A Conversation with Alison Powell, Bookstore Curator, The Oxford Exchange (Tampa, FL)
Welcome to Akashic in Good Company, a regular feature where Akashic spotlights the remarkable people and places in today’s publishing industry. Over the past fifteen years, Akashic has worked with an amazing array of talented, hard-working, committed people and Akashic would not be the company it is today without their help and advice along the way. This week’s installment features a conversation between Akashic’s managing editor Johanna Ingalls and Alison Powell, bookstore curator, The Oxford Exchange, Tampa, FL.
Johanna: In my “official” bio there is a line that is, I’m sure, only amusing to Johnny and me (fine, I don’t really know if it even amuses him since it’s a pretty old line of ours)—I credit Johnny Temple as “rescuing me” from the music industry. And, as much as it’s meant to be tongue-in-cheek, there is a lot of truth to it as I continue to enjoy working in the publishing industry so much more than my days in the rock ’n’ roll world.
I recently received an email with the subject line, Blast from the Past. A friend from the music industry whom I’d lost touch with had tracked me down through Akashic Books…and as it turned out, she too had escaped the music industry and after years working in music, fashion, and television, my friend, the lovely and talented Alison Powell is now curating a beautiful independent bookstore in Tampa, Florida—The Oxford Exchange. I was delighted to reconnect with her and immediately invited her to do an interview for our website.
Alison Powell was born in Vancouver, Canada, to a Canadian father and American mother who met in Berkeley, California. The family moved around a bit in Alison’s early years (Toronto, Detroit, London, England) and eventually settled in Irvine, CA.
Alison stayed on the west coast and attended University of California, Berkeley where she studied English, wrote poetry, and worked in the rare manuscript division of the Bancroft Library. It turns out that Alison’s sole aim upon graduating college was to work in publishing (something I NEVER knew!). And, while she did land the much-coveted editorial assistant job out of college, she also tested out several other careers before her recent return to the book industry.
Alison: “My first job out of school was at Scribner’s as an editorial assistant. I soon discovered that while I loved reading books, I was more interested in writing than editing them. Besides, I was a terrible assistant. I couldn’t type!
“After leaving book publishing I worked at ELLE magazine, where I was a research editor; eventually, after about five years in New York City, I moved to London and it was there that I started writing for Interview and Spin magazines. My two great loves have always been literature and music, so I focused my career on rock journalism.
“When I returned to the US two years later, I largely reviewed records and interviewed bands, all of which landed me the job of senior editor at Interview. There, I covered music, as well as wrote fashion copy. After leaving Interview I freelanced for Harper’s Bazaar, the Guardian, and British ELLE, among others, writing about music, television, movies, and fashion. My most recent pop culture gig was as writer-at-large at BlackBook magazine. Now, I write largely about books and bookselling, and have contributed to the Los Angeles Review of Books and the Oxford American. But music is never far from my mind, and I have written a novel about its transformational power.
“In between magazines and the Oxford Exchange I worked in Los Angeles for five years as a development executive for reality TV, got an MFA in Fiction at Warren Wilson College, and was a rare book dealer on the Las Vegas Strip.”
Johanna: Because I am, some would say, fixated on the differences I’ve found between my days in the music industry and my current days in book publishing, my next questions focused on what she missed about working in music & TV:
Alison: “What I miss about magazine writing and being a rock writer is the constant access to the new. I thrive on new stimuli and I loved being on the inside track of emerging music. I especially miss going to the shows. There is nothing to match the electricity of a great rock show and the collective charge of the crowd. The closest comparison is a reading in which the author and the audience catch fire together.
“As for TV, I miss my colleagues. We had such a good time creating and filming those shows. Even when we had a terrible time on a series, we were bonded in the struggle. Actually, magazines and TV production are both team ventures, and I love collaborative efforts. Writing a novel appeals to my retiring side, but is a real challenge to my gregarious nature . . .
“Now, as the creator of my own bookstore, I am enjoying much of what I miss about being a member of the music industry. I get to see the new books first, can meet and interview the talent behind them, and I am able to share my love of the form with others. As a record reviewer I could tell the world about an incredible new artist or album, and hoped that the work would find its way to someone who needed it. That’s bookselling. Every day I talk to people about what they like, wish for, and how to fill a space in their lives—either temporal or emotional. We literally swap stories. They tell me about their lives and tastes and I hand them a book that I think will address their own narrative. A young woman came into the store recently and said, ‘I need something that will help me believe again in love.’ I gave her Persuasion (Jane Austen) and Alain de Botton’s novel On Love. Another woman had just spent a week with a dying relative and needed a lift. I handed her Bossypants by Tina Fey and Mindy Kaling’s book, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?”
Johanna: When preparing for this interview, I visited the Oxford Exchange’s website where I was introduced to their unique shelving method which I really kinda love…I asked Alison to talk about how their system came about and how much input she had in creating this categorizing method that didn’t just rely on broad categories like: Fiction, Travel, Biographies …etc.
