We all know that a special kind of magic happens in a bookstore. Call it literary magic. After all, bookstores exist for readers to find books—books that will entertain, educate, and expand their minds; books they will come to love, books that may even change their lives. Online retail notwithstanding, it is there, in the bookstore, when a bookseller talks to a customer, understands that customer’s needs, and puts just the right book into waiting hands: At that moment the connection is made between writer and reader.
It goes without saying that the bookseller is a very important person indeed. And there are many amazingly talented and thoughtful booksellers out there. They know their books, they know their authors, and they know their customers. Magicians, all of them. But there is a smaller group of booksellers who double the magic. They not only sell books but they also write them. A number of prominent authors, including Ann Patchett, Jeff Kinney, Louise Erdrich, and Judy Blume, have made the leap into bookselling and are putting their personal touch on the store environment. Who knows? Wander into the right store and the person who is selling you a book just might be the person who wrote it.
Ann Patchett opened Parnassus Books in Nashville, along with her business partner, Karen Hayes, in November 2011. The best-selling author, whose new novel, Commonwealth, is published in September by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins, had watched Nashville go without a bookstore for too long. Both Borders and local indie Davis-Kidd had closed, and community meetings were held to discuss the situation.
“There was a lot of talk in Nashville about who was going to open a store,” says Patchett. “I kept thinking, ‘Somebody is going to figure this out.’ It was not my dream to open a bookstore.” But when Hayes approached her with the idea, Patchett jumped in. “I made the decision so quickly to open the bookstore,” says Patchett. “I met Karen on April 30, 2011. We opened on November 15, 2011. That gives you some insight to how much thought I put into it.”
Hayes manages the day-to-day business, while Patchett has carved out her own important niche. “My exact role is benevolent overlord,” she says with a laugh. Her authorial celebrity does come in handy: “There are things that I do. I can bring in an author. If something is stuck, I can make a phone call and get it unstuck very quickly.” Patchett also greatly enjoys recommending books, and she is heavily involved in the store’s First Editions Club, whose members receive signed copies of books chosen by Patchett and store staff each month. “I have this book-recommending persona and energy,” she says. “I have good taste in books and I read a ton.”
Patchett’s entry into bookselling garnered lots of press, and her involvement drives traffic to the store. She spends a lot of time there but sometimes prefers to remain behind the scenes. “I’m in and out all the time, but there are days I’m not up to going on the floor. I go in the back, I see everybody, I do what I need to do—get mail, have meetings, sign books—then walk out the back door.”
For her, it’s a matter of juggling her roles as Ann Patchett, author, and Ann Patchett, bookseller, each of which demands a different type of energy. “When I have a book out and I put my Ann Patchett suit on and go out on tour, that’s one thing,” she explains. “But there are days when I think, ‘I can’t be her today. I don’t have the energy, I don’t have it in me.’ It’s totally easier for me to appear as Ann Patchett, small-business owner and bookseller, than to appear as Ann Patchett, author.”
As a business owner Patchett does a lot of local outreach, speaking at Rotary clubs, high schools, luncheons, and more. And she enjoys the feeling of being part of the Nashville community and giving back to that community by sharing her love of books. “If they say, ‘I love a book you recommended,’ everything in me expands and opens out,” she says. It’s good for her, and it’s good for the bookstore.
Jeff Kinney, whose Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Double Down is forthcoming from Amulet Books in November, visited Patchett’s Parnassus when he was thinking about opening a bookstore of his own. The Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, which Kinney started back in 2007 and has since grown to include films, TV specials, and countless other spin-offs, keeps the author busy, but he added one more item to the list when, in May 2015, he opened An Unlikely Story Bookstore & Café in Plainville, Massachusetts.
Kinney started by purchasing a historic building in the center of town, unsure of exactly how it might be used. When the building turned out to be unstable and had to be razed, he had a new one designed and built in its place. “We built a building to serve the community, without a plan for what, exactly, might live in the building. After a lot of deliberation and planning, we realized a bookstore was the best way to serve a community.”
Kinney believes the store is an important addition to the formerly industrial town of around eight thousand residents. “One-year-old kids and great-great-grandfathers, and everybody in between, benefit from a bookstore,” he says. “We’ve seen this in action since we opened, and it’s very rewarding.”
Kinney stays very involved in the workings of the store. “I’m in the building every day,” he says. “I work on the third floor in a studio. I often eat in the café. I would say I’m an active owner and I’m very keen to provide a great experience to anyone stopping in.”
His experience as an author has played an important role in shaping the store’s environment and event planning. Kinney says: “I’ve been lucky to have visited hundreds of bookstores in the United States and abroad, and I’ve been able to take elements of each to create what I feel is the ideal environment for book lovers. As an author, I’ve done signings and presentations of all shapes and sizes, and I’m able to use that perspective to help make sure our author events are great for visiting authors and for their readers.”
