Inspiring People

Independent Bookstore and Café Owner, Sarah McNally


There are some things that we have the luxury of taking for granted. Independent Bookstores are not one of them. Independent Bookstores serve to provide life blood to communities because, the good ones, offer a place for people to gather and read and write and sit and think and offer a place where the creative process is encouraged to begin. McNally Jackson is one of the good ones and Bookseller Sarah McNally’s clear vision is the reason why...

DR: What was your original vision for McNally Jackson?

SM: When I first opened my goal was so simple. It was only six years ago and yet it feels like the world has changed so much since then. Even six years ago e-books was sort of an abstract notion that was still on the horizon. The Kindle didn’t even exist.

I’ve always been careful never to speculate too much. It’s really hard to know the future and it really surprises you. I think in this instance, maybe, I should have done a little more speculating.

DR: Why do say that? Because to me McNally Jackson is such a great example of an Independent bookstore really working...

SM: Yeah and it better keep working because if we can’t keep working with this kind of size and selection and the staff that we have and the neighborhood that we have and the city that we have – I mean if we can’t work here, independent bookstores are in a terrible, terrible, terrible danger. Which means that the literary culture of our country is then in terrible, terrible danger because Barnes and Noble is not doing a lot in the brick and mortar stores to really sustain the literary culture of our country and if moves entirely toward Apple and Amazon, if they become the custodians of our literary culture, can you imagine?

DR: No, I can’t.

SM: So, yes. We still are making it and both my personal and my public conscience pray that we continue do so.

What I mean is I wonder. My business model is so traditional. All I wanted to do was build the kind of bookstore that was working everywhere else that didn’t exist in New York, which is simple, a strong literary independent bookstore that has general intersections that could be a destination for any book buyer. Whether you’re looking for a book on how to plan your wedding or an obscure Portuguese poet, that you could come here and find it while at the same time be in a comfortable environment with lots of chairs and a café and lots of events. That was the business model and I’m not the first person to come up with that model but there was no one in New York who was doing it – somehow. Somehow...

DR: By your personal standard would you say that the business model is working?

SM: It’s definitely working. We’ve grown every year except in 2009. In 2009 we flattened out a bit but now we are growing again. 2010 was the best year that we’ve ever had and it seems 2011 has already been much better than 2010. So it’s by any standard measure, for a bookstore, working.

There was a point before the recession where I thought I would have enough cash flow to open another store out of just cash flow alone and those days are no longer here, I don’t think. I don’t think I’ll ever tame that now although I have investors coming to me all of the time saying that I could open another one of these but I don’t know if I will or not. I’m not sure.

It feels like we’ve made something really beautiful and special and happy and part of me just thinks at a certain point

“Don’t get greedy. Just leave it alone.”

It’s a nice community. If I did another one I would have to do the Upper West Side, which is Mars to me. Part of the reason that the store has done so well is because I love the neighborhood. I do the buying for the books and I think I understand what the neighborhood wants and my intuition for what will work are right...

DR: The other thing that I notice is that McNally Jackson is sort of an intersection for people from all over the world. As someone who comes here regularly I can confirm that there are always people who are traveling from other countries who come here...

SM: It’s amazing. In the summer it’s extraordinary. In the winter a little less. In the summer I feel sometimes that I speak only to Europeans, which is astounding to me. It’s traditionally a problem in New York bookstores that cash flow drops off so dramatically in the summer because New Yorkers of means all leave and that has never happened in this store because there are so many Europeans that come here. I always think how extraordinary that English is not their first language and yet they are buying stacks of English language books. It’s impressive. Those are healthy literary cultures and their governments have stepped in and protected their literary cultures.

In Germany you’re not even allowed to discount books. You have to sell at the list price so the multiplicity of voices can exist. It’s discounting that has killed most independents. It’s discounting. It’s that the books that they sell a lot of are being sold at Costco for great discounts, at Barnes and Nobles at great discount and at Amazon almost consistently cheaper than we can buy them for. You can say to people

“Hey, you’re going to be paying on the back end.”

Sometimes maybe what’s easy, but in the short term isn’t what’s best. So, you shouldn’t always take the easy path. It’s not even necessarily practical. If you rob your local businesses of business the local tax base goes away. The schools have to be paid for by someone. The streets have to be kept clean by someone. I think it’s a very short-term way of looking at personal finance...

