Listen to The Nitty-Gritty with Sarah McNally of McNally Jackson here.
In 2017, can we finally lay to rest the trope of the dying bookstore?
Of course, print has gone through seismic changes with Amazon and digital media, and bookstores have folded and many continue to struggle—both indies and chains alike. But books, contrary to the perennial buzz that their doomsday approacheth, are not going anywhere, and readers still want special places where they can go to physically discover literature on their own, or with the help of some super knowledgeable book nerd (not an insult).
Nay, rather than the death of books or print literature, we should be proclaiming the arrival of new distribution models, ones which might be just as revolutionary as Gutenberg’s. The Internet and digital technology is a big part of this sweeping change, but some entrepreneurs are figuring out new models and thriving, despite the massive disruptions. The bookstore, after all, is still a place to go and hold words in your hand, a place to be among those that are equally bookish.
It’s not books or bookstores that are dying—it’s the old way of doing things. But this logic extends both ways: the prediction that e-books would overtake printed ones didn’t pan out in 2016. Print sales in the industry were actually up by over 8% in the first half of the year, and e-book sales finally started dropping after a meteoric rise. Amazon is set to open a bookstore in Manhattan in addition to their other physical locations, a sign that brick-and-mortar is will resume its position as a significant space for readers.
Sarah McNally, our latest interviewee for The Nitty-Gritty, is an entrepreneur with a lifelong involvement in books, though she never thought she’d follow in the steps of her parents. Hailing from Manitoba, Canada, her mom and dad opened McNally Robinson in 1981, which grew to be Canada’s largest independent bookstore. She got her philosophy degree from McGill University and had no specific plan for her career. Always unwilling to sit still, she travelled across Africa, an indicator of her far-reaching interests and willingness to take risks.
She opened McNally Jackson in 2004, on Prince Street in Lower Manhattan, at a time when big box booksellers were rapidly growing their online presence. Since then her shop has been profiled in the New York Times and many other outlets. Sarah McNally has used a combination of traditional insight with cutting-edge literary practices and figured out a way for booksellers to succeed. A.) Best sellers can’t be the only part of the business, and B.) You have to have a well-curated selection and an expert, passionate staff.
Of course, there also are million little nuances that go into the success of a business. Rather than focusing purely on books, one of McNally’s talents is stocking the culture of books, not just the objects themselves. The café at McNally Jackson is always packed, and night after night of readings and events keep people coming. The store has also gotten into the business of publishing books—over 700 titles so far, contrary to the traditional publishing model, but smartly aligned with independent, DIY print culture.
Still, the print industry is sure to continue changing. In this episode of The Nitty-Gritty, Sarah McNally discusses what she sees happening down the road with publishing and literary retail, as well as her past experience with mentors and the first stages of opening McNally Jackson. She reveals the thing that has helped her business perhaps the most: an unflinching passion for the written word, and the vast array of books from throughout history and around the world. Her own commitment to books—as a fervent reader—is an example of why bookstores will never completely vanish.
Want to hear more? Tune into our latest Nitty-Gritty podcast.