Bookshop Spotlight: The Green Hand Bookshop
With the need to support independent bookstores now more important than ever, we here at Medusa Press are thrilled to launch our new feature highlighting a great purveyor of creativity made tangible by ink & paper, and hopefully encourage folks to pay them a visit and buy a book (or even a baker's dozen) while you're at it.
For our first installment, we had the pleasure of talking with Michelle Souliere, proprietor of the charming The Green Hand Bookshop in downtown Portland, Maine; looks can be deceiving, however, for on these shelves rest an abundant selection of horror, fantasy, and sci-fi titles to satisfy customers with darker proclivities!
Without further ado, our discussion with Michelle:
You’ve been around for well over a decade now. No small feat! With the decline in independent shops over the years due to online buying and large, impersonal book warehouses, you’ve been able to thrive. What’s your secret, and do you have any advice to those contemplating such a venture?
The Green Hand Bookshop has been open since November 2009. I've been working overtime in the bookmines for myself ever since. This far in, I feel like people finally know I exist. Trying to make people aware of your existence is a long, long process. At about ten years in, I finally felt like I had a wide enough customer base that they were helping spread the word that I exist, which was a great relief.
Part of my success is due to the fact that Portland, Maine, has a long history of book-lovers and bookshops, and an enthusiastic Buy Local philosophy, an awareness of how interacting with local shops in the community helps these small businesses survive and keeps Portland weird and wonderful. Portland is filled with inquiring minds — readers, writers, artists, thinkers — and rich with books. I am one of three used bookshops downtown, and there are three new bookshops downtown as well. It's a booklover's paradise!
While the shop has always had a wide range of subject material, I have never made a secret out of the fact that weird fiction (horror, SF/fantasy, mystery) and weird non-fiction (cryptozoology, UFOs, paranormal, occult etc) are my pet sections. Years of working at our local cult video store, Videoport, gave me the absurd ability to help customers pick their next selection based on their prior viewing habits, and I exercise that same intuition in my bookshop today. Some days I'm not in the right gear and it's a lame struggle when someone asks for a recommendation, but most of the time with a few clues I can hand folks a few starting points that will delight them.
Running a small business is not an easy job. It's a labor of love. There's no safety net. When I first thought about taking the plunge, I did some research, and the general consensus from those in the know was that you have to be crazy to want to run a bookshop. Yet we do it anyways! Hopefully there will always be fools like me willing to keep the doors open and the shelves full of hidden treasures for readers to find and take home to their own shelves.
What drove you to open your own bookshop?
In 2009, the economy was tanking. I had left my much-loved job at our local library in fear of getting bumped out of my position by someone with seniority. Ironically, the job I went to at our local university wound up putting me into the same position, and I lost that job to someone who didn't even want it, but took it anyways. I did a number of job interviews, but was coming up empty. Things were bleak.
I had always wondered what would happen if I tried to open my own bookshop, and as my husband pointed out, "Well, you're at a stopping point right now. What have you got to lose?" So I cashed out my 401a from a 15-year stint in a local office, which was hemorrhaging money anyways, and began buying books and building bookcases to put them in (well, a friend actually built them — I painted and stained them!). The rest, as they say, is history.
Neil Gaiman once said, “A town isn’t a town without a bookstore.” How has Green Hand become an integral part of the Portland community? Since opening your doors, any pleasant surprises that you’d like to share?
I have tried to remain true to my own unique character as I've grown the store, while at the same time trying to make it as welcoming, accessible, and inspiring as possible for those who wander through its doors. In this way, the books on the shelves at this point reflect my community as much as they represent me. That's the hope, anyway!
One of the biggest changes in this flow in recent months has been due to the upheaval of 2020. Having a closed, mail-order/pickup-only shop for several months forced me to shift gears drastically, including an increase in the amount of new books I was carrying, in response to customer needs. When Black Lives Matter came to the forefront last summer, I asked myself what I could do, and my solution was to begin ordering more books that had been written by authors of color. Maine's a pretty white state, so I have never come across large numbers of surplus used books from voices of color, so prior to this I had lamentably little agency in shifting that bias. With the advent of buying more new books, I could hand-pick new additions to the shop, and redress that gap. That change is now a permanent part of the shop, as I add new titles every week, and so hopefully our shelves will continue to reflect the growing diversity of Portland's community more and more. I really feel like this equalizing of representation is more important, positive work than I've ever been able to do before. I took a risk to do it, but it was well worth it.
