August 2008

Gili Warsett

features

Unabridged: An Interview with Ed Devereux

It is worth reminding ourselves when times look bleak that we, the passionate, insatiable bibliolaters are in good company with readers everywhere who treat themselves to the hedonistic diversion of words on the page. Robert McDonald, one such decadent booklover, works with four other employees and the owner, Ed Devereux, at Chicago’s Unabridged Bookstore. McDonald said of a shift in people’s interest in reading, “Asking a bookseller if they see a decline in reading is like asking a baker if they see a decline in the interest in pies -- we are surrounded at all times by colleagues, friends, and customers who care about the written word, and for the most part we attribute any decline in sales to the encroachment of chain stores and Amazon shopping and not because people no longer care about reading.”

Ed Devereux has stacked the deck; his employees infuse life into Chicago’s beloved bookstore, Unabridged, and their optimism is contagious. McDonald remarked about the literary scene in the windy city, “There are a host of curators and aesthetics out there as far as reading series go, and a person interested in taking in the Chicago lit scene might be at the MCA one night, the Hopleaf Bar another, and racing to Columbia College downtown for a 5:30 poetry reading the next, and each of these choices means missing another reading scheduled at the same time. In addition, small presses and journals reflecting a wealth of viewpoints have been established, and these, combined with Chicago-based blogs and lit mags, makes for an embarrassment of riches when it comes to the literary life of the city.”

Ed Devereux wasn’t too “embarrassed” to share some of his secrets to fostering a space where bibliophiles are encouraged to celebrate books and connect with each other.

When you opened Unabridged, what was your original motivation?

I started the bookstore in 1980 with two other partners, Mike Liska and Tom Norton. Tom and I bought out Mike’s share a couple of years later, and I became sole owner in 1986 when Tom died.

I was the “bookstore guy” behind the opening of Unabridged. I had switched majors in college more than several times, but I found that in working in the campus bookstore, bookselling was my passion. I joke with people that I started selling books in 1972 and didn’t come out until 1975, so I’ve been a bookseller longer than I’ve been gay! After a stint as a systems analyst with my new MBA at Wells Fargo in San Francisco in 1979, and hating it, I moved back to Chicago to try to get back into bookselling or publishing. While working for a short time in 1980 as a sales rep for Ballantine Books, and going around to lots of bookstores in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, I got the idea of the concept of Unabridged and really thought it would work and whose time had come -- a general bookstore that reflected the neighborhood with a specialty in gay and lesbian books. At the time there were specialty gay and lesbian and feminist bookstores in the country, but no one had tried what I wanted to do -- sell all kinds of books, including gay and lesbian ones, under the same roof. It may be difficult to see how “different” or “radical” this idea was at the time, now that even the chains and Amazon carry LGBT material, but it really was -- we were asking straight people to shop for their books in a store that was clearly gay owned and gay-focused, and asking gay people to shop for their gay material in a forum that wasn’t separate or hidden. It really did work from the start.

Was there resistance in the neighborhood or in Chicago to opening a bookstore with a focus on LGBT books?

Not really a resistance, but maybe a wariness. We were visited before we opened by a PTA group from the school across the street wanting to be reassured we weren’t a new porno shop -- I guess we did a lot of clarification that gay/lesbian didn’t mean pornography. (By the way, Robert McDonald now volunteers every Tuesday morning doing kids’ story hour at the school.) Our gay section used to be right next to our kids section, and I remember once that someone complained to the school about this too, but these were always isolated incidents. Almost unanimously, everyone in the neighborhood agreed that a bookstore was great for the neighborhood.

Since your bookstore opened in 1980, what have been some of the notable changes in your selection and your clientele?

Our clientele generally is made up of people who live or have lived in the neighborhood. Over time, the average age of our clientele has probably gotten a little older, reflecting a broader national change in reading habits in which younger people probably read less actual books and are more tuned in to online information. We still have a large gay clientele, even though the neighborhood is less gay. Overall though, our clientele is a pretty broad cross section of our neighborhood and community, pretty well educated but diverse in age, gender, and LGBT/straight, which is fun because it allows us to sell a whole range of books. Over time our biggest growing section is our kids section, as well as our sale books section. Of course since 1980 there has been an explosion in the number of LGBT titles, and those sections expanded over time to keep up.

Is it important for an independent bookstore to have an area of focus such as LGBT-related books?

It has been one of the keys to our success to have a general bookstore with an emphasis in LGBT literature. Many small bookstores with no specialty were hit hard by superstores and Amazon, and conversely specialty-only bookstores were also hit hard -- whether you just sold LGBT books or cookbooks or mystery books, etc., it became increasingly difficult to survive. As a general neighborhood bookstore, with a specialty in LGBT books -- and also smaller specialties in general fiction, travel, kids and remainders -- I think we are poised correctly for the future.

How has your strategy changed, if at all, for surviving amidst the superpowers like Amazon and Barnes and Noble?

We stuck to our original intent of being the best neighborhood bookstore we could with personal customer service (including full-time-only staff that are paid living wages with benefits) and by being booksellers who loved reading (and sharing our favorites with staff-recommended shelf signs, which have been one of our hallmarks). In addition, we developed our sale section, which was a huge addition for us (and again one of the hallmarks of the store), a great way to offer value to our customers without discounting, and I think now the best sale book section in the city. Expansion to multiple stores can be very problematic, but I have always wanted only one store that did well. And of course by working in the store we have avoided the many potential problems of absentee-owner stores.

Are you interested in developing an online presence? Is it possible to sustain a bookstore without one?

We have a website, although we do not sell books there, rather it is a way to have a web presence and communicate with customers who prefer online. I actually think Amazon’s behemoth and ubiquitous nature make it almost impossible to successfully compete with selling online.

Is there one LGBT-themed book -- either fiction or nonfiction -- that is required reading for all queer folk?

I actually wouldn’t want to say what was required or not; gay literature evolves with the times, and books that I once thought essential now seem dated. We actually want to try at Unabridged to get away from the idea that we all have to read the same book (or watch the same TV show or go to the same movie). Having said that, one book that has stood the test of time for me is James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. The first LGBT novels I ever read were Rita Mae brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle and Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance, both still in print.

How about an LGBT-themed book for non-queer folk?

My current favorite (again, not necessarily essential for everyone) is a new novel by Rabih Alameddine called The Hakawati; it happens to be written by a gay man, has a gay character and some gay themes, but I would recommend it as an amazing, magical Arabian nights for this century, a sprawling novel of Lebanon and traditional storytelling.

Are there any particular books that turned you on to reading when you were growing up?

It’s funny -- I wasn’t a big reader growing up, and also never wanted to be a writer! It really wasn’t until college that I wanted to read everything in sight. In high school I just read whatever my parents had around the house -- The Exorcist, Love Story, Exodus by Leon Uris, but in college, after starting work at the bookstore, I never stopped reading (I remember Catch-22 blew me away). I guess I did it backwards -- most people work in a bookstore because they love to read, but I learned to love to read after getting a job in a bookstore.

What is your favorite book?

I honestly don’t think I have a favorite book ever. Every year I choose my five favorite books of the year to help market them at Unabridged. My favorite novel of 2007 was Richard Lourie’s A Hatred for Tulips, a fictionalized tale of who turned in Anne Frank. Every year I choose my favorite Booker Prize nominee. This year it was Mr. Pip. In 2010, I hope to choose my favorite 30 in 30 -- my favorite 30 novels still in print for Unabridged’s 30th anniversary. I guess Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table is somewhere near the top. My favorite novel of the moment is Steve Toltz’s A Fraction of the Whole.