This is the first post in an ongoing series about being a rookie bookseller and a slightly-more-than rookie writer.
I have always loved bookstores. Instead of summer camp, my mom used to drop me off at the Borders near her office, where I’d spend hours nestled in the aisles of different sections, a packed lunch on hand. Bookstores are no doubt a big reason for why I became a writer, whether by feeding my appetite for reading or by feeding my burgeoning ego with the idea that one day I could be on the other side, my name attached to a book waiting to be bought. What I had not imagined was that one day I would be on the other other side: I would be working as a bookseller at a bookstore, in the very town where Borders was born.
For the past two months, I’ve been working at a frankly gorgeous independent bookstore called Literati. It is both cozy and airy, it is thoughtfully curated, it smells amazing, and it is messing me up. Let me rewind.
When I first came into my MFA program, a fellow classmate remarked that he could no longer read without thinking about his own writing. “It kind of ruins the reading experience,” he said. I responded, with great empathy, “Gross.”
But, three years later, as I’ve spent more time at work around readers who are not writers, who are not college or graduate students, I have to admit that my relationship to reading, to books, to talking about and writing about reading and books, has not been living inside a vacuum. Without my realizing it, this relationship is a very different beast than the one I had nurtured during my “summer camp” days. After I had realized the change, however, all the signs popped up, like worms drawn out by the rain.
One memory in particular keeps surfacing, of me preparing for my Literati interview. The afternoon before the interview, I spent a feverish hour typing up a recommendation for a book, in case I was asked to demonstrate my salesmanship. I timed myself reading my words over and over again. The recommendation felt a little on the long side. I couldn’t quite get it under five minutes. Already, you can see where I am going with this. Finally, I decided I was happy with my pitch on Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment. I was even a little impressed by it. Just as a precaution though, I did a test run on a friend.
He interrupted me halfway through my spiel. “This is way too much,” he said. “I don’t need all this information.”
“I can’t cut any of this!” I said. “What information do you need?”
“What is it about?” he asked. “And did you like it?”
Luckily for me, I did not have to recommend a book at the interview. It is possible that if I had, I would not have gotten the job. By the way, for those who are curious, here what I would have said about Ferrante’s book, had my friend not intervened:
I would recommend Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment. Ferrante Fever is sweeping America right now, and rightfully so. She is one of the only authors that I can say deserves all the hype and more. I loved her Neapolitan novels, they’re a tremendous project, but I would recommend her stand-alone novel Days of Abandonment first, because you get the full blast of Ferrante’s power. Like many great novels do, it has a really simple premise. A woman has been abandoned by her husband. He takes up with another woman, after years of happy marriage, leaves her alone with their two young children and German Shepherd dog, and she has no idea where he’s gone, or who he’s left her for. So we start at this breaking point, and then we continue. We are in the thick of it, witnessing a woman who has been polite and mild-mannered and pretty all her life lose control of her previous identity as she breaks down, while also desperately trying to hold onto how she used to be because she still has to take care of her children, and she still wants to win her husband back. I have never described another novel as this, but this novel is ferocious. Her prose can be described as bare, but I see it as unhindered, streamlined, so that it can race along at almost the same speed as the human emotions it’s portraying. It’s a responsible novel, so it doesn’t leave you and Olga in a nosedive into oblivion. At some point, the world restabilizes, time passes, and we get to be there also for the rebuilding.
My god. Looking at that giant block of text now, I feel assaulted. Less dramatically, I feel talked at. There’s no room for another person with all those words, all that analysis. Had I spent all those years talking about books without ever really having a conversation about them? I gave presentations on books, workshopped books, picked apart books, but I had to admit, it had been a while since I’d simply shared a book with another person. I couldn’t, at first, understand how that was possible.
I have hand-sold Ferrante’s novel multiple times at Literati in the brief time I’ve been there. Here is what I say now when someone asks me for a recommendation: “Have you heard of Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment? I loved it. I read it in an afternoon. It’s about a woman whose husband leaves her. I recommend it to everybody.”
And that’s on the longer side. A lot of times, all I have to say is: “I loved it. I couldn’t put it down.”
I had forgotten that I was allowed to talk about my feelings when recommending a book. Not just allowed, but encouraged. Not that I wasn’t “allowed” to talk about how a book made me feel when surrounded by other writers or students; it just seemed that one’s feelings were beside the point. Yes, yes, this book made you feel happy, the characters made you feel like you knew them, but why did it make you feel that way? My further education was always trying to break me out of this mold of feeling without thinking. In college, I couldn’t write a paper on how a book made me feel. In graduate school, I couldn’t workshop a short story by only saying, “I liked this, do more of it. I didn’t like this, do less.”
As is my tendency, during my first few weeks at Literati I convinced myself that everything my English major and MFA had taught me was trash. I am a strong team player, too strong at times, and I was all in on Team Feelings. But all heart, just like all head, is an ill-balanced diet. After all, didn’t I also talk to customers about the influences we saw of one book on another? Didn’t people ask me about the quality of the prose and other craft elements? It finally sunk in that maybe the best way to recommend a book was to listen to what the person was asking for — a memoir with humor and heart; a short story collection that had new perspectives on America; or just something you really loved. Maybe, when people asked me, “What did you think?” they were also asking, “How did it make you feel?”
There doesn’t seem to be a magic formula for recommending a book, whether I’m discussing it in class, selling one to a customer, or just generally raving to a friend. Being in one environment for too long, however, can convince me that there is. So I’m grateful to add one more spoke to my wheel, on my journey to becoming well-rounded … in the most specific way possible. I read books, I write books, and now, I sell books.