Twenty-nine-year-old Suzanna Hermans manages Oblong Books & Music in Rhinebeck and co-owns that store and a second bookstore in Millerton with her father, Dick Hermans. Despite the inroads made by online discounter Amazon, Hermans doesn’t view her chosen profession as anachronistic, and in fact is aggressively pursuing her ambition to turn Rhinebeck into a literary destination. Almanac Weekly’s Lynn Woods recently spoke with Suzanna about the future of print, Oblong and local independent bookstores. Here are some excerpts from the interview:
Your Dad, Dick Hermans, started Oblong Books in 1975 – ten years before you were born – in Millerton. What made you want to join the business?
I was raised in a thriving established business. I grew up in the bookstore and was always a big reader. I spent my childhood and teen years adoring the theater, and got a degree in Theater. Though I love performing and see tons of shows, I realized I didn’t want to make a living doing that. After college, when I wondered what I should do with my life, I realized I really like books – and we have these bookstores. In 2007 I joined the business and started managing the Rhinebeck store. I have not looked back, and have taken part-ownership of the business.
How are the two stores different?
They have a very different feel, though they stock identical books. Millerton has three floors in two buildings, and with its crooked floors and built-in bookcases, it has an older feel. It grew from a tiny shoebox location up the street from where it is now and has moved twice. My Dad bought the building around the corner and connected them, to create space for the children’s bookstore. There’s a very large office upstairs.
One difference is that the Rhinebeck store has a very large CD selection, which the Millerton store does not.
People are still buying CDs?
Yes. Our audience for CDs skews older, although you’d be surprised how many young people buy them. We have the largest independent CD store between New York City and Albany. People know they can find that new African or jazz album here.
How many titles of books do you stock?
We have 3,600 square feet with about 30,000 books. [In Rhinebeck] we have an extremely large children’s section. Our other large sections are fiction and cookbooks. It’s a true general bookstore. I do the buying with my Dad, covering all the children’s books and half of the adult. We meet with the reps from different publishers seasonally.
How do you make your selections?
So much of our buying habits are addressed holistically: Does the book look good? Does the author have a track record? And if it’s by a new author we’ve never stocked before or who’s never had a book before, what’s special about the book? With new authors it’s hard to break out a book, and so we ask what the publisher is doing about marketing it.
There’s three seasons, and for one season you might have 1,500 titles. We look at every single title and are extremely time-sensitive; we want the best selection for the community, from that hot new book you heard about on the Today Show to that weird, fabulous book you never would have heard of unless you had seen it in this store.
How do you manage your inventory?
Inventory management is my favorite thing: whether or not we decide to keep selling a book, when the end date is to let the book go to make room for a new book, how many copies we buy. For most books, we buy one copy; but if it’s a title we’re excited about, it’s not unusual for us to bring in three to five copies, and 10 to 20 for a hot new book.
What’s distinctive about your selection?
One of the obvious types of books we care about is the regional/local interest book, and we have a huge section of that in front of the store. A lot of these books are from small, strange, wonderful publishers, including a small press that makes two books. Also we focus heavily on cookbooks, because of the Culinary Institute of America being so nearby. We buy broader in the cookbook section and can take a risk in bringing in an $80 cookbook that lots of other bookstores won’t move.
Our customers love literary fiction, so we carry a great fiction section. Part of our mission is finding the right people for those books.
You expanded the store in 2010 and devoted the extra space to your children’s books section. Why is this section important?
Kids need their own area of the store, where they can be loud and messy; for our other customers, it’s nice to enjoy reading Proust in a corner and not be distracted by toddlers. I love children’s books and being able to carry much more stock. More and more, the publishing industry has come to realize children’s books are an extremely important part of the business model – not only because they sell, but also because if you don’t get kids excited about reading, in 20 years there’ll be no one to buy adult books.
So much good work has been done in children’s books that more and more adults are discovering children’s literature for themselves. We have a lot of Young Adult books, and a lot of my customers for this are adults.
How many authors’ events do you have a year?
We have 80 events for all ages, with a mix of local and nationally touring authors. We try to build our event calendar as broad as we can, because we want to feature lots of different kinds of books. It takes a lot of money to put on an event, and some events you have to turn down because we don’t think we’ll make money on them. Some events we charge for, which are off-site.
It’s always a delicate thing to put together an events calendar, when no one’s ever heard of this person and I’m hoping I can make money on this. And it’s hard for people to leave their homes when it’s raining or a beautiful sunny day.