Notebook: Booksellers Look Ahead, Part II

by Ann Kjellberg, editor

The Raven Book Store in Lawrence, Kansas, currently closed to browsing and reincarnated as a neighborhood book distribution center. Also distributing automotively

(This is the second of a two-part post. Read Part I here!)

A central tool for booksellers in this virtual world is the newsletter. Booksellers use their newsletters to remain connected to those readers who returned to them from afar and who stumbled on them through social media, to channel their talents for recommendation and selection, and to fashion a sense of identity in the ethersphere. Danny Caine, who didn’t have a newsletter before the pandemic, has been experimenting with speaking to readers personally through the Raven’s newsletter and encourages the staff to write up their recommendations and little essays about bookselling life. Carole Horne says Harvard Book Store has been experimenting with how to get their new newsletter to behave like displays in the store.

What to do with events remains a conundrum. In-person author events had been a staple of the indie revival: a way for bookstores to connect with readers, ride the tide of publicity for new books, put their stores on the map of their town. It is of course a tremendous boon now to be able to host an author event virtually that can reach around the world both for participants and audience, but one is competing with everything else in the universe. (The Washington Post is trying to assemble a master-calendar, if one is trying to keep up.) And the events have become pretty much decoupled from book-buying, in spite of measures like signed bookplates to record the encounter with a real-life author. Suzanne DeGaetano said she had had one event, on Facebook live, with a local author writing about a beloved local figure that got a large audience, including relatives and enthusiasts all over, and sold a lot of books: the magic formula seemed to be enabling a very local experience that was meaningful to people far and wide. One senses as well that a certain amount of Zoom-fatigue may be setting in. Many booksellers and I agreed that perhaps what one is offering with a book is something different than yet another video-conference: a quieter, analogue, personal experience to return to in a world of buzzing virtual connections. The catalogs and newsletters may be a more natural vehicle for such experiences.

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Undeniably the economics of virtual bookselling, where booksellers have less opportunity to place the unexpected in your path, will load importance on the few already-big books that publishers and booksellers know will sell, and in times of such profound economic uncertainty booksellers are obliged to order conservatively. The quarantine will likely contribute to the forces of consolidation and relative silencing of the smaller and more eccentric throughout the world of ideas (see our last week’s Book Notes on big tech’s congressional hearing on monopoly and their unseemly haul this quarter amidst worldwide economic meltdown). Small presses and more specialized endeavors will suffer without the in-person ministrations of enthusiastic booksellers. Even the knickknacks that booksellers sold you at the register to help buoy the bottom line are mostly gone from the equation in a virtual bookstore.

Amidst this contraction, however, booksellers told me they felt mysterious currents at work influencing what people read. Jeff Deutsch said he had been surprised by the continuity of sales of single copies of books, always a point of pride in a store that made a habit of keeping on its shelves worthy books waiting for their very own readers. Suzanne DeGaetano said that the surge in sales of books on anti-racism included many—literature, poetry, history—that were not on the widely publicized lists. People were receiving their book recommendations through other channels—friends? social media? other reading?—and acting on them. Suzanne noted that her store’s book clubs are flourishing—echoing the surprise many of us have felt at some group experiences’ ready e-transformation, perhaps a function of the sincerity of the participants’ sense of connection. When the immediate lockdown interrupted refreshment of stores’ shelves with new books, booksellers noticed upon opening that they could readily sell “from the backlist,” older and classic books, by selecting and displaying them with an eye to their readership. Readers spending more time at home and wrestling with historic crises were found to have an appetite both for weightier books that demand long attention and for escapism. “I’ve had the thought that we are becoming better booksellers despite all of it,” said Danny Caine. “We have to work a lot harder to meet customers where they are and meeting customers where they are is a big part of good bookselling.”

Everything about this new way of living is going to focus our attention on mass experiences. The election this fall and the collapse of so many of our sources of more nuanced thinking (like small publishing: live performance, in-person learning, serendipitous encounters) is going to fill our depopulated public space with a roar. The big books will have their advertising budgets and talk-show features and news stories and you will see them everywhere. In the midst of all this, think of your bookstore as a laboratory for nourishing vulnerable things. Find a bookstore that speaks to you, keep up with it. (Even clicking on it, and linking to it, boosts it in the all-powerful algorithms.) Think of connecting your business to it. Plan ahead for the holidays and help it out with early orders, or buy gift cards there for your friends. See what unexpected ideas they are coming up with. Think not only of what a place (so to speak) like this has to offer you, but perhaps even more importantly what it offers the person who may not have discovered yet what reading has for them. The person who might have surprised themselves by seeing something in a bookstore window and walking in the door, or whatever virtual equivalent we are able to find for that. Because we need that doorway on all our streets, whether real or virtual, if we want to outgrow a moment when only simple and loud ideas are able to thrive.

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