Larry Portzline: Inside “Bookstore Tourism”

Travel Interviews: Busloads of book lovers are going on literary safari to independent bookstores. Michael Yessis talks to the man behind the growing movement.

10.04.05 | 9:15 AM ET

imageThe idea for Bookstore Tourism came to Larry Portzline in 2003. At the time Portzline was a writing and literature teacher in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. One day he was talking to a colleague about “backdoor” restaurant tours in New York City, and it struck Portzline, a man so in love with books that he’s starting a blog called Over-Readers Anonymous, that the concept could be adapted to bookstore tours. The first trip he organized—a bus tour of the indie bookstores of Greenwich Village, New York—sold out in two weeks, and Bookstore Tourism was born. 

Portzline sees Bookstore Tourism as more than a weekend diversion for booklovers. “Bringing busloads of booklovers through the front doors of independent bookstores is one way to keep them from closing due to stiff competition from the ‘mega-chains’ and online retailers,” Portzline writes on his Bookstore Tourism Web site. “Communities with a concentration of bookshops or with a noteworthy literary history can also use Bookstore Tourism as an economic development tool.” To support the effort, Portzline blogs and podcasts, and he has written a book on the subject. I caught up with Portzline via e-mail after his recent swing through Texas, New Mexico and Arizona to promote Bookstore Tourism and his book.

It’s been two years since your first bookstore tour. Now you’re touring North America and taking meetings with the American Booksellers Association to spread the word. Why do you think Bookstore Tourism has struck a nerve?

I think people are looking for new and interesting ways to promote reading and literacy, and Bookstore Tourism can certainly do that because it brings together folks who share a love of books and the written word. Plus, it’s helping independent booksellers to raise their visibility so they can compete with the large bookstore chains and the online retailers that have forced many locally owned and operated bookshops to go out of business. Also, cultural tourism and niche travel have become huge in the U.S. So I think Bookstore Tourism fits right in with all of these things and can help to support a noble cause at the same time.

What are your favorite experiences from the past two years?

My favorite experience is the reaction I get at the end of the day from people who go on our “bookstore road trips.” They climb off the bus carrying bags full of books, and they’re a little tired from the journey, and they still smile and say, “Thank you so much for doing this. It’s a wonderful idea and I’m going to tell all my friends about it.” That, to me, makes it all worthwhile. Also, I always do a presentation about Bookstore Tourism on the way to whatever city we’re traveling to, standing at the front of the bus, and the first questions I always ask are: “How many of you are completely addicted to books?” Almost every hand goes up, and people are looking around the bus and smiling. Then I ask, “How many of you have piles and piles of books on the floor at home because you ran out of shelf space a long time ago?” And the same hands go right back up. And by this point, they’re laughing and looking around at all these people who were strangers just a few seconds before, and they realize that they’re among their own kind.  It’s a real bonding experience.

What has surprised you about Bookstore Tourism?

The thing that surprises me most is that so many people genuinely love the idea. No one has ever said to me, “Yeah, it’s an okay idea. Maybe it’ll work.” The response has always been, “That’s great!  I love it!  I want to go!  Where do I sign up?” People almost jump out of their shoes when they hear about it. Also, I’ve had some very influential people in the bookselling industry tell me over and over that I need to make Bookstore Tourism a full-time venture. They’ve suggested that I make it my day-job and lead bookstore trips to cities all over the country, but the truth is, I’d really rather not. My goal is to encourage people to take the ball and run with it. If you want bookstore road trips in your town, you can do it. That’s one of the reasons I wrote the book as a how-to, so other folks will get on board and take ownership of it. It’s grassroots all the way.

Are the people who join your tours mostly book lovers, or do you get a share of travelers who are simply looking for a different kind of experience?

I’d say it’s a little of both. We get people who just plain love books and don’t really travel much at all, let alone take a bus trip, and then we have folks who travel quite a bit, and they see this as a unique kind of adventure.

In my experience, travelers can often be found with a book in their hands.  And avid readers often love to travel.  Have you noticed this?  If so, why do you think the two groups are so similar?

I’ve noticed it, too. You’re absolutely right. Most booklovers are fairly intrepid souls and probably travel whenever they can for the experience and the fun. Still, there are many bibliophiles who’d rather live vicariously through characters in a book and let them do all the traveling. You can see the world without leaving your comfortable chair and your reading lamp, which is a great way to do it. But yes, many booklovers don’t just want to read about the places and people and events in their books, they want to go experience these things and absorb them every way they can. That’s another reason why Bookstore Tourism appeals to so many people—both the adventurers and the armchair travelers.

Do the trips entirely revolve around independent bookstores, or are there other activities involved?

