By Alan Cornett
Even in the era of Kindles and the “cloud,” Lexington’s Black Swan Books is celebrating its 30th anniversary with a limited edition poem letter-pressed with handset type on handmade paper. It’s a statement symbolic of owner Michael Courtney’s commitment to the printed word and real, physical books.
“We’ve done eight or 10 of these broadsides over the past 20 years,” said Michael Courtney amidst stacks of books in his shop on Maxwell Street, vintage posters framed on the walls. “These are selling fast.”
A broadside is a single sheet of paper printed on one side and meant for framing. The anniversary broadside features a poem by Kentucky writer Wendell Berry whose works are a specialty of Courtney. Black Swan’s broadsides are printed using century-old equipment by Gray Zeitz of Larkspur Press in Monterey, Kentucky. The work of Berry and Zeitz is in such demand that half of the copies of the anniversary broadside were sold within the first two weeks.
Courtney’s career has been dedicated to the written word from the start. After obtaining a master’s degree in library science at the University of Kentucky, Courtney started work at UK’s M.I. King Library Special Collections. In 1984, Courtney left his job at UK and began Black Swan Books as a catalog-only business while he looked for a suitable space to open a shop.
A year later he found a storefront on Maxwell Street, just a single small room at the time. Black Swan Books has been in the same spot ever since, expanding twice in its current location until it eventually occupied the entire building. Now encompassing 3,000 square feet, Black Swan is one of the largest rare and used bookstores in Kentucky and the South.
Courtney reflected on the changing book scene, recalling weeks-long book buying trips to the West Coast and upper Midwest searching for books on Kentucky, horses and the Civil War. Those books were little in demand in those places, and were often bargain priced. Courtney would bring them back to Kentucky to an audience that valued them.
“You can’t do that now. The Internet has stabilized prices across the country,” Courtney said.
Black Swan Books still specializes in areas of local Lexington and Kentucky interest. Courtney also maintains a deep selection of military history, particularly about the Civil War and World Wars I and II, plus books on motion pictures, art, music and architecture. There is a large dedicated rare book room with locked glass cases to protect the valuable volumes.
Over the years, Courtney has hosted many of Kentucky’s best-known authors for book signings, writers such as Wendell Berry, James Still, Thomas D. Clark and Guy Davenport. “We may have hosted Guy Davenport’s only book signing ever,” Courtney said.
Many of the announcements for those signings hang on the wall, signed and framed.
The store has also been a destination for famous customers. “Some of them I didn’t recognize at that time, like Susan Sarandon. She enjoyed the chance to shop anonymously,” Courtney said.
Courtney recently had a lengthy conversation with singer Boz Scaggs who stopped by the bookshop while in town for a concert. Courtney is tight-lipped about the identity of some of the celebrities who have shopped there. “Some of the celebrities use pseudonyms,” Courtney said.
Over 30 years, Black Swan has even been the scene of romantic encounters. “Couples have met here and even come back for their engagement and wedding pictures,” said Courtney.
Despite these romantic meetings, one thing you can’t buy in Black Swan Books is a romance novel.
While Courtney says Lexington has been a good environment for bookselling, he sees future opportunities diminishing for used bookstores. “Younger people aren’t reading as much,” he says, “and when they do they use e-readers.”
Compounding the supply-and-demand problem, many of the long-time book buyers are entering a stage in life where they are looking to sell their collections, rather than add to them.
“People don’t collect anything anymore,” Courtney said.
But as long as book lovers keep shopping, Courtney will have plenty of books to sell to them.
Alan Cornett is a freelance writer from Lexington. He is also editor of EatKentucky.com.