For this week’s A Word With You, we interviewed Josh Cook, marketing director and co-owner of Porter Square Books, which was named the 2020 Bookstore of the Year by Publishers Weekly. Josh has been selling books with Porter Square Books since it opened in 2004, and is a frontline bookseller, magazine buyer, and the website and social media manager. He is also the author of An Exaggerated Murder (Melville House, 2015). Follow him @InOrderofImport.
So…how are you?
Pretty good. Or, weird, but doing a lot better than a lot of other people and trying to feel grateful about that. I’m still working, still getting paid. I live in a place where I can get take out, beer from local breweries, groceries. I have a backyard and a nice porch. There are absences in my life, and as important as going out, being in the same physical room as my friends, being able to hand books to customers, being able to visit family is, none of that is existential.
Can you talk about winning Publishers Weekly‘s Bookstore of the Year? What was that like—and what did you think 2020 would look like after winning that award?
I didn’t really have a lot of expectations. When we were nominated, I was most looking forward to the speech that David would give at [BookExpo] if we won and then, when we actually won, we found out on a 10AM Zoom meeting. That happened just a few minutes before the announcement went public and after we’d been closed for a little while and after we had changed our business model, like, three times in a week. There wasn’t a lot of emotional space if you know what I mean. It is, of course, validating to see something you’ve built recognized on a national scale, but I think its real importance and its real impact on us and our community was the opportunity it gave everyone to celebrate. I think a lot of people in our community felt they were a part of that award and they’re right.
What are publishers or bookstores doing now that you are particularly excited about? Who is inspiring?
I’ve been running to stand still so much recently I almost feel a little disconnected from the industry despite working so much. I’m excited for Coffee House’s new paid writing program. I’m excited for a lot of the books coming out this fall. I’m excited that so many bookstore GoFundMe are actually getting funded, even ones with six-figure asks. I’m excited that individual booksellers are finding ways to sell books even if their stores are closed. I’m excited that we seem to be starting a bigger discussion of systems of power in publishing and how we can build a more just industry. I’m excited that it looks like some number of Amazon shoppers have migrated to indie bookstores.
There is always potential that tags along with volatile situations. There are opportunities to be creative and inventive, to discover new ways of doing things that could leave the world a better place than it was before the crisis. And it seems like, unlike in 2008, communities really understand the value of independent bookstores and are spending the money to keep them afloat. It’s scary that it still might not be enough. It’s frustrating that so much of the work being done and money being spent is by people who don’t have the time and don’t have the money. It’s frustrating that a lot of this would be easier if some number of powerful and wealthy people did just a tiny fraction more than the nothing they seem to be doing.
But you can’t eat frustration and though you can’t eat excitement either, it’s at least something to get up for in the morning. Bookselling in 2021 might look completely different from how it looked in 2020 and I think there are good reasons to be excited about that.
What does business look like right now? How are online sales and events working?
A lot of other people have been saying this, but I’ll say it again because I think it’s important to how we think about what our economy could look like after the crisis and to adjusting our assumptions about online commerce: Every sale takes three times as much work. Sometimes more. That said, our online sales have been strong. We already had relatively strong online sales, so even though we didn’t build our online commerce for pandemic mitigation, a lot of our in store customers have transitioned to shopping online. Furthermore, we’d also built a strong social media presence, and so there are a lot of people around the country who just wanted to support indie bookstores and chose us because they like what we do on Twitter. I also think both of those things helped us capture some Amazon customers. So, we’re doing okay with online sales.
But the simple fact is, there is no digital technology yet that is as good at selling books as a physical bookstore. I mean, just think about how many different books you can look at in a minute of wandering around bookstore verses scrolling through a website, how much faster it is to read their summaries, how much easier it is to flip to a random page to test out the prose. Even before we consider gifts and greeting cards and socks and literary magazines and everything else that is difficult for a bookstore to sell online, it is, technologically speaking, a lot harder to sell books online than in a store. So, PSB is doing okay, maybe even great, in the context of this moment, but we’re selling far fewer books than we would be if the store were open.
