Rothfus to discuss bookstore’s dual mission

Earl Rothfus, manager of the Chautauqua Bookstore. (Photo by Saalik Khan)

Earl Rothfus, manager of the Chautauqua Bookstore. (Photo by Saalik Khan)

Earl Rothfus’ title — manager, Chautauqua Bookstore — is deceiving. While he does manage the bookstore year-round, he also oversees three seasonal stores and the 30 or so staff who keep all four going.

Combined, the bookstore beneath the post office, the bookstore “sampler” at the Main Gate Welcome Center, the octagonal Amphitheater Gazebo, and the Chautauqua Fair Trading Company in the Colonnade are responsible for a significant portion of Chautauqua Institution’s operational income.

As part of the Chautauqua Women’s Club’s Chautauqua Speaks Series, at 9:15 a.m. Thursday at the CWC House, Rothfus will give a talk titled, “Managing a Dual Mission: Satisfying the Community While Fundraising for the Institution.”

Satisfying the community isn’t easy, he said. It includes carrying items that community members have come up with, whether or not they will sell.

“One of the rationales is that the bookstore is owned by the community to a very large extent,” Rothfus said. “It can’t function without the community.”

Rothfus tries to find as much room as he can for books that Chautauquans have written. He also tries to accommodate Chautauquans who know an author or artist personally. He is frequently asked to carry books, prints, greeting cards and other merchandise created by friends and relatives.

Increasingly, people are self-publishing, Rothfus said. Without the imprimatur of a publisher such as Penguin Random House, he cannot assume that each book is readable. He has to be the editor and determine which books pass through the gateway.

“The biggest secular challenge is what to do about our book business in an era when independent bookstores are flagging,” Rothfus said. “The book business is a less and less important part of the [overall] business.“

He said that, when he joined the bookstore in March 2004, book sales were 40 to 45 percent of the business; currently, it’s about 30 percent.

Rothfus also said the bookstore has many big readers that consume one to two books a week. A growing number are limiting their selection to one genre.

“If you want to read serious books on Middle East policy, there’s more and more, but we can’t have them all in the bookstore,” he said. “The depth and variety of books in the universe makes it harder.”

People are increasingly buying books online, including e-books. Rothfus said he cannot match the online offers being made, nor can he buy nearly every book coming out, as did Borders, where he worked for nine years in Rochester and Buffalo before moving to Chautauqua to manage the bookstore.

Yet Chautauquans have long been relying on the bookstore as an arbiter of quality books.

“I am selective about what comes in,” Rothfus said. “I just don’t have the space for everything.”

Thursday morning, Rothfus will address these and other challenges, including the changing newspaper business.

He will also identify opportunities for the four stores he oversees. Chautauqua merchandise is the part of the business that continues to grow yearly and carry the bookstore, he said.

The stores under his management help to subsidize the program at Chautauqua to a large degree, Rothfus said.

“When people buy something, they support the Institution,” he said. “I try to put things out there that make it easy to do that.”