Happy Independent Bookstore Day! We are celebrating with a Q&A with John Jenkins, manager of the MIT Press bookstore.
How long have you been working at the MIT Press bookstore and what are your responsibilities as manager?
I first started at the MIT Press Bookstore in 1995 after working for several other Cambridge bookstores. In 1999 I became co-manager, then solo manager in 2004. As manager I’m responsible for the day-to-day operation of the store and for supervising our talented 4-member Bookselling team. I spend time every day in the store with my colleagues, helping customers and working with the books. In addition, I handle the marketing and advertising for the store which includes everything from designing our print ads to maintaining our Facebook page. I select and order all of the new books that we stock each season. I’m responsible for a bunch of accounting tasks, like overseeing our budget and making sure our bills get paid. Other duties include hiring, training, and event planning (like the authors@mit lecture series and our loading dock sales). I’ve even been known to fix the printer.
What goes into curating the diverse selection of books that you carry?
As you might expect from the “MIT Press” Bookstore, half of the books that we stock are from the MIT Press. We do our best to keep everything that’s in-print in stock, but we do let some older titles go as interest wanes and space is needed. I think the oldest book that we keep in active stock is Norbert Wiener’s “Cybernetics,” which the MIT Press published in 1961!
When it comes to selecting the other half of our inventory I restrict myself to mirroring the MIT Press’s publishing disciplines. As a result, we don’t carry fiction or poetry, but do have a great selection of intriguing non-fiction and scholarly titles; especially books from other University Presses. I love to have the MIT Press books side-by-side with books from our peer presses. I peruse hundreds of book catalogs every year to find the books that I find the most interesting, relevant, and useful. I make individual title decisions based on a great number of factors (including input from our booksellers), but generally fall back on one simple rule: If a book excites me enough that I want to pick it up, and the content is not total BS, then I’ll try to find a place for it in the store. It’s definitely more of an art than a science.
Here in the Boston area, we are lucky to have several great independent bookstores, each with their own personalities. I think we’ve found a niche by covering subjects that the other stores don’t represent deeply in their own collections. Thankfully we continue to enjoy a fan base that shares our sometimes peculiar interests.
Are there specific types of books that you particularly enjoy selling?
We have a very carefully curated collection, so in essence these books are all my favorites! The moments that I particularly enjoy are when a customer asks for books on a very specific (and maybe very nerdy) subject, and we can put two or three books right in their hand that make them happy. “Machine learning with python?”, “Protest as performance art?” Got them both covered just this morning. I also enjoy the moments when a customer comes in looking for one topic, but gets totally jazzed when they stumble across a completely different book that takes their ideas in a whole new direction. I like to think that we are making a concrete contribution to the research being done here at MIT (and elsewhere) by introducing someone to the right book at the right time.
How would you characterize the reading and book-buying culture of the MIT community and Cambridge?
MIT and Cambridge are special places. There are tons of really smart people who live here or visit regularly. I tell my staff that if a customer asks about a subject you’ve never heard of before, ask them about it. You’re likely to get a free short lecture on a cutting-edge topic, and you may even be able to make a useful book recommendation once your brain has time to make some connections. You’ll at least be able to nail it the next time.
What do your customers value about shopping at an indie bookstore?
Thoughtful, uncompromised book selection, personality, top-notch customer service, personal connection. Money spent local stays local. Humans are better than algorithms!