Interview with a Bookseller: Laura Hansen of Bookin'
Victoria: Who are you and how long have you been
Laura: My name is Laura L. Hansen and I am a former
Administrative/Accounting Manager turned bookseller. I have been selling
books for 15 years at my own bookstore, Bookin' It, and I did a very brief
stint in the late-1980's at the marvelous independent, Books & Co. in
Dayton, Ohio. I am a graduate of Little Falls Community High School and a
Summa Cum Laude graduate of Concordia College in Moorhead, MN. I am also a
published poet and the author of a poetry chapbook Diving the Drop-Off.
Victoria: What is the name of your store and where
Laura: My store is named Bookin' It. It is located in historic downtown
Little Falls, MN. Little Falls is at the absolute geographic center of
Minnesota and is a town of just under 10,000. We are a small bricks & mortar
store. You can learn a lot about our store and staff on our website:
Victoria: Does your store have a particular focus?
If so, what is it?
Laura: We’re a general bookstore. We have one room devoted entirely to
children's books, and over the years our adult fiction sales have leaned
heavily towards trade paperbacks. Over the years, books as a percent of
sales has run from 85-90 percent but in the last year and a half since we
moved to a new storefront we have seen greeting card sales rise so that book
sales are now around 75 percent of total sales.
Victoria: I see – and hear – your store has a dog!
Laura: Yes. His name is Jackson. We used to have a bunny, but when we
changed locations, we didn’t have enough room for the bunny hutch – so the
bunny’s at home, although his picture’s still a part of our store logo.
Jackson loves the customers, even if he does bark a lot. Some people, when
they enter, don’t bother to talk to me – they go straight to the dog.
Victoria: Are you involved in your community?
Laura: Yes. The bookstore staff always participates in the American
Cancer Relay for Life. We go to schools and to libraries to let people know
what is new in literature. But the bookstore keeps me pretty busy.
Victoria: What's the biggest change you've seen in
bookselling in the last year?
Laura: In the past several years, we have seen an increase in the number
of “only looking, cell-phone chatting” customers. Book shoppers no longer
seem to come in to relax and unwind. More and more, people want to run in
and grab what they saw on TV, or they are interrupted by their cell before
they even get a chance to start browsing. This is unfortunate, because our
strength has always been our customer rapport and our integrity in
recommending books. And the store is charming, inviting people to sit and
stay a while.
Victoria: What's the biggest change you expect in
selling books in the next year?
Laura: For the mad rush forward into technology to continue. Attention
spans are shorter and the “I want it now” or “I'll go online” era is firmly
at hand. We are at a turnover point in our customer base; losing some to
age-related life changes, while other regulars are no longer buying for
their now adult children who are out now making their own purchasing
decisions in other towns and often at hipper, big box, latte-brewing
bookstores. Our challenge for the upcoming year is to introduce ourselves to
a new generation of young parents and to the new professional class that is
arriving as we become a bedroom community to the larger market to the south.
Victoria: How should a would-be writer approach a
bookseller, say, for example, for a reading or signing, or simply for
Laura: First, call for an appointment. Second, understand that our
customers come first and you may have to step aside while we help someone.
Third, before you come in understand the norms of bookseller discounts and
margins. Lastly, don't come into an independent and think to impress us by
going on about how B&N just accepted your book or how it is now in the top
10,000 at Amazon. Come in because you want to be featured by an independent
and you understand what it means to have your book championed by
Victoria: What is your opinion of the POD books
from places such as Booklocker, Publish America, and so on?
Laura: By and large, they aren’t marketable. Often the prices are too
high in comparison to other trade books and the discounts too low to make a
bookseller want to put them on the shelf. We will special order them if a
customer asks, but will give them no shelf space. I always tell anyone who
asks, either self-publish and expect to do the work of getting the book and
the word out there (a good option if you really believe in your book for a
given market) or go the traditional route and send it out until you can find
a real publisher. I chose to self-publish my first poetry chapbook and am
happy with the results. I am now working on a book-length manuscript to send
out to potential publishers.
Victoria: How do you decide which books to buy?
Laura: We’re a small community, so we have to make gut-wrenching
decisions. We can’t afford to stock everything we’d like – we have to be
very selective. But we know our community, and we know what they buy. For
example, over the last few years, there was a great interest in Native
Americans. That’s faded somewhat.
If there are some books that we think will interest particular customers,
we’ll contact them and offer to special order it for them.
Victoria: What is the greatest frustration that you
have with mainstream publishers?
Laura: They'll Fed Ex us catalogs, but then they'll kill us with expedite
freight charges when we make special orders for customers. Does that make
sense? The other complaint is when they market against us -- school book
fairs where they offer books in paperback that aren't made available to the
trade in the same format, online sales, and unfair price and returns
advantages for chains.
Victoria: What else can you tell us about
Laura: The most important thing to remember is that you can’t do this
just because of the money (sometimes there isn’t any). It’s like mission
work. It’s about the day that I get the right book into someone’s hands, and
the day when that person comes back and tells me how much it meant. Or the
times when we can champion lesser-known authors, and make a difference to
them and their careers.
Victoria: Is it tough, being an independent?
Laura: It’s different. America needs independent bookstores, because we
make sure there’s variety. If you go into a chain store in one city or
another, all the books are the same. But I make a point of visiting the
independents in other places too – and so do my staff. Often the selection
of books is so different in the independents than they are in the chains,
that we wonder if the publishers are sending the same catalogues to us as to
Victoria: What advice would you give to aspiring
Laura: Write from the heart. Don't try to figure out the latest hot topic
or genre. Just write what feels true and necessary. And, please, really
write. Hone your craft, love language and use it well. For me, language
counts as much as story. There seems to be a trend toward the acceptance of
“spare” writing and incomplete sentences. Be better than that.
Victoria: Thanks so much, Laura, for sharing your
time and your expertise with us! To my readers: questions or comments?
Contact me at grossackva at yahoo dot com.
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