He’s 30 minutes late. Then the delay hits an hour. But no one seems to mind.
Soon, Irish author Stuart Neville will arrive, fresh from Mitchell International Airport, though decidedly not fresh in appearance. Slightly disheveled with his wild brown hair spottily matted and wearing a rumpled sweater, Neville bears the look of both a writer who’s been scratching his head at a desk all day and that of a delayed traveler. It’s understandable. Still, on the fourth stop of his U.S. tour, he’s preparing to read from his latest post-World War II crime novel, Ratlines.
In the back of the store, around two dozen people have gathered, waiting out the delay. They’re on leather couches and seated in folding chairs, though no one’s in the first row, known as the “buffer row.” Few, employees say, ever sit there. Unless they’re super-fans. No one today has reached that status.
With everything in order, Stacie Williams takes the mic to introduce Neville, effectively hushing the small yet diverse crowd.
And with that, Neville was up. He stepped to the podium, stood with his back to a shelf of mystery novels, their dark covers set against jarring neon type, and took a swig of water. As he cleared his throat and began to introduce himself, his Irish-accented voice shook slightly.
“Excuse me!” says a woman from the third row of chairs. “Could I get you any tea or coffee?” she asks, nodding over her left shoulder to the attached Starbucks store.
“Oh, no thank you,” Neville says, smiling.
This is Boswell Book Company, a wonderfully eclectic yet remarkably accessible independent bookstore on Milwaukee’s East Side. And like a hostess at a family restaurant, this guest’s coffee-offering gesture doesn’t seem out of place. This is a store where comfort – on all levels – is imperative. After the offer, the crowd laughed politely, but one laugh, booming and just a bit nasally, stands out louder than the rest.
That’s Daniel Goldin, the 51-year-old, khaki-clad man who can often be spotted near his home in Bay View, walking the oft-broken sidewalks of Kinnickinnic Avenue with his face in a book. Or as Oren Teicher, CEO of the American Booksellers Association, describes him, “one of the best booksellers in the country.”
Since opening Boswell in 2009, Goldin has made quite the mark on Milwaukee. A New Yorker who arrived years earlier to work for Schwartz Bookshops, he’s made a physical book store indispensable to avid readers at a time when bookstores of all kinds are closing at a rapid rate, and digital is attempting to flourish.
Independent bookstores, in particular, have been in upheaval since the late 1980s and ’90s, when retail bookselling giants like Barnes & Noble and Borders prospered. With the advent of e-books and e-readers, the future of these independents began to look even grimmer. But stores such as Boswell are determined to stay afloat, offering a curated selection of books as well as an inviting atmosphere and a small legion of booksellers with an expansive knowledge of literature.
That strategy is working for Goldin’s Boswell. Sales are up year over year, and Boswell has been instrumental in helping launch the careers of bestselling authors and booksellers. It’s even influenced other independent bookstores around the country.
This all comes courtesy of Goldin, who appreciates the praise but has a hard time sunbathing in the warm rays of success. As the owner, he embodies the worries of the store, scrutinizing everything from the arrangement of chairs at a reading to the waves of fear that come and go with the industry. After all, there’s always another bestselling author to bring to Milwaukee and more readers to convince that physical books are just as worthwhile as their digital cousins.
Born in Manhattan April 14, 1961, to a teacher and a father who was employed both as a bookkeeper and a factory worker, Goldin remembers growing up in Queens and going into bustling Manhattan with his mother. The two would walk down Fifth Avenue, just south of Central Park, to window shop, stopping in the now-closed Scribner’s and Doubleday bookstores. If Goldin was lucky, he’d get to pick out one book to take home.
“Books,” he says, “were a special occasion.”
Now a self-proclaimed Don Lee fan, Barbara Pym “obsessive” and lover of works by the late Laurie Colwin, Goldin can still recall one of the first books to capture his imagination. It was Half Magic by Edward Eager, a book about a set of cousins’ fantastical summer adventures, which Goldin says inspired many subsequent children’s books.
Graduating from Dartmouth in 1982, he earned his undergraduate degree (or “barely got through,” in his words) in math and also studied Russian. Shortly afterward, he began his career in book publishing as a publicity assistant at Warner Books (now Grand Central Publishing) during what he calls the “heyday of office supplies.” The bulk of his duties included an intricate color-coding process for book tours along with the data organizing that was standard for his position. “You had to just make everything and do everything we do with Excel sheets – without Excel sheets,” he says.
While on vacation in Milwaukee in 1986, Goldin happened to meet then-Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops’ manager John Eklund. Goldin and Eklund spoke of Goldin’s experience as a publicist, and soon after that first meeting, Eklund offered Goldin a job as a bookseller at Schwartz Bookshops’ Downtown location.
