Published March 3rd, 2020 at 2:55 PM
It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon after the holidays, and a dozen people are browsing the shelves of Kansas City’s newest bookstore. Called Wise Blood, after the Flannery O’Connor novel, the cozy Westport shop is an offshoot of the Mills Record Company, a vinyl-friendly retail institution around the corner on Broadway.
A new bookstore? What were these people thinking?
Well, owner Judy Mills and her Wise Blood manager and business partner, Dylan Pyles, seem to be onto something. In the age of the Amazon monster, which gobbled up a gargantuan share of the bookselling market over the last quarter century, there’s a growing feeling that many readers want and need more than instant gratification. Creating community and personal relationships with customers has become the independent booksellers’ counterpoint to the savage loneliness of Amazon’s deep-discount supply apparatus.
Wise Blood’s main mission is books. Its stock is more robust than those of two downtown shops, which incorporated booze and coffee bars to subsidize the books. One of those, Our Daily Nada, 304 Delaware St. in the River Market, has just closed, though its owners hope to revive the business elsewhere. Afterword Tavern & Shelves, meanwhile, is located at 1834 Grand Blvd. in the Crossroads.
Two national trends contribute to the feeling that there’s a revival for ink on paper and the small entrepreneurs who sell such things: The sale of e-books has plateaued, and the American Booksellers Association has tracked membership increases for more than 10 years in a row. “Nationally,” according to the organization, “new stores are opening, established stores are finding new owners, and a new generation is coming into the business.”
As Pyles puts it, “People still have a dedication to the physical object,” an observation informed by his work in the record store and confirmed by the foot traffic at Wise Blood.
His shop is not only a passion project, but he and Mills sensed a real cultural need in midtown. Westport hasn’t had a bookstore since Whistler’s Books closed in the late 1990s. A Half Price Books outlet stands on the western edge of Westport. Prospero’s, which sells used books, and the venerable Rainy Day in Fairway maintain their reputations a bit farther away, while the Barnes & Noble “superstore” on the Country Club Plaza continues to look more like a tchotchke shop as its corporate parent struggles.
But every bookstore operates with a different DNA, and Wise Blood’s appears to involve a carefully chosen inventory of new and used books, a corner for showing local artists, and a lineup of readings, performances and discussions.
For Pyles, it’s also about creating a cultural center for the neighborhood.
“We’re making music and art and poetry, and we’re basically inventing our own spaces to carry out those artistic acts,” he said. “And I feel like a record store and a bookstore are vital in the process of growing the imagination in the neighborhood.”
Alex George, a novelist who lives in Columbia, Missouri, had similar thoughts when he took the plunge into bookselling two years ago and opened Skylark Bookshop. He had already founded Unbound, an impressive weekend book festival, which returns in April.
“We’re still learning a lot,” George said. “Every bookseller understands you don’t get by in this business just by being there. We have to give people a reason to come into the shop rather than going online. We’re always working hard to add value to the customer experience. That’s the joy of the thing.”
The Unbound lineup this year (April 23 – 25) has an emphasis on poetry, starting with keynoter Tracy K. Smith, the former U.S. poet laureate.
Another book festival with a bookstore connection will launch the same weekend in Lawrence. The Paper Plains Literary Festival, with headliner Colson Whitehead (“The Nickel Boys”), is the brainchild of Danny Caine, owner of the Raven Book Store, a beloved independent.
Caine made viral waves in 2019, creating a Twitter storm of attention on independent bookselling and publishing a zine, “How to Resist Amazon and Why,” which has fired up bookstores coast to coast. His activism and social-media marketing earned him bookseller-of-the-year honors from the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association.
If festivals enhance a local book community, then Kansas City, which has had a hit-and-miss experience over the decades, is about to try again. The Kansas City Public Library is in the early stage of planning a literary festival that could launch in two years.
Stay tuned. And keep on reading.
Steve Paul is the author of “Hemingway at Eighteen” and is currently researching a biography of Evan S. Connell.