I’d like to present to you a semi-regular column: Books & Mortar! Which will look at the fabulous world of tucked-away independent bookstores, a pulsating nationwide constellation of literary delights that, heaven forbid, you might walk past without knowing it’s there.
For instance, Key West, the southernmost point in the U.S., is the home of Jimmy Buffett, tarpon fishing, turquoise waters (and drinks), spring breakers, pirate stories, great Cuban food, and crazy-beautiful sunsets. But it also has a storied literary history, with residents including Elizabeth Bishop, Ralph Ellison, Tennessee Williams, Richard Wilbur, John Williams. It’s where Wallace Stevens famously attempted to punch Ernest Hemingway at the Sloppy Joe’s bar, with mixed results. And more recent writers have called Key West home: Ann Beattie, Tom McGuane, Joy Williams (also, her book The Florida Keys: A History and Guide is one of the most masterful works of travel writing that you’ll ever want to read).
And now it has Books & Books Key West, a locally owned independent that opened in 2016 and is also (voluntarily—haha) nonprofit. This 1,200 square foot store is housed and affiliated with The Studios of Key West, an arts and cultural organization that, among other things, runs an artists’ residency. Books & Books Key West thus also carries a terrific selection of art supplies.
Oh, and one of the cofounders and owners is someone you may have heard of: Judy Blume.
The Millions: What was the genesis of this amazing store?
Judy Blume: George [Cooper, Blume’s husband] and I wanted a full service indie bookstore in Key West. When we came to town 20 years ago there were five bookstores. Four years ago we were down to one used store. We tried to get Mitchell Kaplan of Books & Books, the great Miami area bookseller, to open a store in Key West. He wanted to but ultimately he couldn’t make the numbers work. Rents in Key West are very high and we’re more than three hours by car from Miami. Finally, Mitch said, “If you and George can find a way to make it work I’ll be there for you.” George is on the board of The Studios of Key West, a non-profit arts center who had just renovated a beautiful art deco building in Old Town with a 1200 square foot corner storefront. The perfect place for a non-profit indie bookstore! We (George) convinced the board of the Studios it was worth a shot. Everything happened so fast it feels like a dream when I look back. We opened in February 2016. I laugh now at how little we knew about running a bookstore. We learned on the job. We’re affiliated with Mitch’s stores but we’re non-profit and financially independent. We call Mitch’s Coral Gable store our “Mothership.” They do our buying (though we can order or reject any books we want.) They set up our store with handsome refurbished fixtures from one of their stores. Their staff came down for two weeks to set us up with our initial order and to train our staff, including George and me (we have three paid employees now) and our volunteers. During “season” our volunteers are especially important to us. They are great readers. One knows poetry. One worked in a bookshop in London. I miss them terribly when they leave for their summer homes but we are so lucky to have our three hardworking, loyal, friendly, fun employees. Our first season, George and I worked seven days. This past season we were able to take two days off a week, and we’re thinking of working four days a week next season.
TM: Does your bookstore have a mascot? A bookstore cat?
JB: The idea of having a bookstore cat is appealing but because we’re on a busy corner we’re concerned about any animal—cat or dog—running out into the street. One day, when we first opened, a hen came into the store. Chickens are protected in Key West and roam freely around town. We stayed calm, though we were thinking, OMG, if that chicken gets scared and starts flying around she’s going to poop on our books! Lucky for us, she wandered around, then with some gentle urging, walked out the way she walked in. Maybe she was looking for a good book? We leave our door open in nice weather. Customers bring in their own dogs. We keep a water bowl outside and treats by the register. This works best when it’s one dog at a time. Usually they ask if it’s okay and usually we say yes (if it’s a nice dog). So far only one has peed on our floor and the customer, a tourist, walked out before we knew it. Good our floor is concrete.
TM: What’s the most surprising thing you have found about being a bookseller?
JB: How much there is to learn, how hard you work every day, not just with customers but in the back room. The number of boxes that arrive weekly is staggering. We see our UPS delivery guys almost every day. Receiving new books and returning others (I had to learn to be tough because, as a writer, I never want to return books) takes us a huge amount of time. One of our two managers is always on that. Then there’s keeping up with the dusting. Everyone is expected to dust. If we had a cat, I’d give her a cloth, too. The time flies by. I usually go home exhausted but very happy and can’t wait to go back again the next day.
TM: You and your husband George are co-founders. How do you divide up the duties?
JB: I’m on the floor, chatting with customers, helping them find the right books, even working the register (not my strong point but I’m very proud of what I’ve learned to do). Every day I “pet” the books, move them around, change the window displays. Tuesdays are “new book” days. That’s when I get to put out the books that are date-sensitive, which means moving around all the books on the new and notable table.
