By Jennifer Abella
If you’ve been to the Jane Austen Summer Program, you’ve probably seen them before. If you’re new to the program, you’re in for a treat. Each year, the folks from Jane Austen Books bring books, shirts and more to sell in our emporium. We caught up with Amy Patterson to talk about the business she has owned with her mother, Jennifer Weinbrecht, and sister Beth Dean since taking over from Pat Latkin in 2008.
When did you get interested in Jane Austen and what made you decide to get into the book business?
Mom read the children’s classics abridged version of “Pride and Prejudice” when she was 11 years old and thought, “Why the heck did she marry that guy?” After reading it again she realized how much subtle trickery was involved in Austen’s plot and fell in love. She read the book to Beth and I when we were preschoolers and when a chance interaction brought us to Northeast Ohio’s Jane Austen Society, we immediately joined.
Mom went to her first [annual general meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America] in Toronto and bought books from Pat’s bookstore in the Emporium. My first AGM was Tucson in 2006 and I also had a chance to shop at the bookstore, and I even won an autographed copy of Juliet McMaster’s limited edition illustrated version of “The Beautifull Cassandra.” When the opportunity to take over the bookstore came up in the summer of 2008 I was very pregnant and finishing a degree in political science, but I agreed with mom that it would be a great family business for us. Mom has great business sense – she works in aerospace and is doing high-powered vice president stuff all day. My sister is fantastic with marketing, merchandising, and running a retail setup. And I’m the outgoing one, so I get stuck talking to everybody!
How many events do you sell at in a year?
We probably do an event every month in a good year. Generally we do small local events, but we do drive longer distances for large regional special events and galas. We enjoy going to Chicago’s spring gala every year, and Pittsburgh has been kind enough to invite us to their biannual JASNA festival. We also do local non-Austen book events when they work with our schedule. The biggest event for us is the JASNA AGM, and we start planning for that at least a year ahead of time.
You haul your stock to Chapel Hill by truck/car. How long a drive is that? What’s the farthest distance you’ve driven to set up shop?
We drive the books everywhere, except the year JASNA’s AGM was in Portland, Ore. We borrowed some giant wooden crates meant for shipping aircraft parts from Mom’s day job and packed a couple thousand pounds of books in them and shipped them out west for that event.
The JASP event is only about nine hours, though with stops it ends up being around 10. But it’s not usually the drive that’s the worst part – it’s loading and unloading all of the books into boxes, getting them set up on the tables, and getting them packed up and into the truck again that’s difficult. Especially when only one of us goes to an event. It’s much easier when more of us can go together.
How do you decide what to bring?
It’s always difficult! We joke that we wish people would just call us up and say “can you bring this book?” Obviously we were fans and shoppers long before we were booksellers, so we have a good idea about what we like. It’s also a bit easier when there is a specific topic – like this year’s JASP being themed around “Persuasion” – because we know that we can count on a few people wanting copies of that book, and we can bring some of the scholarly titles related to it.
Beyond that it[‘s] knowing the customers. For crowds where people aren’t as likely to be familiar with Austen we bring more merchandise, children’s books and general interest. At academic conferences we bring out the scholarly titles, even though they are generally priced higher than typical retail titles. And if we know there will be bored husbands there we bring out the history of naval warfare.
What do you get the most requests for?
That’s a tough question! It changes at every event. Sometimes everyone wants a book that isn’t out yet, and when it comes out we buy a ton of copies but then nobody wants it anymore! But I don’t know that people request the same thing over and over. It seems like everyone wants that one thing they haven’t seen for years, or that someone told them about, and because we specialize in Austen they hope we’ll have it. And if we don’t have it we can usually find it, which makes us feel pretty good.
What’s the most popular non-book item that you sell? The most popular book?
Our T-shirts are pretty popular, especially the one that says “Mr. Darcy thinks you’re tolerable.” The most popular book varies from year to year. When Deborah Yaffe’s “Among the Janeites” came out we could barely keep it in stock. Every year when a new scholarly book comes out we get a big run on it. You might expect that Austen’s works would be the most popular, but most of our readers already own them.
How do you acquire rare books to sell?
There are different ways. One is by scouring eBay. Another way we come across antique and rare books is when someone sells them to us, or a person managing the estate of their parents or grandparents find us and asks us to look through their collection. I’ve had the privilege of sorting through some amazing book collections with my mother – things that I would love to have just on my own, but we were only there to purchase Austen-related titles for the bookstore. We also always buy books from people who are just running out of space! We have bought back books from customers who bought them from us years ago, or from Pat before us.