A bookstore is a time-travel machine. A bookstore is a secret-keeper. A bookstore is a carousel of delightful amusements. A bookstore is a community. A bookstore is a treasure house. A bookstore is…you get the drift.
I grew up in a small town in hinterland India, where bookstores were rare, in an era when there were no chain stores. It took me decades to be able to afford books at a store, instead of a pavement secondhand shop or a library. Now that I can afford as many books as I could possibly want, more than I could ever finish reading, my fascination with bookstores remains.
With my upcoming novel The Blue Bar, I’ve decided to hold a small pre-order campaign, and to do it through Indie bookstores. I don’t know whether a tiny bipoc book like mine will earn them a lot of sales, but it does feel good to talk about my abiding love: bricks and mortar bookstores.
Today on Daily (w)rite, I’m thrilled to welcome Elaine Meder-Wilgus, the owner of Webster Bookstore and Cafe. She was introduced to me by my friend J L Delozier, whose atmospheric crime thriller, The Photo Thief was released last month.
In her responses below, Elaine gives a wonderful insight into the running of a bookstore, the why, the how, and the challenges.
If you’d like to support both Elaine’s Indie bookstore and The Blue Bar, you can Order Signed Copies Here, with FREE shipping. I love the bookplates, because they contain the first three lines of the book!
Your Blue Bar copies will also come with Bookmarks and Postcards, all pictured below.
What is a typical day in your life as a bookstore owner?
I have to admit that a typical day is anything but typical! In addition to my love of books, I’m also fully committed to our local theater groups, having co-founded an annual theater and dance festival in our small city of State College, Pennsylvania, and I’m directing and acting in many productions each year, or I should say, will be doing so again now that the pandemic is winding down. I just enjoyed opening night at a local theater of two short Thorton Wilder one-acts that I directed.
I would say that every day at the bookstore is tremendously rewarding, full of deep connections with customers and friends who frequent the shop. I really live a charmed life, getting to talk about literature and life with such wonderful people from all over the world who come through our university town.
If you could double the area of your bookstore, no strings attached, what would you stock there?
I had the chance to double our bookstore 10 years ago. We added more books of all genres, and also added a stage area for book events, readings, and author appearances. Additionally, I increased the space for customers to sit with books while they pored over their choices. The increase in space came out of a very dark time in my business’ history: we suddenly lost our lease on our first bookstore-cafe location in the center of town.
The outpouring of love and support was tremendous. While I had considered simply shutting down my bookstore and selling exclusively online, the response from the community to keep us open was swift and moving. I resolved to reopen and through the help of many dedicated community supporters, found a location that was twice as large, with less than half the rent. It ended up being the proverbial silver lining!
What is your first memory of books or visiting a bookstore?
My family always had books in the home. I still have many of my books from my childhood, even though many of them were handed down from my older siblings. Make no mistake, I made my mark inside the cover, so that there was no doubt that all those books were now mine, crossing out their names and replacing my own. I still chuckle when I look at how proud I was to own those magical books.
Aside from my family, the person who had the most profound effect on me was the father of a friend, who would suggest books, lend me books, and then want to talk about what I thought after I read them. He opened my eyes to the power of great literature: while I still enjoy my family’s shared love of mysteries and thrillers, it was in the books that he recommended that I found my love of 18th and 19th century literature from around the world, modern classics, and experimental works. I think he taught me the joy of sharing books with others and to see them as not just entertainment, but as a means to a connection to others and ourselves. I believe his influence forged my desire to be a bookseller.
How is your bookstore different from others in your city?
While we are primarily a secondhand bookstore, we stock new books in certain genres and promote local authors and some of my personal favorites, including local publishers. I also run a vegan/vegetarian cafe with a full coffee bar in our location and cater for clients from small parties to large conferences, bringing my personal love of using local organic ingredients when possible. It’s inevitable that the conversations at caterings turn to books and I love the intersection of my passions.
What activities do you carry out that involve authors and readers? What are the upcoming events readers can attend, online or offline?
I am often asked to sell books offsite at author appearances, as the university in our city brings many writers through our town for presentations and student engagement. I appreciate the impact these writers have on our area and on the students, but it’s the smaller authors, the local writers who bring a sustainable energy to our community, centering books as a cultural touchstone and a lifelong passion. Upcoming, I’ll be hosting a local professor of Ukrainian Studies at PSU, Michael Naydan, who has translated a new biography of Volodymyr Zelensky. I’m looking forward to the insight that Dr. Naydan can bring regarding the tragic invasion of his native land and its powerful leader.
What is your ideal customer like?
I think what I appreciate most about my customers is that they are all lovers of books and words. Even those that come to the cafe daily can’t help but peruse the “New Arrivals” section and it’s not unusual that folks miss their name being called because they are carried away into the bookshelves. I love discussing books and hearing about what my customers are reading and what books reveal about the world, about themselves, and others.
What is the role bookstores play in the community?
This is a conversation I have nearly daily with customers: about the power of browsing through physical books. Within those shelves, we let our thoughts run free. There’s just nothing like the free-form thoughts that come from browsing books! I worry that people who are only led to titles through searching a keyword, lose the deep discoveries that come by accident while browsing physical books. I find myself looking for answers to my own questions sometimes by randomly opening a book and listening to the author. It helps me to get outside of myself.
I also think it’s paramount for communities to have spaces where people can just “be” without the expectation of consuming something for profit. While libraries are one part of this, I think bookstores must fight to remain houses of community connection. My customers range in age, education level, travel experiences, and family background. When I see a visiting couple from Minnesota talking to one of my young regulars about life, I know that I’m in the right place doing exactly what I need to do. This is my garden and I must tend it.
When was the last time you visited a bookstore? What does a bookstore mean to you? Would you like to tell us about your favorite bookstore and why you visit it? Do you purchase your books from indie bookstores?
My lit crime novel, The Blue Bar will be out on Jan 1, 2023 with Thomas & Mercer. It is already available for preorders, and has received a Starred Review on Publishers Weekly. Add it to Goodreads or pre-order it to make my day.
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