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An Interview With Carl Szatmary,
Owner of OUTWORDS Books

By Lori L. Lake

OUTWORDS Books in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, has consistently been a trailblazer in the way they’ve dealt with lesbian fiction. Store shelves have always carried books from the older, established presses such as New Victoria, Firebrand, Cleis, Alice Street, Naiad (now Bella), Alyson, and Seal Press, but they are also usually the first to pick up and carry books from "upstart" presses – newer publishing houses like Regal Crest, Bywater Books, Cavalier Press, Bold Strokes, Intaglio, and others.

OUTWORDS is an all-purpose LGBT store, which caters to a diverse population of readers, writers, and shoppers. With a fully stocked coffee bar and a store cram-packed with books and goodies, lesbians find the store to be a comfortable safe haven. In large part, OUTWORDS’ responsiveness to lesbian customers is attributed to the owner, Carl Szatmary, who spends the majority of his life at the store greeting customers, finding out what women want to read, and then directing them to books they’ll appreciate and love. If a book is in print, Carl will track it down for his customers, and he runs a brisk online ordering business too.

Carl took a little time out from communing with books to speak to JAW's Associate Editor Lori L. Lake about books, authors, and the future of indie stores.

JAW: Welcome, Carl, and thank you for taking the time to chat with me.

Carl Szatmary: My pleasure, Lori.

JAW: Tell me a little bit about your experience. How long have you been in the bookselling business, and what are the things you like best about it?

I’ve been in the business of selling books for nearly 20 years – man and boy. I’ve always been an enthusiastic reader and love to discuss (not to mention sell) books with my customers – many of whom have been regular regulars since we opened our doors back in 1993.

JAW: In all the time you have been running the store in Milwaukee, what have you seen as the biggest changes in your customers, in their needs, and in what you are selling?

When we opened back in 1993, our inventory was tiny, really. Lots of books, some magazines and a few cards. Over the next several years, our customers wanted more than just books – rainbow pride items, music and movies. Our product array expanded tremendously – the emphasis changes all the time and the challenge is to try to keep up with our customers’ wants and wishes.

JAW: What have you found is the best way to advertise your store? Word of mouth, TV or radio, print, or maybe sponsoring local events? What do you think gets word out about Outwords Books?

Promoting Outwords Books effectively and inexpensively is probably one of my biggest challenges. Positive word of mouth cannot be overemphasized. Due to the cost of TV and radio advertising, I have not been inclined to experiment. We rely on our local LGBT publications, like Queer Life, OutBound, and Quest plus our email and GayCard mailing lists.

JAW: You have the reputation of being very knowledgeable about both gay and lesbian literature. I've seen the nice array of lesbian books you keep on your shelves. How do you keep up with it all?

Since I do all of the ordering for Outwords, I found that I must be enterprising. I make sure that I keep up with new titles by reading publications such as The Lambda Book Report, Books to Watch Out For, and The Gay & Lesbian Review. I regularly check the websites for other LGBT bookstores. Strangely enough, one of my most effective tools is talking to my customers. Often my customers will have heard about a new book or author. Since it really isn’t possible for me to read everything I sell, I find that I need to ask my customers for feedback, to find out if they liked or disliked books – particularly new fiction and authors. If people ask me what I think of a book, I’ll tell them – honestly. If I think a book is not very good, that’s what I’ll tell them – we all have different tastes. But don’t worry, I’ll always have another title or two at the ready to recommend instead.

JAW: When you order from distributors to fill your shelves, what goes into deciding what to stock? Personal taste? Word of mouth? Customer requests? And how long do you give a book a chance to sell before you must, reluctantly, return it?

Back when we opened, deciding which books to order was simple – all of them! (laughs) Naiad was the last word in Lesbian Fiction, and really, there was just a very limited number of titles released each month of interest to Gay men. We found there to be very little to return – except for hardcover books when the title was going to be released in paperback. One curious situation I find of late is that we’ll order books from small, new lesbian publishers and they are already out of business before one can even think of returning books that haven't sold.

