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Interview with an Indie Bookseller

2013 November 20

 

Good friend, writer, beer aficionado, and blogger Llalan Fowler also happens to manage an independent bookstore in Mansfield, Ohio in her spare time. Llalan has devoted a great deal of energy and spark into revitalizing her store, Main Street Books, but also the local community. I did an interview with her to find out more about what running a local bookstore is like.

How did you come to Mansfield and Main Street Books? 

I grew up near Mansfield and came back to the area once my money ran out in New York. I’d worked in several bookstores before–Second Story Books in Washington, DC, The Globe Corner Bookstore in Boston, and PowerHouse Arena in NYC–so it seemed natural to search out Mansfield’s. They happened to be looking for a new manager at the time, so it was really all very lucky.

 

What is your favorite part about running an independent bookstore? 
Connecting customers with a new writer or title is surprisingly satisfying. Not only do you get to look like a smarty-pants, you also know you’ve opened up this whole new world to someone and got one of your favorite authors another fan.

 

What are some of your primary responsibilities as manager?
Honestly, there’s just me and my part-time coworker, Jason. I do everything from arranging author talks to ordering daily to updating Facebook to cleaning the bathroom. It’s not a glamorous job and it sure as hell doesn’t pay well, but I love it all.

What is your thought process when it comes to curating the selection of books you sell? Do you aim for a certain aesthetic, or is your main goal to stock what your customers are most likely to buy? Do you sell anything besides books?

When I first started managing MSB I ordered everything I thought people in my tiny Ohio town would read: Grisham, Evanovich, etc, but because I can’t afford to price new hardbacks at 30% off, they never sold. So I stopped ordering them. In fact, I stopped ordering pretty much any new hardbacks. (We special order all the time and most people don’t seem to mind waiting a day.) It’s a poor area of the country, and they’re unaffordable at list price. I also underestimated my customers. Instead of trying to be like the B&N Mansfield already has, I try to set us apart by ordering more new authors, small press books, and off-the-beaten-path titles. We regularly get complimented on our selection by bookish-types, but we have a lot of mass market paperbacks too–many come in used. We started taking in used books for trade credit last February, and because I have such smart, interesting, and weird loyal customers, we have a bunch of interesting, weird used books, too! We don’t sell a whole lot other than books–the store next door is a news stand, so no periodicals. We have greeting cards, journals, a few little gifty things and a few inexpensive games/toys.

Do you have any quirky sections that might not be found in other bookstores?

We have a big local section. B&N doesn’t take self-published books, so pretty much any local writer that comes in with a decent-looking book will get a spot on my shelf. Louis Bromfield lived in this area of Ohio, too, so we have most of his titles. Plus other books about the area–not necessarily by a local writer–like about rust belt life or breweries and wineries of Ohio or the big state reformatory we have here (featured in Shawshank Redemption). Our beer and brewing section is especially complete, natch. Oh! And graphic novels. I love them, so we have more than I’ve seen at most bookstores.

What are your customers like?
Can’t pin them down easily, but, lots of loyal, liberal, artsy folk–that surprised me when I first moved back home. I’m in my own little blue, liberal bubble just like I was in every big city! Lots of tourists too who come to see the old reformatory or the carousel up the street (which really is beautiful, but God that music!).

Your blog, The Bookstore Lady, talks about the bookstore, but it also follows you through your own life as you deal with being newly married, re-adjusting to life in the small town where you grew up after living in cities like Boston and New York for many years, and other major life events and questions. Was putting your life on display a difficult decision, given that you live in a small town and are prominent in the business community? Do you think it’s had an impact on the bookstore–for instance, do you think it’s helped you connect more with your customers?

I’ve always been one to share too much, haven’t I? I guess I just don’t think about it–I think my friends read it, those who’d already know the gist of what’s going on, but I don’t worry too much about it. It’s more for me to practice and work things out in my own head. There are one or two customers who make note of it, but for the most part I think it’s you and my dad that read it.

How do you think your background as a writer has helped shape the way you run the bookstore?

It definitely affected what role I see the bookstore playing in the arts community. When I moved here the store had a book club but there was no writing group in town that I knew of, and only a monthly open mic at the bar next door, which wasn’t well-suited for poetry reading. I knew that I wouldn’t keep up writing if I didn’t have the pressure of deadlines and others seemed to be interested in a workshop-type thing, so I started it and the monthly literary open mic. Both have been really fun and surprisingly successful. And now I write more and more often than I ever did in the big cities! (And probably better, to be honest…)

Since taking on the bookstore almost 3 years ago, you’ve become a vital member of the creative community in Mansfield, inviting authors to give readings and running book clubs and open mic nights at the store. What has been your favorite event you’ve participated in so far, and what are your goals for the store in the future?

The first Poetry & Prose Extravaganza (the monthly literary open mics) was pretty fantastic. It was (so I’ve been told) the first such event of its kind in town, and our little book loft was PACKED. We read and drank wine for HOURS. But really, any of those where you get a collection of strong writers reading their own stuff…it can be electrifying. It has become an arena in which writers feel very comfortable (which is a difficult atmosphere to achieve and is important to note) and we get everything from well-rehearsed, searing spoken word to the first three unedited pages of a personal essay on marriage.

If you could sum up Main Street Books’ place in the Mansfield landscape in one sentence, what would it be?

We are a nurturing nest for creativity and a haven for characters–both real and fictional.

 

Thanks, Llalan! Everyone be sure to check out her blog for more tales from Main Street Books (and if you’re around Mansfield, be sure to visit!)

 

What’s your favorite local indie bookstore? What do you love about it?

One Response Post a comment
  1. lauren s permalink
    November 20, 2013

    I really enjoyed reading this update about Lllalan!! Sounds like a great store and I’m happy to have a link to her blog now.

    Awesome article, Jill!

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