Friday, February 25, 2011

Dick Davidson Interviews Augie Aleksy of Centuries & Sleuths Bookstore, Forest Park, IL

Q. Your bookstore emphasizes the fields of History and Mystery. In my novels the key to solving the mystery is frequently found in historical precedents and situations. How did you come to pair these two fields as your specialties?
Both history and mystery were subjects that always intrigued me. When I did my planning for Centuries & Sleuths Bookstore it was late 1989 and 1990 and at this time the Borders and Barnes & Nobles were already making headway into the Chicago market. I knew I could not compete with them financially, nor did I want to be a general bookstore. The idea bored me. Knowing that choosing my niche of mystery, history and biography would have to be justified by customer interest and purchases I conducted 2 kinds of surveys. The first was circulation of books by categories spelled out by the Dewey Decimal System at the main building of the Oak Park Library. In that survey the only category to compete with mystery, history & biography combined were “Do it yourself” books. Under “Do it yourself” fell a variety of areas, gardening, home repair, automobile mechanics, baking, etc. Then I did a 3000 piece mailer to Oak Park and River Forest that was a gate-fold with 4 pages. The pages had about 8 various categories to choose from to define the survey recipient’s purchases in the last quarter of 1989, taking Christmas shopping into account. Mystery, history and biography combined beat out all other categories listed. The response to the survey was over 18%. Also, I attached quarter as an incentive for the recipient to fill out the survey. I received $8.75 of quarters and one $0.25 stamp back with comments like…” I’d fill this survey out for nothing; if you’re opening a bookstore; you’re going to need this quarter more than I…” So I had the practical reason for my specialization. To your thought, would I have opened the store anyway? My answer would be NO. I knew what I wanted to do, but I was practical enough to know that if I didn’t have a chance I wasn’t going to start the venture.
Q. This is a difficult time for retail bookstores. Your store is local and in a downtown area of an urban suburb, yet your reputation and appeal go well beyond your location and size. How have you managed to continue to grow your base of followers?
I think I have been able to expand our base through the variety of programs I offer at the store that distinguish it from your “typical” or “ordinary” bookstores. It is a place where I truly believe we can make the books you read come “alive”.  We have had and continue to have the following events at Centuries & Sleuths:
            1. The Mystery (3rd Saturday), History (Last Sunday) Discussion Groups, and the G.K. Chesterton Society (2nd Saturday) meet monthly along with the local     chapters of the Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and the Chicago Dickens                              Fellowship and less regular basis throughout the year.
            2. Live programs with time volunteered by our fantastic customers:
                        a. Trial of Richard III (with a real Federal Court Judge; Congressional Hearing  concerning FDR’s prior of knowledge of the Attack on Pearl Harbor, The Great Debate of 1850 with Clay, Calhoun, & Webster; & a Fictional Debate between Abraham Lincoln & Jefferson Davis.
                        b. Plays written and performed by members of our Mystery Discussion Group  (e.g. Valentine Day’s Murder; Blood on Blue & Gray: A Death at the Fair; Murder in the Red Light District, and more.)
                        c. 17 performances of the Meeting of Minds similar to those developed by Steve Allen for Public Television in the 1970s. We have Tsar Nicholas II, Al Capone, Richard J. Daley, Marcus Garvey, Dorothy Day, Mary Todd Lincoln, Ida B. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle Edgar Allan Poe, Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Booker T. Washington, Gen. George A. Custer; Martin Luther, Nicholas Copernicus, Ferdinand & Isabella of Spain, W.E.B. DuBois, and many more…
                        d. What’s Cookin’ in History & Mystery with various foods from historical periods, food on military campaigns, food from various Victorian & Edwardian mysteries, etc.
            3. Author Discussions & Signings with internationally known authors and our own local authors, some of which are internationally known. (e.g. Steve Allen, Sir Peter Ustinov, Senator Paul Simon, Sara Paretsky, Donna Leone, Ian Rankin, Bob Goldsborough, Richard Lindberg, Barb D’Amato, Harriette G. Robinet etc.)
A wonderful compliment that was paid to the Centuries & Sleuths is when a local author Harriette G. Robinet said the store is more than a bookstore, it’s a Cultural Center.
