How to Open an Awesome Bookstore in Nine Easy Steps
Summer Robinson Created Pilot Books with a Little Money and Not Much of a Plan
Are bookstores an endangered species? On July 1, Epilogue Books, a wonderful general-interest bookstore in Ballard, announced that, due to problems finding a suitable lease agreement, it would be closing its doors forever. But there is an antidote to that depressing news: Pilot Books is a tiny, beautiful bookstore that opened one month ago upstairs in the pedestrian mall at 219 Broadway East. Owner Summer Robinson started Pilot Books as a booth of curated small-press titles in the eccentric Capitol Hill junk shop the Anne Bonny ("It was the kiddie-pool version of what I wanted it to be," she says), and Robinson is slowly expanding her stock to fill the new blue-and-beige storefront—currently the store carries just 600 titles. It feels like a giant bookstore with all the bullshit cut out, leaving just the good stuff.
Robinson divides Pilot Books up into only a few sections—Fiction, Poetry, an infant Graphic Novel section, and then Everything Else, with shelving for 10 (and only 10) magazines and a separate display space for limited editions. But the category lines are less important than in other bookstores, as Pilot is a space for people who love the idea and art of books. One wall displays a collection of books faced out, like works of art; many of those books have insert cards with one or two words (such as "sharp" and "yes yes") printed on them as a recommendation. Spending time in Pilot Books (especially the upstairs lending library, which is quiet and dim and lined with comfy reading chairs) feels like hiding out in a super-cool literary tree fort, and Robinson is funny and candid enough to make visitors want to join her writerly club.
Robinson doesn't seem depressed about the Dismal Future of the Book Industry; she notes excitedly that the store is already paying its own rent. Talking to her is enough to inspire you to open a bookstore yourself. Here's what she's learned so far:
1. Lower Your Expectations for Success
Robinson notes that though the money part of the Pilot Books equation is going better than she expected it would one month in, her yardstick for financial viability is that she hasn't stopped eating. "Of course," she adds, "I also moved from a place with $1,200-a-month rent to $400-a-month rent."
2. No Experience Necessary
Pilot Books is Robinson's first small business, and though she worked in a Barnes and Noble a long time ago, she was a cafe employee and rarely got to work with books. But she does have other skills: A lucrative but unsatisfying stint in the advertising industry provided the cash to open the bookstore, and her excellent copywriting abilities are evident on the store's website (www.pilotbooksseattle.com). Which leads us to the next point...
3. Get a Good Website
Although a reportedly snazzier version is in the works, Pilot Books' current website (which Robinson calls the "little cardboard box we now call 'home' on the Web") is basically a blog with a few adjoining pages, and it's already one of the most entertaining bookstore websites in town, with book reviews, announcements, and an ever-growing list of all the publishers represented in the store (currently 148, listed alphabetically).
4. Build a Community
Your bookstore needs to be more than just books and a cash register. Pilot Books will display artwork, beginning with Nico Vassilakis's visual poetry later this summer, and she's planning on hosting one reading a week. In addition, on Sunday nights at 7:00 p.m., Robinson will host readers' groups ("Weekly, themed sessions where the reading takes place in situ. No homework. No falling behind if you skip sessions") and Monday nights will be themed writing-exercise nights (June 29 featured "Repetition in poetic prose. Think: reanimating Gertrude Stein"). There is talk about turning the upstairs reading area into a "typewriter bar" where people can write alone or collaborate on experimental prose and poetry. And of course there's the lending library, a collection of Robinson's own books (many of which are represented downstairs in the bookstore proper) that customers can take out on the honor system.
5. Lighting Is Important
"Nobody went into that back staircase," Robinson says, indicating the magazine and limited-edition shelves, "until I put a strong light in there." It really was kind of a creepy corner.
6. You Need a Mission Statement
"I want people to know that each time they come in here, they'll find something awesome. It might take more than 30 seconds—it might take some browsing—but I guarantee they'll find something they love. And I can help them find it. And unlike every other bookstore, I know everything in here. I at least know something about every one of these books."
7. You Will Probably Be Called a Book Snob
Robinson says that her preference for small, independent presses has resulted in charges of elitism for her entire life, and Pilot Books will no doubt annoy some Dan Brown lovers. "I'm just saying that independent publishers exist and need a space, and it's probably got to be a dedicated space," she says. But she can't stop herself: "That said, I think the books that are hardest to read are the best."
8. You Need a Vision
Robinson can talk for hours about the beauty of books as objects. She equates the books produced by giant publishers to the art prints for sale at IKEA. "But you need art galleries, too, so this is kind of a book gallery. I want to see writing and reading become as vibrant and exciting as visual arts are."
9. But You Need Perspective, Too
At the end of the day, Robinson says, she has to remember that Pilot Books is just a bookstore. "It's just what it is. It doesn't have to revolutionize the business," she says and looks around her bookstore, pausing for a second. "Everybody knows the only thing that can do that is the Kindle." And then her laughter fills the shop.