Like Kinney, Peter H. Reynolds is a children’s book author—his charmingly illustrated picture books, such as The Dot, offer inspiring messages to be who you were meant to be—and he thought it sad that his hometown of Dedham, Massachusetts, had no bookstore. His store came about in a burst of artistic inspiration when he visited the local tailor and learned he was about to retire. “I wondered what would fill the space. I turned to leave and looked at the tin ceilings and wooden floors and there it was. A flash of color, and images of bookshelves, puppets, art supplies piled high. I went home and sketched it out and that became the inspiration for the Blue Bunny Book Shop.”
Blue Bunny Books & Toys was founded in 2003 and is deeply rooted in what Reynolds believes is his mission. “It felt great to bring my mission to my own backyard in a very tangible way. My work takes me around the world, sharing my message about creativity, but I am a big believer that we all should use our talents, time, gifts, and resources to make a difference locally.” Reynolds works in a studio across the street; whatever he writes will eventually be sold mere steps away.
He greatly enjoys customer interaction. “I’ll pop in a few times a day for a coffee—we recently added an espresso bar—and surprise customers buying my books with an offer to sign and personalize them. That’s a lot of fun for me. I have been hanging out at the shop from around 10 AM to 1 PM almost every Saturday for the past thirteen years. My staff knows to call me if we have folks who have trekked a long way to make their pilgrimage to my bookshop.”
Reynolds, Kinney, and Patchett can all easily articulate the reasons they enjoy being part of the life of a bookstore: from serving the community to helping guide books they love into readers’ hands. The work is fueled by the essential love of books that drives them as both writers and readers. Louise Erdrich shares many of the same sentiments.
Erdrich, whose newest novel, LaRose, was published by Harper this past May, was also driven to become a bookstore owner by a passion for books. “My daughters and I opened a bookstore because we wanted something that we could do together centered around our love of books,” she says. The mission of Birchbark Books & Native Arts, located in Minneapolis, is focused on Native American intellectual life, so its inventory includes not only many related titles, but also Native arts and crafts.
Unlike Kinney, who did extensive research before opening his store, and hired bookstore consultants Paz & Associates to help plan it, Erdrich says her endeavor was more of an evolution. “We had no idea what we were doing. It took years to find the right people, the right combination of books, the right layout for the books.” Ultimately, she feels she has found what is, for her, the heart of bookselling. “Having the bookstore, I’ve found, is not about the books but about the people who sell the books. And of course the book lovers who are our customers.”
Erdrich wonders what it is about her position as an author that enhances her role as bookstore owner. “I know there is something special, but it is hard to articulate,” she says. “Perhaps I have a perspective as a writer that I sprinkle onto the books like the dust of ages.”
Like Patchett, Erdrich stays apart from daily management of the store, but she is frequently on-site. “Every day or every couple of days I stop in to sign books, read mail, go over bills, or cheer our people on.” Like Patchett, she sees her primary role as a writer. “I also have to keep my day job in case we have a lean couple of months—that’s pretty crucial.”
For every author-bookseller, the store environment is special. “My favorite thing is to go into the store at night when everyone is gone, and rummage through the new books and the advanced readers editions, always looking for the unexpected great read, or a new book by a favorite writer,” Erdrich says. “I like how quiet it is, just the babble of people eating at the restaurant next door, or in the street, and the silence of the books and me.”
When she joins in the bookselling and recommending, she finds it greatly rewarding. “Sometimes I sell books too, and find it gratifying when I can persuade a customer to try a book I’ve loved. When that person tells me they loved the book, I have a peculiar sense of happiness.”
Joining this happy community whose members love nothing more than sharing the love of a good book is Emily Russo, whose store, Print: A Bookstore, is opening in October in Portland, Maine. “Bookstores are where I am happiest,” says the new store owner. She developed a love of bookstores not only through her own bookselling experience at the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, Massachusetts, and at Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn, New York, but also through her family: Her father and business partner is novelist Richard Russo. “The store will be my daughter’s,” he says, “but it took me about half a second to say yes when she asked me to be involved as its ‘goodwill ambassador.’”
When Emily and her husband moved to Russo’s home state of Maine, they discovered a booming and thriving Portland. “There were already two magnificent bookstores in Portland,” she says, “but we found that the city needed another one.” She chose Munjoy Hill in the East End of Portland to put down bookstore roots, and there she plans to support the thriving literary community by featuring local writers, as well as to “showcase as many diverse points of view as we possibly can.”
