Catherine Bohne is an Indie Heartthrob

Over at Bookslut, this week’s “Indie Heartthrob Interview” is with Catherine Bohne, a great drinker of wine (from personal experience), a wonderful person for late night conversations (ditto), and owner of the Community Bookstore in Park Slope (which has a great display of NYRB, Archipelago, and New Directions titles right by the front counter, and a great garden out back).

Catherine’s an very interesting person, and she’s gone through a lot with her store. As she mentioned in the interview, she purchased the store a month before 9/11. And in the days that followed 9/11, the store was transformed into a true community center where people gathered to get information and share their pain and experiences.

So it’s not that surprising that when the store really fell on hard times, a group of loyal customers stepped forward to form an investment group that recapitalized the store, created a working business plan, and pulled the store up to the level it’s at now. (As an example of Catherine’s creativity and fun personality, she once told me that when the store was really having a hard time paying its bills, she started stocking only the largest of large books — Infinite Jest, all of Dickens, etc. — to make the shelves look more crowded than they actually were.)

Anyway, the interview is interesting, and I think Catherine’s answer for how she got involved in the bookstore is similar to that of many other booksellers:

WHY did I start working in the bookstore? When I discovered the bookstore, in my early 20’s, it was the sole (it seems to me now) haven from the terrors of trying to figure out how to live and be a grownup—life was hard and scary, expensive and confusing, and I seemed to find myself in one situation after another that I’d thought I wanted but didn’t really suit me at all…the bookstore was simply the one place that felt calm and sane, peaceful and welcoming. I applied for the weekend job on a whim, got it, and just never left. Whenever other opportunities would come up I’d find that if I was honest, I’d really rather live in the world of the bookstore, and so although it sometimes seemed irresponsible (or at least quixotic) I just stayed and stayed—moving into positions of increasing authority seemed to happen naturally. And now I own it!

And in terms of the future for independent bookstores, here’s Catherine’s vision:

Based on a survey we did two years ago, we realized that even our most loyal customers probably only do about 20% of their shopping here—that’s actually really encouraging, as it means that if we can get people to shift just 5% of their buying habits to us, we’ll be doing terrifically! So the next year is going to be about reaching out to people—finding creative ways to let new people know we’re here, and making it more and more tempting for people to shop here!

Finally, it seems to me that the role of the bookstore in the future will inevitably continue to change. As more and more information is available electronically, I think the role of the bricks and mortar bookstore will shift to being more of a wondertrove of beautiful objects, and that the importance of intelligent, helpful, entertaining(!) staff will increase. The “experience” aspect of shopping will come to the fore, so we’ve been working to fix up the store physically (we’re just finishing renovating our back room, with a brand new kitchen where we’ll give away tea and fine coffee). I believe that looking after employees is terribly important—we’ve just gotten health insurance for the first time in years (yay—Brooklyn Health Works!). We’re also gradually moving into stocking more unusual, beautiful things—we really want to create a great chap book section, for example, to concentrate on selling things that you want to hold in your hands and look at, as well injest mentally. On the whole, I’m looking forward to this—sounds a lot more fun than selling, say, test prep books!

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