Inside Indie Bookstores: McNally Jackson Books in New York City

Photo Credit: Jeremiah Chamberlin

by Jeremiah Chamberlin
November/December 2010

In a recent New York magazine article about the renaissance of indie bookstores in the city, Joe Keohane wrote, “New York’s independent bookshops were supposed to be long gone by now. After a decade of slow financial strangulation at the hands of the big-box stores, the web, the Kindle, and, finally, the recession, the fact that there are still Strands and McNally Jacksons standing seems positively miraculous.” Yet what is interesting about this article is not just the fact that new stores are opening and thriving in the city, but that McNally Jackson Books is likened to an institution like the Strand, which has been in business since 1927. Although Sarah McNally’s bookstore at 52 Prince Street in Manhattan certainly feels as though it’s always been a part of the New York City literary scene, the truth is that it was founded only six years ago, in December 2004.

Perhaps part of the store’s sense of legacy has to do with the fact that McNally herself comes from a bookselling family. Her parents own several McNally Robinson bookstores in Canada—the flagship store in Winnipeg, and another in Saskatoon. In fact, though always owned and operated by Sarah, the store in New York City originally opened as a McNally Robinson. It became McNally Jackson in August 2008, both to end confusion about the store being independent from those run by her parents and to commemorate the birth of her child with her then husband, Christopher Jackson, executive editor at Spiegel & Grau.

It’s also clear that this store is an integral part of the fabric of this neighborhood. It’s located in a vibrant area of lower Manhattan—though technically in NoLita (North of Little Italy), it’s also on the eastern fringe of SoHo (South of Houston)—that is filled with boutiques, hip coffee shops, and trendy restaurants. On the Thursday morning that I showed up, there were already several people waiting for the place to open. One person sat casually on a bench outside the bookstore’s café, others chatted together on the sidewalk, and a few peered in the front windows at the beautiful display of arranged books.

“Beautiful” is perhaps the best way to describe Sarah McNally’s bookshop. The store is...

Click to read the full article at Poets and Writers website.

DR: Across the board in so many areas...

SM: Across the board and that’s not even just books. There’s got to be some public education and not just public education but government education...I go through Atlantic terminal every day to get to work and every day I think that I cannot believe that the city government gives so much money to build this monstrosity when no one ever gives independent businesses a dime. To get a Wal-Mart in “Oh we’ll give you money and tax breaks...”

DR: I know. It’s heart breaking...

SM: It’s actually bad for the local economy.

DR: It’s very, very bad...

SM: The money that stays in the community for example from a Staples, is under 5%. It can be so low. Whereas if it’s a local business, the money keeps flowing through, not just the local tax base but even just the way that people earn the money, where they spend the money. The entire shebang stays. It makes such a healthier world.

There needs to be government education and public education. So there’s that issue which is a major issue and then there’s also the literary culture issue.

Online bookstores are terrible at selling mid-list. They are terrible at doing anything....they don’t make any books. The people who work at Amazon never say, “I love this book” and make the book. It’s impossible. My ex-husband is an editor and he said that even when an editor Amazon would say, “Wow this is my favorite history book of the year”, he still couldn’t sell it. They don’t have those kinds of tools. They can respond to publicity, for instance, if something is on The John Stewart Show or if something gets a good review people can go online and get it right away. They’re good resources that way but they can’t make books. So publishers are, I think, now starting to panic because they realize they have robbed support from Independents and they’ve pulled back so much on their sales force and support.

Barnes and Noble is in trouble and Borders has declared bankruptcy – but who cares. You could spend 45 minutes in Borders and not have a single book penetrate your consciousness...

DR: I know...

SM: They weren’t doing a good job. I mean I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. Publishers are going to lose a lot of money. That’s going to hurt all of us but they weren’t doing a good job. And Barnes and Noble is not doing a good job.

Publishers are in a bit of a bind. If they support these monopolies they are going to have to redo their business model...I’m being so negative today. I’m sorry...

DR: No. This is actually a more important issue of our day than it gets attention for.

SM: I think so too.

Okay. So there are two real sources that you can actually get attention, for books that aren’t the obvious big books (not the James Patterson. Not the books that are going to hit the bestseller list)... I have so many things to say about this... So there is basically only The New York Times that even has a book section anymore. The Wall Street Journal is doing one and The Washington Post but book reviews have really been in retraction for about the last five years. Newspapers, as you know, are becoming broker and broker and they’ve almost uniformly pulled back on book coverage.

The New York Times Book Review I think is a total bore. I just cannot believe it. I have to read it every week and every time I can’t believe I have to read it every week. It’s unbearable. I mean how un-innovative can you possibly be?

DR: Do you think that’s because they are losing so much money?

SM: They’ve always been boring...The way they review fiction I think is so tedious. Just kind of plot, summary and not in thoughtful ways that actually consider what is happening in the world.

Sometimes I wonder if the reason we don’t have any strong literary movements right now is because there are no great public intellectuals identifying what’s happening in any kind of forum that people can read. I mean if literature is being reviewed kind of book by book, in a tedious plot driven way, there are no great minds that readers can come to who can sift through and really explain what is happening in our literary culture today. There’s just no forum for that. At all.

