The holiday season’s approaching, and supply-chain concerns make it a good idea to shop early. In that spirit, we’re excited to introduce the blog’s readership to some of the region’s indie booksellers, highlighting the important work they do with authors, publishers, readers, and communities. First up is Gregory Kornbluh, owner of Downbound Books in Cincinnati. Get to know Gregory in the interview below, and please support independent bookstores this holiday season!
You worked in university press publishing before you opened Downbound. Can you tell me about that transition?
I did come from Harvard University Press, but was a bookseller for a spell before that, so fortunately I wasn’t coming into this blind. I also got to work with booksellers while at HUP, which isn’t always the case at a university press. We certainly did our fair share of titles that were never meant to attract attention outside of the academy, but also had books with some potential for a broader audience. We were often fooling ourselves on that, of course; unlike you guys at WVUP, we weren’t rolling out must-read National Book Award finalists. But there are ways in which the structure of the publishing process incentivizes projecting best case scenarios for books as they work through the pipeline—dreamy comps, media fantasies, etc.—and I’ve had to train myself away from some of that. In my case, too, just being in Cambridge and haunting its bookshops reinforced some of those ideas we at HUP would sometimes have about the general book market. So, it was sort of a double bubble. Coming home to Cincinnati and opening Downbound has helped me adopt a more realistic stance towards the broader market for scholarship and serious nonfiction. I’d like to think that our shelves hold more UP titles than would be expected in a 500-square-foot shop in a midsize Midwestern city, but there are fewer than we started with. Personal commitments aside, footnotes just aren’t a hill we’re gonna die on. You’ll find us dead and happy on Board Books about Poop mountain instead.
What’s the book scene like in Cincinnati? Is there a sense among your customers of being connected to Appalachia?
The scene is strong! We have a really terrific public library system here, great writing programs at UC, a nice little batch of bookshops, and a real gem in The Mercantile Library, which offers some of the best literary programming anywhere. And the Appalachian connection is definitely a force. That virtual event featuring Appalachian writers that you helped us pull off last year—“Don’t Cry for Us, JD Vance,” we called it—had over 800 people tuned in at one point. There’s a real commitment to reading Appalachian voices, and, in fact, that’s often how we learn of new books of interest to the region and its diaspora. Last year, for example, we had customers contact us about preordering Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle’s Even As We Breathe (University Press of Kentucky) before it was even listed in the bibliographic database to which we subscribe.
Most people who visit WVU Press’s blog are, I’m guessing, positively inclined toward independent bookstores. What’s something you’d tell them about your industry that they might not know?
In this particular moment, I’d probably take the opportunity to say a bit about why the book supply chain struggles we’ve all been hearing about are so threatening for indies. Think of something like the National Book Awards. In a normal year, a lot of indies can probably count on selling quite a few copies of the winner in each category, but they may not see all that much of an uptick for the rest of the finalists, especially in categories other than fiction. So—at a small store like Downbound, anyway—we’d plan to place strong orders for the winners as soon as they’re announced. Well, this year, with publishers all telling us how quickly they’re going to sell out of anything hot, if Amazon and Barnes & Noble are paying any attention at all then they’ve already stockpiled copies of all of the finalists in greater quantities than in the past, happily overbuying on the also-rans so as to be in a solid position with the eventual winners. A little indie bookstore can’t do that—we don’t have the money, let alone the space—and so the playing field ends up even more tilted than normal. Sales of major award winners and other “It” books are often critical to a shop’s bottom line, but the demand is fleeting. If we end up in a position where shoppers can get the hot title from Amazon tomorrow or from us in February, well, holding off will be a big ask for even the most committed supporter of indies. But! Where indie booksellers can and will excel is in introducing readers to any number of alternatives when the book of the moment just can’t be had. That book’s moment will pass, but if you put your trust in a bookseller you may end up with a read that stays with you always.
What’s a book that’s succeeded at Downbound that has, perhaps, flown under a lot of readers’ radars?
Well, the smaller the store, the greater the potential for handselling to move the needle. One that we’ve really focused on has been Carter Sickels’s The Prettiest Star, from South Carolina’s Hub City Press. It’s a beautiful and crushing novel about a gay man from a small Ohio town who moved to NYC at 18 and hardly looked back, until the AIDS epidemic devastated his community and left him with no options but to return home when his own health begins to rapidly fail. The book’s piled up accolades since its May 2020 release and has had strong support from indie booksellers around the country, but it’s been more of a fixture at our shop than most, and we’re still introducing readers to it all the time. Carter came by to sign another stack of paperbacks just yesterday, in fact.