George is in the office most of the time. He’s our CFO, making sure it’s all going well. And so, far, fingers crossed, it’s been a success.
TM: Authors are beginning to open up bookstores all over the place: Louise Erdrich in Minneapolis, Ann Patchett in Nashville. Larry McMurtry is a long-time bookstore proprietor. Do you think you’re part of a trend?
JB: I didn’t know about all the authors opening bookstores when we started, but it’s good news!
TM: What’s a day in the life of Judy Blume, bookseller like?
JB: Rush, rush, rush—to get to the store. We’re open 10 to six, seven days a week. I ride my bike unless it’s rainy. Tuesdays and Thursdays I come directly from the gym. When we opened the store, we thought our customers would be 75 percent locals and snowbirds, and 25 percent tourists. In fact, it’s about 80 percent tourists and 20 percent locals. The tourists have been great. They sometimes buy a stack of books and send them home. They ask for restaurant recommendations. And they’re always—always—thrilled to be in Key West. Of course we love our locals, too. So there’s a lot of chatting about books, Key West, and whatever else is on their minds. By the end of the day I’m exhausted (or did I say that already?). All I want is to eat dinner and go to bed.
TM: Do people freak out when they find out the lovely woman who just hand-sold them a novel is the beloved Judy Blume?
JB: Yesterday a couple came in and George and I were chatting with them about their used bookstore in another Florida city. George (that devil) asked if they carried Judy Blume books and before I could stop them from answering, always afraid they’ll say something like—I would never carry those books!—she said “Oh yes, a lot.” At which point I said, “I’m Judy”—and she was so taken aback I was worried she might faint. But all ended well. In the beginning, before there was so much publicity, people did freak out. Once I had to prove who I was by showing the customer my photo on the back of In the Unlikely Event. She studied it, studied me (I admit I was having a bad hair day and I’m often red-eyed and itchy nosed from something—the books, the dust, the building? It was clear she didn’t believe me and I was sorry I’d gotten into the conversation in the first place. Now, people come in because they’ve heard it’s my store. The trolleys, the tour buses, the concierges at the hotels, all let them know about Books & Books @ the Studios. And we’re grateful. George and I joke that I’m the Southernmost (everything in Key West is the “southernmost”) Shamu. You know, have your photo taken with Shamu (remember the whale, the one time star of Sea World?) Because we’re a non-profit, I don’t do photos unless the customer is actually buying something. It doesn’t have to be my book but it has to be something. People have been very understanding. Still, it embarrasses me to have to tell a customer our rules.
TM: What’s the best kind of bookstore customer?
JB: Anyone who’s friendly, loves to read, and finds a book or three to buy. Or maybe it’s a young person who says she doesn’t like to read who leaves the store with her nose in a book.
TM: The worst?
JB: Let’s say the most challenging. That would be a customer who wants a certain book but can’t think of the title or the author’s name. The cover is blue, or has a spot of blue, or maybe the type is in blue. She/he will think it’s new, will remember seeing it on our table last week, but it could have been she/he has just read about it. We’ll go around together looking at all the places that book might be. Sometimes we’ll actually find it. Hallelujah!
TM: What book do you want to tell the world about right now?
JB: Right now it’s What to Do About the Solomons, by Bethany Ball, a first novel I loved. It’s funny, sexy, and original. I’m also talking up Edgar and Lucy, by Victor Lodato. Emily (one of our managers) and I both loved it. And, of course, my favorite book of the year, The Nix, by Nathan Hill. You don’t want to miss this debut novel. George agrees.
TM: Are there other staff who are also writers?
JB: George has published two non-fiction books, both based on historical crimes. He’s a big help when someone wants a non-fiction book on a certain subject. That’s because he’s a reader. It’s more important to have staff who know and love books than staff who writes them.
TM: One of the great things about a bricks-and-mortar store is not only the individualized book picks, but also the author events. What were some of the fun ones this year?
JB: We had our first big events between January and April this year. Jami Attenberg, Kay Redfield Jamison, Paul Auster and Siri Hustvedt. We had kids’ authors Meg Cabot and Rachel Vail. Since summer is our slow season we won’t have any more events until next fall/winter.
TM: What’s a favorite bookstore—NOT YOUR OWN?
JB: We visit bookstores wherever we go these days. In Santa Fe we’re fans of Collected Works. But, of course, our absolute favorite is Books & Books in Coral Gables. And their food (they have a cafe) is scrumptious!