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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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