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A Small Town Bookseller's Life

Dog Ear Books

Photograph of Dog Ear Books in Northport, Michigan
With no retail experience and no business plan, opening a little store to sell used books was initially a way for me to weed out an overgrown home library and to avoid searching for a “real” job at the same time. There was a shed available in the village at the tip of the peninsula in Leelanau County, Michigan, not far from my home—problem solved!

Not on the way to anywhere else, Northport boasts a winter population of just five hundred. It is a very welcoming community, beautifully situated on Grand Traverse Bay, but the survival of my business would not be possible without the annual influx of summer people and vacationers. With them, I hang on from one year to the next.

Perhaps a business plan would have resulted in stocking more pulp, less poetry, and no philosophy at all. Without a doubt it would have pointed to a more populous area. But here I remain, nineteen years later, now with new books an important part of my inventory but still “specializing in what I’ve got,” including many titles in agriculture, travel, natural history, and dogs. Over the years my love for this life and this place have grown so deep that I can’t imagine never having been here, doing exactly this.

Of course, there is a dog. In 1993 the original dog, Nikki, came into my life a few months before the bookstore, so the name was a natural. Today Sarah carries on the tradition and puts shy visitors at ease with her calm, low-key welcome, treating everyone as an instant new friend.

Year has followed year, and repeat customers have become friends. Poets and philosophers know where to look for treasures on my shelves. A “summer” woman from Cincinnati counts on me to steer her to true adventure books with women at the center of the action; local farmers and market growers share my passion for fresh produce and good writing, for Wendell Berry and Gene Logsdon.

Meeting authors is a wonderful bonus to the bookselling life. My first trade show experience in Dearborn, Michigan, was heady enough for all the new books spread out like a banquet, but the really big thrill was having a conversation with Gene Logsdon. You would have thought I’d just met Richard Gere! We talked soil, sheep, and writing, giving me a story to take home to my bookstore. (In case you wonder, Logsdon raises Corriedales, while Berry is a Cheviot man.)

What never fails to impress me as a frequent host to writers is how generous the best are. They greet each bookseller and customer graciously and with genuine interest, their attitude saying more loudly than words, We are all in this together. Most booksellers I know share this attitude, too, and it’s lovely working in a field where collegiality rather than cutthroat rivalry is the norm.

When I was young, my parents were Book-of-the-Month Club subscribers, and thus I was introduced early in life to Christopher Morley’s Parnassus on Wheels and The Haunted Bookshop. I tried to escape what the Fates had in store for me by studying philosophy, but it is clear in retrospect that the die had already been cast. “Thank God I am a bookseller!” was the proud and grateful prayer of Morley’s fictional Roger Mifflin. Every true bookseller I know feels the same way.

Online selling isn’t me; eBooks are not me. The longer I have been in business, in fact, the more traditional my approach has been. Books, customers, writers—appreciating them and bringing them together face to face—that’s pretty much it.

I am having a wonderful life, thanks to that impulsive, ignorant initial plunge, and I wouldn’t have spent the past nineteen years any other way.

Pamela Grath

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