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New York success story

Former Winnipegger opening second store

Posted: 03/27/2014 1:00 AM | Comments: 0

Last Modified: 03/27/2014 10:31 PM | Updates

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Former Winnipegger Sarah McNally stands outside the McNally Jackson bookstore in lower Manhattan. She is opening a second bookstore in Brooklyn.

JOSH HANER/THE NEW YORK TIMES Enlarge Image

Former Winnipegger Sarah McNally stands outside the McNally Jackson bookstore in lower Manhattan. She is opening a second bookstore in Brooklyn.

She is the woman from Winnipeg who has become a New York Times bestseller of a different kind.

Sarah McNally has never written a book. But over the last decade, the 38-year-old -- who learned to love bookselling while growing up and hanging out at her parents' former McNally Robinson store in Osborne Village -- has become the media darling of New York City's independent bookstore survivors. It's been that way since 2004, when she wasn't supposed to survive, and the New York Times flagged her for her "I'll take Manhattan" chutzpah in the face of bookstores across America being buried by the changing times.

But in the cut-rate, cutthroat age of Amazon online-sales dominance, Sarah McNally has done more than survive.

Last year, McNally Jackson, as her cosy, almost cult-popular store is known, was anticipating $6 million in gross sales.

The store, located in Nolita, a small neighbourhood just east of trendy Soho, surpassed that number.

And then on Wednesday, media darling Sarah was back in the New York Times.

Ten years after she opened her first bookstore, the Times reported she is opening a second McNally Jackson in New York City, this time in Brooklyn.

What's her secret?

Well, first I had to find the secret to speaking with her on short notice.

Her parents, Paul and Holly, spend much of the year near Vancouver Island, but fortunately her dad was at McNally Robinson Grant Park on Wednesday.

Good thing, too, because he had her mobile number and that's what I needed. When I reached her, Sarah was in Mexico City, wandering the streets with her five-year-old son.

His name is Jasper McNally Jackson. Sound familiar?

Yes, the New York bookstore she originally named McNally Robinson was renamed when her son was born. As we talked, it became evident Sarah, the third-oldest of four McNally daughters, hasn't let her success in New York alter anything about her Prairie personality. She's friendly, natural and open.

But back to New York and beginnings. She arrived there in 1999 and gravitated naturally to publishing.

"I got an internship and then I got a job as a book editor."

But office work was stifling her natural business instincts. And what she realized about herself.

"The only thing I really know or care about is bookstores."

Which got her thinking about something that struck her as soon as she arrived in the literary capital of the English-speaking world.

"I got to New York and couldn't believe that there was not a bookstore as good as my parents' in New York. No one was doing in New York what my parents were doing in Winnipeg."

No independent bookstores with events programs or even chairs to sit in. "And so it seemed like a very easy thing to bring the model of what my parents were doing to New York."

The cellphone connection with Mexico City was cracking and cutting in and out as I asked my next question.

"Why did I decide to open another bookstore?" Sarah repeated. "I don't know. There's just something wrong with me. My father has it, too. We just can't stop. Sometimes I think, I'm so happy. Everything is so wonderful. Why do you have to -- why do you need more? Who said twice of something good is better? I don't know."

So what is the secret to her success?

"My particular secret," she said, "is I always keep the books front and centre."

That was the Coles Notes version from someone wandering the streets of Mexico City with a crackling cellphone in one hand and a five-year-old in the other.

It's more complex than that, of course. I found another quote from her in another story that suggests a couple of other parts of the secret.

Customer-focused and hands-on.

No, I mean really hands-on.

"I always want to help settle strangers in comfortably," Sarah explained to another interviewer last year. "Last week, I rubbed the upper arms of a woman who had just come in from the cold, trying to warm her, and I thought she was going to call the police."

Oh yeah, a sense of humour helps, too. She has also said this: "If I can't make a person comfortable and excited about reading and unite them with books, I don't deserve to exist."

That's the real secret to her success.

She doesn't just love books and reading -- she loves people and the welcoming place she's created for them.

Maybe she could write her first book about the secret of her success. Who knows, it could make her a real New York Times bestseller.

gordon.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 27, 2014 B1

History

Updated on Thursday, March 27, 2014 at 11:59 AM CDT: Corrects son's name to Jasper McNally Jackson.

10:31 PM: Fixes location

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