Thursday, July 2, 2009
Local Love Fridays: Finding Good Books at Motte and Bailey Booksellers
"Some books are undeservedly forgotten; none are undeservedly remembered." - W. H. Auden.
This is one of several, pithy phrases that are posted across large planks in the feast of visuals that is Motte and Bailey Booksellers.
I think this phrase sums up why this is a very special bookstore. It also speaks to the sensibilities of managing partner/owner, Gene Alloway.
Gene and I had a wonderful time talking books on Wednesday, and his boundless enthusiasm for his trade and his shop was evident in each new topic we covered.
I had to ask my usual question of "what is the one thing that my readers should know about" Motte and Bailey, and he had two things to say:
"There’s the business thing and the true thing – the business thing is that we want people to come in to see books they haven’t seen before. The true thing – we’re not done yet – we’re never going to be done – that’s the true thing about the shop. The community changes, the book environment changes, new books come out."
This seems to encompass two themes I heard from Gene consistently - one - he's in the business of wanting his customers to see books they haven't seen before. Books they won't see in new book stores and especially in new, "big box" bookstores. Two, he sees the bookselling (versus bookslogging, but more about that later) business as fluid and ever-changing, and that's one of the things he so dearly loves about being a bookseller.
What does this mean for the customers who wander into his shop? It means this:
Gene knows his community, and his neck of the woods is an area of foodie heaven - the PFC, the Farmers Market and Zingerman's are all within a couple of blocks. He wants to make his shop friendly to browsing - make yourself at home. Respect the books, but enjoy your browse time. Support the Co-op, and support us. Stop by the Co-op, and with the discount, maybe you can afford that extra book you've had your eye on.
When I walk into Gene's shop, the first place I go is here:
This is the place, right next to the entrance, where the collection of cookbooks are housed. A typical experience would be last February, when I went in to ask Gene to display a poster for my son's high school theater group, and I found Italian Festival Foods* by Anne Bianchi, a book I hadn't heard of before, and one that's been absolutely invaluable for my fiction research. The books on this shelf are even harder for me to resist than my favorite espresso con panna.
What does Gene mean when he says the bookstore is "never going to be done"? It's a place that not only changes in terms of stock and possible genre or theme emphasis, but it's a physically changing environment as well, and one that always has wonderful delights for the eye. Here are just a couple of details from Gene's and partner Paul Hare's wonderful collections:
Motte and Bailey grew out of an abandoned board-game business founded by Gene and his friends Paul Hare and John Murphy (who left to go on to law school), and it's now grown into a true book community. Gene's Culinary History book club will be starting this July 15th, there's an ongoing History of Books and Printing club and a history reading group, led by Professor Mike Homel of EMU.
What Gene and Paul sell are not just books, but knowledge - they know most of the books in their stock, and each has his own specialty areas. He or Paul has personally selected the books sitting on the shelves, and they've selected them because they know them to be good. In Gene's case, he's taken the time after years of working as a librarian in places as diverse as the U. of M. Undergraduate Engineering Library and the School of Information, and by learning dumpster diving for rare print editions from Don Kramb, an amateur book scout, and the more refined particulars of the used and rare book business from Jay Platt, of the Westside Book Shop. When you go on Amazon or walk into a Barnes and Noble, you're going to find booksloggers - folks who are good at pushing the NYT bestsellers list, but their knowledge of books may be non-existent.
This is truly what you're buying at Motte and Bailey - a guarantee that this is a good book, a book that will (hopefully) not be undeservedly forgotten.
If you love books, I dare you to wander through Gene's world and not find something totally new, out of your ken, and something that you just know you need to own.
Motte and Bailey Booksellers, 212 N. 4th Avenue (right next to the People's Food Co-op), 734-669-0451. Hours are Mon -Sat 10-8 p.m., Sunday 11-4 p.m. To learn more about books and the business of bookselling, as well as reading a delightful work-in-progress, Myles of Books, go to Gene's blog: Bookman's Folly.
*(Amazon.com Sales Rank: #799,054 in Books - like I would have found it by browsing Amazon!)