On a cold, rainy night in April, more than 60 people drift into Carmichael's bookstore on Frankfort Avenue in Louisville, Ky., the bookstore owned by Michael Boggs and Carol Besse. They are there for a showing of Paperback Dreams, the PBS documentary about the struggles of Cody's and Kepler's, independent bookstores in Northern California. “It's like that old Joni Mitchell song says—'You don't know what you've got till it's gone' ” remarks Besse at the end of the movie.
Among those in the audience that night is Norton sales rep Johanna Hynes, who, along her husband, Bob Barnett, a sales rep for Cambridge University Press, lives a few blocks from the store. “Carmichael's is the reason I chose to live here in Louisville,” says Hynes in the ensuing discussion about independent retailing, one that featured panelists John Timmons, owner of Louisville's Ear X-tacy record store, and David Daley, lifestyles editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal.
“I spend most of my time on the road living in Hampton Inns,” continues Hynes. “So when I get home, it's important to me to walk into a bookstore that isn't generic, where they know my taste in books, know my family. My son thinks Michael Boggs is a hero. How many five-year-olds have a bookseller as their hero?”
Boggs and Besse opened Carmichael's—the name is a combination of their first names—on April, 15, 1978. The choice of Tax Day was deliberate. “You didn't need to worry about taxes unless you were making money,” says Boggs. The couple met while college students at Florida Presbyterian College (now Eckerd College) in St. Petersburg and later worked together at Barbara's Bookstores in Chicago. “We learned everything from Barbara's,” notes Boggs.
The couple operate two Carmichael's locations. The original store is on Bardstown Road in the Highlands neighborhood. It measures a mere 976 sq.-ft. The second, on Frankfort Avenue, is about a mile from the first, in the Crescent Hill neighborhood. It, too, is small, just 1,521 sq.-ft., including the small office space Besse and Boggs share just off the sales floor. (In 1992, the couple opened a third location in the suburb of Prospect, which closed in 1996.)
The two stores' small size has proven more of an advantage than one might think, says Boggs, particularly when it comes to buying. “I have to be ruthless about what I bring into the store,” he says. “So I need to know what my customers want.” He orders as much as possible direct from publishers and minimizes the use of wholesalers. “The biggest mistake small bookstores make is trying to be like a big bookstore, so I don't sink tens of thousands of dollars into sections where I cannot compete against the chains or the Internet.”
He doesn't stock sports, business, computer and spoken-word audio titles. Sidelines are limited to just a selection of cards and journals. You also won't find many politically conservative titles. “I don't feel a need to cater to everyone and make no apologies for my love of peace, love and progressive politics,” explains Boggs. “I don't see that as censorship, but as an exercise of my personal freedoms. People know what to expect when they come here.”
Efficiency extends beyond buying to general operations. Boggs and his staff create all promotional materials and signage themselves, and Boggs doesn't hire people to do anything he feels he can do himself. He even programmed his own computer inventory system, back in 1982, and still uses it today; though it still looks like a souped-up version of DOS, he points out that it's so simple to use that he was able to convert it to the 13-digit ISBN system in a weekend.
“We just never lost the idea of doing everything on a shoestring,” says Besse. “Of course, part of the reason was that for a long period we weren't making much money.” At various times either Boggs or Besse held full-time jobs outside the store.
The focus on efficiency extends to the way they govern their staff of eight full-timers and 10 part-timers. “We don't have a lot of rules or regulations,” says Besse. “They are simply encouraged to do what is necessary to make our customers happy.”
Trust, in part, derives from the fact that three full-time staffers are members of their immediate family: Boggs and Besse's 27-year-old daughter, Miranda; Besse's older sister Diane Estep and Diane's daughter Kelly. “I serve as a kind of peacemaker at times between my parents,” says Miranda, who serves as Carmichael's returns manager. “I'm also a sounding board for employees who want to know what my parents might think of this or that.”
Miranda's cousin Kelly started working when she was 12, dusting shelves and learning to use the computer. She took a full-time position when she was 19 and now manages the Bardstown Road store and buys children's books.
Kelly met her husband when she hired him as a part-timer. Now their two young children spend two days a week at the store where they are looked after by the children's grandmother Diane, who manages the Carmichael's school sales division and serves as bookkeeper.
Diane Estep is nearly as important to Carmichael's success as either Boggs or Besse. Her school sales division supplies trade books to 225 local public schools throughout Jefferson County and contributes nearly a third of Carmichael's $2 million of annual revenue. The bookstore first won the county contract in 1996, after a clerk at their main independent competitor, the now defunct Hawley-Cooke bookstore chain, failed to sign the annual bid sheet. They shared the contract for the next decade, and when Hawley-Cooke was sold to Borders in 2003, Carmichael's assumed the entire job. Though the margins are smaller, Estep says the arrangement is vital to the store's cash flow. “The school district always pays within 30 days,” she says, “which in turn allows us to pay our bills quite fast.”
Estep says the closing of Hawley-Cooke was one turning point for the store. The other, she says, came in 2002 when Besse returned to work at Carmichael's full-time. “It was like we got renewed ownership without having sold the store,” says Estep of her sister. Perhaps the most significant contribution Besse made was a commitment to store events. With the demise of Hawley-Cooke, Carmichael's became the go-to bookstore for publishers looking for an independent. It has since hosted a bibliography's worth of A-list authors. Among them was David Sedaris, who drew a crowd of 600—a crowd that required Carmichael's to close off the street outside. (Sedaris is returning again this summer for his paperback tour for When You Are Engulfed in Flames.)
Besse refers to keep events in-house, which typically means the larger Frankfort Avenue store, where there is room to seat 60 with standing room for another 100. “You want your event to bring people into the store so they will be surrounded by your books and buy them,” she says, though she's not averse to off-site events when circumstances call for it.
Daley of the Louisville Courier-Journal calls Carmichael's “the intellectual heart of our city. It's the one store with a commitment to literature, and to these neighborhoods in particular,” he says.
Kate McCune, the Midwestern sales rep for HarperCollins and PW 2007 Rep of the Year, championed Carmichael's nomination for Bookseller of the Year, agrees. “It's very seldom these days that I go into a store and feel as defined an identity and a relationship with a community like I do with Carmichael's and Louisville,” she says.
Community—not profit—is the one word you hear most often at Carmichael's. The staff see their customers as a kind of extended family. “We're closely woven into the fabric of our community,” says Besse. “We pay serious attention to our customers, their likes and dislikes, needs and wants. We give gift certificates to just about anyone who walks into our door and asks for a donation for a local school, church, neighborhood or community nonprofit.”
Carmichael's relentless focus on efficiency, customer services and community building is paying off; over the past 10 years, sales have tripled and profits doubled. Even in this difficult economy, business is up 9% over 2008.
Asked why his store is so successful while so many others have faltered, Boggs is blunt. “I think booksellers today may be encouraged to waste too much time and money doing things that don't sell books,” he says. “The thing you have to do in this business is sell books.”