“A Bookstore Is Not Meant to be Empty”: A Word with . . . Matt Keliher

In this week’s A Word With You, we spoke with bookseller Matt Keliher about how he’s handselling at a distance and the industry-wide changes he’s fighting for. Matt is the manager and head buyer of Subtext Books in St. Paul, Minnesota. Follow his twitter @MAKeliher to hear what indie book you should be reading next.

So…how are you? 

I’m doing all right. Putting one foot in front of the other, day after day. I’m getting real tired of going to an empty bookstore every day. Bookstores aren’t meant to be without people in them. I’m basically pulling at the pant legs of my postman to sustain a conversation.

What’s some good advice you’ve received recently?

I think the best advice I’ve heard recently is that we shouldn’t feel bad about charging for the cost of postage because most people know that it’s an added expense and that it cuts significantly into the margin of the book and therefore most people are fine with paying a couple extra bucks for postage if it helps the bookstore remain whole.

What are publishers or bookstores doing now that you are particularly excited about? Who is inspiring?

Coffee House Press rolled out their Coffee House Writer’s Project that helps put money in the hands of booksellers and writers. It’s a great, innovative program I hope many more people become aware of and lend their support. I’m inspired every day by booksellers doing their best to continue providing their communities with the services that their communities require. It’s a different battle for everyone, and everyone is handling each day and each challenge differently.

I’ve been particularly impressed by Volumes in Chicago. They’re not only dealing with this crisis, but also handling a new landlord from NYC that seems to care very little about whether or not they remain a tenant. That landlord/renter dynamic can be challenging to overcome. And their GoFundMe has some sweet perks like the dance from The Breakfast Club performed by all-star authors.

What does business look like right now? 

It’s weird. It’s the weirdest, strangest thing, every single day. Our business is strong, online sales are strong, phone orders and special orders are coming in faster than we can move them out most days. But it’s just bizarre. A bookstore is not meant to be empty and quiet. A bookstore is not meant to have its door locked when the sun is highest. It’s all of my least favorite parts of bookselling—processing, sealing packages, bookkeeping, emails, etc.—and none of my favorite parts—talking to people about dope books.

But St. Paul has impressed the hell out of me. We’ve been offering a Surprise Me buy option on our website that has been hugely popular. Basically, you give the booksellers a clue about what you like, and we pick something awesome and mail it to you. It’s like if you were asking a bookseller to handsell you something in person . . . except now I always pick the right book. And it’s a big help to us also because it allows us to sell books that we have in stock which is more financially beneficial than ordering more books from our distributor every week. It’s my favorite part of every day.

We also were fortunate to have author Nora McInerny run a preorder campaign for a new book, Bad Moms. She made it her personal mission to drive me to be overwhelmed by sales, and absolutely succeeded in that task. It was more orders over a shorter period of time than our store has ever taken on. It’s been incredible to see, and entirely overwhelming, in the best way.

Do you have any new practices you hope to continue doing even after this crisis subsides? 

Definitely. There’s a lot of little process and method kind of things that we updated to make our operations more efficient from what we’ve learned in the last month or so. We’ll keep the Surprise Me option available on our website forever, I think—that’s how much I love it. We’ll be continuing to improve our website to better handle a high volume of sales. I think bookstores all over are winning the long term support of many, many new customers in their communities as a result of the personal and effective service we have been providing lately.

Photo credit: Caroline Yang

What do you hope for the future of bookselling?

Greater solidarity among all workers across the industry, fighting, arm in arm, for the best for all of us. I’d like to see a national booksellers union. Higher wages across the board, from booksellers to publicists to warehouse workers. I’d like to see publishers take on a greater role in creating a more equitable playing field for all facets of the industry. I’d like to see broader and better messaging about how the book industry would benefit greatly from progressive government policies like Medicare For All. If you believe in independent bookstores, either as a reader, publisher, book reviewer, or wholesale distributor, without believing in healthcare as a human right, then you aren’t really supporting independent bookstores. Also, pay your interns or do not have internships. Oh, and another thing, there is no reason in the year 2020 that publishing must be centralized in New York City, one of the most expensive cities in the world. I’ll stop now.

What are you reading?

I am reading Denis Johnson’s short stories. I haven’t been able to lend my attention to a novel in some time. And I’m pairing it with John Prine, homemade pizza, more whiskey than I care to admit, and Money Heist on Netflix. (Psst: *whispers* if you like Money Heist, I have some translated fiction to tell you about.) 


Looking for a way to support independent bookstores? Make a donation to the Book Industry Charitable Foundation (BINC), purchase a book online from your favorite bookstore, or visit Bookshop.org.

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