Shelf Life: A DIY New York City Bookstore Owner Tells His Story

2nd_photo_by_emilty_aronica.previewOver the last two years, I’ve spent nearly every day sitting on the sidewalk selling my books. I researched the laws and regulations; registered myself as an independent business; and then set up my stand with a little sign extending the invitation: “Meet the Author.” Though shelf space is minimal, I’ve got the best showroom in the world: the bustling streets of Manhattan, where the square footage is immeasurable, and the foot traffic endless.

Originally from Alabama, I lived out West for nearly two decades. At various locations in Oregon, California and Alaska, I worked numerous jobs. They ranged from construction to food service, and from furniture sales to salmon canning. All the while, I wrote and studied independently.

The impetus to launch my own bookstore in New York City began…

Some years ago, after I turned 40 and realized that if I planned to move to New York City, I’d better get a move on. I’d had a few poems published, but literary agents and publishers seemed out of reach. Then I made the daunting decision to bring my books to the publishing capital of the world. I still hoped to meet people in the industry, but I also determined that if it came down to it, I would sell my books on the street.

Along the way, there’ve been numerous setbacks. In the summer of 2012, for example, I overextended myself financially and was forced to choose between buying another shipment of books and paying my rent. I ordered the shipment and moved into a shelter. After five months there, I managed to rebuild my resources and find another room to rent in Brooklyn, where I’ve resided the past year. Despite the challenges, I now eek out a living through book sales.

Of the five books I market, my greatest accomplishment is Martha, a book-length, lyrical poem about performance dance. I’ve also published two collections of poetry and two novels. My second novel, Zoë, is a coming of age story about a young man hitchhiking and riding freight trains across the U.S.; he describes his adventures in letters to his girlfriend, Zoë. I recently adapted the story into a musical, which I perform on the streets of Manhattan. My third novel, Nunatak, centers around a young man who works one summer in a salmon cannery in Alaska amid a motley cast of characters.

Promoting my wares al fresco can be challenging at times, but it also makes for great material. In the summer, when people tell me it’s too hot to sit outside and sell books, I say: “All the more reason we need the refreshment of literature.” In the winter when people comment about the cold, I praise the “warmth of poetry.” And last winter, when the city turned into tundra, I made snow-people. This provided me with a captive audience. Admittedly, they were an extremely frigid crowd, but I read them poetry until they melted.

Quite often, I encounter the skeptical question, “Are you self-published?” Without hesitation, I respond, “Absolutely—just like Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau.” In pursuing this path, I’ve joined ranks with some of the greatest literary luminaries in the history of civilization.

Fortunately, the stigma of the “vanity press” has begun to fade. In time, it may even become a beauty mark. Self-publishing has become more feasible and practical with the emergence of Print on Demand (POD) companies such as CreateSpace, Xlibris and Lulu.  Also, the social media platforms provide marketing tools for the general public that are unprecedented. This enables a proliferation of communication through literature that may be comparable to the development of the Gutenberg Press. In this case, instead of providing more books for the public to read, these developments allow more authors to cultivate an audience. This enriches literature with a greater diversity of voices.

The expansion of self-publishing may strengthen conventional publishing, as well. The industry can recruit authors who’ve already demonstrated an ability to speak to the public. This will boost their success rate with the writers they sign. The developments may also allow writers to organize in ways that are not subservient to shareholders and, instead, are oriented towards the writers and readers while working for the integrity of the literary arts.

Dismiss me as a romantic, but I believe that the greatest value of literature is the artistry of the work and the substance of the content. After all, the prestige of a brand-name publisher, an enticing cover, and book-jacket blurbs, are all intended to accomplish one thing: Entice the public to pick up a book and read it. At that point, it’s the reader and the writing, and when the author touches a reader’s life, that is poetry.

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