Last night, after a long look at my empty office space, I left Mobile Libris for the last time. It’s been a good run, these past seven years of selling books. It’s a tough business – margins are slim, prices are fixed, book-buying habits are changing – but we made a good go of things, even in this sluggish economy. Mobile Libris is a success story even though it is no more.
For those of you not familiar with Mobile Libris, we sold books here in New York City exclusively at author events. We had no brick-and-mortar store; rather, we had a fleet of booksellers who traveled off-site to all manner of author talks, conferences, book parties, readings, panels, discussions – pretty much wherever we were asked to go – to sell books. Our one requirement: the author had to be there to sign. We were known by our black, wheeled suitcases. Event organizers would look out for one rolling into her space, spot it, and know the books had arrived.
I came up with the idea for a mobile book-seller while I was managing a Barbara’s Books in LaGuardia Airport. How I ended up there is a bit of a story in itself, but suffice to say I took what I expected to be a throw-away job selling books between semesters of teaching freshman comp and fell in love with bookselling. I was there for almost five years. Occasionally we were asked to handle off-site events, but usually the logistics of getting books from the airport to the event location was much too complicated. One time, though, I accepted, and sold copies of Susan Fales-Hill’s Always Wear Joy at a charity fundraiser where the author was the keynote speaker. It was magic – the book, the author, the audience: all were perfectly matched. They listened to her with rapt attention and lined-up to buy books and catch a few words with Susan after her talk. This, I thought, is the way to sell books. Each book became a precious memento of the evening, a souvenir with a personal signature that would evoke that event every time it was read or even looked at on the shelf. There must be a way for me to sell books in this manner on a regular basis.
So I gathered the few resources I had – a book about how to start a business in New York, a few connections in the publishing industry, an idea of a reading series or two where I could start, a good friend at the New School writing program (thank you, David), and good personal credit – and started a book business. At first I worked out of my home in Astoria, Queens, with a UPS post-box that would accept packages for me in Manhattan, centrally located by Macy’s in Herald Square, so I could get to any location in the city easily. I’d pick up my books, put them in my suitcase, and be off. And though the magic of that original event wasn’t replicated every time, it was often enough. More importantly, people were appreciative and I sold books.
I was taken by surprise by how quickly the idea took off. I expected to eke out a living by servicing two or three events a week, but almost right away I had to hire a helper to cover events that were booked for the same day and time. Within a short period of time, the guys at the UPS store were complaining that my boxes were taking up too much room, so I moved to an office-share close by. The paper engagement calendar I used to keep track of events, income, and expenses wasn’t going to cut it anymore, so I bought a Mac and switched over to an electronic calendar system which worked great for the 10 or so booksellers I now had working for me. Pretty soon, we outgrew that space, too, and then the next as well, and for the last three years we’ve been on West 29th Street in a 600-sqaure-foot office that was usually filled to the brim with books and books. At the end of our reign I had three full-time employees in the office, a part-time intern, and about 25 booksellers servicing about 50-75 events every week. Our record number of events for one day was somewhere around 22.
The booksellers and I had the privilege of selling books in amazing locations and meeting extraordinary people we certainly wouldn’t have the chance to otherwise. I sold books in Martin Scorsese’s and Joan River’s homes; I met Alan Alda’s mother at book party where Regis Philbin stole a book from me (“I’m taking this book!!”); I’ve dined in the Metropolitan Club, the University Club, the James Beard House; I heard Patricia Neal scold a rude kid at a book party by starting out, “Do you know who I am, young man?”; Rod Stewart and Paul McCartney have bought books from Mobile Libris, as have Mayors David Dinkins and Ed Koch; we’ve sold books for Cathie Black, Walter Isaacson, Malcom Gladwell, Mary Higgins Clark, Vernon Jordan, Mario Vargas Llosa. Like I said, it’s been a good ride. Did I say “Good”? No, it’s been an extraordinary ride.
So why stop? Mobile Libirs was as successful as it ever was when I made the decision to close, but I just couldn’t do it anymore. I’m not a business person; for God’s sake, I studied poetry in grad school! I had taken Mobile Libris as far as I could go. I wanted to sell the business, to see it continue, pass it on to the person who could take it to its next level. Ah, but you have to love books, not money, to see the value of a book-selling business. I had a few bites and one offer, but it wasn’t right. Better to close and let this chapter of my life close behind me.
What’s next for me, then? I don’t know. I took a leap out into the nothing and am working to see what will happen next. I have a few ideas – return to teaching, go into the text-book trade – but I’m not sure. At this point all I know is my key ring is lighter by four keys and Mobile Libris is closed.