A 'Wimpy' Plan to Save the Physical Book

Children's author Jeff Kinney's new shop will emphasize reading as a tangible, community experience in a digital, fractured world.
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Kinney at his office in Boston (AP Photo)

Jeff Kinney, the man behind the astonishingly powerful Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, is leading the revolution.

That’s been the theory behind the bestselling author’s just-announced plans to open up an indie bookstore in tiny Plainville, Massachusetts. It’s been framed as a call-to-arms against Amazon in the wake of its strong-arming tactics in negotiating with the big five publishing houses, starting with (fellow giant) Hachette.

Take back the power, fight the system, and all that, right?

Wrong.

If Kinney’s stoking a counterculture, it’s to harken back to the past. In his Plainville shop, he imagines a cozy, well-worn space with old tomes and tea, frequented by locals and writerly souls. “A physical book has a heft, a permanence that you don’t get digitally,” says Kinney in an interview. “So our hope is that the bookstore will remain a vital, important part of communities across the country and the world.”

He’s not the only author to venture into the territory; others include the renowned Ann Patchett, who owns Parnassus Books in Nashville.

But they are few, notably because most published authors know the bottom line: increasingly slim profit margins and shuttered doors mark publishing’s recent history, with the closing of Borders, several branches of Barnes & Nobles, and smaller brick-and-mortar stores nationwide

So what made Kinney decide to do this? Quartz spoke with the author—and his wife, Julie, whose been instrumental in the decision process—about his plans. And while he doesn’t call out Amazon by name—can you blame him?—he does exude passion for small, neighborhood indies and books in print.


There’s an interesting history to how you guys ended up in Plainville.

Jeff: I work a full-time job in Boston—and have had that job for 15 years. And I needed to be in striking distance of two airports, and we needed to be close enough to Julie’s parents. So we drew some circles around those areas, two or three, and smack dab in the middle was Plainville—via Venn diagram.

Julie: We had a friend who was selling a house here. And so it was ideal for us.

Tell me a bit about how the idea of a bookstore in Plainville came about.

Julie Kinney: Buying the building really came first. I think everyone who lives in Plainville has said, at some point, “If I could, I would buy that building.” Jeff and I have certainly said it, even before his success. Once Jeff had his success with the Wimpy Kid series, we started tossing around the idea more seriously. It was a lot of “maybe we should”—for a few years. But then, about two years ago, we moved forward with buying it. At that point, we thought we’d restore it, but didn’t know exactly what it would become.

Now this building is the old Falks marketplace in the center of Plainville, right?

Julie: Yes. It wasn’t designated as historic, but it’s been around for a long time. It was definitely the one with the most history.

Jeff: Yes, it was called Falks market, and it was originally across the street. It was built in the mid-1800s. And when we bought it, it had been abandoned for 17 years, last owned by Meryl Falk, who was a really beloved Yankee general store owner. The building served as a nerve center for the town. It’s falling down now, but it had a very special place in the town’s history. So we wanted to make sure it served that role again.

As the town’s nerve center?

Jeff: Yes, for better or for worse, it represents the town. And it’s a mess, so many people were embarrassed by it. So we bought the building, but it’s not really salvageable. We need to rebuild, and that’s what we’ll do. It will be a bookstore, with a café and community features, like a yoga studio. We hope it will revitalize that area and bring the community back to it.

The population of Plainville is 8,264. Does that worry you at all, given bookstore profit margins?

Jeff: We didn’t want to just rent it out—even though that would be the smartest economic move. There’s something really magical about a bookstore. We don’t have many in this area at all, and we lost our Borders. There’s a goodness about a bookstore that I can’t really equate to any other business.

Julie: There’s something for everyone at a bookstore—from small children, to people in their 90s.

Jeff, given your background in publishing, you know better than anybody that, financially, it’s hard to make a bookstore work these days.

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Sona Charaipotra co-founded a book development company, Cake Literary. Her debut novel, "Tiny Pretty Things," will be published by HarperTeen in 2015.

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