Bricks, Mortar, and a Lot of Yeats
When the classnote came in from Brian Buckley, Ed.M.'98, saying that he and his wife, Kate Hunter, had recently opened an independent bookstore devoted exclusively to poetry — only the third in the country — there was a collective "wow" in the office. For years, it has been a David and Goliath battle for survival for small, brick-and-mortar bookshops trying to compete against discount chain stores, Amazon, and, more recently, e-readers.
Even Buckley had his worries, showing up two hours late for the lease signing because of nerves.
"Starting an independent bookstore is exciting and daunting," he says from Boulder, Colo., where the Innisfree Poetry Bookstore and Cafe is located. "On the one hand, you're adding to something that isn't alive and well in some places. But people also said, 'Brian, there's a reason there are only two.'"
As it turns out, Buckley's timing may be just right as the tables show signs of turning, at least a little. Earlier this year, one of the big chains, Borders, announced that it was closing all of its stores. At the same time, the Association of American Publishers reported that book sales across all platforms increased by 3.6 percent from 2009 to 2010. Last summer, Google announced that it would allow independents to sell e-books from their websites. And, says Laura Ayrey, executive director of the Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association, "Independent stores have been challenging e-fairness state-by-state by forming coalitions with other local businesses to amend sales tax legislation, and have had success in a number of states." This levels the playing field when it comes to the collection and remittance of sales tax, allowing independent stores to compete with online vendors like Amazon.
For Buckley and his store, there's one other critical factor: the community. Although he and Hunter, who met in a poetry class when they were both living in Boston, moved to Boulder for the mountains and good schools for their two young daughters, the city turned out to be fertile ground for a couple thinking of starting a risky venture as their full-time paycheck. "Boulder has a knack for supporting local businesses and has a thriving art scene," he says. "There's even a Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics here."
For this reason, and others, he and Hunter have worked hard to make Innisfree, which is named after the W. B. Yeats poem "The Lake Isle of Innisfree," egalitarian. Books by the classic names in poetry mingle on the shelves with the lesserknowns. Twice-weekly in-store readings include beginning writers as well as established ones. And Innisfree's selection isn't just for academics or adults, unlike the other two poetry stores (including Grolier's in Cambridge, Mass., where Buckley worked when he was an Ed School student). The store devotes about 20 percent of shelf space to books geared toward young children and adolescents.
Even poetry disbelievers are welcome.
"People will say to me, 'I didn't get poetry at all in high school. It was too hard,'" Buckley says. "We want that wall to go away." Besides luring them in with the wide selection of books, the shop also offers locally roasted coffee, baked goods, and sandwiches. For those who don't have time to browse the store, ordering online is always an option, as is a unique feature — a walk-up window that allows people to buy coffee and books from the sidewalk. Buckley jokes that it's their "window into poetry."
And then there's the giant table in the middle of the store. Measuring 10 feet long, it encourages interactions and sometimes introduces people to new things.
"Someone will see someone else at the table reading a book and a conversation will start," Buckley says. "The community table has brought many people together. Groups reserve it and when not reserved, spontaneity rules the day. [There's] much talk of poets and poetry when readers pull out their books. One day a poet, Jared Smith, was at the table and he suddenly started reading a poem out loud at the behest of the Colorado University students he met at the table. Others end up conversing and then a poem is suddenly being read aloud. We love it."
Buckley was lucky: There was never a wall for him to tackle when it came to understanding or appreciating poetry. During junior high, his teacher, Ken Conn, introduced him to major American writers like Whitman and Dickinson. And long before that, his Boston community and his family, particularly his father, an electrician for the MBTA subway system, surrounded him with verse.
"For me, growing up in West Roxbury, in an Irish Catholic neighborhood, the Irish pride of the area came out," Buckley says. "My father would recite Yeats and Heaney from memory. The teachers would point with pride at what some of the Irish poets had accomplished."
Years later, when he was studying at the Ed School, he realized poetry could, in fact, be a way to educate people. "I took a class with Professor Donald Oliver," he says, referring to the professor who took a sabbatical from the Ed School in 1978 to study at a beauty school in Lowell, Mass., because he strongly believed that real learning took place in the real world. "He challenged us to think about education outside school. That voice always stayed in my head. I feel strongly that this store is going to be an education center."
Today, as he is feeling good about the early success of the store — "People are coming!" — he reminds the naysayers of all the ways that poetry is used every day to mark moments in our lives.
"I tell them about the people who come in and say, 'My wife just passed away.' They ask if there's anything on the shelves that they can read. Or someone comes in and doesn't say anything but has a need for poetry to guide them through something," he says. "I think there's a reason poems are read at weddings and funerals, at the president's inauguration. It hushes the moment. A poem comes with a posture or an attitude that something special is about to happen."