"'The illiteracy of the future,' someone has said, 'will be ignorance not of reading or writing, but of photography.' But shouldn't a photographer who cannot read his own pictures be no less accounted an illiterate? Won't inscription become the most important part of the photograph?" -- Walter Benjamin
What you want in a social media type for a bookstore is evidently -- me. That's right, a fairly stationary man in his late fifties who reads, among other things, cookbooks, old novels, and out of print essayists. Feels a bit counter-intuitive, don't it? I get that a lot. The fact is that no one in their right mind would look at me objectively and think, "influencer." I can't even influence my elderly husband to try new dumplings. But as a bookseller, I do think I'm rather "on brand." Retail thrives on strict management of brands and images, down to the bodies on the floor: shirtless models at the door of Abercrombie & Flitch, creamed and softly coiffured clerks at The Body Shop, walking wire-hangers in the exclusive shops on Rodeo Drive. (Note that when the big national peddlers get in trouble for reasons other than irrelevance or maleficence, often as not in recent years it has been for exclusion and or exploitation of "the look" of their staff. Wonder why that is?) Admittedly, anyone coming into the bookstore where I work would not be wrong to look at me and my fellow employees and think, "bookish," but then people not coming into the bookstore as they once did is the reason for my lateral and unlikely move into virtual content. Who better, in a way?
You should know that my assignment is entirely a subsidiary effort meant to augment our existing social media presence. I ain't in charge of nothing, which is very much as it should be. My employers have not lost their entire minds. The primary responsibility for this sort of thing still rest in younger, more computer-savvy, and flexible hands. (You know, people not so old as to use "savvy" when talking about computers.) All that I'm doing now is adding in more books, or rather pictures of books with appropriately bookish captions, hashtags and the like. Basically my new online role is analog-me but with a better camera.
The first thing that was required of me for this task was an Instagram account. Actually, I had already been bullied into getting one of these some time ago. I will admit to not quite seeing the point of this platform at the time. Didn't initially see much bookstore content on there. Seemed to be mostly product endorsements, beauty tips, posed vacation photos and even more posed "candid" shots. Lots of impossibly pretty people doing impossibly silly things like drinking Bombay Sapphire Gin while floating semi-nude in a suspended glass pool. (You spill that gin, sweetheart, and it's a long paddle back to the bar.) Who does this and why am I looking at someone doing this? Still, it was evidently the thing now, Instagram, at least for those of us entirely too old for TikTok, not so suburban as Pinterest, or so mentally and politically unstable as Reddit. For a number of years I'd done something similar to this new account for the bookstore on Tumblr. When that account drew to an ignominious end at the start of the pandemic (not the only reason) we had over 10,000 followers. For pictures mostly of books, and no porn, that was impressive if I do say so myself. That platform and format seemed to allow for longer and more detailed text as well. I started that account for the bookstore and over the years there were at least half a dozen other contributors, the last being my final partner at the Used Books Desk, dear D. Now I was asked to do something similar, again just for the trade books department, on Instagram.
As recent innovations in both our timekeeping and inventory systems at work have shown, given an embarrassingly lengthy period of time -- say, three years? -- and much patience on the part of whichever poor soul is sent to train me, I can eventually learn new ways to do things. Does not mean I like it. Pretty sure I will always be the guy who doesn't see the point of change, at least when coping with new technologies and systems. Musically, I made it as far as CDs. Not so much generational as it is dispositional. My husband is fifteen years my senior. He downloads new music all the time, and yes I mean popular new songs from young new artists. Same man is happiest watching television westerns so old there were still television westerns on primetime -- and there was still something called "primetime." No accounting for taste. At least I am more consistently fuddy duddy, not that that's a virtue. I read old books and generally listen to jazz vocalists who took their last bows well before jazz became an esoteric curiosity practiced only by competitive high school swing bands and Wynton Marsalis. I never understood why my husband even wanted a iPod back in the day. Never took my earbuds out of the phone box. I am that guy.