It can be anything you want it to be, really. It can be like the trips I’ve done to New York City and Washington, DC, where I give everyone a map with the bookstores listed, and they all scatter to visit whatever shops they want at their own pace all day; or, you can include other elements. To me, the ideal bookstore trip includes at least one author event and maybe a tour of an author home. In fact, a trip I’m planning for the end of October includes two independent bookstores in West Chester, PA, lunch with the bestselling author Lisa Scottoline (“Killer Smile”), and a tour of the Pearl S. Buck House just up the road. To give you another example, the Southern California Booksellers Association has really embraced Bookstore Tourism and has done some trips of their own. Their most recent trip was in San Diego, and they had an author event at all six of the bookstores they visited. There are all kinds of variations on the theme: you can include a public library, invite a literature professor to ride along and speak to the group, and maybe go see the special collections at a college library.

When you travel outside of the organized trips, do you often find yourself drawn to independent bookstores?

Absolutely. That’s one of the reasons Bookstore Tourism got started in the first place. Whenever I travel, I always look for the local independent bookstores, and believe me, I’m not alone in this. I’ve spoken to dozens of other booklovers who do the same thing. It’s a passion and a compulsion, so if you’re going to have either, it might as well be for something healthy like books. I thought I was a book addict until I started doing these trips and saw people a lot worse off than me. My standard joke is that some of these folks need a 12-step program. They laugh because they know it’s not far from the truth.

Do you think travelers can discover the personality of place through an independent bookstore?

Without a doubt. I’ll give you three very different examples. If you go to the Strand Bookstore in New York City, it’s busy and a little dirty and the bookshelves seem like they’re as high as skyscrapers. That’s New York. If you go to Elliott Bay Books in Seattle, it’s eclectic and intellectual and fun. That’s Seattle. If you go to BookWorks in Albuquerque, it’s warm and friendly and laid back, even on a busy Saturday afternoon. That’s Albuquerque. Plus, in bookstores all over the country, you can see the personality of the particular region in the selection of books on the shelves. You see regional authors, or travel books about that part of the country, or local history. It’s really neat because you can’t find many of these books elsewhere.

Do you read much travel writing?

I read a fair amount.

What are some of your favorites?

I liked “1,000 Places to See Before You Die” by Patricia Schultz, and I love the new one by B.J. Welborn called “Traveling Literary America.” I’m sure I’ll use that one as a resource again and again. But if you want to go with something more literary I’d have to say “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac and “Travels With Charley” by John Steinbeck, neither of which is your standard travelogue, that’s for sure. As for guidebooks, I use Fodor’s and Lonely Planet a lot.

Do you have any favorite indie bookstores?

My favorite bookstore is whichever one I happen to be standing in at the moment. I know that may sound trite or like I’m just trying to be diplomatic, but it’s true. I have a few favorites, certainly, but all of them for very different reasons. There’s a large bookstore that I love because of its sheer volume of books. There’s a funky, medium-sized store that I always visit because of its incredible first editions and signed copies. Then there’s a small store that I go to frequently just because of its bargain books and unusual finds. Every independent bookstore has its own personality, its own charms, its own specialties. So choosing one over another is actually pretty difficult.

How can someone get involved in Bookstore Tourism?

imageMy book has a lot of suggestions, of course, but the easiest way is to talk to your friends or a local organization about putting together a trip, whether it’s a reading group, your library, a school or a college. You need to think about what city or town you want to visit, then do a little research to find out what bookstores are there. A good place to start is on the web, and you can even do a search on the American Booksellers Association website at You could also consider other literary attractions like an author’s home, or a locale that was the setting of a famous book or story. Remember, too, that Bookstore Tourism works just as well in the other direction; if your own city or town has a nice selection of indie bookstores, find ways to attract people from outside your community to come visit your bookshops for the day. Bookstore Tourism really has a lot of potential as an economic development effort for this reason, so I’m sure people will be tapping into that.  I always say it doesn’t matter if it’s 50 people on a chartered bus or five friends in a mini-van.  It’s still Bookstore Tourism.

What are your plans for the future of Bookstore Tourism?

Right now I’m trying to push the concept a little and stay out of its way at the same time so it continues to take root. I’m still trying to figure out what it’s supposed to be. If it really is going to turn into a full-time job, and it seems to be headed in that direction, then I see it more as a non-profit association—maybe the National Council on Bookstore Tourism or something along that line. I’m hoping to partner with the American Booksellers Association, the various regional booksellers associations around the country, the American Library Association, state and regional tourism bureaus, travel agent associations, state and local economic development groups, and the bus and motorcoach industry. And doing that as a non-profit would just make the most sense. Bookstore Tourism is a golden opportunity to take literary travel in a new direction, to generate interest in books, and at the same time to benefit communities in a variety of ways. There isn’t a single downside to it. It’s just a matter of getting the word out and helping people around the country to get involved. And that’s what I’d like to do.

Best of luck, Larry.

Thanks! World Hum said some nice things about Bookstore Tourism early on, and I’ve always appreciated it. I visit your site often, so to be featured here is a real kick.

1 Comment for Larry Portzline: Inside “Bookstore Tourism”

Jon Ball 06.10.07 | 3:37 PM ET

I just wanted to say how cool I think the idea of Bookstore Tourism is.

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