Founder and Owner of Papercuts JP and Co-founder and Publisher at Cutlass Press
Co-founder and Editor-in-Chief at Cutlass Press and Director of Media & Events at Papercuts JP
“There's this weird dialogue happening in our country about millennials being lazy. I think that’s bullshit, frankly. We just don’t have other options; if you want to do a thing that you like and make living out of it, you need multiple gigs.”
Millennials Who Live by the Book
By Abigail Bliss
While the gig economy hinges on apps like Uber and TaskRabbit, Lyft and Postmates, not all millennial giggers rely on their phones for their livelihoods. Kate Layte and Katie Eelman are two such exceptions to the rule; they’re putting down phones and picking up books, stubbornly sticking by the crafts of publishing and bookselling to make a living.
In 2014, Layte saw a need for a local bookstore in her Jamaica Plain neighborhood and filled it. Since then, Papercuts JP, Layte’s thriving independent bookstore, has attracted a loyal following, media attention, and local accolades, including being dubbed the Best Book Nook of 2015 by Improper Bostonian. With Eelman on board, the Papercuts JP team has launched a publishing press, Cutlass Press; a podcast featuring literary heavy hitters like Lindy West and Celeste Ng; and an event series spawning book-centered conversations in their community.
I visited the store to flip through selections from its fiction section and find out more about the motivation behind the multi-pronged, book-centric operation. As customers inquired after new non-fiction releases and the stationary stand by the cash register, Layte and Eelman let me in on a secret: books and the passionate people who make them are coming back with a vengeance.
Kate, could you tell us about the motivation behind Papercuts JP? How did you get this project off the ground?
KL: I used to work for Borders, the bookstore many of us may remember. Then I went into publishing, and I really missed being around books and recommending them to real readers on a day to day basis. I was living in Jamaica Plain, and we didn't have a full-time, dedicated, independent bookstore nearby. One day, I got it in my head that I could do it, and I became obsessed with the idea. It took a while for it to get up and running, but I opened the store in the fall of 2014. We’re not even three years old! Since then, I’ve run the bookstore and offered the visionary strategic planning behind this whole thing. Katie can tell you what see does on a daily basis.
KE: I am the Director of Media & Events for Papercuts. I also manage all outgoing communication for Cutlass Press; I am the Editor-in-Chief and head the marketing and publicity side of things.
The store has already been named Boston’s Best Book Nook, launched a publishing press, and attracted some literary heavy hitters for events. What do think has enabled Papercuts JP to find success in an industry where so many are struggling to maintain public interest and make ends meet?
KL: What makes us different is that we're really passionate about books. We've personally had experience with the power of books in our own lives. Being able to match a reader with the right book? That's an experience that people don't get online; they don't get in the personal atmosphere of a bookstore. It's having that attention to what makes quality books and relationships that really sets us apart.
KE: I think, too, that the community in which we're located has been extremely supportive; it's the perfect neighborhood to have a literary venture.
How has being in JP affected the store’s identity or success?
KE: People here care about literature. They care about art, and they care about their neighborhood. As a result, they're willing to support small businesses, especially ones that are artistically minded.
Who are your clients, in general?
KE: I think it's everyone.
KL: I love that there's such a wide range. We try to have a really vibrant kids’ selection, as well as a really vibrant selection of fiction. We strive to have something for every reader, not just the… we don't have a lot of Proust here, I guess. We have a lot of really accessible books that we're excited about.
What role do you see bookstores playing in communities today?
KL: They're vital. There's an old book from over 100 years ago that says that a bookstore is as vital, if not more, than a church or a school in its neighborhood for the spreading of ideas. It allows people to learn from history and each other in a vibrant, contemporary environment.
KE: I think it's also a safe space where people can hold conversations with conflicting ideas, have a dialogue that's respectful and open, and converse with texts that have existed for centuries.
Kate, some people might say going into bookstores and publishing is like going into landline telephones in the early 2000s. What’s your argument?
KL: Technology is at a point right now where we can't really trust it. We can trust the printed word and especially people that put their whole lives into that printed word. We're not owned by some corporate overlord. It's literally us just trying to make this happen. That effort and that integrity sets us apart from a lot of other bookstores out there. People with that passion and drive can always be successful.
KE: It's a lot of work to go into publishing or books right now, and it would be a lie to say it's anything less, but I don't think that that means it's any less valuable.
If we’re at this tipping point with technology, if not over the edge of it, what are your thoughts on our relationship with technology?
KL: We need a break from our phones, we need a break from the screens, and we need a break from the media saturation. We need to go back to the things that make us feel in control, and not like things are coming at us and we have to participate or be left out. Books give us that time; they give us the space to get out of this crazy life that we live and its 24/7, constant cycle.
It’s so easy to scroll through Instagram, get lost down a wormhole on Youtube, or binge watch Netflix and we see this being the tendency. How do you convince people to pick up a book instead?
KL: Make that argument about control. Who’s in control, you or the corporation that’s trying to sell you something? One of the greatest books about the culture of bookselling is called Reluctant Capitalism. It argues that bookselling is a business, and it is something that we're doing to make a living, but we're selling ideas; we're not trying to sell other people’s information, which is what is happening online. People need to stop outsourcing their decisions to someone else. Sherry Turkle is a professor at MIT, and she wrote a book called Reclaiming Conversation that explores how technology has prevented us from communicating directly with each other. It makes us anxious; we’re texting our friends more than calling them. Books, on the other hand, teach us to put ourselves in other people’s minds and lives, giving us those empathetic skills that you won’t learn from scrolling through Instagram. To get deeply involved in a story and its characters allows us to act more fully human, in a sense, whereas the internet has taken a lot of that away.
KE: Maybe it’s not entirely our job to make that argument. When somebody picks up a book that speaks to them, that argument is made on its own. When somebody relates to something, it clicks.
