Local, independent bookseller defies digital trend
By Matt Sliker
As he sips from a familiar white cup with an unmistakable green logo, Daniel Goldin leans back on a leather armchair, watching as customers browse his store.
The blue-eyed book veteran has worked many different positions within the bookselling and book publishing industries – but he never expected to climb to his current spot.
Goldin owns Boswell Book Company on Milwaukee’s east side, which celebrated its one year anniversary at the beginning of April.
“I didn’t have the opportunity and I didn’t have the money to do this,” Goldin said. “It’s just one of those weird things where everything falls into place.”
Goldin’s Downer Avenue shop was previously home to one of the four Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops that closed in March 2009. The chain shut down after nearly 82 years as a Milwaukee institution.
Goldin, 48, began working for Schwartz’s in 1986. Most recently, he served as the chain’s general manager.
“If we had actually closed the stores when the family originally thought about it and realized they weren’t feasible anymore, I never would have bought a store,” Goldin said.
But at some point, Goldin did begin entertaining thoughts of opening a store. He said that, if anything, he imagined he would have taken the smallest store possible.
“It probably would’ve been in Bay View. I probably would be running it by myself,” Goldin said. “We probably would have had three staff people and very few events -- very do-it-yourself.”
Then a series of things happened that allowed him to consider opening a larger store -- instead of ‘just a tiny one.”
Goldin’s mother sold her home at the top of the real estate bubble and moved into a rental property. Goldin received a gift of money from his mother and sisters.
“That money plus my money was enough to give me enough to go to a bank for a loan,” Goldin said.
Goldin said he applied for loans during a time when Small Business Administration loan programs were being expanded because of big bank failures. “So I think my loan was 75 percent covered by SBA.”
Finally, Goldin said he assumed the Downer Avenue rent would be out of his league. But due to nearby construction and the downturn in the economy, his rent was able to be negotiated. “Five years ago, the rent was higher than it is now,” Goldin recapped.
Supporting Local Businesses
Milwaukee resident Todd Leech supports local businesses. So much, in fact, that he helped found buy-local group Our Milwaukee.
“There’s a real kind of pride about being from Milwaukee that translates into the kinds of businesses that folks like to frequent,” Leech said.
The Our Milwaukee vice president said business owners like Goldin help build a sense of community that ends up helping the entire local economy. The organization estimates that nearly 70 cents of every dollar spent at local businesses stays in Milwaukee.
A recent survey by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a nonprofit research organization, found that independent businesses in cities with Buy Local campaigns like Our Milwaukee reported stronger sales than those in areas without such an initiative.
The survey reported that nearly 80 percent of business owners polled said that public awareness of the value of choosing locally owned businesses had increased in the last year.
That’s a belief shared by both Leech and Goldin.
Plus, “he’s gonna help you get whatever you want. He’s gonna know you when you come back in, as opposed to going into Wal-Mart or Target and buying that book,” Leech said.
Goldin’s store is a member of Our Milwaukee, along with 182 other area businesses, according to Leech, who is a manager at Beans N’ Barley on North Avenue.
Sitting outside the independent restaurant and specialty store, Leech sips locally brewed coffee he got from inside the store and points west on North Avenue.
A county bus roars by, forcing Leech to wait until the noise dies down to begin speaking.
“You look down this street and see a McDonalds and then over here are a lot of vibrant, locally owned businesses,” Leech said. “And that’s fine. We can have that kind of balance as long as we support the local economy as well.”
All About Compromise
Back at Boswell Books, Goldin is sipping from a familiar white cup with an unmistakable green logo.
“My rule of thumb is when you’re doing something and you could be doing it better, at least acknowledge it and feel guilty,” Goldin joked.
Goldin’s store is attached to a Starbucks. Or is Starbucks attached to his store?
“People think about that Starbucks differently because it’s connected to us,” Goldin said.
When he opened his store, Goldin brought in 24 seats for his customers. He said that’s 16 more seats than Schwartz offered.
“By the way, that’s the other reason that Starbucks’ sales are up -- because they run out of chairs all the time so now people can come in here,” Goldin said.
