by Catherine Petruccione

#109,3 December 2007

Saving the Independent Book Store

An Interview with Larry Portzline

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Independent brick & mortar book stores are struggling to survive amid the onslaught of competition from large book store chains, internet book commerce, and modern life's obsession with noisy, shiny forms of entertainment. We all feel a sense of loss every time a favorite store closes, but is anybody doing anything about it?

Enter Larry Portzline, a man with ideas on bringing people back to independent book stores. A writer and college instructor from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Larry is the originator of the Bookstore Tourism movement.

He is also launching the National Council on Bookstore Tourism - a non-profit organization that will partner with booksellers, publishers, the travel industry, arts organizations, government agencies and independent business alliances across the U.S. to promote the concept.

Portzline is the author of Bookstore Tourism: The Book Addict's Guide to Planning and Promoting Bookstore Road Trips for Bibliophiles and Other Bookstore Junkies (2003).

In April, 2008 he will embark on a 10-week road trip across America, stopping at 200 independent book stores in 50 states. Calling it the "Why Indie Bookstores Matter Tour," Larry hopes to bring attention to the importance of independent bookstores, both new and used, to communities across the nation. I spoke with him recently about this and more.

BOOKTHINK: Can you define bookstore tourism for readers?

PORTZLINE: Sure. The basic idea is to load booklovers on a bus and take them to cities and towns with great independent bookstores. Booklovers really enjoy being around other booklovers, but they don't ordinarily get the opportunity. This is a way to bring together people who love books. It also accomplishes one of my main priorities, which is to promote independent bookstores as travel destinations. The whole thing started because I suggested it at the college in Harrisburg where I was teaching part-time. A guy was telling me about restaurant trips he does in New York City, and I said, "Yeah? You should do bookstores." Then he wanted me to follow through on the idea, and at first I didn't want to do it. He literally just harassed me for a couple days and said "Listen, this is a great idea - you have to do it!" So I've always given him credit for the whole thing. I may have thought of the idea, but he's the one that made me follow through.

BOOKTHINK: I'll tell you I've had the idea kicking around in my mind myself. That's why, when I stumbled across your website, I was delighted! I've written articles on literary travel destinations such as Malabar Farm in Ohio, where author Louis Bromfield's farm is now a State Park. , That was such a wonderful, wonderful trip. Then it started popping into my mind, all the other places that could be promoted if a person had the time and money to do it. You could also inform people about great places to stay, great places to eat; so it's really an idea that somebody, if they wanted to concentrate on that, could really get people traveling, in the literary sense, to different book related sites and bookshops. I think people tend to think they have to go to Europe or other faraway places and forget that there are a lot of great bookstore towns and literary destinations in the United States.

PORTZLINE: That's true. And that's one of things I always tell people whenever I do a presentation (and I said this in my book) - there are so many author sites around the country, and literary sites, whether a story was set in a particular town, or novel, whatever, and a lot of these towns are finally capitalizing on these things. Cultural tourism is just through the roof, not only in the U.S., but around the world, and I think booksellers really need to tap into that. While the rest of their town is talking about how to attract tourists, booksellers need to be right there at the table saying we're part of the local culture too, and we can help not only to attract literary tours but also we can benefit just as easily as any other business in town, whether it is a restaurant, or travel agent, or whatever it might be - because they sell books by local and regional authors, and they have local literary publications. Book lovers adore that stuff. They love to walk in and see something new, find a new author or specific topics, to go into a bookstore in Gettysburg, PA and see a civil war book that they haven't seen before - it's great. So it's all connected and it just amazes me that nobody has done this before. I've refused to believe it for the longest time that nobody had ever put people on a bus to go to bookstores. I just couldn't believe it.

BOOKTHINK: Tell me about "The Why Indie Bookstores Matter Tour" you are embarking on in the Spring of 2008. I am green with jealousy about this trip! What is it, and how was the idea conceived?

PORTZLINE: Well, the concept is really easy - it's just sort of a dream vacation, although you know it's going to be a working trip for me.