Soon, Goldin was packing up his life in New York and, having taken a two-thirds cut in pay for the gig, moving into an efficiency apartment in the Blackstone building on Milwaukee’s East Side. There was no kitchen sink, just a half-size refrigerator and a two-burner stove. He used the bathtub to wash dishes. And when cash was tight, Goldin went to Marshall Field’s with his department store credit card to charge necessities like noodles and peanut butter and jelly.
“And that’s how I would get through,” he says.
Within a decade, however, Goldin was tasked with buying all of the adult-level books for the five Schwartz locations to sell.
Goldin is a self-proclaimed slow reader, and good intel has it that he only likes to read one book at a time. This may paint a picture of quiet and calm, but he’s most recognizable in his frenetic energy. Sit long enough in the sandy brown leather couch in the back of Boswell, and you’ll no doubt hear a chorus of “Hello, Daniel!” followed by smiles and waves, over and over.
Often wearing oversized cardigans, you can’t miss his joyous stomping through the store, his shaggy brown hair flopping up and down as he darts back and forth. But it’s his speech that’s most disarming. Goldin’s volume ranges from secret-telling soft to full-throat booming, sometimes in the same sentence, his thoughts scrolling out of his mouth like a news ticker. He speaks in clauses and asides, which take him on tangents neither he nor the listener expected.
As international bestselling author Chris Cleave puts it, “He’s in a state of permanent electrification.”
As the adult book buyer for Schwartz, Goldin met John Mesjak, a sales rep at Abraham Associates, which sells about 10,000 titles a year from some 30 publishers to independent bookstores across the Midwest. He’s been selling to Goldin for 13 years, and Goldin, he says, has a “mania for selling books. Every bookstore owner that I’ve ever sold to has a certain madness. They have to want to go into this climate, and he fully embodies that.”
In March 2009, Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers sat atop The New York Times bestsellers list, National Book Award-winner Joyce Carol Oates had just published her 23rd short story collection titled Dear Husband, Amazon’s Kindle e-reader had been on the market for about a year and a half, and, in six months, Barnes & Noble would announce its own e-reader, the Nook. There might have been excitement nationally, but in Milwaukee, there was both literary and literal grief. On March 31, 2009, after 72 years of selling books, the remaining four Schwartz Bookshops closed for good. But only three days later, on April 3, Goldin opened Boswell. He’d bought the lowest-volume store from the Schwartz family and made the 8,000-square-foot space his own.
He painted to add natural light. He procured shorter bookcases with castors during negotiations. And he started building a staff. He needed a team of booksellers who could “hand-sell,” explaining to a customer why a certain book will meet their literary needs, while possessing the skills to keep a small business afloat. He needed someone to handle numbers, to coordinate events, to keep books in stock, to market the store, to maintain the website. Soon, three main people emerged.
Five months after opening, Goldin hired Stacie Williams, the staffer who introduced Neville fresh off the plane, and a veteran of Schwartz. She handles events, marketing, the creation of posters and bookmarks, and Boswell’s social media. She also sells books. For the approximately 250 events Boswell hosts each year, some are held in the store while others head to outside locations – like the Sherman Alexie book reading in November 2012, which drew a record crowd of 650 to the Milwaukee Public Library’s Centennial Hall.
Williams, who describes her preference in fiction as “dark and twisty” and has been known to read passages of books to customers to convince them to buy, can still remember the first time she encountered Goldin. He was the adult buyer for Schwartz, and part of his job was to send early versions of books to individual booksellers, based on what he thought were their tastes. The booksellers would read the books and recommend whether the store should take additional copies to sell.
“He had a really hard time figuring out what to send me because my reading taste is kind of across the board,” she says, “so he would send me just the weirdest things. But I also was amazed that this was part of his job, to try to ferret out the readers for potential books.”
Today, she says, “He can almost always nail it.”
Amie Mechler-Hickson has also known Goldin for quite some time – about 20 years. She previously worked at three Schwartz locations and is now one of the “core” people on the Boswell team. She’s the children’s books and calendar buyer, and also does the bookkeeping.
Rounding out the team is Jason Kennedy, whom Goldin only half-jokingly calls his protégé and also came to Boswell from Schwartz. He started working at Schwartz’s Downer location in 2003 when Goldin was still Schwartz’s adult book buyer and “would actively try to get booksellers involved in what’s working,” Kennedy says.
Now at Boswell 10 years later, wearing the adult book buyer’s hat like Goldin once did, Kennedy is glad he made the move to Boswell. But he’s quick to note that if anyone else had opened a new store after Schwartz, he wouldn’t have tagged along. Boswell, he says, “was a very worthy goal.”
If his staffers have one complaint about their boss, Kennedy says, it’s his reluctance to celebrate the store’s successes. “I don’t know if he ever gets to the point where he’s feeling successful, but I think internally, he probably does a little happy dance,” Kennedy says.
