For all the kinds of businesses one could begin today, a bookstore could very well be the most precarious.  Bookselling has always been a risky venture.  While it might be true that every business proposition does involve some amount of risk, they also provide some margin of profit, and occasionally the opportunities to make a large sum.  Chances are, with the case of the bookstore, opportunities to turn a large profit are very slim.  Not even with a full-scale tv campaign and all the attention of the local press and a devoted local clientele.  Many of those factors were certainly well in place with some of the country’s most successful bookstores, and they still either went out of business or are under new management in new locations.

 

It’s good to know the history of the industry, then, and while that may be true in anything, in bookselling it’s especially important.  That’s because it’s an industry that is made up of stories about people, and most of the fulfilling parts of running a bookstore will also be from hearing and experiencing stories about people.  No intelligent person does enter into the bookselling business with profits above all else in mind.  There’s something else on offer, and something else at stake.  While bookstore luminaries like Walter Carr and David Unowsky would seem to have very little in common but hair color, there are similarities in their histories that are telling.

 

Both began their highly successful book businesses in the early 1970s, at a time when there was an influx of information, in the form of novels, political writing, and some of the most exciting writing on contemporary culture the world had ever seen.  Yet there were very few channels for it.  This was at a time when one couldn’t simply post news on their  twitter account to alert the world of changing situations.  So both decided to begin a business where the distribution of information in a critical moment was the impetus.  Their businesses, based in Minneapolis-St. Paul and Seattle, became defining icons in the book industry, and they defined it for a lot longer than anyone would have thought possible.

In today’s economy, then, although a bookstore would seem like an unlikely proposition, perhaps the unlikelihood is actually something positive.  There is certainly a dearth of interesting bookstores in nearly every city now, but people are still reading.  There are new forms, like e-books and e-readers, as well as different kinds of distribution of new titles online, and these make it very difficult for community bookstores to compete and stay alive, but there are essential ideas from the giants of independent bookselling that are perhaps more relevant and necessary than ever before, and they might just be the shoulders that the next generation is supposed to stand on.