Booksmith thrives in shaky times for print

By MADOLINE MARKHAM

Alabama Booksmith owner Jake Reiss with signed first edition books; these books grow in value as time goes on and have made his business increasingly profitable. Photo by Madoline Markham.

Jake Reiss needs a ladder to reach books off his floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in his home. Not a single book is unsigned by its author.

“I don’t do anything but read,” said Reiss, owner of the Alabama Booksmith. “Literally all I do is read.”

He goes through about 225 books a year, scouring for the best for his First Editions Club, which has selected 11 Pulitzer Prize Winners and seven National Book Award winners since it started in 2005. The club was also ranked as having the greatest value of 12 other clubs in the country according to Bookthink.com.

Reiss knows books and he knows the book business.

In an age of eReaders and defunct bookstores, Alabama Booksmith, located on 19th Street in Homewood since 1999, is thriving in the business of the printed word.

“Last year was our biggest year in sales, and this year we are up 30 percent,” Reiss said. “We could probably challenge any bookstore in America to per capita book value of a book on a shelf.”

Riess, a former tailor by trade, hit on a niche in signed first editions that will typically increase in value. Signed first editions of The Help, for example, originally retailed at $24.95 but are now worth $1,000. Alabama Booksmith was also the first bookstore outside of her hometown of Atlanta to host author Kathryn Stockett for a signing.

Unlike a movie or ebook,  a printed book is lasting, Reiss said: “Book people understand how nice and comfy it feels to see that book on their shelf.”
Reiss sees the role that ebooks play too; it’s just not one he ever sees taking the place of his store’s niche.

“Many people read ebooks for easy transportation and then decide they want a first edition signed copy as a keepsake,” Reiss said. “You may not want to keep every book you read.”

Alabama Booksmith also specializes in its expertise.

“We are more like an adoption agency than a bookseller,” Reiss said, noting how they match books to a reader’s taste.

Everyone on staff is a compulsive reader, but each has his or her own unique interests of genres and authors.

“Someone on the staff has read most any book someone wants to know about,” Reiss said.

Two walls in the store are covered with signed photos of authors who have held signings and readings there: Condeleeza Rice, Philip Roth, Anne Rice, Christopher Hitchens, Geraldine Brooks, Sue Grafton, Charles Frazier, Tom Brockaw, to name a few. Some of Reiss’ favorites are Khaled Housseini, Jimmy Carter, Fannie Flagg and Pat Conroy.

A signing for Pat Conroy’s South of Broad drew fans from 15 states. The store was one of six American tour stops for The Girl with the Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier.

Earlier this year, the Booksmith hosted world premier of a documentary on bestselling author and Alabama native Rick Bragg; DVDs now available at the store

The signings started small with Don Keith in 1995 when the store was still located in Highlands. As the store held more signings, the crowds grew.
Reiss became more aggressive and went to New York City to introduce himself to publishers. Today he considers his Homewood store on par with bookstores in New York City or Chicago.

Visit Alabama Booksmith at 2626 19th Place South. For more information on the store, its events and First Editions Club, visit www.alabamabooksmith.com, call 870-4242 or email booksmith@mindspring.com.

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