Face Out: ABA Board Member Jonathon Welch on His Life Among Books
In this installment in our series profiling American Booksellers Association Board members, Bookselling This Week talks to Jonathon Welch, co-owner of Talking Leaves...Books, which has two locations in Buffalo, New York. Welch is in his second three-year term as a Board director.
BTW: Please talk about your early experiences with reading and books.
Jonathon Welch: I grew up in a large family, seven kids, usually sans a television, in a house full of books. Introspective, I learned to read early, leaning toward solitude and respite in a busy home. Due to my parents’ abiding interest in the western U.S., I read a ton of westerns, as well as Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Chip Hilton novels, and popular history and fiction from the ’30s–’60s.
In high school, I discovered both school and town libraries, where I learned of the larger social/political/communal aspect of the world of books and reading. I discovered my first bookstore when my high school girlfriend persuaded me to take her on dates to the Milwaukee airport, where she watched planes and daydreamed about escape, while I escaped by browsing in the bookstore, discovering John Fowles, William Golding, and Tolkien, among others, and getting an inkling of the social aura of the bookstore space.
At the University of Wisconsin, I found the then-terrific University Bookstore, Paul’s Used Books, and the Madison Book Co-op, where I spent all my available non-rent and food money on books — and learned by osmosis about publishers, and the beginnings of the small press revolution. Madison had a vibrant literary culture, so I experienced living writers, especially poets, for the first time. I got a job as projectionist at the student movie theater, where I screened, and thus watched more than once, a public TV series of interviews with contemporary poets, probably the first ever such program. My abiding interest in poetry and the poetic process, and in small independent press publishing, sprang from these encounters.
BTW: How did you begin as a bookseller? When did you begin to feel that you had found a special vocation?
JW: Off to graduate school at SUNY Buffalo, a hotbed of various kinds of literary innovation — cutting edge fiction and poetry on the one hand, literary theory on the other — I quickly found a small local indie store to hang out in and order my textbooks from (I was a teaching fellow). Just as quickly I got involved in local radical politics (this was right after the Attica prison rebellion) and I soon fell behind in all my graduate work, which focused on the history and culture of books and the technology of printing and the transition from oral to written language, and, in a way, back again. The owner of the small indie decided in the fall of 1974 to sell the store so she could move to NYC. I became ringleader of a group of loyal customers — students and community people — who decided we should buy the store to save it. We approached faculty, family, friends, and interested community folks and borrowed about $18,000 (at five percent simple annual interest for five years) to buy the store, inventory, fixtures, etc. We opened on January 1, 1975, as a cooperative with $500 in the bank and orders placed for about $10,000 worth of books for classes. Luckily, we sold enough books every month to keep going. (It did take 10 years to pay back those loans.)
We had no retail or book industry experience, but the previous owner’s one employee advised us for about three months. We did have a passion for books and reading, and a firm belief in their power to move people and the world. Building on the inherited foundation of a small, general trade bookstore with a literary emphasis, we were keen to expand into a community and cultural center, a home for the disenfranchised, the alternative, the underrepresented and underappreciated — a place where people and ideas interact, conversations flow, and change is incubated. We aimed to create a place where the classic and the avant-garde, the reactionary and the activist, the reader and the writer, the materialist and the spiritualist, the learned and the ignorant could gather, commune and communicate, and engage with the world to make it a better place. It was critical for us to provide a space for the explosion of important work being produced by small, independent, and university presses as changes in printing technology enabled access and affordability, and the growing concentration and corporatization of the mainstream publishing industry constrained innovation and risk-taking. It was equally critical to represent the diverse communities traditionally given short shrift in mainstream publishing and culture — African Americans, Hispanics and Latinos, women, gays and lesbians, Native Americans, prisoners, Third World writers, and activists.
I was one of two people hired to work 20 hours for $50 a week to run the store, ostensibly for a year while I caught up on reading for my graduate exams. My now wife, Martha, became our third employee. We’re both still at it, 40 years later — exams never taken. The complex reality of New York cooperative corporation law forced us to become a “regular” business, and as the long-term employees and survivors, we became the owners in 1979, adopting the name Talking Leaves…Books. I found that as a bookseller I could both teach and engage in scholarship in a more amiable way than I would have done as an academic. My interest in the history of books and publishing carried on, and I drank up all the changes going on in the book world with great interest and curiosity — reading, plying reps for information, engaging with small press and university press people, all the while learning the nuts and bolts of running a business.
Talking Leaves moved and shrank, moved and grew, again using community crowd-funding. In 2001, with a third round of community support, we opened a second location in a neighborhood bereft at the closing of all its bookstores. Through it all, we’ve tried to abide by some simple principles — to conduct business with integrity and common sense; to treat our customers and booksellers with dignity and respect; to listen and respond to their concerns and ideas without compromising our own principles and standards; to provide the best and most diverse literature, writing, and thinking of the ages and of our own age; to link past, present, and future in constructive, instructive, often provocative, ways; and to provide a meeting place for people interested in books and ideas.
