The very idea of eventually serving customers in all fifty states and dozens of foreign countries would seem as likely a quarter century ago when Jake Reiss opened the Booksmith, as reading on telephones, buying books from websites, or having every copy on every shelf signed by the author.
There was not a Books-A-Million nor a Barnes and Noble in Birmingham on September 22, 1990, when The Highland Booksmith first saw the light of day, removing the stigma for Jake of being the only male member of his family for two generations not to serve some time as a bookseller.
Jake's brother, Norman, began the family bookselling tradition by working at Malone's Bookstore in Tuscaloosa, when he attended the University of Alabama in the sixties. Eldest son Jake IV, sold books for three summers as a student at the University of Georgia. He preceded the Internet by taking books to customers' homes in Blytheville, Arkansas; El Centro, California and French Lick, Indiana while representing Southwestern Publishing Company of Nashville, Tennessee. Youngest son Frank actually should be credited as the Booksmith progenitor when he went to work for and eventually became manager of Acorn Books in San Francisco.
On the first of several visits, the father was intrigued with the son's operation. In the late 1980's, Frank moved back home to Atlanta and opened the very successful A Cappella Books. On many occasions, the son took the father along acquiring inventory and the book bug bit. Jake returned to Birmingham and started buying books. After his spare bedroom was completely overrun, the building in Birmingham's bohemian district was leased and The Highland Booksmith was born.
This store opened with only used copies, and did not start carrying new books for a couple of years. With a great staff and manager in place at the Booksmith, Jake spent much of his time in the family tailoring business that has served Alabamians since the end of the nineteenth century. While he still works with a few clients in the tailoring business that his son now runs, Jake spends most of his time at the Booksmith.
If there is a defining moment in what was to become The Alabama Booksmith, it happened on August 21, 1995 at exactly six o'clock sharp, when the store hosted Don Keith, author of THE FOREVER SEASON for its first reading and signing. Since that evening, more than a thousand writers have signed and read in the store and at events around the state.
With so much of the business depending on special events, it was obvious the Highland Avenue location had major problems: traffic congestion, lack of parking, no book storage and staging for large events, inadequate outdoor signage and not enough room for authors. We won't even mention the general aging of the building.
Then, what to our wondrous eyes should appear, but the answer to every bookseller's dream - the perfect store in the perfect location. At first sight, family, friends and customers saw a dilapidated, deserted office building hidden from sight by wild trees, vines and weeds. We saw a cozy bookstore with a fireplace, ice cold water fountain, custom made shelves and counters, immaculate rest rooms, office and storage space to squander, 125 parking spaces, and, facing Alabama's busiest highway, as well as a huge marquee sign.
We bought that ugly duckling on July 19, 1999, and after bulldozing, replacing the floor and ceilings, hiring a master woodcraftsman, replacing the plumbing and doubling the existing square footage with a new building for office and storage, the beautiful swan was ready to spread its wings in ninety days. WELL, there was this minor problem of transporting 100,000 books. Forty customers volunteered and the all-new and improved Alabama Booksmith opened as our dream store.
In 2012, the world changed. The entire building was gutted and literally redone from roof to floor. Chairs, curtains, table cloths and even floor mats were custom made from special cloth manufactured for us incorporating the store logo. Displays were placed on tables throughout the store, the remodeled space can now accommodate hundreds for events, and the most incredible change of all – every book in the store is now signed!
So, whether The Alabama Booksmith began when it opened in 1999, or actually became a bookstore in 1990, or the decision was made at Acappella Books or Acorn Books in the 1980's, or when bookselling first hit the family in the sixties or possibly evolved from the 1899 family business, that's just history. We are more interested in the future, and sure hope The Alabama Booksmith is in yours.
Unique business model
There may be another bookstore on the planet whose entire inventory is composed of signed copies, but we don’t know of any. For the last decade, most of the books we sold have been signed, but in 2012, when we did the complete makeover of the building, we decided to intensify our efforts and have authors sign every title we ordered. The results have been amazing!
Besides enjoying the biggest sales in our history, folks all over are filling their personal libraries with only signed copies. With the exception of a few out-of-print and rare treasures, every copy is sold at publisher’s regular retail price, as if it were not a first printing nor signed. Why would anyone purchase an unsigned copy?
In addition to our main focus of signed copies, our new format allows us to place every book face out, where visitors are able to ascertain rather quickly if this is or is not for them. Who can tell anything about a book when the only area visible is the spine?