“Amie and I are there to ground him occasionally and say, ‘You know, this is great, and let’s celebrate.’”
Despite Goldin’s reluctance to celebrate, Kennedy says, “It’s been an amazing ride so far.”
Today, Boswell Books sits on a busy strip of Downer Avenue in a three-story, rust-red brick building. Prior to the Schwartz store, which opened in 1997, the location had been home to a handful of bookstores and, Goldin suspects, a car dealership.
To the south is Starbucks, which is connected to the bookstore and was scheduled to undergo a renovation and expansion earlier this year. But the moment customers walk into Boswell, their sightlines have been finely choreographed. First, they see three tables of new trade paperback books, their colorful covers lying face-up. Just beyond is a tall shelf of “Boswell’s best” and “new and noteworthy” titles, some of which have staff recommendation cards tucked underneath.
To the left of those shelves and across a walkway leading to Starbucks is a table of soft-heathered T-shirts emblazoned with book covers from American classics: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
Divided into sections by genre, Boswell’s walls are filled with shelf after shelf of books, most of their spines facing out. The ceiling’s exposed pipes and vents have been painted a dark green, complementing the wooden shelves and warming the room. Situated in the back, the children’s section hooks to the left. Its shelves are painted in sunny yellow, plum purple and cherry red. A miniature table and chairs await similarly sized occupants.
Many credit the success of Boswell with the way Goldin thinks about the store and the books within. “The way Daniel’s brain works is that he thinks small – not in a denigrating way – but in the nitty-gritty details,” Mesjak says. “No detail is too fine for him to focus on.”
The same goes for authors. He devotes time to novices and best-selling novelists alike.
Gemma Tarlach, an associate editor at Discover magazine, published her debut novel, Plaguewalker, in May 2012. Like an increasing number of fledgling authors, she used one of Amazon.com’s self-publishing tools to bring her writing to market. After asking for advice from a few friends at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Tarlach emailed Goldin and began the process of not only selling her book at Boswell but also promoting it with an author reading. And she always appreciated his honesty. “He told me, ‘Well, we can schedule it for one of these dates,’” Tarlach says of her author reading, “‘but that may change if we get a big author that day.’”
It also helped that both Goldin and one of his booksellers actually read her book, a seemingly small but important act. The same went for Chris Cleave, who until the mid-aughts was not known beyond his writing post at the UK’s The Guardian.
When Cleave met Goldin in March 2009, the author recalls sharing what it was like to be a writer on tour, and Goldin shared what it was like to be a bookseller. “I realized something,” Cleave says. “No one had ever sat me down and told me that it’s the booksellers that really determine whether people are going to read your stuff.” Goldin got his hands on Cleave’s Little Bee prior to its U.S. publishing in February 2009, two months before Boswell opened, and quickly disseminated copies to Schwartz staffers.
Goldin, Cleave says, was “one of the booksellers that started people reading my book when I was no one.”
In a February 2009 blog post in which he announced Cleave would stop in Milwaukee as part of his book tour, Goldin gushed. He continued to do so in nearly 10 blog posts over the next three years, marking the milestones of the book’s success – when Little Bee was shortlisted for UK’s Costa Award, when it made The New York Times best-seller list (where it stayed for an entire year) and when sales for the book skyrocketed.
But in his first blog post about Little Bee’s harrowing and heartwarming story, Goldin wrote what could be on a Boswell billboard: “This is what independent booksellers are for, helping you find a book that will rock your world.”
Boswell ultimately sold more than 500 copies of Little Bee, cementing it as one of the store’s all-time top sellers.
“He’s an amazing guy,” Cleave says. “He just has such an intelligence when you talk to him. He’s also very daring; he’ll say stuff that’s very outrageous.”
He might be outrageous, but many find his advice practical. When best-selling author Ann Patchett, whose 2001 novel Bel Canto won the Orange Prize for Fiction and the PEN/Faulkner Award, came to Milwaukee on a 2011 book tour, Goldin finagled his way into a dinner with her at Beans & Barley. “I just sat down and said, ‘OK, I know you’re opening a bookstore. I happen to have a bookstore, and let me tell you all the things I did wrong.’”
When Goliath chains Barnes & Noble and Borders began opening stores by the dozens, many independents were forced to close. Today, even a retailer with enough capital to manufacture its own e-readers has a hard time keeping pace with the digital age.
By September 2011, Borders, the second-largest chain bookstore, shuttered its 700 locations and filed for bankruptcy. From mass layoffs at the largest New York City publishing houses to the closings of Milwaukee’s own independent bookstores like Schwartz and Mequon’s Next Chapter Bookshop, not much has been left untouched. In December 2011, Slate.com’s technology columnist Farhad Manjoo argued that independent bookstores are “some of the least efficient, least user-friendly, and most mistakenly mythologized local establishments you can find.” In early February of this year, even Barnes & Noble began to close some of its largest stores in New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C.