"But wait," I hear my imaginary reader sensibly interject, "you've been writing a blog here, and before that for the bookstore for the better part of twenty years." At this point that only contributes to my status as a counter-revolutionary, but yes, I did adopt certain aspects of the modern world willingly enough. I was happy with my flip-phone for years until my husband finally made up a story about the manufacturer discontinuing them a decade ago. I take pictures and post them online. I play childish word games every day on my phone. We now stream movies at home, if still on a nice, big tv screen. I am not insensible of the advantages I now have as a result of technology that did not exist before I'd already met and moved in with my husband, and more I could not have imagined even so recently as twenty-five years ago -- who knew blenders could be made so small and font-size adjusted for failing eyes and that people I do not know would one day be willing to drive cake to my house within an hour of ordering cake?!
Again, I am not so much a luddite as I am lazy and set in my ways. What benefits me materially without inconveniencing me personally is just delightful, or would be if I could afford more of it, or if the planet could -- which it largely and obviously can't. That has become something that needs keeping an eye on, the planet. Probably didn't take everyone quite as long as it did me to see the consequences every-fucking-where. Not something I get to feel smug about now that I know the depth of my carbon footprint and such, even sitting in my decrepit armchair, reading my out-of-print books, because who knows just how much damage I've already done with all the single-use plastics and the rest. You're right, young persons, we aren't part of the problem, my generation, we are the problem. Go ahead and burn us all down -- though considering all the micro-plastics we must already have in us that can't be a workable resolution to the problem.
And now what am I doing but adding in a not unlike way to the general heap of visual ephemera? Does the internet, does the world really need yet another regular notice of the new books out every Tuesday? Daily posts about new releases? More photographs, let alone more photographs of books?
I am not in the habit of quoting Walter Benjamin. Can't say I find him a very rewarding read. Brilliant mind obviously, very quotable and far more influential than he ever knew, but a bit recherché and weirdly theosophical in that modernist cult style. Come for the Marxism, stay for the mystical. Sometimes? Straight-up nonsense, like this one I just found online, "I would like to metamorphose into a mouse-mountain." I cannot begin to be bothered to to trace that image to its source, but I will treasure it always as perfect example of why philosophers make shitty poets (and Marxists indifferent mystics?) Doesn't mean he didn't say smart and useful things, as in the quote with which I kicked this off. Thinking about the pictures I'm posting, I was reminded of Benjamin's essay, A Short History of Photography (it isn't by the way. Typical. Won't try to reproduce it here. Read it yourself if you're young and of a mind. Otherwise you're stuck with just that quote and what I remember.) In Benjamin's reading, as photography became ubiquitous it ceased to be art and became a commodity; more sausage than Cezanne. More, photographs would become the lingua franca of the modern world. Prescient idea, the triumph of the image in both the marketplace and the way we read reality. Wrong of course about photography ceasing to be art, but he did anticipate everything from those film studies courses that let Football players graduate, to Instagram. Not sure about that word, "inscription." Surely not? Do we really scratch meaning into photos? Weird. Translation maybe? Whatever the case, he did love a bit repurposing. I seem to remember "auras" coming into it too. As I said, I'm not reading that again.
The creator of Humans of New York, street photographer Brandon Stanton, said in the introduction to his first book, "Whenever possible, I started pairing my photos with a story or quotation." That was when his remarkable project really took off; when he added stories, context, words. Perhaps that's the "inscription" Benjamin was on about? (I'm sure it's not, but it works for me.) What I do with the camera on my phone hardly constitutes art, though it has become something of a project, and the words to my mind are just as important as the pictures. I am not making a record, at least intentionally. Nothing so grand. My purpose is to draw attention, just not to myself in this case, but to the bookstore, and specifically the books in it, 'cause we sell a lot of other stuff. After a bit of hemming and hawing and some awkward experiments with formatting, etc., (Instagram only likes square pictures that fit on a phone,) I decided that immediacy mattered more than perfection of form. Like a drunk uncle at a wedding, I wanted to convey more enthusiasm than grace. I do try to make the pictures pretty and the words interesting, but I don't mind that neither is professional in the sense of ad copy. This account is meant to be a bookseller's recommendations, not publishers' promotion.
