Even after all these years, the thing that surprises me most is how very unalike booksellers are. In the book business we're always on about the communality of readers: reading groups and book clubs, recommendation lists for Christmas and the Year's Best Books, SF/F fandom and the thralldom of Austenites, Team Jacob and the Potter Generation, Walking Dead Heads, discount clubs and family reading, and on and on. This time of year specially, a huge effort is put forth to make of us all, customers and clerks, writers, readers and cashiers, one mass of happy, chatty humanity, united by our love of books.
I don't say the sentiment isn't a welcome one, or mean to suggest that I, as a bookseller, am immune to the comforting cheer of the expected crowds. Nothing better than the buzz of commerce in lean times or fat -- and in the business and out, we've certainly all seen our share of quiet times. It's an altogether good thing, community. What better place than a bookstore to find like minds?
That's the thing though, about bookstores, they're nothing but inventory without the people in them to talk about books. But, how many people, or more to the point, how few are required to make a shop more than a place? Setting aside the question of sales and commercial viability and the practical necessity of tracking "turn" and returns, and not to drift too far into the intangibles, what is the number that makes a market a sodality? I've worked in a dozen different shops, large and small. I've shopped in every sort of bookstore that might be imagined. I must say the point may be missed entirely by such a question.
Put six booksellers in a room: equal numbers of men and women, different ages and experience, and ask each to bring a book, or books they love and about which they will be expected to talk a little. Note please, if no one's been told what they might bring, the odds that any two will bring the same book, while certainly not impossible are long. Increase the number each brings and the odds of course may go down, but add, say, six more booksellers and I doubt there will ever be a clear winner. (I've served on a literary prize committee, where consensus is, after all, the goal and trust me, the only thing guaranteed to come out of at least the first few hour's work will be what the best books are not.)
Remembering that in twenty-some years I've worked in bookstores I've been largely spared the company of people who simply don't read, I'd say any such collection of six booksellers is a fairly representative sampling of our customers as well, at least in so far as we do not all read the same books. Hardly a bold assertion, that, but I make it because I think that may be the point most often lost when the conversation is kept to just that one collective noun, "books," or worse yet, to that academically murdered word, "reading." (There's always some ivied ass who thinks himself terribly clever for suggesting that reading the back of a box of cornflakes is, after all, the same "cognitive action" as reading Milton. Ah, the Tinkertoys of the trained mind!)
In specificity is our strength, my darlings, in diversity our faith.
Comic book shops are a more honest business, in a way. I've seen some genuine tussles in the aisles there! From DC to Marvel, from heroes to hipsters, there are more ugly words honestly if harmlessly bandied about the back-issues than one is ever likely to hear in the hushed environs of the more traditional book marts. Refreshing for stuffy old veterans like me.
The bookstore where I now happily work has recently produced a truly beautiful campaign for the Christmas season. Even with my grizzled mug grinning madly here and there, the posters, postcards and other materials made under the clever tag, "Books Are Our Passion," have occasioned nothing but what our marketers might call "positive feedback." Honestly, I've never received so many compliments from the general public on a Christmas window. The genius of the thing is in the eccentricity of the opinions expressed, the individuality of the book selections, and the utter unlikeness of it all. Yes, it is handsomely done. That's as we might expect from professionals. What's caused the comment would seem to be less in what this campaign says about us as a business, or if we must, a community, and more in the avoidance of the ever popular and inoffensive signifiers to which even the most professional ad campaigns too often reduce literature, and hence our actual product. (Such a loathsome, mercantile word.)
You see it, don't you? That's Anna. He's Duane. The boy with the brave mustache, that's Anthony. And that's not "a book" Amanda is hugging to herself, it's Longitude: The True Story of the Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, by Dava Sobel. I read that book. It was good. Not a favorite of mine, but I thought it very good too. Many people did. It was a bestseller. Still, it would no more occur to me to bring that book along to a photo shoot for the bookstore than it would for me to bring Redwall, which I confess I've never read, nor am I likely ever to.
By gathering this likely or unlikely bunch together to make a video and the rest of it, the point made is that bookstores, uniquely celebrate our disagreements and differences of opinion even as we try to persuade others to our enthusiasms. What other business does that?
Even as we struggle now to remind all our once and hopefully future customers to remember the pleasures of bookstores, we aren't really insisting that anyone buy anything just because anyone else thinks it good, or better or best. Yes, I as a bookseller, given even the slimmest opening will shove a dozen titles at anyone who happens by with so much as a quizzical expression, and yes, that is one of the established joys of my job, but I am happy to sell yet another copy of 50 Shades of Lazy Writing, if that's what madame requires. Why? Well, there's that dollar. More though, bookstores are quietly contentious places. If I can not convince, I will happily concede. Fight another day.
In the ever-ongoing wake in the press and media, in-house and out about the decline of bookstores, literacy and western civilization, what is too often left without the proper emphasis is the ridiculous, unsustainable, impossibly Quixotic commitment of our profession to acknowledge and promote the utterly individual interaction between this book and that reader. Libraries, schools, parent associations and publishing conferences can talk away the century, productively or no, on the subject of books and readers. Bookstores are low places, dens of private pleasures, never far from the souq and the pushcart, however brightly lit and well appointed. Ours is, at it's best a community of disparate opinions, wildly divergent expectations, aberrance, aptitudes, and all levels of social skill, behind and before the counters.
It's true, none of us featured in these handsomely produced ads is actually unsightly, and no one seems to have brought along a copy of Sade to plump for in the video, but don't think we mightn't muster somebody up from the ranks who might have fit that less savory bill. Honestly now, what business other than a bookstore would make me a model? Where else might I be invited to natter about my out-of-print edition of Boswell's great Life of Johnson, as part of a sales campaign?!
And there then is why I think this whole thing works so well as it does, and why bookstore remain enticing enterprises for such fools as may try to eat by them, and such a happy refuge for such a wildly unlikely "community" as ours.
Everybody is welcome. Look at us! Pretty girls! A pretty boy! Old men! New books! Old books! What's not to like?
Well, give me half an hour and I'll tell you why you should be reading "the greatest biography in English." They let me do that, you know. Such a place.