David Wilk interviews Hungry Minds Bookstore Founder David Unowsky

May 31, 2017 by  
Filed under Publishing History, PublishingTalks

Publishing Talks began as a series of conversations with book industry professionals about the future of publishing, books, and culture. As we continue to experience disruption and change in all media businesses, I’ve been talking with some of the people involved in our industry about how the book business might evolve as our culture is continues to be affected by technology and macro-economic factors.

I’ve now expanded this series to include conversations that go beyond the future of books and publishing. I’ve talked with editors, publishers, booksellers and others who have been innovators and leaders in independent publishing, and will continue to explore the ebb and flow of writing, books, and publishing in all sorts of forms and formats, as change continues to be the one constant we can count on.

For the past several years, I’ve been talking to editors and publishers of independent presses about their work, including a number of important literary publishers. In this conversation, I am speaking with an old friend and colleague, David Unowsky, founder of the outstanding St. Paul bookstore, the Hungry Mind, which evolved into many other book related ventures, including a literary review and a successful independent press.

The store eventually sold its name to help stay in business in the face of ever increasing financial pressures, and ultimately, under its new name, Ruminator Books, closed in 2004. Which means it was in business for over 30 years, and was for most of that time an incredibly important place, not only to Twin Cities residents, but for the many writers and publishers whose work the store supported, and importantly provided an entry point into the book business for many individuals who have gone on to a wide variety of positions in the book industry.

The Hungry Mind was and remains for many, a special place, and David Unowsky was its beating heart and soul. I’m really pleased to have the chance here for David to talk about his work as a bookseller, communitarian, publisher and entrepreneur. David and “the Mind” – and all the wonderful people and books that passed through its doors –  are central to our understanding of what might eventually be considered a “golden age” of books in our country.

Jan. 12, 1994: Former President Jimmy Carter made an appearance at the Hungry Mind Bookstore in St. Paul to sign his latest book,”Turning Point: A Candidate, a State and a Nation Come of Age.” In the book, Carter describes how his first race in the pre-civil-rights South almost was taken away by a political boss.

Photo: Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Screen shot from a 1998 C-Span program about Hungry Mind

David Wilk talks to Kieron Smith about The Best Little Bookshop

October 2, 2014 by  
Filed under PublishingTalks, The Future

kieron-smith-newPublishing Talks began as a series of conversations with book industry professionals and others involved in media and technology about the future of publishing, books, and culture.  As we continue to experience disruption and change in all media businesses, I’ve been talking with some of the people involved in our industry about how they believe publishing might evolve as our culture is affected by technology and the ebb and flow of civilization and  economics.

I’ve now expanded the series to include conversations that go beyond the future of publishing.  I’ve talked with editors and publishers who have been innovators and leaders in independent publishing in the past and into the present, and will continue to explore the ebb and flow of writing, books, and publishing in all sorts of forms and formats, as change continues to be the one constant we can count on.

It’s my hope that these conversations can help us understand the outlines of what is happening in publishing and writing, and how we might ourselves interact with and influence the future of publishing as it unfolds.

UPDATE: as of January 27, 2015, it was announced that (sadly) Best Little Bookshop will be closing and Kieron Smith moving on to other pursuits. Still, this discussion ought to remain interesting to anyone who is thinking about bookselling and consumer interaction with books.

Kieron Smith is a long time bookseller and founder of the new online bookstore, The Best Little Bookshop. This new site takes a different approach to online retail book selling than others have done. There is much more emphasis on curation, more in-depth presentation of books and publishers, social interaction onsite from customers, and importantly, the participation of other booksellers from the outset. And the store, while based in the UK, is friendly to buyers from other countries. I’ve spent a fair amount of time playing around with BLB, and for me, it’s a great experience. I’ve discovered books and publishers I’ve never heard of and that I am interested in reading and buying. I’m looking forward to seeing how Kieron and his team integrate other booksellers into the store experience and how its community of users will influence the direction the store takes in the future.

Best Little Bookshop is clear evidence that it is possible to create new models of retail book selling online. The store launched in summer 2014, so as of now, there are still features in development, and doubtless more changes and improvements to come. My conversation with Kieron was exciting for me, as I see so much potential with this site for publishers, authors and readers, and wanted to hear first hand how the founder views the future.  One interesting point – no ebooks here, just print.

Alert: this is a relatively long interview at 41 minutes. Take your time and enjoy!

Kieron Smith has over 17 years of book trade experience, starting with WHSmith Retail, establishing the multi-channel Ottakars.co.uk website in 1999, heading up the web offering at BCA and operations at Methven’s Booksellers, followed by three years outside the industry at Europe’s leading video games website GAME.co.uk. Head of online for Waterstones.com in 2006-7 and then MD of international online book retailer The Book Depository (purchased by Amazon in 2011) for five years until November of 2013. The Book Depository was acquired by Amazon.com in 2011.

