Cover Story - Laura Straub is vouching for small-press lit one book at a time

A few months ago, the Atlanta Book Exchange closed after 35 years of buying and selling used books. The store had been tucked into an old cottage on North Highland Avenue, like a musty altar to literature, forgotten by the endless line of customers waiting for popsicles on the nearby corner. Publisher's Weekly ran an obituary. It was just the latest closing in what seems like an endless downward spiral for booksellers. Even the big-box sellers are falling to the similar fates — the former Borders location on Ponce de Leon Avenue is currently occupied by a pop-up Halloween store. All of which might make you think Vouched Atlanta founder Laura Straub is crazy for trying to sell books right now.

Vouched Atlanta is the new outpost of Vouched, an organization founded in Indianapolis to promote small-press literature. The organization doesn't much resemble what we've come to expect from a traditional bookstore. Instead of a physical location, Vouched exists in a few forms: a website of interviews with authors and reviews of books, an ongoing reading series with local authors, and a mobile bookstore with just enough books to fit on a folding table. Instead of bringing in as many books as possible, Straub takes the opposite track, selling only books for which she can personally "vouch."

"Before I did the launch reading, I wrote a single sentence review of every single book that was going to be on my table. I'm so glad I did that because I have them memorized now. So if somebody asks about one of the books, like Jonathan Baumbach's Dreams of Molly, for example, I can just say, 'If Dom Cobb incepted one of Woody Allen's dreams, it would be a lot like this book,'" she says.

The small-press books that Straub sells don't have big marketing departments running promotions in newspapers or buying prominent placement in retailers like Barnes & Noble. In fact, you might be hard-pressed to find a copy of them anywhere else in town. Prior to starting Vouched, Straub read Matt Bell's How They Were Found, a collection of short stories published on an imprint of Midwest nonprofit publisher Dzanc Books. "I love that book, and it was frustrating going to bookstores and not being able to find it really anywhere in the city," she says.

As the cost of publishing a small run of books has declined, independent publishers have taken a cue from the DIY ethos that emerged from punk and indie rock record labels a few decades ago. They're publishing work by adventurous young authors writing unabashedly contemporary work often deemed too risky or unusual by big publishing houses.

The trend has gained momentum. Blue Square Press, co-founded by Atlanta's Ben Spivey, and Safety Third Enterprises, founded by Matt DeBenedictis, recently released a number of books and chapbooks. Some of Atlanta's most exciting local writers — Jamie Iredell, Josh Russell and Blake Butler among them — have published work with small publishers.

"I think a lot of people who say that they don't read or that they're just not interested in reading probably were presented with a lot of really old literature when they were in high school," she says. "They've never been presented with contemporary lit that's in a voice they can relate to.

"For the longest time I didn't think I really like poetry because I'm not a huge fan of Emily Dickinson, and that's what they forced down my throat in high school. Then, you read some of this contemporary stuff and you think, 'Crap, maybe I do like poetry, maybe I just can't relate to Emily Dickinson.'"

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