The Little Bookstore That Could, and Will

BUT MS. MCNALLY has more to celebrate these days than the imminent rechristening of her store. Last Sunday, she had a baby, right in her bed. There were no doctors, no monitors, no needles and drips. In the room with her were only her husband, a midwife and a doula. After the baby arrived—Jasper, they named him—Ms. McNally’s parents and her sister came over with a bottle of Champagne, and they all gathered around the big table in the dining room for dinner.

The idea of carrying out a home birth came, predictably, from a book. “I read this book called Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth, which is this beautiful book written by a midwife who’s been practicing for 30 years,” Ms. McNally said. “It was something I didn’t have a lot of firm conviction about going in, but after reading this book, I thought there is a possibility in childbirth to have it be sort of a peaceful, momentous life passage rather than a sterile medical experience where you go into the hospital and you’re given drugs and you’re treated like you’re sick.”

She went on: “It’s funny, I was actually looking forward to labor because before I moved to New York, which was nine years ago, I used to meditate a lot, and then I moved here and I just sort of let so much of that go. … And so I thought labor might be this great opportunity, because pain is a wonderful thing to meditate on. … But it [turns out] it’s not, like, pain—it’s not like you’re in sustained pain. It’s like you have a minute of pain, or 45 seconds of pain, and then three minutes, and even the pain kind of spikes and goes and changes. And so it was more of a moving target than I expected.”

You might conclude, based on all that, that Ms. McNally is one of those delicate neohippies who indiscriminately thinks that everything is beautiful. A hippie, in other words! Not quite, as it happens: If Ms. McNally is a hippie at all, she’s a peculiar sort—a woman who speaks, most of the time, in a voice that unmistakably conveys serenity even as she’s issuing her unsentimental, even severe views on business. Take, for instance, the Barnes & Noble question.

“I’ve gone and seen [Joan Didion] read at Barnes & Noble before,” she said. “When she wrote Political Fictions, I went to her reading, which—it was a stupid reading! It was in this kind of crappy—what store was it in? It was in Lincoln Center, I think, but before they opened that room where they have readings, so you were just kind of in the stacks, there wasn’t a lot of room, everyone was kind of uncomfortable, and she just kind of read, and it was in an ugly Barnes & Noble and they had ugly Barnes & Noble carpet and those ugly shelves, and she read and there were some questions, and we all went home. It was so tremendously uninspiring, you know?”

Ms. McNally’s distaste for Barnes & Noble is aesthetic, in other words, not political: What bothers her is the artlessness with which they go about sellling books, not the mere fact of their corporate status.

By the same token, she appears not to feel any entitlement just because she is the David to someone’s Goliath, and she doesn’t think her customers have a moral obligation to buy things from her just because she’s the little guy.

That said, she loves being the little guy—not for the political capital that comes with it but because it allows her to experiment with and ignore the conventions of retail.

“If there is one thing I hate,” Ms. McNally wrote in an e-mail Monday night, “it is the generic packaging and selling of unique works of art. I think industry mediocrity is more of a threat to the future of reading than television is.”

The Little Bookstore That Could, and Will