Like Goldin, bookseller Stacie Williams believes the relationship between the corporate giant and independent bookshop is unique and mutually beneficial.
“I don’t know if it’s us or if it’s the neighborhood, but there’s something different about this one. So it’s OK, we’re OK with that,” Williams said, smiling as she drank from her half-full Starbucks iced coffee.
“But I would much prefer that we have an Alterra or Stone Creek next to us. I would love that,” Williams added, embarrassed.
Milwaukee resident Amy Mitchell lives and works nearby. Mitchell shops at both Boswell Books and Starbucks, but said she’s never considered an ideological independent-corporate conflict.
“I guess it’s kind of funny,” Mitchell said. “But since neither [Boswell nor Starbucks] are competitors, I assume it’s kind of a positive relationship.”
Staying In The Family
Goldin has 13 booksellers on payroll -- or, as Williams joked, “a baker’s dozen.”
Goldin joked that the store is overstaffed. “They don’t want to leave and I don’t want them to leave. It’s like a family.”
Bookseller Anne McMahon worked for Schwartz’s from 1991 until 2009, when the chain closed. She said it was a no-brainer to continue at the store once it became Boswell. McMahon said she’s had a lifelong love affair with books.
“But my dad always got the paper early in the morning so the rest of us had to make due with reading the cereal boxes,” McMahon said. “We were always reading.”
Like Goldin, McMahon and Williams both worked in various positions and at very Schwartzs locations during their time with the company.
McMahon started at Schwartz’s Silver Spring Drive location and eventually transferred to the east side. “Kinda been all over the place,” McMahon said. Williams was an event coordinator for Schwartz’, but now serves mostly as a bookseller.
Goldin grew up in New York and worked much of his adult life at a publishing house. He moved to Milwaukee to take a break from the hustle and bustle of what he calls “stressful” New York.
The move was supposed to be temporary. “Maybe just a year or two,” Goldin said. “The idea was to learn more and bring it back to the publishing house.”
He ended up working for Schwartz for 23 years. In that time, he worked many different positions. Most recently, he served as general manager for all of the chain’s locations. Earlier, he managed the Mequon shop.
He spent much of his time, however, overseeing all of the chain’s book buyers, who order inventory from publishers and distributors.
“We had a kid’s book buyer, a bargain book buyer, a gift buyer, a secondhand buyer,” Goldin said. “And if you can see that, you can see, well, maybe that was part of the issue and someplace we could’ve cut.”
That’s just one example where Goldin said he learned from some of his former employer’s mistakes.
“Now, the kid’s book buyer also does the accounting,” Goldin explained.
Getting The Goods
“We were kinda looking to find this kind of magic bullet of a store that was profitable,” Goldin said. But that didn’t happen during Schwartz’s final few years.
Despite this, Goldin insists that “a really good lease and really good traffic is all you really need.”
Goldin now has the good lease, but said he’s still working on getting the good traffic.
“I just need the store to get as much attention as I can because I’m still combating people who don’t even know it’s here,” Goldin said.
To help with promoting the shop, Goldin writes a thorough daily blog called “Boswell and Books.” He also writes a biweekly e-mail newsletter and calendar listing. His staffers contribute to a second blog, aptly titled “the Boswellians.”
It’s a lot of writing coming from a man who prefers reading.
“I’m supposed to write even more, but I just run out of things to say every so often,” Goldin joked.
Time is another thing he frequently runs out of.
“I get in as early as seven and leave as late as 9 or 10 p.m. 70 to 80 hours a week is not an unfair statement as to how long I put in,” Goldin said.
“I’ve defined myself by my job for a very long time,” Goldin admitted. “I feel like if you’re an entrepreneur -- unless you’re incredibly lucky -- you don’t really have a choice. This is just the way it is.”
It’s hard work; and as Our Milwaukee’s Leech says, customer loyalty is hard earned.
“You have to go the extra mile for your good, local customers,” Leech said. “It’s so much about community and loving the town you’re in,” -- something that both Leech and Goldin believe, evident in their words and actions.