Still, there’s evidence Americans are reading books. Just in different forms. In a study released in December 2012, the Pew Research Center concluded that of the 75 percent of Americans ages 16 and older who have read a book in the last year, 89 percent read a printed book and 30 percent an e-book. On average, they read 15 books in the last year.
Although the percentage of those reading with e-readers is increasing (16 percent in 2011 to 23 percent in 2012), for Goldin, this means there are still plenty of people reading physical books. That’s a good thing, and it’s converting to sales. Boswell’s business, Goldin says, has improved each year since it’s been open – about 10 percent annually. And business at Boswell is more than books. In 2012, 25 percent of sales came from hardcover books; 33 percent from trade paperback; 16 percent from children’s books; the rest from off-site sales, secondhand books, bargain books, textbooks and gifts.
And instead of ignoring the proliferation of the digital marketplace, independent bookstores, including Boswell, have decided to embrace it. Kind of.
The American Booksellers Association has a nationwide membership of roughly 1,200 stores. Thirty-five of those members are located in Wisconsin, Boswell included. In summer 2012, the ABA announced a partnership with e-reader manufacturer Kobo that allows independent bookstores to sell Kobo devices, accessories and e-books from its expansive catalog of titles. Explaining what might seem like an unusual partnership, Teicher, CEO of the ABA, says, “We know some of our best customers are also reading digitally, and that if they like Boswell, we should want to empower stores to have the ability to sell that digital content to their best customers.”
Although Boswell participates in the program, Goldin’s skeptical. “Unlike the Nook that Barnes & Noble feels will save the company, the Kobo ain’t gonna save this store,” he says.
To Goldin, it’s an ancillary product.
“I still really feel strongly that if we overpromote it, it changes the ambiance for the customer who’s not interested,” Goldin says, adding that the biggest complaint his customers have about Barnes & Noble is the Nook’s saturation. “It’s a Nook store with books on the side. And my store’s not going to be that.”
Although Teicher is a proponent of the initiative, he shares the sentiment. “Boswell and the booksellers around the country who are selling Kobo and Kobo content are not going to become e-bookstores,” he says.
For now, they don’t need to be. Business for independent booksellers in 2012 was up almost 8 percent compared to the previous year, Teicher says. Part of that he attributes to the influx of Borders customers who need another place to shop. Boswell certainly benefits from those customers now adrift.
“Out of what was a sad situation when the Schwartz stores closed,” Teicher says, Goldin “managed to have a rebirth, and a rebirth that seems to get stronger every day.
Brent Gohde, a former Schwartz bookseller who now heads up performance art group Cedar Block, used to live a couple blocks from Goldin on the East Side and would often see him walking around the neighborhood with his head bent over a book.
“I fear for his safety at times,” Gohde jokes, “and encourage the drivers of Milwaukee to give him the right of way.”
Without Goldin or Boswell, Gohde says, “There would be an awful void in the literary culture of Milwaukee.” Part of that is the “magic” of bookselling. “The right bookselling experience is really intense,” Goldin says, and “just stays with you forever.”
He witnessed that magic during his Schwartz days: “You get a bunch of younger people working together, they’re all really creative, they’re all really engaged, they all like community stuff, and you think – holy cow! – there can’t be anything like this in the world.”
But there is. Halley, one of his young booksellers, recently told Goldin she thought Boswell had the magic, too. Goldin, of course, was dubious. But if the opinions of the myriad bookworms who step into Boswell are to be trusted, she might be on to something.
More than 50 of those bookworms gathered on a frigid evening in mid-January in the back of the store for one of Boswell’s signature readings. Former ballet dancer Meg Howrey and TV writer Christina Lynch, book authors who write under the pseudonym Magnus Flyte, stopped to talk about their racy young adult novel City of Dark Magic. The crowd ranged from squirming Riverside University High School students to the elderly.
This time, it was Goldin’s turn to introduce the authors, saying they must strive to be louder than the Tuesday-night book club, which was holding its meeting at a wooden table in the front of the store. On cue, laughter rippled from the front.
Before reading, Howrey apologized to her parents in attendance and warned that what she was about to read might seem vulgar.
Now, she had everyone’s attention.
The audience listened closely as the authors took turns reading from their adventure-filled novel. When finished, they asked the audience for questions, and slowly the questions trickled in. “Why is the book set in Prague?” “Where did you get the pseudonym Magnus Flyte?” “How did you get the book published?”
In the back of the reading area, half-hidden by a bookshelf, Goldin stood watching, looking almost pleased.
|This article appears in the April 2013 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
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