Pleasant surprises? I'd have to say that the number of customers who have turned into friends has been the most wonderful part of the experience. Books are a wonderful gathering point!
What challenges does the independent bookseller deal with in today’s market? Where do you see the industry going next?
The struggle against monopolies and warehouse sellers is constant. Without Portland's Buy Local community, I'd be sunk. But resistance to homogenization creates foment, and the explosion of small publishers creating amazing work, like the books put out by Medusa Press, are a dazzling example of that. Persist and resist!
I hope that the industry continues to provide an arena for folks to create and produce their own visions for the world to read, in spite of monopolies. The one thing the little guy has going for them is their small footprint. I don't need to get rich at what I'm doing, I just need to be able to make a living. Someone who recently opened their own small business in town was talking to me the other day, and asked me, "Am I successful?!" I said, "Are you paying your bills?" They nodded. "Are you able to buy food and pay your rent at home?" They nodded. "And you're doing what you want to do. You're succeeding!" The world doesn't need any more billionaires. The world needs people who are invested in their communities, and who can work together to solve problems creatively.
The industry as a whole is a mystery to me. But I think that's okay.
Your shop specializes in Horror, Fantasy, and Sci-Fi. What drew you to these genres?
As a kid I read weird non-fiction and SF/fantasy voraciously. I was wigged out by horror, because I had a vivid imagination. As I grew older, I found myself gravitating more and more to horror and weird fiction. I don't know why. Perhaps it's because I prefer evil to be singular, to be the exception. I'm a sucker for spooky atmosphere, mysteries, and a sprinkling of absurdity, whether via dialogue or events. I read omnivorously, but I always return to horror. Perhaps it's just my goth little heart! I love science fiction, because of its prescience, and its ability to examine problems in alien environments, allowing for perspective on an issue that might be too close to home to discuss honestly otherwise. I love mystery because I will always be a Nancy Drew at heart. But I will be happily haunted forever by horror.
When I opened my shop, no one else around here was showing a strong representation of genre fiction, which seemed a shame. So with mock dismay, I declared, "Oh well, I guess it'll have to be me!" It's really my pleasure to provide as wide a range of weird fiction as possible!
Green Hand has a great selection of horror titles, with many obscure works peppered in with the Stephen King blockbusters; they’re essentially a niche within a niche! Do you find your patrons gravitating towards these lesser-known authors? Or do they need a subtle push to venture into obscure literary waters?
It's a blessing and a curse when readers find one of those niches! It's wonderful because it's very exciting to talk with folks about something they've read that's opened their eyes that extra notch, but it's tough when they ask for further reading, because many of those niches are as good as dead ends — work that is unique, fantastic, hard to reproduce or even approximate.
I definitely have lots of horror fans willing to explore new terrain, happy to seek out new haunts. It still surprises and delights me when I recommend something on Instagram and get direct responses from folks who are keen to try out my recommendations. It's a happy magic, I am always caught off guard when it happens.
Horror fiction often seems to get short shrift from the reading public, with many snobs not even considering it literature, at least within the narrow confines of the word. It’s a silly notion, but why do you think people feel that way, especially when virtually every famous writer, from D. H. Lawrence to John Steinbeck dabbled in the genre?
I think people who dismiss horror (or other genre books) are often missing out. Maybe it's a side product of our culture which demands everything be labeled, categorized, and typecast for perpetuity. Anything that demands a blind deflection of material that has the wrong name on it is limiting, and denies exploration.
It is extraordinarily gratifying to encounter a customer who is willing to try something new, even if it's not their "thing" — it speaks volumes about their breadth of mind, their potential for growth, their future selves. Whether genre is denied an audience because of stagnant views or repressive views, either way we lose out. This is not to say there aren't people who simply cannot cope with horror. In this mess of a world, I have every sympathy for someone who cannot bring themselves to sample new and different dangers beyond those they are exposed to every day. But to the adventurous reader, a good horror author can provide sublime and astonishing thrills and revelations that would not have been encountered otherwise.
Several horror small press publishers, such as Tartarus, Sarob, Sidereal, Arkham House, and of course, Medusa Press produce books in very limited runs, often no more than 500 copies or less. There’s obviously an economic reason for this due to the high cost of hardcover book production. Their titles are almost never seen in general bookstores, and even some genre shops fail to carry them. Do you find these publishers have promotional opportunities they might be missing?