Q. Until fairly recently, self-published books had very little chance of attracting the interest of bookstore managers. Now, due to changes in technology and the advent of e-Books, the majority of titles are self-published. How do you perceive the trends in quality and acceptance of self-published books?
Well, it gets down to the quality of the book written. In the past many of volumes that were self-published were done because the writing was not up to the standards of the major publishing houses. I think in many ways that has changed. Some major publishers’ editors and book agents have let quality books slip past them because they felt it was time for “this type” of expression. You can talk to many authors who are well known now, that keep boxes of rejection letters in their closets to keep them humble or to harass publishers. In the past you might have had a good and determined author out there, but their resources, whether in terms of spirit and/or dollars, had dried up. Now, thanks to self-publishing there is another means for these enthusiastic writers to get published and become accepted and loved by readers. However, the quality of the work is what will keep it alive and make it a “classic”. Self-publishing gives more writers the opportunity to get the recognition they deserve.
Q. Independent bookstores and independent publishers appear to be finding niche markets that give them staying power while the giant bookstores and major conventional publishers are facing difficulties that are new to them. How would you forecast future problems and opportunities for bookstores and publishers of various sizes?
I think it is important to know your product and, at the same time, know what the buying public wants and if your product meets their needs. Also, there is the educational aspect. Many times the public (your prospective customers) don’t know about your product and how important it is for them to know, appreciate, & understand it. There is a great quotation from Christopher Morley in his book The Haunted Bookshop "We have what you want, though you may not know you want it." Having a niche makes it more likely that you know your product because you purposely chose it. Having a niche makes more viable for the small business to survive financially since you have no intention of pleasing everyone with your selection and the reading public knows that, if you’ve advertised well. It also gives a vast opportunity to have programs in your store that promote your niche. The owners can have various discussion groups, author signings and talks by specialists in your specialized area, and performances which educate and entertain your customers. The only problem, sometimes, is success itself. When you do things right and do well there is the temptation to enlarge expand or in some cases be bought out by a larger company. Then you risk losing the personal knowledge of and touch with your customers’ wants and needs which won them over to you. Don’t lose touch with your product or your customers.
Q. There are currently more writers and published books than ever in our history. With all of these new books, how do you see the trend in readership?
It does concern me with reports that more newspapers are closing because no one’s bothering to read the daily or even weekly papers. Also, they are telling us that less of the young people are bothering to read. However, perhaps they’re not looking in the right places. Since papers and books are available on line now more of both adults and children are reading on line. Also, I have heard from a high school literature teacher that said it depends on the quality and the topic of the book whether young people read it. The Harry Potter and the Twilight series have become quite popular and both books are quite thick. Also, an author's grandmother has noticed that her granddaughters are communicating and reading, but are using the electronic media to do it. So, it seems that readers young and old gravitate to quality, but have more distractions to take them off course.
Q. The Harry Potter books uncovered an amazing willingness of young readers to tackle the reading of large books if the subject matter excited them. Do you see the younger generation as becoming lifelong book readers, or do you think that the social media, blogs, and e-mail tend to limit their attention spans to shorter works and articles?
That’s a good question. I think using Harry Potter as an example is part of the answer. The quality has to be there, but it has to have appeal to what young people want to know about. There’s friendship (Pals), the need for study, discipline, good fun and EVIL. The books have to have something to challenge youth, both good & evil besides being a good yarn. There also have to be good marketing and promotions with social media because this, unfortunately, is where, not just kids, but many are getting their news. There is hope. Ways of informing young readers about a quality volume, have changed, but they contact far more people than past methods.
Q. As a bookstore owner of significant reputation, you are probably in a position to be a gatekeeper for achieving legitimacy and standing for new and little-known authors. Can you think of some authors who have benefited from your encouragement and gone on to significant popularity and careers?