DR: Do you find that that is different than what is happening in other cultures?

SM: The only other culture that I am familiar with is Canada and it’s very different in Canada.

DR: You’re from Canada, right?

SM: I’m from Canada. In Canada the government subsidizes. The CBC radio, subsidizes so many things. It even subsidizes ways that independent bookstores can stay competitive...

There are different ways that governments get involved in different countries that keeps the culture of public intellectualism alive. In Canada it’s really based around the CBC, which is like their NPR, and it’s very well funded. The government has really intervened and done things. Obviously that would not fly in America, for better or for worse.

It’s interesting what happens when the government doesn’t get involved.

When you lose the culture of bookstores on the ground, you lose. There is a whole infrastructure, which has already crumbled in this country, which I think started crumbling some time ago...

DR: If you had to look ahead into the next six years, what do you think the world of bookselling will look like?

SM: I am very optimistic person (I’m just in a very bad mood right now). More and more as I am looking at this business, I’m training my optimism on that machine upstairs, and right now it’s basically a tool for self publishing and finding obscure old things, but it’s still very cool. I think it’s only a matter of time before publishers allow all of their paperbacks to be printed on it, which would be the exact same thing as selling an e-book. I think at that point independent bookstores become incredibly viable...

DR: So you think the printing machine is ...

SM: I think if they can negotiate with publishers to get this done then we are talking about independent bookstores being in a position of never having to turn customers away...

DR: Can you just talk a little bit about the machine? It’s a machine that can basically print an entire book as you wait....

SM: In minutes and binds it and puts a cover on it. The paper is far, far better than the paper you get from publishers...

A lot of people in this industry are speculating a lot. I just don’t know. I don’t want to imagine a world without bookstores. It’s just not a world I want to live in. I don’t want to imagine that Americans would let that happen but I just don’t know.

DR: What do you believe that McNally Jackson contributes to people? I like to dwell in environments that inspire me and energize me especially first thing in the morning. I’m glad that I have found this gem in downtown Manhattan...

SM: When I started the store the word that I kept coming back to was “community” because I always wanted to create a place that built a literary community. I haven’t lived in New York that long, only 11 years, but even in that time the death of the local coffee shop, the death of all of these spaces, even the way that the parks are used is different than the way it was 11 years ago. The way that Thompson Square Park feels now or Union Square Park feels now, there’s just not a lot of places that feel non-commercialized and places where we can just meet and be creative together. I don’t even know what the future of New York looks like let alone bookstores. This table right here though is a non-commercial space for people to sit and work or read and meet each other. The idea was to create a place that was exactly that – inspirational.

I’ve taken a very different approach than most other Independent Bookstores. Almost everybody is pulling back with their inventory. They have far fewer books and far more gift product and I have completely stopped selling gifts and I’ve gone deeper and deeper. I have more and more novels than I’ve ever had for that exact reason. I really feel like it has to feel, when you walk in here, that you are in a truly, infinitely inspiring world. Wherever it might be. Whether you wandered into Japanese Literature or whether you wander into the Essays and Criticism section that you really feel that you have gone on an infinite journey within the world of literature.

That is something that I try and hire for. Between my team managers we have a real fight about hiring because they are always wanting the most efficient hard working people and I am like,

“Nope. We are not running a computer here. We are running a cultural institution.” It’s a constant struggle.

The people who I love are not always the people who are necessarily always on time for work and it’s hard to run as a business that way but, if the people here aren’t inspiring, there’s no point. Even in the café - no point.

DR: Sarah, I cannot tell you. That’s it! That’s what works about McNally Jackson. For me, if I don’t have a great experience somewhere I will not go back.

SM: New Yorkers need to be educated about this kind of thing...People don’t realize exactly what’s going on.

DR: I would love to attend forum or panel discussions here at McNally Jackson...

SM: That’s actually a good idea. The trick is not to make people feel like they’re eating their granola when you’re talking about this kind of thing...

DR: A hundred years from now what do you want to be remembered for?

SM: The only thing I really ever wanted to be was a writer and instead, I don’t write at all.  I spend my entire time working at the bookstore.  I think that I am just like everybody else – my self-identity has almost nothing to do with my life.

I really believe in the power of literature to change the world and keep the world a sustainable, beautiful place.  So I guess I want to be remembered for keeping the fire burning, at least for another few decades...

Thanks Sarah!

McNally Jackson

52 Prince Street
(between Lafayette & Mulberry)
New York City, NY 10012 (map)


Mon - Sat: 10am - 10pm
Sun: 10am - 9pm


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