Hmm, that's a good question. I feel like if a bookstore owner knows their genre, they will know the excellent small press options available to them. But so far as new book ordering, many bookstores have gotten used to working with larger distributors that don't pass on appealing discounts to them. Because I am primarily a used bookshop, not operating as a new book ordering venue for most of my history, I was more interested in directly approaching small publishers that carried titles and editions that inspired me. It made sense to me — not giving an extra slice to a middle man would surely be more beneficial both to my bottom line and to the small press publishers I was trying to support. But as I have found, that is not how most bookstores work.
Because of that homogenized distributor interface, booksellers are not used to working directly with small press publishers, which is a shame. I have a great time interacting with all these creative minds that are trying to do something different from the rest of the market. It's such a good crowd! Talk about a labor of love. I don't know how many missed promotional opportunities there are out there. I think most of the shops around here that don't deal in small press either don't want to, or don't know enough about it to find a starting point. Small business also means small amounts of extra time, so everything has to be as streamlined and risk-free as possible to prevent a deficit, so it's tough for small presses to get a foot in the door to create a first impression.
Many of the small publishers that I have the strongest ties to are those that I get to meet in person at conventions (ReaderCon, NecronomiCon), who bring themselves and their books and their authors to the most likely cross-section of their potential public. If you have truly beautiful books, with great stories in them, like Medusa Press does, and you put them in front of readers (or those who scout for retail shop buying), they cannot resist. Books are full of ideas, but the physical book is practically a lure on a line. The Pied Piper had nothing on a publisher with a delicious genre book in front of a receptive audience! And then if you are at a convention, and hear an author or editor speaking with passion about their field at a panel discussion or interview, the magic is again seeded and sealed.
Of course, right now travel and in-person anything is iffy at best. Hopefully that will change back soon, now that vaccines are getting out there.
Doing outreach in other venues (podcasts, blogs, Instagram, even email groups) is another way readers and buyers get to know new-to-them genre publishers. The great thing about that is that, once you're out there, the more people that know you, and like you, the more they'll tell their friends and readers! The great thing about horror fans is that they are curious, and they listen to each other. If someone is enthusiastic about something they've been reading, and lets everyone else know, you'll find a bunch of curious heads popping up and checking out your wares and wondering why they weren't the first lucky ones to discover you.
Any personal favorites you’ve discovered that may be unfamiliar to readers, even those who regularly enjoy horror fiction?
Ooooh.... hmm. *laugh* Well the most obscure stuff is so hard to find it's useless to recommend! But for modern horror, I really liked Stefan Spjut's Stallo (milque-toasted for US audiences as The Shapeshifters), and I'm very excited to crack into his recent work,Trolls, and hoping it delivers another good helping of spooky folkloric thrills. Lethe Press is producing some really wonderful authors' work, including Daniel Braum's latest, Underworld Dreams (his Night Marchers gave me hope that we might have another Bradbury), and Steve Berman's Vintage is genuinely spooky and yet somehow gothily charming at the same time.
Green Hand Bookshop wonderfully evokes something arcane and occult. Where does the shop name originate?
Well, when I was first getting ready to open the shop, I started digging through all my old sketchbooks, figuring there must be something there I could use. I draw a lot of hands, and green is my favorite color, and then bam! There it was. For some reason once I landed on it, there were no more questions. I had wanted something memorable, something that would also invoke curiosity. The Green Hand it was! I traced the outline of my hand, then sketched it in ink, and voila.
To me, it has come to symbolize tandem elements of mystery and growth — like a green thumb only going in many more different directions.
What is most interesting, curious and peculiar, is that ever since I opened, I have been finding Green Hands everywhere. The lovely Lillian Beckwith titled one of her Hebrides books "Green Hand" (she's a favorite of mine, but I'd never run across this one until ten years after I opened the shop!). Old pulp mystery novel cover art, old horror film posters, the green hand reaching from the background, menacing its fleeing victims. There is a family of hobbits in J.R.R. Tolkien's lore with the name of Greenhand. Even George R.R. Martin (?!) mentions an Order of the Green Hand in his books (which, embarrassingly, I have yet to read). Crazy, right?!
Thanks again for taking the time to do this!
You're very welcome! :D
The Green Hand Bookshop
661 Congress St
Portland, ME 04101
Order new books here instead of through Amazon: https://bookshop.org/shop/greenhandbooks
Also, check out their great video shorts about their store on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCC7XB5ps5W7WSEGS6Gmt07g