In Ways of Seeing, John Berger mentions that an oil painting was painted "in the present tense." That's exactly the sense of the thing I am doing. This book, right now, looks special. Look. Frankly there is a constant cavalcade of new books and most of these will not necessarily see either the bestseller lists or the front page of the NYT Book Review. Good books come from all sorts. Maybe you missed one? There are then lots of books from which to choose and hopefully ours will not be all the same ones on all the other bookstores' social media. If they occasionally are, then hopefully we may say something different about the ones picked. Not looking to reinvent the wheel here, just trying to make sure we get noticed in the parade.
And by whom we get noticed is really the point of the enterprise. We want authors and publishers, customers local and distant, readers, reviewers, other booksellers and yes in short, other book people to eventually find and follow us. Why? Obviously because this is our tribe. Less obviously because we want the people who make books to be reminded of our name just as we want people who buy books to come to us. Part of being a bookstore in the actual world these days requires a presence in the virtual. It isn't just a matter of having a proper, working, searchable website, hosting book-signings and events, being part of the wider community. More than ever a bookstore must be seen to be selling books.
I am so old in this business that I remember doing inventory on index cards and calling in orders on the telephone, etc. Not so long ago as all that, I was one of the dear old parties absolutely mystified by the idea that bookstores actually needed computers at all. Having been persuaded of the practical benefits, I was still skeptical of things like email advertisement and extensive customer records. Slow learner, me. I don't miss those earlier bookstore days. Fundamentally the business hasn't changed. We still order in books we hope will sell and return the ones that don't. We still do display work and set up lecterns for readings and tables for signings. We still try to find a book recommendation for someone vacationing in Croatia. (Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia if it's a long trip, Dubravka Ugrešić if one's feeling intellectually adventurous.) What has changed besides my bad attitude is the increasingly performative nature of doing anything involving other people; being seen to be alive, as it were. With that I came very late to the game.
I won't rehearse all the pearl-clutching done about this, even just among my fellow print-addicts and pushers. I will admit to my own confusion when I read something in the newspapers (!) about "reading cafes" where people congregated in hotel lobbies and coffee shops just to read silently but in a group. What now? Why? And yes, back in the day I was one of the sniggering cretins who scoffed at the idea of Oprah Winfrey hosting a book club. (!!!) I know. Covered in shame. (Hey, if I was going to go back and change anything about my time in the book business, I would probably time-travel to the basement of Stacey's Bookstore in the eighties when we were hosting informal groups of computer programmers who chatted about COBAL. I'd ask them for stock tips though, not why BASIC was cool.) For all the very real and lasting damage done to the business of books by the internet and the great merchant barons who exploited its commercial potential, I despise nostalgia and the regressive wish to return to imaginary golden ages. That shop Orwell clerked in was a filthy hole, remember. Worked in a couple of those myself.
Whatever the wider cultural implications of the Information Revolution, it has already happened. The tumbrils rolled, the mighty fell, and many a great bookshop went down to dusty death. Kim Kardashian is already a published author. I'm allowed to still miss video stores and record shops, but that's that. Like everyone else in what some still persist in describing as the Western World, I have benefited at least as much as the next person from the innovations I did not recognize as they came along. I can write essays on my telephone. I can show the guy in the hardware store a picture of the required curtain rod. If I have absolutely no other option, I can read a poem by Andrew Marvel off a screen. For two hours I can host a monthly book club from a comfortable chair and chat with people in ten different cities and at least two other countries to date.
Part of the change has been to recognize that it is not enough to talk with just the customers who've come in. It is not something upon which one can count anymore. Honestly, it never was, at least in my time. Special orders, international shipping, book fairs and conventions and off-site sales, we've all been doing this stuff for decades. The idea that a bookshop is a quaint little corner where browsers contentedly roam the silent aisles? I've worked in seven bookstores, new and used, in independents and at least one chain store. None of them were that, or not for long. None. Bookstores are hives of often unseen or never noticed activity. Bookstores are work. To create the tranquility readers seek, to keep the books people want and need requires constant renewal; rolling carts, busy shelvers, returns and reorders and attention everywhere to what is and isn't seen. Bookstores are theater or they are dead. Bookstores are also interactions with not just our regular customers and the new ones we always hope to attract, but also with authors and literature and the wider world.
