How I Get It Done: Sarah McNally, Owner of Independent Bookstore McNally Jackson

Sarah McNally is the owner of McNally Jackson Books, an independent bookstore in New York City. In the fall, she’ll open the Brooklyn branch of McNally Jackson in Williamsburg. She travels around the world looking for the most interesting paper products to sell, and, two months ago, got a brand new puppy named Chief. She drinks several pots of green tea every day. Here’s how she gets it all done.

On her early morning rituals:
I normally wake up at 6 a.m. If I don’t wake up then, the whole day is ruined from beginning to end. If I want to do anything creative or silent or quiet, I can do it then. There is not a lot of quiet solitude in my days so if I don’t have that time in the morning, I lose track of my inner life.

Having a puppy is nice for that. At 6 a.m., I’m on the sidewalk while she pees and it’s awakened me to a another, more peaceful side of New York. I live in the Village and it’s beautiful. I normally talk to the doorman for a sec, walk for a bit, and I go back upstairs. Then I write or read or chill and wait for my son to wake up. I totally spoil my son. I just recently stopped making him breakfast in bed every day. Someone was like, “You’re ruining this child.” He wasn’t upset about it when we switched. We talked about it rationally. I told him, “It would be irresponsible for me to make you a spoiled person.” He hates the idea of being spoiled, I think probably because he read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory a couple times when he was young.

Every day I make him pancakes. During the school year, I walk him to school, then I take the dog on our morning walk to the bookstore. By the time I leave the house in the morning, I’ve probably drank two pots of green tea. I don’t drink coffee because I’m already so hyper. I don’t have rituals with supplements or healthy food choices. Because I buy most of the books for the bookstore, I see hundreds of diet books and health books, and I’ve watched all these trends come and go. Something contrarian in me has repelled the whole thing.

I drop by the stationery store in the morning; my dog will usually pee on the floor. I’ll clean up the pee and then the dog often lies on the daybed and customers will pat the dog while I talk to the staff and managers and walk around.

On why she’s comfortable with not being especially good at email:
I’m not natively terrific in email. It’s an effort for me to be good at it. I don’t get any emails that are really that important because my job is to find products and sell them. Email doesn’t feel that pressing to me — when I need to get a hold of somebody and they don’t email me back the world doesn’t break down.

I don’t have a networking job, thank god. It doesn’t matter if anyone in the city likes me. It doesn’t matter if anyone in the world likes me. It would matter if my staff didn’t like me. Everyone I deal with, I’m buying something from, so they have to be nice to me. The publishing reps come in and we go through these lists together of hundreds and hundreds of books. It’s a much more personal job than just responding to emails.

On why it matters that booksellers sell more than just books:
Everybody uses pens. Everybody uses some kind of paper. For very little cost, you can really up your game. The pens we use, the ones that we get here in North America compared to Asia or Europe, they’re awful, just awful. People don’t often think about it, but as soon as they touch or see something better, they realize. I’ve really gone out of my way with stationery at the bookstore because I feel like a lot of people don’t know a lot about books, but if you look at the things in the bookstore that aren’t books, you can gauge the quality of the bookseller’s taste.

On why she’s recently switched from reading the news to listening to news podcasts:
When I’m walking between the stores, I always listen to podcasts. I sound so lame but I listen to the New York Times Daily podcast. I still get the newspaper delivered to my house every day but more and more, to be honest, I just use it to clean up dog poop. I’m a very loyal and devoted Times reader but lately I’ve found that the podcast is really where it’s at. I also always listen to the Weeds, it’s a Vox policy podcast.

On what she’s read lately:
I really love the new George Saunders novel that came out, Lincoln in the Bardo. It’s so cool, I thought. I’ve never really been a fan of his, but I liked it so much that it made me actually want to reread some of his books that I haven’t liked before. I must have been wrong. I’ve always thought, why does everyone love this guy so much? Now I think I was wrong and everyone else was right. I’m always wrong. I’m very, very often wrong.

On why she decided against writing a business book for women:
An editor came to me and said, “I would like you to do a business book.” It was a really good publishing house and I could make lots of money from it. I was excited about writing a book for women about starting a business. For a mother, that’s an amazing thing to do. The amount of flexibility I’ve had to be a mother while working is amazing, because I own my own business. I wanted to inspire women to open their own things. I wrote a few chapters and I was proud of them but the more that I thought about it, I thought I just didn’t really want to be a self-help writer. It really clashed with my identity or my vanity or something.

Right now, I’ve started writing science fiction, which is what I think I want to do with my life. At the rate that I’m going, though, I’ll be done with my first book in ten years.

On stress:
The most stressful thing about my job is that the worst-case scenario is really bad. I feel like with anything I do, I could lose everything. If I don’t expand, I could lose everything, so I have to expand. But every time I expand, I spend so much money that I risk losing everything. Retail is particularly horrible because you don’t own your space. I spent most of my adult life building something that I consider a literary institution and yet, if I were to lose my lease, it wouldn’t exist anymore. There’s no abstraction of what I do. I had to really think, How much money do I want to borrow to buy books?

I don’t have a real stress problem anymore. I did when I was younger. At a certain point, I realized that stress is generally a failure of perspective. I try to come at it very very rationally, by mapping out best-case scenarios and worst-case scenarios. Rationality is way better than stress.

On what makes her job worth it:
A great thing about my job is that on every single level, everything that I do is something that I want to do. Everyone I work with is someone I want to work with. Every element of my stores is something that I want to be part of New York City and part of the world. There are almost no compromises. I get to take 5- or 6,000 square feet of the city and make it great — it’s really exciting. That’s a good job.

How I Get It Done: Sarah McNally, Owner of McNally Jackson