The Little Bookstore That Could, and Will

Sarah McNally does not feel like an underdog. So please, everybody, stop trying to convince her that she should. Yes, it’s true that she owns a small, independent bookstore and is thus competing for business with some pretty big corporations. But no, she’s not scared of them, because she thinks her store is better.

“People love writing the story of independent bookstores being foolhardy and failing,” she said last Friday afternoon, perched noncommittally on a couch in the living room of her new Brooklyn apartment. “People love that story, and that’s almost the only thing I get called about. A bookstore closes somewhere in Manhattan or in New Jersey, and someone calls and wants a quote about, you know, how grim it is to be an independent bookstore. And I just say, ‘I won’t talk to you.’ I’m sick of this story. It’s not even a valid story.”

Her bookstore, McNally Robinson, which has stood on the corner of Prince and Mulberry since December 2004, is all the evidence she needs. This past year the store made money for the first time, and its growing popularity among New York readers has emboldened Ms. McNally to start planning a second store—25,000 square feet, as she imagines it, at an estimated cost of $3 million—that she hopes to begin working on next year.

“The idea was always to do a store that was a reliable, destination bookstore in exactly the same way that Barnes & Noble is, with a lot less stock,” said Ms. McNally, who will turn 33 on Thursday. “The idea is that in a lot of sections there’s a lot of dross, so you can, you know, take the sections you have and hone them until they’re perfect. So take the business section and instead of having it sprawling over an entire wall, a total mess and you don’t know what’s good and what’s bad, actually focus on the books that people want and have wanted for years, and focus on the books that are new that are actually good. To have, in all of the practical sections, a careful, deliberate inventory.”

Ms. McNally and her employees—20 of them in all, many of whom have been working at the store since it opened—also make personal selections, promoting books they feel particularly strongly about by setting them out as staff picks or by turning them front forward on the shelf.

In addition to organizing her shop intelligently—literature is arranged by region; a cozy enclave in the center of the main floor houses books on interior design, fashion, graphic design and architecture—Ms. McNally hosts several events per week with top-tier authors as well as a monthly book group and a Tuesday night political discussion; an ongoing series that she is particularly proud of brings together authors and their editors.

This Thursday, Ms. McNally will host a party at the store to celebrate its new name, McNally Jackson, the second half of which pays homage to her husband, book editor Chris Jackson of Doubleday imprint Spiegel & Grau. (Ms. McNally’s parents own a chain of bookstores in Canada also called McNally Robinson; her store has always been separate, and the new name will clear up any confusion that they are linked.) Local authors including Joseph O’Neill, Colson Whitehead and Sean Wilsey will act as store staff, recommending books and serving Champagne.


The Little Bookstore That Could, and Will