Alison: “What I love the absolute most about bookselling is curating the books. Re-contextualizing new and classic literature, poetry, drama, nonfiction, even atlases and religious texts, helps the customer ‘see’ the books in a new way. Putting, say, David Sedaris next to Jonathon Swift might win new fans for both. (I am reminded of the way Danger Mouse’s mash-up, The Grey Album, made Jay-Z fans out of Beatles fans, and vice versa.) The unconventional, thematic organization of the helps the customer see every book, full stop. The bookstore at the Oxford Exchange is not a large shop, so I had to come up with a way to serve a diverse group of readers in a small space. And, as my first sally against the growing dominance of e-books, I also wanted to create a pleasurable and engaging browsing experience. So I thought about how to provide an emotional, rather than the traditionally topical, way into the books. I came up with nontraditional categories and bought according to those, as well as just making some gut decisions on what to carry. A lot of what I bought was just because it looked cool. I was new to Tampa, and had no idea what the local market would want to see. One thing I did know, thanks to my time in rare books, were the kinds of books that all people are drawn towards, and they were not what one would expect. In fact, it was very hard to predict, just by looking at someone, what he or she might read, but certain books appealed to everyone. I remember the time in Vegas a tipsy girl in a wet bathing suit held a highly lucid conversation with me about Voltaire. One of my colleagues met a competitive body builder who was also a collector of first editions by Nietzsche. Which actually may not be that surprising.
“I made up every category, and not only had to tell the book reps what they were, I had to let them know what we would not be carrying. Instead of History, Biography, Diet and Health, not to mention Paranormal Teen Romance, our shelves would hold signs for categories such as: Wonder, Solace, Trials, Adventure, and Swashbuckling.
“Early favorites were ‘Complicated Women,’ which took in Plath, Madame Bovary, Alice Munro, CoCo Chanel, and Wuthering Heights; the ‘Other’ 50s, for Kerouac, Ginsberg, Kesey, etc. I’d ordered every David Foster Wallace title, enough to fill an entire shelf, but had no Chabon or Carver, so I called the section, ‘God, There’s a Lot of David Foster Wallace.’ Under ‘Sheer Delight’ we had, for example, a book about Monty Python and a Fantagraphics volume of the letters of R. Crumb, Your Vigor For Life Appalls Me.
“And then there were novellas, mostly from Melville House, displayed under ‘Slim Volumes: Books to Read in One Sitting (Maybe 1 ½),’ and ‘Books Big Enough to Move Into” for the Russians, Pynchon, and the unabridged Tale of Genji. But I think my favorite section had just one book in it: Keith Richards’ autobiography. Its sign read ‘The Keith Section.’ And of course we have a center table of new releases across all genres and publishers. Akashic’s Noir series has been used in several locations . . .
“This mania for finding thematic relationships probably stems from my years spent coming up with ideas for magazine articles. Discerning trends depends on finding common threads in movements across a variety of disciplines . . . What I hoped for in the bookstore was that these unusual categories would invite the customer to look at everything and rethink whether or a not a book is for them. There are sections I normally never go near—nonfiction, for example—but I would read Daniel Pink or Jaron Lanier if they were organized in a manner that I could access.
“The other big piece of the bookstore concept is the editions I buy. I am highly focused on the aesthetics of the books—new and classic, and we carry a lot of classics. Not only is there a university population across the street that was greatly underserved, I knew that it would be easier to communicate the unconventional categories if the customer found familiar titles in them. If bookstores are to offer a compelling alternative to e-books, it most likely lies in the browsing experience and in cultivating a thirst for the book as object. When buying I am looking not only for title, but also for edition. Aesthetics often drive decisions about which publishers and imprints to carry, and I am seeking, as often as possible, the perfect balance between form and content . . . Customers of the Oxford Exchange buy our books to read, and in many instances they are also buying an edition of a favorite book they have never seen before, or they are buying a book they never knew existed—and could not have known existed simply by cruising around online . . . The experience of being in the store, talking to the staff, listening to the music (I am very fussy about the music, as you might expect), plus being turned onto visual, artistic, and intellectual delights, are as much a part of the purchase as the book itself.
“Daily, weekly, monthly, and seasonally, we assess the displays and think about creative ways to keep them fresh. We can always come up with something fun with the books we have in stock. At the beginning of August we created a table called ‘Sea Breezes’ and filled it with books about the sea. Many of our customers come in daily, thanks to the restaurant, coffee, and tea bars, and the Commerce Club, our shared workspace club. We want to make sure even the daily visitor finds something surprising.”
Johanna: I am, at this point, considering a move down to Tampa, Florida, or at least a visit as Alison’s enthusiasm, love, and passion comes across so vividly in her emails. In closing she talks about her great fortune at ending up where she is and it reminds me of how happy I am to have landed where I did, here at Akashic.
Alison: “It is sheer luck and good fortune that Blake Casper, the owner and visionary of the Oxford Exchange, brought me to Tampa to create an independent bookstore in 2012. He and I met when I was working in Las Vegas, and I could see right away what he was trying to make. His vision was that of a hub for the community, a place where people could go to connect. Tampa does not possess a busy street life, and the digital era was creating a culture of loneliness. As far as the bookstore goes, as so many publishers and booksellers have discovered, e-books may be changing the landscape of publishing, but the avidity of readers only grows. E-books are book publishing’s Napster. The music business underwent great upheaval and there were losses—big ones. On the other side, though, there was still stunning, innovative, moving and transformative new music. There is no substitute for the meaning—as intangible as a digital file. Perhaps physical bookstores offer housing for the soul while books evolve into their next incarnation.”
Posted: Aug 20, 2013
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