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Profits from poems

While poets are often advised to secure a good day job rather than try to support themselves as poets, two Seattle bookstore owners have done the unthinkable: They make a living selling nothing but poetry.
The Open Books inventory ledger. (Lisa Albers)

The Open Books inventory ledger. (Lisa Albers) None

John Marshall and Christine Deavel, owners of Open Books. (Lisa Albers)

John Marshall and Christine Deavel, owners of Open Books. (Lisa Albers) None

Seattleites John Marshall and Christine Deavel are co-owners of Open Books: A Poem Emporium, one of just two poetry-only bookstores in the U.S. (The other is called Grolier Poetry Book Shop, in Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass.) Open Books offers more than 9,000 titles, ranging from formal to experimental poetry.

Sustaining not one but two livings on poetry takes a unique blend of chance and choice. For starters, Marshall and Deavel have the good fortune of doing business in Seattle, which has a claim to the "most literate city" title, notwithstanding Minneapolis' rise to the top last year. Marshall has lived in Seattle since he was in second grade — "I pre-date I-5," he claims — and Deavel moved here from the Midwest in 1986. They've been in the Seattle book business for 20 years, the first seven as owners of a general bookstore also called Open Books, formerly 45th Street Books, located up the street from their current store. The same building once housed Montana Books, which used to be Seattle's famed independent bookstore, in the days before Elliott Bay Book Company.

Secondly, they keep overhead low by staffing the store themselves. This decision is one they've both struggled with and aren't proud of — Deavel says she wishes they could provide jobs for others — but it's one borne of necessity. Employees are usually an employer's largest expense. Neither have they spent money on computer equipment; everything is done by hand, from the inventory to the bookkeeping. They keep a simple spiral ledger by the cash register for tracking sales and inventory and still have them going back to the store's opening. "We read from the ledger on our 10th anniversary, which was a kick," says Deavel. "The aesthetic breadth was astounding."

"If there's anything that gets institutionalized after our deaths, it will be those," jokes Marshall.

Deavel and Marshall are also active poets themselves, which makes them highly knowledgeable shopkeepers who can pull out an obscure title, make the right recommendations, and cultivate a steady stream of repeat customers. Marshall's first full-length collection of poetry, Meaning a Cloud, won the 2007 FIELD prize and was published by Oberlin College Press this year.

Being one of just two poetry-only bookstores in the country often means that people flock to the store from all over, and they spend well. "We couldn't live on Seattle alone," says Deavel. Marshall says that references in Fodor's and Lonely Planet, in addition to old-fashioned word of mouth, make all the difference. In this way, their niche designation earns them advertising they probably wouldn't get as a small, general bookstore. Deavel maintains that although they have fewer customers than a store offering general titles, customers who come to Open Books are more likely to make a purchase. "Your book-to-customer ratio usually goes up" with a specialty store, says Deavel. "Yesterday, I sold 17 books to one person." According to Marshall's records, they averaged between 270 and 290 monthly customers (people who bought books, not just browsed) over the three-year period 2005-07.

The two admit that what really makes a difference to their bottom line, however, is the fact that they own the building that houses their shop. Purchased in 1993 for less than $150,000, it's an old Craftsman-style house on busy 45th Street, a few blocks from the Wallingford neighborhood main drag. The shop is in what used to be a single-car garage facing the street. The house above they've always rented out to tenants; there once was a wine bar and cafe upstairs. Now Deavel and Marshall are renovating the house and preparing to move in.

"For anyone who's in retail today, especially if you're small, if you can own your own building, that makes a huge difference," says Deavel. "So often, I think it comes down to the question, 'How affordable is real estate in this city?'" Deavel says she worries about Seattle's future for that reason, as the owner of the next "funky little shop" might not be able to afford rent.


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Comments:

Posted Sat, Jun 28, 12:19 a.m. Inappropriate

Heartening: I'm glad to see it's still possible to do this sort of thing in Seattle, even if, as I assume, the margins are slim and the profits just enough to keep them going. It's indeed too bad they can't afford to employ others, even at meager bookstore wages — I do worry about who's going to take over not just from them, but from all the other people in a media business that seems to have less and less room for new blood. But if that's what it takes to make it, it's worth it.

I completely understand their desire not to expand, but being able to take online orders — perhaps through Abebooks.com, so as to avoid the local giant? — would probably be a good idea. There's likely a decent market out there that can't or won't make it to Wallingford.

I was so glad to see this in (electronic) print:
The two admit that what really makes a difference to their bottom line, however, is the fact that they own the building that houses their shop... "For anyone who's in retail today, especially if you're small, if you can own your own building, that makes a huge difference," says Deavel. "So often, I think it comes down to the question, 'How affordable is real estate in this city?'" Deavel says she worries about Seattle's future for that reason, as the owner of the next "funky little shop" might not be able to afford rent.

So true. I've seen too many small enterprises go out of business precisely because they rented and didn't own. And it's becoming harder and harder for them to buy. The Couth Buzzard bookstore on Greenwood closed earlier this year when they lost their lease to make way for the expansion of Ken's Market: "Explaining they operate on 'razor thin margins,' they said they were faced with going from a lease rate of about $1 per square foot to at least $2 per square foot, effectively doubling their monthly rent." Horizon Books on Roosevelt recently consolidated with the Capitol Hill branch on 15th Avenue, and now I hear that one may be closing too. I don't know the ownership situation on 15th, but they definitely rented on Roosevelt.

With all the corporate welfare being handed out I'd love to see small-business owners get help purchasing their own buildings, or where there are multiple tenants, help joining forces to purchase the buildings in a sort of co-op situation. As we've seen lately, maybe property ownership isn't as "safe" as we used to think, but for security of tenure, it certainly beats renting.

The more we can do to encourage the creation of more businesses like Open Books, the better. And perhaps they will be able to hire a few employees someday. God knows we're not going to be able to rely on Microsoft, Amazon, and their ilk forever.

Oh... and great salal anecdote.

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