In terms of events, I think we’re still figuring it out. We haven’t done a ton. We’ve had some with a ton of views and a healthy number of sales and donations and some with not so much. We’ve sold out one ticketed event, but it’s the only one we’ve had and that was Christopher Moore. Given the type of work virtual events take and the type of communal space they occupy, at the moment we’re planning on doing fewer virtual events than we were doing in store events, but that’s the only thing we’ve really decided. That is the other side of “innovation.” Sometimes it takes awhile to figure out what works. One thing hasn’t changed though, authors that did outreach to their fans had more successful events than authors who didn’t.
Do you have any new practices you hope to continue doing even after this crisis subsides?
We were all hoping for an end date, right? Okay, the crisis is over today so tomorrow we can have a huge party. That’s clearly not going to happen. I think a lot of people, regardless of whatever recommendations are made by authorities, are going to maintain social distancing of some kind at least until there is a vaccine. So there is a good chance we’ll need to continue things like curbside pick-up and local delivery after the store is fully open in order to serve our community. For obvious reasons, I hope people will keep buying the Josh Sends You Three Paperbacks bundle, as that has been a lot of fun. It’s basically a bookseller’s dream. There were also a few things we were working on that were put on hold, that we hopefully have the space to pick back up. I think we’d like to figure out ways to do hybrid events. Not only do events with a virtual component have no attendance limit, they’re also more accessible in general, so I’d really like to use what we’ve learned in the crisis to make our events more accessible when they can be in the store again.
The thing I hope for the most is that Amazon customers who came to us because Amazon deprioritized book orders stay with us. At least some of them. If indie bookstores can get to the other side of this AND those customers stay in the indie bookstore channel, we could end up with a much stronger industry than we’ve had in decades. And if we combine that with some of the other things we developed, like The Bookstore at the End of the World, like the various bundles stores are selling, we could find ourselves in something of a golden age of empowered, independent booksellers.
We have to ask: do you have another book-themed tattoo planned?
Not specifically! I’ve got a bookselling one in the back of my head and I’ve had something to commemorate my book also in the back of my head for a while. Just kinda waiting for an excuse if you know what I mean. I don’t have anything like my Ducks, Newburyport tattoo in the queue, but who knows what book I’ll try to sell 100 copies of this year.
What are you working on and what are you reading? Do you have anything you would pair it with (a food, a movie, another book, etc.?)
I’m still plugging away at the same [work-in-progress] I’ve been on for a few years now, along with the range of side projects I always keep around. I’m not in a place where I can say too much about the main project, but I will say I am looking forward to What is Grass by Mark Doty. I’ve always liked having different projects that require different brain spaces that I can turn to when I don’t have whatever I need for the main thing, but it’s been a real boon during the crisis. Having writing that doesn’t need to be done on the computer, that doesn’t have any real stakes, that I can just pick up when I have a relevant idea and put away when I don’t makes it easier to just keep putting words out there and that seems like a luxury these days.
I’ve been able to keep up my reading pretty well, too, especially now that the bookstore has been settled into its processes for a couple of weeks and we can have days off. I’m working my way through The Dreamed Part by Rodrigo Fresan and Stephen Florida by Gabe Habash (both works of genius, but very different types of genius). I just started Telephone by Percival Everett, High As the Waters Rise by Anja Kampmann, and Strange Hotel by Eimear McBride (the prose is like she put the sentences of Henry James in a mirror and then smashed it), and I’m working my way through a handful of the Best Translated Poetry finalists, including The Next Loves by Stéphane Bouquet. I’m also excited to start Feminist City by Leslie Kern and Pink Mountain on Locust Island by Jamie Marina Lau. Other new books that I hope sell a shmillion copies are the new Wanda Coleman selected works, Wicked Enchantment. She should be a household name (at least in poetry households) and I really hope Wicked Enchantment does that for her. And Cars on Fire by Monica Ramon Rios is wild. Great book for fans of Lina Wolff and Renee Gladman and the story “Invocation” has what might be the best use of two column storytelling I’ve ever seen.