A Novel Approach to Bookselling
At 547 Hudson Street, in the ground floor of a four-story townhouse that's been granted landmark status by the city of New York, sandwiched between an upscale brokerage firm and "Vang Olsen Mimi the Portrait Painter" (where, for $2,500, Mimi will paint a portrait of your pet), Ed's Martian Book is quietly selling its book—its only book—for $28.
The store opened on April 12, its shelves loaded with about 3,000 copies of Martian Summer: Robot Arms, Cowboy Spacemen, and My 90 Days With the Phoenix Mars Mission. There is no café, there are no readings. The chalkboard outside reads: "We have one book, but we are not Scientologists." A passerby wondered aloud on a recent Saturday morning, "What the hell is this place?"
Good question. Some call it an experiment in creative bookselling. Others deride it as a flagrant attempt at publicity. Most are perplexed. After all, how is it, in a neighborhood where retail prices hover around $1,000 per square foot, can a store afford to sell just one book? And, moreover, who is the fool behind such a terrible business idea?
He calls himself the Monobookist.
He is Andrew Kessler, a 32-year-old writer from Brooklyn, New York, who is the first-time author behind Martian Summer. (Actually, second-time. His first book was 21 pages and contained about 12 drawings of bacon. It was self-published.) Seeking an alternative method of generating publicity about the book, Kessler bootstrapped, and tapped friends and colleagues until he found a generous landlord who wanted to support the arts.
The store will close May 15—a prearranged agreement with the townhouse's owner—and will begin its transformation into its more permanent incarnation as a small espresso bar. In the four weeks the store has been open, Kessler estimates he's sold about 500 books. But that was never really the point. Kessler admits it is a ploy, but a high-minded one. He wanted to challenge people's perceptions of what a brick-and-mortar shop can be, and draw attention to the two things he's passionate about: literature and science.
"At first I didn't even think about selling," he says. "The first few days were to capture people's reactions and get people to start talking about the book. But then they wanted to buy the book, and I was like, 'Oh yeah, right, people might actually might want to buy this.' Usually I'm so removed from that transaction, and it felt weird. Then we realized, 'Oh, that's stupid.' Now people buy every day."
Kessler hasn't been tracking the store's conversion rate, and notes that on any given day the store can be packed or empty for hours. As he speaks, Kessler keeps close watch on the door, inviting potential customers to come in.
At around 3 p.m., a young women wanders into the store.
"Can I help you find anything?" Kessler asks.
"I'm looking for a book," she says.
"Is it this one?" Kessler responds.
Of course, there's an element of humor to the store, if not a shade of absurdity. Framed placards for "Staff Picks" and "New and Noteworthy" sit atop stacks of the same book. It's this sense of humor that has helped the store generate national attention—first in The New York Times, then CNN. And though it's not technically the first of its kind (the Times found a writer in Arizona who opened the "One Book Bookstore") Kessler likes to imagine he's the first, at least, in New York City.
"Some people have given me random hugs," Kessler says. "Others people come in and they're really annoyed."
Kessler's advice to business owners looking to stage their own next publicity stunt? "You do something that's a little bit uncomfortable. You do something that makes them ask, 'How is this possible?'"
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