I support the freedom of speech and freedom of the press. I work in a local bookstore, one of the last bastions of free speech. I’m also lucky enough, that in my role as the assistant manager at a local independent bookstore, I’ve been featured in local publications three times in as many years, the most recently this past weekend.
My favorite books of the last few years have been the memoirs and biographies of journalists, specifically those of Lynsey Addario, Marie Colvin and Martha Gellhorn. So when a local Philadelphia journalist approached me about writing an article about the store a few weeks ago, I said yes. Not just because I wanted to be in the paper and online, but because I want to support our journalists in reporters in their efforts to tell the truth. Why so important in this particular instance? Because she wanted to talk about my least favorite shelf space in the store: the politics section.
My boss and I sat down with Maria Panaritis, and talked about how that section has changed since the election of 2016. And admittedly, I had some sleepless nights before hand, agonizing about what I could say that wouldn’t alienate any of our customers. Because even the customers with different political ideologies than me, still choose to support a local bookstore and I vowed not to forget that. I love our customers, and I want to represent them, just as much as the store. And thankfully, the feedback so far has been positive. For your reading pleasure, if you so choose, are the three articles I mentioned at the start.
One of my favorite parts of my job at a local independent bookstore is hosting author events. Sometimes, this is also the most stressful part of my job. We’ve hosted events for everyone from our local self-published picture book authors to national, and international, bestsellers. And each and every event is different, based on the author, audience, and publisher. Sometimes things go incredibly well, and sometimes we weather complete catastrophes.
The Debut or Little Known Author
On Tuesday we hosted debut novelist Mathangi Subramanian to discuss her book, A People’s History of Heaven. I was super excited to have her come to the store, as the bookstore is one of very few independent bookstores owned by an immigrant, my boss, the owner, is from India. As Mathangi’s book is set in India and the area around the bookstore has a sizable Indian population, it seemed like the perfect fit. But no one RSVPed to attend our event. We’d had a few people buy the book, but we were nervous we’d be asking her to speak to an empty space. It’s a fine line to walk with events – do you cancel? Do cross your fingers and hope for the best? Rarely do we cancel, though we have had to do so before, especially if the author was traveling a great distance, we don’t want to waste their time.
Thankfully, a debut or little known author is usually grateful for any and all exposure we can offer them and no one has ever gotten upset with me for no one showing up. These events can either be boring, or exciting. If we don’t have other projects to work on at the store, we can spend the allotted time chatting with the author, their family, and learn more about them and the book and we can help spread the word about it. Often, if the turnout is disappointing, we’ll revisit having an event later, if possible, once we’ve had a chance to spread the word.
The Local (Celebrity) Author
These events make up the bread and butter of our in store events. Being in the Philadelphia area, when Ray Didinger released the updated edition of the Eagles Encyclopedia, we hosted his book launch. This was an exciting event, a, because I’m an Eagles fan, and b, it was sure to be a popular event. With a popular event, but a small publisher, there’s a greater chance of something going wrong. In this instance, we discovered about a quarter of the books had a printing error, and had to scramble to get the books in stock, given how many we had pre-sold for the event. Thankfully, Ray was delightful and the event went smoothly.
Often with a local (celebrity) author, they think they’re hot sh*t and that they’re doing us a favor by gracing us with their presence at the store. Oftentimes these are authors who do not have agents, publicists, or event editors and have self-published their own books. We had one man hound us repeatedly to put his book on the counter, would re-arrange all of our displays, drive away our customers by standing at the door and shoving his book in their face and follow them around the store, and then called us incompetent for not bringing in hundreds of people to his signing after he changed the date three times.
The local author is the most difficult event to predict how it’s going to go – it can be lovely and delightful, or it can be a nightmare, along with anything in between.
The Bestselling Author
I think it’s almost like celebrities, some are wonderful, some are ones you don’t want to meet because you’ve heard stories about them ahead of time. We’re lucky to have two wonderful bestselling authors who call us their home bookstore, Lisa Scottoline & Elin Hilderbrand. They are both absolutely wonderful human beings and delightful to work with (they’re books are pretty good too!), they bring in hundreds of people to the store which is always a logistical challenge. This summer will be my 4th event with each of these two ladies (they both come by the store every summer), and I’m just starting to find that I’m finally getting the hang of it. For those who love attending events, here are some frequently asked questions I get in the lead up to a big event and immediately after, and the answers I normally provide:
Question 1: Do I have to buy the book from your store?
