There’s a story about Sarah McNally that seems lifted out of one of the plots of the 60,000-plus volumes she sells at her Manhattan bookstore. As documented in a piece about her in the New York Times, many years ago recent college grad McNally booked a one-way ticket and spent nearly a year wandering the African continent–until she had a self-diagnosed nervous breakdown that led to the village taking her to a magical healer who gave her roots and a prediction: She had a gift for clairvoyance that would one day reveal itself.
This–believe it or not–is not the most unexpected thing to have happened to McNally. Simply consider that as Borders declares bankruptcy, Barnes & Noble shuts down location after location, independent bookstores shutter their doors at a rapid pace, and more people than ever rely on Amazon and their Kindle for reading, her McNally Jackson store sees annual revenue growth in the double digits. This fall she will open a new location in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, her fourth store, as she also has an art and home accessories retail businesses. McNally has accomplished all of this, not because of luck, but a belief in knowing that book lovers are a loyal, and not dying breed–and that they will support a business that celebrates the power of books, not the power and whims of the book industry.
While McNally says there are “plenty of brick-and-mortar booksellers doing well,” she admits that her approach is not the standard one. Because she was raised at McNally Robinson, the bookstore chain her parents own in her native Canada, it’s logical that she is clear on what she does and does not like. So at McNally Jackson, she is the road map. “I cater to my own tastes,” she says, adding, “It’s like understanding that one night I can read Proust, the next night I can watch network TV, and there’s no contradiction, it’s just different parts of me, neither of which is invalid. So I experience the store as all my many selves, with all their different tastes, each of whom could be either alienated or seduced.”
The store, which opened in 2004 in New York’s Nolita neighborhood, is a book lover’s haven. There is a café, but for many years it did not contain Wi-Fi, meaning that if you spent hours there, it was with a book, not Facebook. And the leather chaise lounges dotting aisles throughout the two floors also encourage customers to grab a title, sit down, and relax, a distinctly different agenda than the frenetic rush going on outside the doors. There is also what McNally calls the “depth of inventory, which is at odds with most other bookstores in this country, so that when you enter a section you enter a labyrinth.” It has paid off. It is rare to come into the store and not find it crowded with customers carrying books and standing in line at the register, as opposed to milling about the café waiting for tea.
Yet while this nod to the old days of bookstores for readers definitely has its charm, the store’s success has also come from McNally’s embrace of the future. Before she was a bookseller, she edited children’s titles at Basic Books. So she is acutely aware of the challenges facing her field. To provide opportunities to authors who cannot get book deals in a shrinking economy, she invested in the Espresso Book Machine. It looks like a very large photocopier and prints books on command, in minutes, and for the cost of a typical paperback. When the machine moved into the store in 2011, it was the only one in New York and just one of 80 worldwide. To date, it has printed thousands of titles–and proven that McNally’s pre-destined clairvoyance was indeed waiting for the right moment to reveal itself.