With the rise of Amazon, Netflix, iTunes and myriad other Internet-driven options, old-school brick-and-mortar book, video and music stores are evaporating at a rapid pace. It’s a distressing development for many of us who grew up wandering the aisles of such places, and that isn’t just nostalgia talking.
Sure, access to movies, books, music and just about anything else one desires has never been better or more immediate; what’s missing is the communal aspect of going into a space that nurtures, complements and often enhances the experience of interacting with such things and those who love them. There’s just something essentially different about entering a place like Shake It Records — a sprawling cultural funhouse in which you might stumble upon something you didn’t even know you wanted or needed.
Enter The Booksellers, the latest independent venture from Neil Van Uum, the man who brought us Joseph-Beth Booksellers nearly 30 years ago. Located in the old Brooks Brothers space just off Fountain Square downtown, The Booksellers delivers all of the usual staples (books, magazines and a smattering of music and movies), an array of other stuff (greeting cards, kids’ toys and calendars) and a cafe with robust menu offerings (from desserts and baked goods to various quiches, salads and sandwiches to gourmet coffee from Lavazza and gelato from Madisono’s).
CityBeat recently connected with Van Uum, who also currently owns The Booksellers in Memphis, Tenn., to discuss his latest bookstore endeavor.
CityBeat: Given the challenges of running a brick-and-mortar store these days, why did you want to wade back into the bookstore landscape?
Neil Van Uum: I live downtown. It was just sort of a dream to be able to walk to work, walk to your bookstore, so that’s part of it. I know what I’m doing, so I just feel like I could build a bookstore that would work great downtown, and obviously the store is a mixture of a lot of things.
CB: How has your approached changed since you opened Joseph-Beth nearly 30 years ago?
NVU: Interestingly enough, the new store is the same size as the first bookstore I opened 30 years ago: 6,500 square feet.
For me, it starts with people. I have an incredible team we’ve put together there. My top five people have an average of 17 years experience in book selling, so I brought in the best people. They’re on top of the book selection and they’re on top of working with customers to help identify what books they want to read. It’s gotten more difficult today than ever. I think that’s the No. 1 thing people are looking for, “Gee, how do I cut through all clutter and make a quality book-purchase decision? Who’s going to help me connect with the right writers?” That’s what we’re geared to do and probably what I was geared to do from the beginning.
CB: Have you always been interested in books?
NVU: Yeah, I probably bought a wing in a library with overdue fees. I’ve always been curious about books and have always been a huge reader. I used to travel a lot right out of college, and every city I went to I’d go to their bookstore. It struck me that some cities had a good bookstore and other cities didn’t. At the time I was looking to open up a bookstore in Cleveland or Cincinnati, but I had no money and I ended up stumbling down to Lexington and things just kind of worked out there to open the first store.
CB: You’re originally from Cleveland, right? How did you end up making Cincinnati your home?
NVU: I attended the University of Cincinnati. I never dreamed I’d see what’s going on now. Cincinnati is one of the most exciting cities in the country right now, and there’s more to come. It’s incredible. When you live and work down there, it’s just great personally for me to feel like we can contribute something. I’d like to think that that store is a great contribution to downtown.
CB: In an age in which physical stores are evaporating, can you talk about the importance of creating a place where people who love books can hang out?
NVU: We spend a lot of time at home, we spend a lot of time at work and we’re looking for that third place where we can feel really comfortable. It used to be there was a lot more diversity on the landscape. Now, a lot of things have become homogenized with chains and that type of thing. We wanted to be able to break out and create something that’s sort of a special place, and what’s more special than an independent bookstore?
Even when I had nine stores, they were all very different. Part of the fun was satisfying my own urges to create something new and different every time we did something. I think downtown it’s the same thing. It’s a great space, and it was fun to think about how the cafe integrates with the bookstore. What a great place to stumble into on a cold November day when you’re looking to do something downtown.
CB: Speaking of the cafe, how important is it in terms of your business plan?
NVU: Huge. Again, we’re creating a third place, and books are the main driver but at the same time I’d like to think that we’re going to create a place that people are just going to want to come to get comfortable, read a book, read a magazine, have a cup of coffee, have lunch. It’s really difficult to do. It’s hard enough to open a restaurant, but to open a bookstore at the same time? But, again, we know what we’re doing, and I think we’re doing both of them extremely well. I think one will play off the other.
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