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Saving the Independent Book Store

by Catherine Petruccione

#109, 3 December 2007

An Interview with Larry Portzline

BookThink's Author Profiles Series

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 fiancé 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.

BOOKTHINK: And you work at a college - do you teach?

PORTZLINE: I teach at the Pennsylvania College of Technology right here in Williamsport. It's part of the Penn State system. I teach freshman composition, freshman writing. I teach at Susquehanna University, too, which is just about 40 miles down the road. It's a great school.

BOOKTHINK: What do you think of the state of reading, or the lack of it, in America? Do you think it's solely because of the onset of technology and other forms of entertainment? Or do you think there's more to it than that?

PORTZLINE: I think it's due to a lot of different things. Technology definitely plays a big part in it. There are other forms of entertainment, like you said, whether it's the internet, or computer games, or TV, whatever it might be. You know, I think a lot of is people's shortening attention span. They want their information and entertainment quick. They want to get in and get out, and then go do something else.

BOOKTHINK: They're missing so much…

PORTZLINE: Yeah, they are.

BOOKTHINK: And then I wonder if people stop having the urge to read, will we still create writers? If you don't love to read, how do you ever learn to love to write?

PORTZLINE: Right. It's really tough. And I can tell you as somebody who teaches writing, I wish I could say otherwise, but the God's honest truth is that most of the students I see are graduating from high school without very good writing skills.

BOOKTHINK: Is there anything we can do as booksellers to help people…to encourage an interest in books and reading? I'm always thinking about that, and that's one thing that bothers me with the decline of bricks & mortar bookshops; traditionally, they've provided a place for people to come and hang out and hear poetry readings and get exposed to literature and become interested in it. Once that disappears, that's one more reason people are never going to learn to love books.

PORTZLINE: Right, I totally agree with you, and I think that's one of the key things that booksellers can do is become, in essence, a community center. And that's kind of a broad term for it. Even if it's just something very small scale, a place to hang out in - a lot of young people do that, hang out in bookstores - but they're just hanging out in the café, lots of times not even looking at the books. And I think that's one of the best ways to bring people in, is to have a bookstore be a welcoming environment and have booksellers get to know their clientele and hopefully do some good hand-selling to them. Maybe a kid comes in and is not too interested in reading; but just by asking the kid what they like, what they're interested in, what their hobbies are and things like that, then maybe they can recommend a book or two. Sometimes that's all it takes, just that little bit of introduction to a topic they happen to be interested in, and using books to broaden their horizons.

BOOKTHINK: I agree. I was really into horses and riding when I was young. I read everything that had anything remotely to do with horses. I just loved going to the library at school. But here's another thing; I visit the library at the college where I work, and there's nobody in the stacks. There are people at the computers, but no one is reading a book.

PORTZLINE: I've noticed that. When I'm on campus and at the library, I've always thought it looks slow there, and I've always thought maybe I'm just there at the wrong time - but it's like that all the time.

BOOKTHINK: I'm afraid it is. The other thing I loved on your site and must ask you about was the link to the band called "The Rockbottom Remainders" - and you performed with them! Tell me about that. That is such a cool thing.

PORTZLINE: Yeah, it was pretty amazing. I still can't believe I did that! I had heard of them eons ago, and I thought it was so cool that they're basically a garage band of famous authors. I've read different things about them in the past, and they always joke about how bad they are. I had seen clips of them years ago, and I saw that they were going to be performing in New York during BookExpo. It wasn't a sanctioned BookExpo event or anything, but I saw that they were going to be playing that weekend, and I got on their website to look into buying tickets. Then I discovered that they were auctioning a chance to get up and sing Wild Thing with the band and I thought, "Wow, that's really cool." Then, like an idiot, I put a bid on it. I thought there's no way I'm ever going to win this thing, I'll definitely be outbid. You know it was just one of those things; I did it totally on the spur of the moment and thought, "There's $2000 that I'll never spend because somebody else will do it," never thinking what I would do if I won. But then, nobody else bid on it.

BOOKTHINK: And these band members include Stephen King and ...

PORTZLINE: Right, and Dave Barry, Amy Tan, Roy Blunt Jr., Frank McCourt ...

BOOKTHINK: Did you feel like you were in a dream or something?

PORTZLINE: It was amazing. I absolutely felt like I was in a dream. And one of the coolest parts about it was just a couple of days before I got a phone call from their road manager, and he said, "We need you to come to the rehearsal this afternoon. Can you make it?" I said, "Hell, Yeah!" So I went to this place called Webster Hall in Greenwich Village (I guess it's sort of the East Village) - it had been The Roxy back in the 70s. It was a huge nightclub. So I went, and when I walked in there they were up on stage rehearsing. All those people that we just named.

BOOKTHINK: Can Stephen King sing?

PORTZLINE: Um ... he's passable! Like a lot of singers, he has more personality and stage presence than singing ability. The more musically talented people in the band were mystery writer Greg Iles, who is a phenomenal guitar player, Mitch Album, who plays really, really good keyboard and sings very well - and Dave Barry is an excellent guitarist and singer. They were surprisingly good! They only had a couple of ringers - a drummer who was a professional musician, some brass, oh, and I can't think of his name, he co-wrote a book with Dave Barry, a kid's book - it was like a take-off on Peter Pan or a sequel to Peter Pan, or something like that, I can't think of his name, but he plays bass. [Ridley Pearson] Anyway I sat there for like an hour and a half watching them rehearse and took a lot of notes on it because I thought maybe I'd get a story out of it someday. I never did write it, but I have all these great notes - things like Stephen King improvising lyrics to one of the songs. and it was incredibly profane and wonderful.

BOOKTHINK: Sounds like an unforgettable experience.