Richard Russo has long been an outspoken supporter of independent bookstores, so his involvement here seems like a natural extension of that support. And like Patchett and Erdrich, he recognizes that his name is what matters here. “I don’t know that authors like myself bring much to the table besides their name and celebrity—or such celebrity as authors have,” he says. “That’s the thing about indie booksellers. They’re incredibly smart and beyond dedicated to a job that isn’t calculated to make them rich. They don’t need much help besides an honest shot at success. A ‘celebrity owner’ helps to level a playing field that presently tilts toward would-be e-tailer monopolists, who have and exploit a great many advantages.”
The Russos also plan to throw their support behind up-and-coming new writers, both by featuring their work in the store—Emily looks forward to discovering this work in her new role as buyer—and through a conversation series, which the elder Russo will lead.
The author with perhaps the greatest deal of bookselling longevity is Lawrence Ferlinghetti of City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco. The legendary poet opened the store in 1953 in large part to create a spot where he and his writer friends could hang out, a store that stayed open on evenings and weekends and had an atmosphere that wasn’t old-school-bookstore stuffy. At the time, lower-priced paperback books were only just beginning to be published, and many bookstores did not yet carry them. “There was no real place for writers to gather and find the kinds of literature that was beginning to cause such shifts in social consciousness,” says Elaine Katzenberger, City Lights’ publisher and executive director.
Katzenberger describes the store’s reception: “As Ferlinghetti tells the story, it was an immediate hit. ‘We opened the doors and couldn’t close them!’ From the beginning, the store was open until late at night—until 1 or 2 AM in the early years—and all weekend, and it became a real locus for the literary and alternative culture community.”
The store still serves the same purpose today, and Katzenberger says the store’s mission remains firm. “I’d say that our role as a public space that’s not overrun with pop culture and corporate commodities being pushed at people with ad money, where people are invited to think and experience and choose for themselves, and where they’re going to be challenged, above all, is more important than ever in these days of fully realized 24/7 global capitalism.”
Over time, Ferlinghetti the poet and Ferlinghetti the bookstore owner have become inseparable. “Lawrence Ferlinghetti was always a part of the community he was interested in nurturing through the bookstore and its publishing arm—an international avant-garde of writers, artists, activists, and bohemians,” says Katzenberger. “As his poetry career blossomed, the many opportunities and invitations to travel to partake in literary festivals and poetry readings meant that he became an international ambassador for City Lights—a symbol for what the bookstore–publishing enterprise meant.”
The poet created and supported the bookstore, and the bookstore nourished the poet. “I’d say those two currents of his life’s work most definitely support and benefit each other,” says Katzenberger. “Lawrence is one of the world’s most beloved poets, and that has much to do with A Coney Island of the Mind, but it has much to do with City Lights as well.”
Other long-standing members of the author-bookseller community continue to thrive, such as Larry McMurtry (Booked Up in Archer City, Texas) and Garrison Keillor (Common Good Books in St. Paul), and new members seem to be joining the club on a regular basis. One of these is author Judy Blume, who, with her husband, George Cooper, and in partnership with Mitchell Kaplan of Florida’s Books & Books chain, opened Books & Books @ The Studios of Key West in early 2016.
Like Patchett, Kinney, and so many other booksellers, Blume stepped up because her Key West community had no bookstore; the last one closed five years ago. “We’re a community of artists, writers, readers,” she says. “We are the home of the annual Key West Literary Seminar. We had to have a bookstore.”
In some ways, Blume says, it’s not always a positive thing for writers to see the business of selling books from the inside. “It breaks my heart when it’s time to return books,” she says, citing the practice of sending unsold books back to the publisher. But overall, she, like her fellow best-selling booksellers, is moved by the experience of putting the book in a customer’s hands. “I love hand-selling. I’m thrilled when I get to introduce a reader to a writer I love, or a book I’ve just read. I love putting board books into the hands of babies. It’s gratifying when a customer comes in asking for a title—yesterday it was This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff—and I was able to hand it to him.” This, of course, is bookstore magic at work. Blume continues: “Every day I’m thankful I have place to go filled with books and readers.”
Back at Parnassus Books, they recently broke down the walls into the adjoining empty store next door and nearly doubled their space, so clearly things are going well. In Nashville, Minneapolis, Portland, San Francisco, Key West, and all the other places these well-loved stores exist, communities are cohering around them. “My livelihood depends on people buying my books. It is a real blessing to create stories and see them make their way to readers,” says Peter Reynolds, “but I depend on the power of independent booksellers to connect the dots with customers. Booksellers are curators of that very large pool of possibilities.
“My advice to authors and illustrators: Find your local booksellers and hug them!”
Lynn Rosen is co-owner of the Open Book Bookstore in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania.