Why you should care
Because a signed book makes one heck of a personal present.
The trailer home shopfront in the parking lot of a veterinary office is about as unassuming as you can get in this unassuming suburb of Birmingham, Alabama. Only the posters hint at the literary treasures hidden inside, showing off book titles as sensually as a strip joint showing off neon silhouettes — today, it’s the Southern Lady Code, by Helen Ellis, and Bending Toward Justice, by Sen. Doug Jones, that get the main stage. And below each author’s photo, in bold letters, the key word: “SIGNING.”
That promise is what brings people from far and wide to the Alabama Booksmith, which claims to be the only bookstore in the world where every copy of every book contains the author’s signature. Here at the site of owner Jake Reiss’s imagination, you won’t find a trendy coffee shop or a reading nook. It’s not a place to charge your laptop, meet a first date or plot political dissent. This is a bookstore undistilled. In its purest form, with room to breathe and (most of the time) nobody else in sight. Where even the shelves are lined up row by row on the outside walls, and the books are displayed front-out — no spines! — so that you can’t be distracted by anything other than the sheer literary force of it all. The best part? “They’re all the same price,” Reiss says: The books, mostly hardcovers, are sold for the original cover price.
It was six years ago that Reiss converted his bookstore of three decades into an emporium for signed copies. The store was already somewhat known in literary circles for its Signed First Editions Club whose members were shipped a curated release each month from its special collection. “Every inch of this store space was filled with bookshelves,” Reiss says, his graying ponytail swinging as he gestures around the room. With “tens of thousands of books,” a few hundred — the signed ones — were making more than half the profits. “We thought it would be a good marketing ploy,” Reiss says of the decision to switch to only autographed titles, which came with an entire remodeling of the store.
Attached to the store is an entire backroom filled with hundreds of additional signed copies.
After doing the research, Reiss says he realized that “most sicko crazy book people don’t really care” enough to pay extra for the autographs, even if you’re not going to turn it down. “It’s 1 percent of all readers,” he says. It’s true that he took a big risk by getting rid of most of his stock — and indeed, some readers may be turned off by the lack of options and particularly the dearth of newer titles.
But the attention, plus the simpler costs of a lower inventory, still made the switch worth it to Reiss. “We were empowered by this idea that we could do no wrong. And we asked ourselves: ‘What could we do to make it better, easier, more fun? And here we go.’”
The walls are dotted with the pictures of the hundreds of authors who have signed their books (for free) for the Alabama Booksmith, either here at the store or at a partner event at a nearby venue. “The vast majority of authors, no matter how ‘big’ they are, are thrilled to death because they’re going to sell more books,” he says. Attached to the store is an entire backroom filled with 22,500 additional signed copies. “It’s not exactly like wine, but a fine writer is going to be worth more next year than it will be this year. If you’ve got the room to keep it, then it’s a valuable thing.”
If you can’t make it to Homewood, Alabama, you can visit the Alabama Booksmith website and search by author to see if they have your favorite in stock. Authors include everyone from Dean Koontz and Philip Roth to Isabel Allende and (a local and Southern favorite) Pat Conroy.