BTW: When did you first become a member of ABA? What motivated you to join?
JW: The previous owner had joined ABA, and we maintained membership as we soon realized how useful it was for both practical information and skill-building tips and as a link to the bookselling community at large. I became actively involved after the publication of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, and with the birth and expansion of the chain superstores and then online retailing in the ’90s. Through all the changes, ABA has been a responsible and responsive representative of the bookselling trade, a critical source of information and practical advice, even at times when I’ve had philosophical disagreements with some of its directions and choices.
BTW: What do you think are some of the most important changes in bookselling since you opened your store?
JW: Change has been as constant as our daily opening of boxes filled with books. Technological changes have enabled speedier distribution and more efficient buying practices and give the promise of making the notoriously inefficient publishing ecosystem more efficient. Urban and suburban real estate speculation and development, enabled by technological change in the financial industry, contributed to the rise and partial demise of the corporate superstore and bookstore chains. The localism movement is an outgrowth of those changes, with the potential to reshape communities and retailing in a more democratic way. Concentration and consolidation in the publishing industry constricted the menu for readers, shifting the emphasis to frontlist, blockbusters, and brand names. The attendant growth in small independent and nonprofit publishing helped to expand that menu, but to a smaller and more disparate audience. The Internet and mobile technology are impacting how people shop and how they read, with wide-ranging effect. All of these changes have made bookselling more intimately connected to the world of commerce and thus more impacted by the ebbs and flows of a consumerist society.
BTW: What are your key goals as an ABA Board member for fostering the book industry, and bookselling in particular?
JW: I would like ABA to do all it can to recognize and honor the diversity of our culture and in our industry, and to push for more — greater diversity and representation of voices, of publishers, of store size and type and inventory selection, of staff and of customers. We need to reach more people both inside and outside our industry with the message that we are not simply cogs in the wheel of consumer culture, but vibrant spaces that enhance and engage civic life as well as essential sites of discovery, enchantment, learning, wonder, awakening, connection, and inclusion.
ABA needs to maintain, grow, and enhance practical educational programming to reach and help all bookstores to succeed and flourish. I want ABA to strengthen advocacy efforts — with suppliers, with government agencies and lawmakers, with the public — to foster a growth in the number of stores and greater success for all. Ditto, efforts at improved marketing, more effective and affordable technology, and human resource solutions (healthcare, insurance, minimum wages, etc.). The more stores we can engage in our efforts, the more effective they will become; the more effective they are, the more we can grow our voice and our position in both the book ecosystem and the larger public sphere.
I want to see ABA communicate more historical context on bookselling and itself to booksellers, both directly and through our regional association partners; to pay more attention to the importance of backlist; to work harder to educate all booksellers on the vital contributions of small and university presses and unknown authors to our ecosystem; to develop and expand our relationships with as many players in this ecosystem as possible.
My greatest concern for us all is that we are still far from being a nation of readers. Literacy rates are frighteningly low, and far too few people read, visit libraries and bookstores, and take advantage of the slow and deep form of knowledge acquisition and information gathering that reading is. An effective democracy requires an educated and informed public. We all need to do whatever we can to get books into the hands and homes of children and get them reading, to get parents and caregivers to introduce the joys of reading and enhanced spoken language as early as possible. Our survival, as an industry and as a culture, depends on increasing both childhood and adult literacy.
BTW: What are you reading now?
JW: Kathleen Jamie’s Sightlines: A Conversation With the Natural World and her Waterlight: Selected Poems; Essential Tales of Chekhov, edited by Richard Ford; Buffalo Noir, edited by Ed Park and Brigid Hughes; Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plants, by Robin Wall Kimmerer; and A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James.
BTW: You get a day to walk through any city, town, or landscape with any one writer. What writer and what place?
JW: You must be kidding — one place, one writer? Give me a week off and I’ll join Wendell Berry in the fields of his Kentucky homestead; John Berger where he lives, or any place of his choosing; Rebecca Solnit walking around San Francisco or Detroit; Greil Marcus in the rooms that house his music collection and set his mind in motion; Zora Neale Hurston field-working in the Black South; W.G. Sebald meandering around England; Claudio Magris ferrying down the Danube; Charles Olson striding through the streets of Gloucester and the mind of Melville; Jim Harrison stalking in the wilds and bars of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula; Ralph Ellison gliding around Harlem and the rest of NYC; Walter Benjamin strolling in Paris or Berlin in the ’20s; Freya Stark on any of her journeys — oops, make that two weeks, with pay. You see the problem?
When Betsy [Burton, ABA’s president] asked Board members at our July meeting to answer a version of these questions, I finished by reading this Wendell Berry poem, which for me sums up my life in bookselling for the past 40 years: “The Sycamore” (from New Collected Poems by Wendell Berry, Counterpoint).