PORTZLINE: It was. It was incredible. Anyway, they finally got me up to rehearse the song, and I did it that night and will probably never live it down.

BOOKTHINK: So, they play a few times a year, and the money goes to charity, is that correct?

PORTZLINE: In this case it went to three reading programs in New York City. And I know that they often perform at the Miami Book Festival, which is coming up again in November. I'm delighted to say that I'm going to be one of the speakers this year, although one of probably something like 100! I'm sure one of the reasons that they play down there is because Dave Barry is pretty active in that one. He lives in the Miami area. I know they've played other places ... quite a few book festivals around the country.

BOOKTHINK: I bet they have a good time.

PORTZLINE: Yeah, they do - it's very obvious. But it's hard work too. They have fun with it, but they take it pretty seriously. When they were rehearsing I was surprised they screwed up the ending to one song, and they don't just stand there laughing about it; they do it over again. Dave Barry is sort of the defacto leader of the group, I guess. They go over chord changes and they say "No, do it like this," just like any band would.

BOOKTHINK: Hey, they're writers; they're used to editing and re-writing. I'm sure they just transfer those skills to their music. Tell me how your website brings tours about and makes bookstore tourism happen. Do the people who are organizing the tours post information on the site? Do you post information there? How does the information get generated about the different book tours?

PORTZLINE: I do hear from people who are doing trips of their own, and I try to put them out there. If I don't put them on the website, I put them on the blog; and I'm still torn between should I just have one or the other - the website or the blog. Whenever people send me information that they are organizing something, I'll put it on. As far as spreading the word, and trying to get other people to do it and promoting the idea, that's why I started the website in the first place. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Since this interview, the website has been incorporated into the blog. See link above.]

BOOKTHINK: And you're going to be blogging about your experiences while you're traveling?

PORTZLINE: I'm taking my laptop along, and I'm going to take pictures and video and audio and do podcasts along the way. Of course, I'm going to take a lot of notes because I'm trying to get a book out of this experience, too.

BOOKTHINK: Excellent. What's the title of the book you've already published?

PORTZLINE: The basic title is Bookstore Tourism. The subtitle is a lot longer - it's Bookstore Tourism: The Book Addict's Guide to Planning and Promoting Bookstore Road Trips for Bibliophiles and other Bookstore Junkies. It was printed by a company called Lightning Source, and they are actually owned by Ingram. I put it in Books in Print, but Ingram distributed it. Anyone can order it just like any other book, and any bookstore can order it. I sold about 2500 copies of it in about a year and a half, and once it started to decline after about two years, I closed it. I essentially took it out of print because I knew that I eventually wanted to do another book - revise and expand it - so I'll do that someday too. I really did self-publish it as opposed to people who go through other so-called self publishing companies. I actually am a publisher, on paper at least. I'm a sole proprietor. I didn't start a corporation or anything like that, but I bought the ISBN numbers. I don't know how familiar you are with self- publishing, but when you go to one of those companies like I-Universe, they sell you an ISBN number, so they own it; they sell it to you, but they still own it. Whenever I hear about people self- publishing, I ask, "Do you own the ISBN number?"

BOOKTHINK: I didn't even know you had to buy an ISBN number.

PORTZLINE: Oh yes, and you have to buy them in lots of 10, which really stinks. Now I'm going to have to write nine more books.

BOOKTHINK: There's a push, huh??

BOOKTHINK: And what about the Library of Congress numbers?

PORTZLINE: They assign their own numbers; anybody who publishes a book can send a copy to the Library of Congress, which is also useful for copywriting and everything else. I've had a number of people ask me about self-publishing, and I say, look, if you don't own the ISBN number, you didn't publish it.

BOOKTHINK: How much preparation lies ahead of you to get ready for this book trip?

PORTZLINE: Quite a bit. I need to do some fundraising for one thing. I can't say who yet, but there's a very good possibility of a major book-related organization helping out with the cost of the trip. And I've actually heard from a few other people who are interested, a couple other organizations, trade associations. Even a couple of book festivals and individual booksellers have e-mailed me saying they are willing to help.

BOOKTHINK: I'm hoping many booksellers reading this article will understand the importance of your goals and go to your site and do what they can to help because it does us all good to promote reading and bookstore tourism and anything that has to do with books, reading and independent bookstores.

PORTZLINE: Well, thank you, I appreciate that. Saving independent book stores is about having a sense of community, and as we were talking about earlier, a place to hang out - the whole 'third place' concept. Are you familiar with that?

BOOKTHINK: I've heard of it.

PORTZLINE: There is a sociologist who wrote a book called The Great Good Places, where he talks about the concept of the 3rd place. The 1st place in all of our lives is home, the 2nd place is work, and then the 3rd place is where people hang out.

BOOKTHINK: Yes, their escape.

PORTZLINE: Exactly. He talks about bars, the obvious ones, the pool hall, and then the old days when the guys hung around the pickle barrel.

BOOKTHINK: Sat around the woodstove and the general store…

PORTZLINE: Yes, or the post office - that's where you found out news. Neighbors would run into each other, and they'd tell each other what's happening. Now everybody lives in the suburbs and doesn't look at each other when they're outside.

BOOKTHINK: They're lonely. That's right.

PORTZLINE: So there's a gradual change taking place, and to me it's all related; it's absolutely all related. And cultural tourism is tapping into that desire because when people take vacations they like to go to places that have that sense of community that's missing in their own lives. They're out there searching for it.

BOOKTHINK: Oh, that is so true. I just love what you're doing, and I really look forward to reading your blogs and finding out about your travels on a trip that's going to be the experience of a lifetime. Thank you, Larry, for sharing your ideas with us.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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