“We do not sell product; we sell books and ideas and entertainment and fun.”
The bell above the door chimes invitingly as I enter Whistlestop Bookshop and hear the soft swells of classical music playing on the radio. The store has a homey, eclectic vibe that is an English major’s dream; it’s the sort of place you could spend days browsing in before settling down in a corner with a hot cup of tea. I am greeted by shelves upon shelves of books, a green-eyed cat sidling past me, and the friendly face of Jeff Wood.
Jeff is the owner of the independent bookstore Whistlestop Bookshop in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. A Carlisle native and professed book-lover, from a young age Jeff seemed destined to open up his own bookshop. Amid taking business calls and ringing out customers, Jeff was kind enough to talk to me about small-town life and the humanness of bookselling.
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What made you want to open up an independent bookstore in Carlisle, PA?
History and experience. I came here when I was twelve, went through the school system, graduated from Dickinson, and for two years while I was at Dickinson, I managed an independent bookstore in the mall that used to exist where Wal-Mart is now. Since I had always been deeply affected by books, it seemed natural to open a store right after I graduated from Dickinson.
What did you major in in College?
American studies. It was the way my brain was wired before I ever knew about it, so it was a happy meeting of predisposition and a major. It has definitely helped me in my career.
What does a typical day look like for you?
Any retail is a combination of crisis management and strategic planning, but a bookstore has the element of fun to it for me. We do everything from take-in orders, process orders billed orders and then when the shipments arrive from previous orders we process them, set up displays, arrange for advertising, do web maintenance and Facebook maintenance.
The primary thing above all this and around all this is interacting with customers, whether in person or on the phone. That’s a really short summary of a typical day.
If you could describe Carlisle, in one word, what would it be?
One word? [Pauses.] [Laughs.] I can think of a lot of words that it wouldn’t quite fit. Let’s say “historic”—but that’s in favor of saying things like, “For a town of its history, it is diverse. For a town of its history, it is interesting and engaging to live in.”
I won’t condemn it by calling it “charming,” but it’s something close to that. It’s always interesting. There’s always something to learn and ask questions about.
How do you view your relationship to Dickinson College and the larger Carlisle community?
My relationship with the college has always been very good since I’ve opened. I liked Dickinson most for its faculty and for its resources, and since the students change every semester and every year, they’re always interesting. Dickinson has changed a lot in the time since I’ve graduated to this year. And it’s changed for the better.
The relationship with the Carlisle community is very good. I’m active on a lot of nonprofit boards. I’m deeply rooted in the community.
What’s the hardest part about being an independent bookstore owner in 2014, especially in light of competition from major booksellers such as Amazon and the birth of the eBook?
What’s most challenging is the nature of the industry and its pace of change. And it’s not just online selling; the selling aspect of books has actually been somewhat stable after the 1990s, which was a wild rollercoaster.
The publishing aspect of books is in more turmoil than the selling of books right now. And I’m concerned that a lot of the great things that I’d like to put in the hands of my customers may or may not be available in the ways they want them. This was not a question a hundred years ago, fifty years ago, twenty years ago… It is now a question as to whether I can get something from a publisher for a customer. There are big factors at work beyond just a simple transaction.
What makes Whistlestop special?
- Ambiance–we’re small, we’re interesting in a quirky sort of way.
- Selection–everything is very carefully vetted and hand-selected because of space and my attitude and what I perceive to be my customers’ wants.
- And then service—we actually pay attention to the human beings who are our customers. We do not sell product; we sell books and ideas and entertainment and fun.
What has been the most surprising thing about the bookshop business?
The fact that anybody can walk through this door at any time and you have to be ready to respond to what they think they want, what they know they want, and what they don’t know they want.
Were there any people or pieces of advice that were instrumental in helping you get where you are today?
I’ve been selling used books since I was twelve, so mostly it’s been customers who have been most instrumental in the way I sell books. By sharing what’s important about a book—whether it moves them, whether they’re out for facts, whether they considered a meaningful gift to a grandchild—I learn from that and stock accordingly.
Do you have any memories of specific customers that have stayed with you?
One of the most discreet places in the world is a bookstore and a bar, so we don’t tell stories about our customers, but we do live vicariously through our customers sometimes. We ship books around the world, we deliver books to nursing homes, we have seen pregnant women come in, we’ve seen the child, we’ve seen the child grow up and go to law school and get married. There’s one specific person I can think of whose whole life arc I’ve seen so far.
This sounds kind of cranky and unhelpful, but I don’t believe in that, because I believe as every human being is different, so the perfect book for them would be different. There will be some overlap, but I’m not prescriptive. I’d rather get to know the person better. We have a way of just finding out about people—which is one of the great things about retail—and then we try to select something or recommend something that they would like.
Now if you asked me what I think is one of the most moving and important books I’ve read in the last thirty years of doing this, that would be Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean, which sounds like a tough testosterone-laden Western book, but it’s actually a very complex love story, history, adventure-story.
It’s one of the most beautiful pieces of writing I’ve ever encountered. Since I’ve encountered so much, saying that really means something. It’s something that still has the ability to blow me away, so I would often recommend that book to all sorts of different people from different backgrounds. But there is no one perfect book for everybody.
I have to ask…What’s the story behind the cat?
Mulan hung around the back of my property in 2011. She was a stray cat, and after having shopped around she began to move closer and closer to the property and finally walked in the back door on a summer’s day and said, “Okay, this is the one I’ve chosen. I’m staying.” So she’s been here since 2011, and she lives here all the time. As with any cat, it’s her store now.