in your area to find out what’s worked for them.
What are some of your favorite books/authors?
Ursula Le Guin is my favorite author, and The Dispossessed my favorite novel.
We try to carry all her books–and also everything by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, James Baldwin, Octavia Butler, Roxanne Gay, Haruki Murakami, Kobi Yamada, and a few others.