Answer 1: Yep! The publishers send their authors on tour and pick our store as a stop because we promise them a certain number of sales. If the event is at a local independent bookstore, you should buy your book from them anyway to support your local economy. Often other markets will charge more for the book to be signed. At an indie, you’re getting a book and the opportunity to interact with someone you admire, for the sticker price of the new book.
Question 2: Can I bring my mom/dad/sister/best friend/co-worker with me?
Answer 2: Of course! The more the merrier! However, if they don’t share your enthusiasm for the author, please consider the other fans when saving seats, standing in line for the signing, etc.
Question 3: Will the author personalize my book/take a picture with me/have a 20 minute conversation with me?
Answer 3: Authors are generally incredibly kind and gracious people – they know that they wouldn’t be in the position they are if not for their loyal readers like you! However, each sets their own rules on pictures and personalization, and when you want to have a lengthy conversation, please be considerate of the people waiting in line behind you, and the staff who have to stay longer than the last person in line who have usually already been working for 8 hours by the time it’s your turn in line.
Question 3: Why did you do this particular thing this particular way?
Answer 3: Because the author/their publicist/publisher/etc. wants it that way. We are often asked why we don’t move our two biggest events out of the store and to a bigger venue – we get complaints that the store is overcrowded, we should just close for the event, we ran out of seating, etc. It’s hard to explain to people that we know our limitations and we do our best to accommodate everyone, but that if we more the event outside the store, we can’t utilize our new wine bar. Trust me, the staff want you to have an enjoyable time.
When people find out I work at a bookstore, invariably one of their first reactions is “I wish I could read at work!” They are often shocked to find that I do not have any spare time at work for reading. I’m working. My friend Amanda who works at a call center has way more time to read than I do. So below, I thought it would be fun to share my bookstore life with you!
My Role: Manager of a Local Independent Bookstore
As the manager of an indie bookstore, the Towne Book Center & Wine Bar in Collegeville, Pennsylvania, about a 45 minute drive northwest out of Philadelphia, I wear many different hats and am first and foremost a bookseller and that will be my focus this week!
I am the sort of reader who really doesn’t like asking for or taking other people’s recommendations. I read off the wall sort of stuff and, not to be arrogant or anything, but typically have read the big series before they blew up, especially when it comes to young adult works. So when I took my job, I was shocked to discover that I’m in the minority – most people like recommendations and they come into our store because they like ours in particular. As someone who has never had a problem dolling out recommendations (just ask my sister!), I enjoy curating our staff pick selection, writing blurbs (mini-reviews) of them, and sharing them with other people. I tend to read across a lot of genres, so I usually have a pretty good repertoire in my head to recommend.
All booksellers must know the alphabet backwards and forwards and we are expected to know at the drop of the hat if we have a book on the shelf at any given time – shelving (or receiving) is the best way to become familiar with the store’s inventory. However, there are over 10,000 titles on our shelves, and yet it never fails to surprise me when people are surprised that I don’t know exactly where an obscure title is or when they find out that I haven’t read every book on the shelf.
Being an independent bookstore means we get to create all of our own displays! Yay! We have 35 different displays in the store and we change them. Monthly. That means we have to come up with 420 unique displays every year. Sure some are recycled from year to year, but we usually brainstorm all new displays every month, every year. It’s fun, but sometimes you get burnt out and wish you had someone else telling you what to put out. Please consider this an open invite – if you have an idea, let me know! We come up with them all together as a staff each month and the publishers will occasionally offer ideas, but we can always use more!
It’s the 21st century – bookstores that don’t have active social media accounts are losing out. The woman who runs our social media account relies on all of us to help come up with ideas for it and it’s so much fun. Last week I did my first “bookface” post on our store Instagram, the same picture used for my review of Girl Logic by Iliza Shlesinger and it’s now our top post, as well as my top post on my Celebration of Books account.