Why did you tack on a publishing press?
KL: I was looking back at my original business plans that I wrote in 2014, and I always wanted publishing to be a part of the project. Books are easier to print now than ever before, and there are so many books out there that aren't getting the recognition they deserve in traditional publishing. Through our bookstore, we learned about our customers and their interests, and we’re only publishing books that really fit a need that isn’t satisfied in the traditional rounds.
KE: Corporate publishing has a lot of gatekeepers and needs to abide by certain sales figures, and we don't really have that requirement, which is very liberating for us. We can publish what we think is good and what we know that our customers will love to read. For us, it's an automatic hit.
Could you tell us about the kind of books Cutlass Press has been and is hoping to publish?
KE: In September, we're publishing A Dream Between Two Rivers by K.L. Pereira, which is a collection of short fiction. The stories are part magical realism, part folklore, part fairy tale, part mythology, and all the way brilliant. Multiple authors have described it as a fever dream. We see that as filling a need for voices that are diverse, subversive, and totally extraordinary. In October, we have RAGGED; or the Loveliest Lies of All by Christopher Irvin, who’s a local beloved crime fiction author. It’s about a dog who dies, and her husband who has to avenge that death. Our second anthology is coming up, and in November, we publish Rick Berlin's memoir, The Paragraphs. Rick Berlin is a legend in music in Boston. He's been making music for forty years or so, and he does songwriting exercises that tell a story of a life in music when put together.
Very few people know what goes into publishing a book. Could you walk us through the steps?
KL: What we're trying to do is find the story that hasn't been told before. Some authors have really struggled at something for years. Some are able to write quicker. The process of the individual writer may change, but when it comes to a final piece, Katie works her magic. She works closely as an editor to make sure that the story is correct and as clear as it could be. Once they have the final manuscript, it gets sent to copyediting to make sure that the grammar's correct, that it reads well, and that everything makes sense. We design the interior pages for an enjoyable reading experience, really thinking about the way the words look on a page. At the same time, the cover is designed, keeping in mind the message it sends and the back cover and how they both reflect the book’s contents. Then, we figure the market and who will read the book. We’re doing it all ourselves and all at once, which is convoluted and strange, but it’s fund to be completely immersed in the entire process. We really care about our authors. We really care about making sure that it gets into the right reader’s hands.
KE: One of our unique advantages is that we know so many booksellers; we know their taste, and we know what they love. It makes it easier for us to tap into likeminded individuals who are selling books across the country and say, "I know that you're going to love this one, and I know that you're going to be able to sell it to your customers out there in San Francisco."
Katie, you also produce the Papercuts Podcast. Could you tell us about the motivation behind that project? What subjects do those conversations tackle?
KE: We were curating an awesome event series full of authors with amazing things to say, and it was a little bit sad that not everybody in the world could come to our event. So, we decided that we would fix that by basically publishing a podcast of our events. Now, we're changing it up a little bit with conversations that are not accessible to the public. Our most recent one features Lindy West and Carol Sanger talking about reproductive rights. It's a brilliant dialogue about really important issues.
You both have several different pursuits on your plate, which is an increasingly popular model for work in the gig economy. Why do you think millennials, in particular, are dividing their time and attention between multiple projects?
KL: I'm thankful for the many projects because I have many interests. What drove me crazy when I worked in an office setting was having once specific place to be, one specific thing to focus one set of people to be around. Having my own environment, creating it, and having it change all the time makes life way more interesting for me.
KE: I think it's because we have to. There's this weird dialogue happening in our country about millennials being lazy. I think that’s bullshit, frankly. We just don’t have other options; if you want to do a thing that you like and make living out of it, you need multiple gigs. It’s ambitious for young people to be trying to do that instead of what the Boomers did – settling in and getting a watch after forty-five years.
KL: It's a nice watch, though.
KE: I don't mean that in an offensive way. It’s different because people are more passion-driven than they are end game-driven.
Do American millennials lack the ability to focus?
KL: Well, we have to have some attention span because we need to get through a lot of books. I don’t see it as being unfocused; focus can branch out into many different worlds. We can be focused on the written word, and all of the ways that it intersects with our lives and work.
Which authors are you turning to in order to make sense of what’s happening in our country today?
KE: So many. There's a fantastic book called Exit West that came out this year and should be required reading for everyone. You fall in love with the characters, who are refugees trying to find a safe space. Anyone can imagine themselves in that situation, and that’s the most powerful thing books can do: humanize a situation. Also, Rebecca Solnit is a complete God in this time and an extremely important voice to be listening to. Our bookseller, Ray Jackler, put On Tyranny at the checkout, and we have sold tons of those and gotten feedback from customers who say it's the most important book they've read in decades.
What is one popular notion you'd like to debunk?
KE: I don't think peanut butter and jelly taste good together.
KL: Books are not dying whatsoever. They’re coming back with a vengeance. People are still trying to bring Amazon up in conversations about competition in the book world, but Amazon is not in the business of culture. They’re producing TV shows and buying domain names; that’s not the day-to-day work of building relationships that we do.
KE: People give Amazon credit for being accessible because they've got one click buttons, but I think that if you're not able to walk into a place and talk to a person that understands you, it is not actually accessible, nor is it revolutionary.
What are your reading at the moment?
KE: I'm reading a book called New People by Danzy Senna. It’s a short novel about a woman who's about to get married, and it is very much about race and family. It's brilliant. I'm in love with it.
KL: And, I'm reading a book called The Wild Book by a new imprint of one of my favorite publishers, Restless, called Yonder. It's their new YA book and it's by an amazing Mexican author named Juan Valero. It’s reigniting my passion in books and the magic they can work. I can’t wait to share it with everyone.