That’s a tough question to answer. I think I have been responsible for putting my customers and/or friends on to great authors after having read their works. But my recommendation did not make the readers come back to read more of a given author and have the customer tell me they appreciate my suggestion. The writer wrote a good story, they told it well, it kept the reader’s attention and wanting more. There are authors like: Harriette G. Robinet and Norm Cowie with good kids’ books; Will Thomas, Peter Tremayne, Bob Goldsborough & Michael Jecks that have great historical mysteries; Libby Fischer Hellmann, Julie Hyzy, Barb D’Amato, Sean Chercover, & John Connolly writing exciting and sometimes really creepy thrillers, and Jennifer Lee Carrell, Ian W. Toll, Erik Larson, Lynne Olson, Stanley Cloud & Linda Himelstein who make history & it’s characters come alive. I don’t think these authors would have benefited from my recommendation or encouragement if they hadn’t written wonderful books. Maybe my customers have benefited from my help and saved them from wasting time on a poor or mediocre book. I just wish I had more time to read.
Q. Can you identify some trends in the approach and subject matter of history works and mystery novels that have increasing popularity?
Well, I think there are some trends in both areas. It’s been the consensus of our history discussion group that journalists who do their research well are the best writers to tell the public their history. Historians are good for facts, dates, figures, etc. that fit in an academic environment. However, it is the good journalist that knows how to write the story that keeps the reader interested in the subject with desire to read through the whole book. Martin Gilbert in his History of the Twentieth Century is a prime example. Most people know what happened in at least up to just past the mid 1900s. However, the style that Gilbert writes in makes you want to read how the German’s are going to be defeated in both World Wars I and II. They were like a juggernaut with no one or way to stop them. Also telling us of the origins of Franco in Spanish history and Mussolini in Italian history, but how they fit into the big picture. It appears that in the mystery area there has been a tendency to the supernatural and horror. We have vampires and werewolves roaming not only mysteries, but the classics and I don’t mean Frankenstein and Dracula. But, again I think the quality of the writing makes a book work. One of my personal bestsellers in 2010 was Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Graham-Smith. It’s very unique in the way of blending history and mystery. Graham-Smith does a great job of research, writing and transitioning from reality to horror. It does appear that it’s a trend and what “new” readers are buying. As bookseller and authors we must realize that some of the “old timers” that were in love with the old traditional mysteries are dying out. So we have to be aware of these trends, but quality and clever writing is what will survive.
Q. When I was younger, I was very enthusiastic about historical novels for both their entertainment value and their ability to transport the reader to different times while providing reliable historical lessons. The Kenneth Roberts series of American history novels come to mind. Are such novels still finding a significant market, and are the authors maintaining adequate historical accuracy?
Yes, the historical novels by Bernard Cornwall, George Mac Donald Fraser, Robin Maxwell, Patrick O’Brian, C.S. Forester, Alexander Dumas, Rafael Sabatini, etc. are all doing well. They fill 1-3/4 bookcases. They are filling a vacuum left by former history students who had poor history teachers. These are adventures and get their life from history’s legends. Fraser’s books are full of footnotes telling the reader what was historically taking place as he tells his story. Their accuracy is probably better than James Fennimore Cooper.
Q. Would you comment on the significance of trade associations and networking with other bookstore owners for the success of an independent bookstore?
I definitely favor the trade associations because they keep us in touch, aware of new systems and challenges out there, and help with costs because of the power of numbers. The networking is a key factor because he makes you aware what others are doing even if they don’t work for you. Or you can take someone’s idea and put a new twist on it to make it work for you.
Q. What would be your advice to someone who was considering opening a new bookstore, with or without an area of specialization?
1. Do a Business Plan. (If you don’t know what one is look it up.)
2. Analyze the market in which you’re opening your business.
            a. What are people buying?
            b. Does that market need another bookstore?
            c. Why are there no bookstores in that area?
3. What can you afford & where are you getting your money?
            a. Personal Savings (Family’s?)
            b. Loans
4. Make sure your personal support system (family, friends, partner, pet or whatever) is behind you. If not, and you still want to move on --- It’s going to be even tougher than you         imagined.
5. Remember, no matter what the “How To” books say Bookselling is a career, a vocation and a life style. It’s not 9AM-5PM Monday through Friday.
6. You’ve got to be both tenacious and creative to succeed. Don’t ask me yet what success is.