Now Outwords is much more than a bookstore – we carry cards and magazines and movies and music and t-shirts and candles and much, much more! Now we must be somewhat selective in our ordering. Plus our customers have become much more discriminating readers and shoppers.

JAW: Do you have opinions as to why it is so hard for new authors and new lesbian presses to get their books into stores? Do you have any advice for improving that process? What do you, the bookstore owner, respond to most when presses and authors contact you?

You probably have more insights into this problem than I do – what with your experience with Regal Crest. When running a small LGBT bookstore, time is always at a premium. Years ago I’d have a basic standing order for all of Naiad’s new releases – they were shipped when they were ready to ship. Now there are a variety of small lesbian presses as well as iUniverse and other print-on-demand publishers, many of whom may offer little to their authors -- sometimes very little editing and occasionally not even a simple spell-check. While many of their books are wonderful, just as many – or quite frankly far more – are dreadful. New authors should consider very carefully who is to publish their book and what services they offer and at what cost. For example, Outwords is unlikely to carry much from iUniverse because they offer little editorial assistance, offer bookstores a tiny discount and no returns on books ordered. Such conditions do not make taking a gamble on a new author very inviting.

Yet as a small LGBT Bookstore, Outwords certainly must offer our readership the best selection of LGBT literature. Large mainstream bookstores – unless they are located in an area with a large LGBT population – Unabridged Books in Chicago comes to mind – feel obligated to offer a token LGBT section but rarely stock it beyond a few key publishers – like Alyson or Kensington or Naiad a few years back.

JAW: You see a fair number of writers come through your store for signings and readings. What kind of advice do you have for the audience at Outwords Books in terms of creating good appearances at your store, particularly for the young writers who may not have a lot of experience at it?

Perhaps the best publicity for a new author is to do author appearances but it does take a tough skin because until an author is known, audiences may be small. Still, as a bookseller, I’ve seen new authors sell a surprising number of books in advance of an even poorly attended author event. Pairing authors together – a new author with a more established author – seems to benefit both authors. And most of all, authors need to be willing to really talk with those who come to an event – not just turn up at the appointed time, read and leave.

JAW: I know this is a blunt question, but it's one that seems to be worrying many--if not all--small indie stores. With the ups and downs of the book business and the advent of online/discount sellers undercutting you, how do you keep your store afloat?

It is increasingly difficult for small bookstores in the current age of Barnes and Nobles and online discount sellers like Amazon. Obviously a store like Outwords cannot hope to compete with such stores in terms of price – we receive smaller margins to begin with. At Outwords, we like to think that beyond simply being just another store – that Outwords is a community resource. That we are a place to get information about the community as well as offering an extensive selection of items of interest to our community.

JAW: If there was one thing you could change about the current situation of independent and LGBT stores, what would it be? Is there anything you would like to change about your own store--or are you pretty happy with how it's working for you?

Back in 1993, the East-side of Milwaukee definitely seemed like the place for Outwords to be Nearly 12 years later, the demographics have changed and our small store with tiny Espresso Bar is rather limiting. Over the next year or so we will need to consider what measures we need to take to make Outwords Books, Gifts & Coffee economically viable for the future.

JAW: What is your idea of the perfect customer? 

Tough question. We have many terrific customers, some of whom have been Outwords regulars since we opened. They appreciate the fact we try our best to provide the best customer service we can – offering a tremendous selection of a wide array of products – as well as being patient when we are occasionally out-of-stock on a book or movie. And of course, our perfect customers are even willing to venture out in the snow!

JAW: Well, even if it snows on the evening of April 9, Ellen Hart and I will be at your store with copies of Ellen’s latest, AN INTIMATE GHOST, and my new thriller, HAVE GUN WE’LL TRAVEL.

Sounds good, Lori. We’ll have the snow shovels ready.


OUTWORDS Books is located at 2710 N. Murray Avenue in Milwaukee, and their phone number is 414-963-9089. Stop by or call and tell them JAW sent you!

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