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Publishing Talks: David Wilk interviews Deborah Emin

In this series of interviews, called Publishing Talks, I have been talking to book industry professionals about the future of publishing, books, and culture.  This is a period of disruption and change for all media businesses. How will publishing evolve as our culture is affected by technology, climate change, population density, and the ebb and flow of civilization and its economics?

I hope these Publishing Talks conversations will help us understand the outlines of what is happening, and how we might ourselves interact with and influence the future of publishing as it unfolds.

These interviews give people in the book business a chance to talk openly about ideas and concerns that are often only talked about “around the water cooler,” at industry conventions and events, and in emails between friends and they give people inside and outside the book industry a chance to hear first hand some of the most interesting and challenging thoughts, ideas and concepts being discussed by people in the book business.

I learned about Deborah Emin from an article about Sullivan Street Press and her “throwback” program called the Itinerant Book Show.  Deborah and colleagues (they call themselves “bookies”) travel to towns in the midwest as far as Iowa bringing books they select to events in art galleries, bars, coffee shops and the like.  Because they are featuring only books they have read and liked, it’s pretty easy to understand how they are connecting successfully with audiences.  And as she points out on the Sullivan Street website,  the real key is what Deborah as a publisher and writer can learn about audiences.  Face to face, one to one.  It’s invaluable intelligence for anyone concerned with understanding how a literary community works.

All of this resonates for me.  Her story reminded me of work some of us were doing more than thirty years ago, bringing books by new authors and publishers to booksellers and audiences around the country.  In the late 1970’s what was then called the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines (still going strong and known as CLMP) sponsored a number of grassroots efforts to bring independently published poets and writers into bookstores, which involved personal visits to bookstores, libraries, schools and even bars to sell books.

There were programs in North Dakota (where a budding young writer named Louise Erdrich interned), Rochester, NY, Minneapolis-St. Paul (where I was) and other locales, all sharing a commitment to connecting innovative new writers to new audiences, sometimes, one person at a time. Many then young publishers still publishing today, were introduced to their audiences through those early efforts.

So is everything old new again?  I think the spirit of independent publishing continues.  Writers find their readers, and readers their books one at a time, after all.  The magic of literary discovery still requires the kind of personal effort that Deborah Emin and the Itinerant Book Show put forth.  Which is also the kind of personal connection forged by booksellers with their customers.  Whether the books are printed by hand on custom paper using handpresses, or created digitally using HTML or ePub, learning about a book you will love is ultimately about a deep connection between the writer, and the reader, with one or more intermediaries making the hand off.

Sullivan Street Press consists of Deborah Emin, an editor and writer, Ron Lebow, a computer technologist, a business development professional and also a writer.  It’s a pretty interesting and obviously fertile group of minds and talents.  The work they are doing is challenging and rewarding, and offers valuable lessons for publishers of any size and ambition.

Publishing Talks: David Wilk interviews Jan Weissmiller

April 8, 2010 by  
Filed under PublishingTalks, The Future

In this series of interviews, called Publishing Talks, I have been talking to book industry professionals about the future of publishing, books, and culture.  This is a period of disruption and change for all media businesses.
How will publishing evolve as our culture is affected by technology, climate change, population density, and the ebb and flow of civilization and its economics? Publishing Talks interviews help us understand the outlines of what is happening, and how we might ourselves interact with and influence the future of publishing as it unfolds.

These interviews give people in the book business a chance to talk openly about ideas and concerns that are often only talked about “around the water cooler,” at industry conventions and events, and in emails between friends.
I believe these interviews give people inside and outside the book industry a chance to hear first hand some of the most interesting and challenging thoughts, ideas and concepts being discussed within the industry.

Jan Weissmiller recently achieved her fifteen minutes of fame when President Barack Obama visited her store – and the picture of her selling him a book went viral very quickly.  But Prairie Lights Bookstore has more going for it than simply being the backdrop for the first  citizen’s book buying habit writ large.  It’s been a fixture in the strongly literary community of Iowa City since Jim Harris started the store there in the late ’70s.

As times have changed, so has the store, and today Prairie Lights has an active web presence in addition to its longstanding role as “the” local bookstore in one of the great small towns of middle America.  I’ve been to the store many times over the years, and deeply admire the vision and care demonstrated first by Jim and Jan, when she was the first employee of the store, and now by Jan and her current wonderful staff of book devotees.  Many towns no longer have the opportunity to experience the depth of knowledge that a great bookstore can provide.  What Jan and Prairie Lights show us about bookselling is important – people use technology to make life easier, but people need other people to make life meaningful.

In case you missed it, here is the link to the NY Times story about Prairie Lights. And here’s the now famous photo.

Jan Weissmiller was the first employee of Prairie Lights, beginning in 1979, and is now its co-owner.