In her new book, Reading Dangerously: The Subversive Power of Literature in Troubled Times (a picture of which I posted to Instagram this morning,) Iranian American author Azar Nafisi writes admiringly of James Baldwin. Rather than "shunning Western culture and the traditions associated with whiteness, he appropriated them," and more, he "took from it what he needed, and then changed and redefined it by making it his own. That is literature at its best: a creative and empowering exchange with the other. With others." And that is what bookstore do, must do. That kind of engagement not just with the books and people we love, but "with the other" and with others is the way we survive.
What could be more "other" to dusty old booksellers like me than a whole generation who spend their waking lives looking at screens? Posting to Instagram, and Twitter, and Facebook for the old folks, all of this is not actually so different from what we booksellers have always done. We're peddlers, putting the goods out for passersby, trying to draw the eye, to sell the stock. It's better to be honest than not. We needn't agree with every choice a reader may make, anymore than we need promote books we don't think are good. We must be open to the reality that we cannot read everything, know everything, be everything to everyone. We serve the reader. Not the same thing as endorsing their tastes or catering to prejudices we do not share. Part of our contribution is to represent and recommend what we think are better books. We can't make people read them. We can only suggest that they should.
A bookseller without opinions is just another warehouse worker, stuffing "items" into bags. There's already a business model for that. Quite successful. Not our thing. A bookstore that offers its customers nothing but pictures of visiting dogs and stacks of new Tuesday releases isn't doing a bit of harm to anyone. Everybody, well nearly everybody likes dogs, and bookstore cats, and stacks of bright new bestsellers. I certainly like some of those things. Neutrality is dangerous though, in retail as in life. I would never intentionally offend our customers, even by omission. Doesn't mean I'm going to feature that-book-no-one-asked-for-that-grandpa-gave-everyone last Christmas, or avoid a post about current affairs. There has to be a point of view. If a bookseller's only point of view is a passion for pretty things and bright colors, that is still a point of view. Doesn't make it inferior to or better than mine, just not mine.
I remember the days when our biggest competition, the biggest threat to independent bookstores came from huge chain-stores, when we all spent years fighting for competitive discounts and protesting when corporations opened their bookstore across the street from established bookstores. (Bastards.) One of the consistent responses to the pretty new Borders stores -- and yes, they were all consistently pretty -- was to try to reproduce that shiny new uniformity of shelves and signage and promotion in every belovedly ramshackle, rabbit warren independent. No hand-lettered signs! No weird display windows! No eccentric costumes or odd clerks! Professionalism was the new watchword, which translated into Barnes & Noble without the budget. It was sad, child, sad. And we were wrong. Did no good. Individuality was the one thing we had and we junked it for new carpeting and clean aprons. Didn't save a single independent shop. Ultimately it didn't save Borders either, or Crown, or Waldenbooks, or B. Dalton either. The internet marketplace was no respecter of the tidy shelf or the sleek flyer.
The independents that survived did so by embracing their brass, taking up their old chalkboards, redeploying their weird. Can't discount the importance of the practical, like efficiency and geography, but the face of a good bookstore can't be just stock-photo browsers and visiting dogs. Bookstores need booksellers, not "sales associates." Our individuality is part of the stock.
So making a show of what we like, on the sales floor and the internet and whenever and wherever we may is all part of being in business now. The pictures I post may not be part of carefully calibrated campaigns, and the accompanying text may not be always approved copy, but that is very much as it should be. In the end we are all amateurs, we booksellers or we are nothing. If not for the love of books we would not be in business, nor should we be.
So let me show you a new book about the history of the Cuban sandwich. Here's a debut novel that's exactly what you need to be reading. Just look at this pretty thing, it's a new children's book about the migratory route of the Arctic Tern! Have I mentioned our book of the month? And this one's a poetry collection inspired by the Ramayan. Oh. Yes, you're right. That is a picture of the cutest puppy that came in to check out our display of classic dog books. We're not monsters, you know.