TO: Jeff Bezos, CEO Amazon
RE: The Wilcox Factor
Dear Mr. Bezos:
My apologies for disturbing you. I realize that strategizing to rid the known galaxy of pesky, independent retail establishments requires razor-sharp focus and 24/7 concentration. However, I feel it imperative to call your attention to that tiny, steadily approaching blip on your corporate radar. Sir, the blip has a name: June Wilcox.
Ms. Wilcox does not know that I’m contacting you. She is far too professional and too polite (and, frankly, too busy) to engage in such idle activities. But I feel compelled. You see, I write stories, and one thing I know for sure: every story worth its salt must have its villain. Well, tag, you’re it. (And trust me, The June Wilcox Story is a good one.)
Ms. Wilcox is the managing owner of the independent bookstore in my town, M. Judson Booksellers. (You are aware, I’m sure, that the number of independent bookstores is on the surprising rise, but really, what person with a fully functioning cerebral cortex wants to “own” a bookstore these days, right?) In fact, I asked June that very question: “What the hell were you thinking?” You know what she said? She started talking about things like “community” and “highly curated experiences for customers” and “bringing machine guns to a knife fight.” (More on automatic firearms later.) Anyway, she had that look in her eye, Mr. Bezos.
“Why she took on the challenge (her word, Mr. B, not mine) of owning and guiding an independent bookstore would require more space than I have here, but as Ms. Wilcox told me, “It would have been easier not to do it. There were certain points when it would have been much easier to cut bait than to keep fishing.”
Her store, M. Judson Booksellers, is named for Mary Camilla Judson, a pioneering woman in our community, a badass educator who broke more than her share of molds in the late 1800s and early 1900s. My suspicion? Ms. Wilcox is a great deal like Mary Camilla. June is feisty and focused. Pioneering herself, perhaps. (A contemporary badass, you might say.) She’s whip-smart, with that graduate degree in international business and her track record of entrepreneurial success with a company that has absolutely nothing to do with books.
Why she took on the challenge (her word, Mr. B, not mine) of owning and guiding an independent bookstore would require more space than I have here, but as Ms. Wilcox told me, “It would have been easier not to do it. There were certain points when it would have been much easier to cut bait than to keep fishing.” However—and this is important—when June Wilcox wraps her brain and her heart around something, she doesn’t let go. She admitted as much. She said, “Once I’m in, I’m in. No matter what this takes, whatever we have to do, we are going to figure this out.”
It appears they are, indeed, figuring it out. M. Judson, unlike many upstart indie bookstores, had a wonderful year in 2018. But that is not enough for Ms. Wilcox. Complacency is not an entry in her business vernacular. Hence, she has plans. Like subscription services that will deliver a book-a-month (selections that fit your particular literary tastes) anywhere in the world. Enhanced online offerings. More events like the successful Lunch & Lit or Sunday Sit-Down Supper. A spin-off M. Judson location, just for kids. An expansion of their successful travel book-club program. Oh, and she is teaming up with the IT hotshots from her former consulting career to create an advanced technology platform to provide that highly curated experience. (You’ll be able to call M. Judson from your couch, receive a highly personal recommendation from a real live bookseller and have the book wrapped and delivered to your door. Nothing new to you, I realize, Mr. B, except of course for that “real live bookseller.” An important distinction, I feel.) This technology is the aforementioned machine gun, sir, coming soon to the independent bookstore knife fight.
I had a basketball coach once, Mr. Bezos, who fashioned himself an amateur philosopher. One afternoon, he told us, philosophically speaking, “Boys, the world is round. Keep moving and you’ll run back into yourself one day.” When June Wilcox talks about community, I think about how she has truly come full circle. She was raised in our community. She remembers the old-school, creaky-floored bookstore on Main Street that national chains exiled to a slow, wheezing death. Now, she has created a new, sparkling community around M. Judson in the place where she grew up. And here’s an important point I shall whisper for fear of sounding too alarmist: She is taking the idea of the bookstore community on the road.
That’s right. She is planning to move the M. Judson concept into college towns that don’t currently have an indie bookstore. Borderline brilliant, yes? You would not believe the number of college and university towns (with their built-in, book-hungry market) that don’t offer a bookstore. Sure, they have places selling textbooks and t-shirts and foam fingers, but not real bookstores. And she plans to name the new stores after “local female heroes,” in the M. Judson tradition. You see the dots I’m connecting here, Mr. B? Female-owned bookstores, named after strong females, tapping into college-town markets? And you know better than anyone who buys the majority of books in the world. Women. This is a wave, Mr. Bezos. M. Judson and June Wilcox are the ones stirring up the proverbial waters.
But as you have realized by now, June Wilcox is not coming for you, sir. Amazon is safe to continue tinkering with drones and algorithms. Ms. Wilcox is doing something different, creating something that you folks aren’t really interested in. I’m talking community again. Community means when you walk into one of Ms. Wilcox’s stores, the person behind the counter asks about your kids. By name. Or says, “Hey, we got something new and I know you’re gonna like it.” Community is about standing among the shelves and drawing a deep breath because you just love the way a bookstore smells. (I have no idea what Amazon smells like.) Community is having a place to meet for a beer and talk about what’s on the shelves or listen to a writer read from the novel she worked on for a decade. The world is a big place, Mr. B. There’s room enough for you and for June Wilcox to create her communities and her bookstores. Yessir, there’s room enough for us all in this big, round world. And isn’t that a good thought to end on?
Yours in books,