If you find yourself in Louisville, Kentucky any time soon be sure to stop by the best bookseller in town, Carmichael’s Bookstore. This interview was conducted with owner Michael Boggs via email.
What’s Carmichael’s origin story?
My wife, Carol Besse, and I started Carmichael’s in 1978 in Louisville with a little capital from a Small Business Administration loan and a hefty amount of bookstore experience. We had worked for 5 years for Barbara’s Bookstores in Chicago and learned most of the mechanics of the bookselling business there. We both had Kentucky ties and at that time Louisville had no urban bookstores.
What’s the curatorial process when choosing books to stock?
I wouldn’t call the process “curatorial” since bookselling is an exercise in commerce, and we have to be mindful of stocking books that will appeal to our customers. That said, the stock in our stores is comprised of about 70 % “backlist”, which are the titles that sell over and over, year in and year out, and 30 % “frontlist”, the titles that are newly published each year. Backlist titles change slowly as authors fall in and out of favor, and as interests change over the years. Because our stores are small, I have to select stock carefully and each publishing season I buy only a fraction of the thousands and thousands of new titles presented to me by publisher’s sales reps. The process is more art than science, with hundreds of factors going into each decision: Does the book fit with our customer’s taste? What is the quality of the publisher? Does the author have a track record? Is the subject of the book original? Does the sales rep have any helpful information? What does the cover look like? And on and on.
What’s the arts/literature scene like in Louisville? What’s Carmichael’s role in the lit/arts community?
From the beginning Carol and I conceived of Carmichael’s as a so-called “third place” — a locale ingrained in the community that isn’t home or work. We have anywhere from 75 to 100 author events a year, many with local poets and beginning writers. We have wonderful independent publisher in Louisville called Sarabande Books that has a first-rate list of poetry and fiction. And, in the region, we have number of nationally recognized authors with ties to our area: Wendell Berry, Bobbie Ann Mason, Barbara Kingsolver, Silas House, Sena Naslund and many others.
What helps books sell? What are the more successful books at Carmichael’s?
Word of mouth is the best seller for books–one reader recommends titles he loves, that person tells 3 people, and suddenly you have an exponential groundswell for a book. As for national media, NPR programs provide the publicity and interviews that our customers respond to best. Other venues that are good for us are The New Yorker, especially exerpts of Non Fiction, The New York Times, The New Yorker Review of Books, with most other magazines trailing behind. We get little play from blogs or internet sources.
How does a brick-and-mortar store not only survive, but maintain relevance in the age of Amazon?
When it comes to relevance and Amazon, that’s kind of a no brainer. In the world of books, Amazon is a place of commerce and little more. Books were simply an easy entre into creating a mail-order of WalMart. They don’t care much about books because so few people actually buy them–they really want to sell all the other stuff that large parts of the population desire and that have higher profit percentages. And that’s not books. And the Kindle is a toy that is unlikely to have more longevity than cassette tapes. Whatever the paradigm that lasts for 20 or 30 years, it defninitely isn’t Amazon or the Kindle.
Please describe the bookstore mascot.
We’ve had cats in the store over the years, but are currently without any mascot. Maybe the closest we have to a mascot is local legend Hunter S. Thompson.