I’ve just returned from Asheville, North Carolina where the 10th anniversary celebration of the American Booksellers Association’s Winter Institute (Wi10) was held this week. This event brings together ABA member booksellers, publishers, and authors, and offers an unparalleled opportunity to share company with hundreds of people who all love the same thing: books.
I was there to help promote the upcoming release of WHISPER HOLLOW, nervous and dazzled by the presence of so many smart, interesting writers. I couldn’t wait to meet Reif Larson, Margaret Lazarus Dean, Heidi Pitlor, Ann Bauer, and many others, as well as fellow Other Press authors Déborah Lévy-Bertherat and Charles Kaiser. There they were, walking around like normal people! (Also, there might have been a rather embarrassing, over-enthusiastic fangirl moment in the hotel lobby with T. C. Boyle, whose work I loved as a late teen.) But it didn’t take long before I discovered that the real heroes at the conference were the booksellers.
When was the last time you visited a local independent bookstore? One of those small shops with the come-hither names: BookPeople in Austin, Malaprop’s Bookstore in Asheville, Community Bookstore in Brooklyn, Green Apple Books in San Francisco, and my own favorite Brazos Bookstore in Houston. They’re more like super-sized home libraries, curated to reflect the individual tastes of the owners and proprietors. Unlike the big-box stores, which operate at a scale that precludes individual attention, indie bookstores offer hand selections that are determined by chair-by-the-fireside-type interactions with customers. Chain stores have their place, too, but algorithms and trickle-down recommendations don’t always translate to joyful reading. Developing a relationship with a bookseller is like finding the perfect hairstylist. They get to know you, learn your preferences, cater to and occasionally challenge your palate because you trust them to do so.
But it’s more than just one-on-one relationships between readers and booksellers. It’s that by and large, these people are incredibly intelligent, well read, and well educated, and working at a level far above their pay grade. These are people who could be making upper-class livings at other jobs, but whose souls are fulfilled by humbler callings. They’re not in it for the money; they’re in it for the love.
I’ve been a Brazos Bookstore devotee and customer for thirty years, but this week allowed me to get a peek behind the shelves at the constant financial constraints that all indie shops work against in order to match readers with reading material. I went away with a profound appreciation for the passion they and other booksellers have for their work. It is because of them that we writers are able to fulfill our own.
During the conference, author Azar Nafisi drew a standing ovation from the packed ballroom at her keynote address. “The bookselling industry is not going anywhere,” she said, “because booksellers provide an essential service: books perpetuate the democratic imagination necessary for a culture’s survival. Independent booksellers are custodians of the curiosity essential for a free society.”
If you’re planning to buy books in the near future, I hope you’ll consider WHISPER HOLLOW, but whatever you choose, I hope you’ll buy it from your local bookstore. If you don’t already have a relationship with one, here’s a directory from NewPages.com with listings in every US state.
Please tell them Chris sent you, and give them my love.