BOOKTHINK: Just you alone, traveling from bookstore to bookstore?

PORTZLINE: For the most part, yeah. I've invited some people to join me here and there. I'm sure some people from different places in the country may join me for a couple of days, whether it's friends or other people in the book industry who want to tag along, and they're certainly welcome to come. But you know, it's not like I'm taking a bus or anything. It's just going to be me and my minivan.

BOOKTHINK: That works. You know, when we travel, we just ship books home via media mail. If you find the right books, it's worthwhile to ship them.

PORTZLINE: I'm sure I'm going to be shipping a lot of books home. I'm going to try not to buy too many books on the road because you know the main purpose isn't to shop. I know I'm going to be buying books; I won't be able to help myself. But the whole point of the book store tourism thing is to support independent book sellers and to raise consumer awareness and remind them that they do have a choice when buying books.

BOOKTHINK: And are you going to visit both used & rare and new, independent book stores?

PORTZLINE: Oh, absolutely, definitely! There are way too many great used bookstores; there's just no way I'd miss them. They're my favorite. The kind of places you can really get lost in. You know, how we were talking about Baldwin's Book Barn in Pennsylvania, a place where you could just stay for hours and hours. Mainly I'm trying to help raise awareness. And a cross country trip is a way to bring attention to independent book stores. So many people do cross country trips as a way to raise awareness of different things. I hope it's going to be a step in the right direction.

BOOKTHINK: And it's kind of the American way. Road trips appeal to everybody.

PORTZLINE: Exactly. To me it's like the ultimate bookstore trip. And of course I had been thinking about a follow-up to my book on bookstore tourism, which was essentially a how-to on book tourism. I wrote in the beginning of the book about what's happening in the bookselling industry and how the indies are being crowded out by the chains, and I kept thinking that I wanted to do something called "Why Indie Book Stores Matter." Then I thought, why don't I combine the two and go around the country and ask booksellers, "You tell me: Why do indie bookstores matter?" That's what I want to do. Every bookstore that I go to, that's what I'm going to ask them. I'll ask other questions, but that's the primary question. I'm approaching this as a journalist in addition to being a consumer, a lover of books, and somebody who is addicted to visiting bookstores. To have an opportunity like this at the age of 46, to pursue a passion like this, and to do something memorable - monumental - in my own life and at the same time have it be something that sends a positive message to other people is exciting.

BOOKTHINK: I'm sure the bookstores will be thrilled to know somebody cares and is promoting them.

PORTZLINE: I certainly hope so. I'm still working on my itinerary. I have a long list of bookstores I'm trying to fit in.

BOOKTHINK: And where are you starting from? Pennsylvania?

PORTZLINE: Yes, I live in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. I just moved up to Williamsport from Harrisburg a few months ago. I was born and raised in Harrisburg and lived there almost all of my life. Not that this is something that you would include in your article or anything, but my fiancÚ and I are finally getting married in a couple weeks

BOOKTHINK: (Oh yes I would, and best wishes to both of you!) How long do you think your trip is going to take?

PORTZLINE: I'm saying 10 weeks, but it could easily be 12 ... 14 ... who knows.

BOOKTHINK: I have learned that when you get to one bookstore and you talk to the owner (they are interesting people, always), they often turn you on to two or three more book shops that you should visit in the area. Your trip could be a five-year deal!

PORTZLINE: I know. I'm going to have to be really, really strict about it, and there are a lot of bookstores in some of the smaller towns where I may only stay for two hours. To me that's sort of the maximum; otherwise it will take me five years. But there are some towns where I'm planning to stay for several days just because they have so many great bookstores. Like Elliott Bay Book Co. in Seattle, which I've visited once. I was only there for about an hour and a half, and I thought, "I'm going to come back here someday and I'm going to spend the whole day." Or like Bookpeople Book Store in Austin, Texas which is another absolutely fantastic bookstore.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark
editor@bookthink.com

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