Book seller Sarah McNally: Hipster writes her own business rule book

Canadian Sarah McNally is taking her own unique approach to the book-selling game in New York City, and its success is evident in her Manhattan McNally-Jackson Bookstore, writes David Gutnick.

Entrepreneur bucks book-selling downturn, opens second business in New York City

When 28-year-old Sarah McNally opened her bookstore in Manhattan, The New York Times called her the 'Defiant Newcomer,' but her unique approach to the business is paying off. (Yvonne Brooks)

(David Gutnick's documentary, 'Another Hipster in Business, God Help Me,' paints a portrait of Sarah McNally, whose love of literature and savvy business instincts have made her a star in the rough-and-tumble world of book selling. McNally doesn't just sell books in her Manhattan shop, she has created a community where her staff and her customers come to celeberate what Sarah loves calling '"the life of the mind." Listen to the full documentary in the audio player to the left of this page, or visit The Sunday Edition's site.)

A New York editor once said that, "Sarah McNally has a combination of Canadian seriousness, rapacious, wide-ranging intelligence and curiosity, and salesmanship and an idiosyncrasy that clearly comes from a deep place."

She’s a bit ethereal. But she’s tough. She just opened The McNally-Jackson Store — Goods for The Study — in New York City.

It is her second business. When 28-year-old Sarah McNally opened a bookstore in Manhattan, The New York Times called her the ‘Defiant Newcomer.’

Next week on The Sunday Edition

We know them as child soldiers, the children and teenagers abducted by Joseph Kony's notorious Lord's Resistance Army and coerced into fighting Kony's murderous campaign against Uganda's government and civilians alike. But Opiyo Oloya wants you to think of them of child-inducted soldiers instead. And he's written a new book about them.

Oloya is a Toronto-area educator who grew up in a Ugandan village under Idi Amin's regime and fled to Canada as a political refugee in the early 1980s. He sought out people who were abducted and brutalized by the LRA and who perpetrated atrocities, often against their own people. The stories Oloya collected are at once chilling, heartbreaking and hopeful, and they bring a new understanding of the LRA's endless war on Uganda and its neighbours.

He's Michael Enright's guest on CBC radio's The Sunday Edition on May 26, airing between 9 a.m. and noon.

It was December 2004, and a tsunami had hit the bookselling world. A thousand small, independent American bookstores drowned in the wave.

No wonder she was called "downright batty."

Sarah grew up in Winnipeg, surrounded by books. Her parents founded McNally–Robinson, one of Canada’s largest independent bookstores. 

After university Sarah moved to New York City, determined to keep books at the centre of her life, and by her mid-twenties she was an editor.

But Sarah’s internal entrepreneur was suffocating, begging for air. So she borrowed money from a family trust and opened her own bookstore.

McNally-Jackson books is still in trendy Soho and business is booming – up 18 per cent over last year. This year the store will sell more than $6 million worth of books.

Gabriel Xavier, who buys offbeat historical fiction, is one of the customers fuelling that growth. Sarah McNally makes sure that he finds what he wants amongst the 60,000 volumes the store offers.

She says her mother – who was the book buyer for her own stores for decades — gave her the best piece of advice she ever received.  "Never forget the wonks, and the weirdos, and the people who will be delighted by this book that they never could even have imagined could exist and they will find on your shelf."

Sarah is a stickler for detail and chooses everything from the colour of leather on the chairs to the style of calligraphy on the signs, always trusting her instincts as "there is no rulebook for what makes a good bookstore."

Teresa Rafaela Jefferson is one of 42 employees. She spends her days at the front of the store, pushing buttons on the Espresso Book Machine, which is a bit larger than a photocopier and costs about the same as an Italian sports car. Hand her your manuscript on a memory stick and seven minutes later the machine churns out a paperback.

This is Jefferson’s second career. She gave up her law practice to be here, "in this really great place where I get to talk to people about ideas, where I get to see people be creative and create displays and talk new books and see things before they come out and be inspired by authors."

Surviving the Manhattan jungle

McNally-Jackson opened in December 2004, just as mega booksellers Barnes and Noble and Borders were expanding and online booksellers were rapidly gaining ground. More than 1,000 independent bookstores stores, one in every two, closed down. But Sarah McNally was cocky and figured she could make it.

Amazon now controls one quarter of the American book market. Ebook sales have taken a huge bite: print book sales have dropped by 22 per cent in the past five years.

But in 2011 the American book world went through another shakeup. Borders — a giant big box book chain — went under.   A year later Barnes and Noble began shutting down superstores.

McNally-Jackson sales, however, just kept growing. This year they’re expected to top $6 million.

The lessons Sarah McNally learned as a daughter of booksellers on the Canadian prairies continue to help her survive in the Manhattan jungle.

Oren Teicher is the chief executive officer of the American Bookseller’s Association. He says, "By being able to adapt and not relying on some corporate headquarters miles away making decisions, Sarah McNally has a real competitive advantage."

But Sarah McNally says she is not in competition with Amazon or superstores. What she can do is continue to make a store "that is beautiful and perfect for people who care what I care about. I can make something beautiful, romantic and seductive."

"Maybe I am just another hipster in business," she says, "God help me."