Inside Indie Bookstores: McNally Jackson Books in New York City

Jeremiah Chamberlin

What would be the highest compliment you could receive from a customer?
I think it’s always the same, which is they found and loved books that they would never have otherwise found. Ultimately, that is my service. That can be the only service that independent bookstores provide, because we no longer are the exclusive purveyors of these things. That’s the only reason why we should exist.

To put good books in the hands of people.
Yeah. Matchmaking, you know? That’s the bookseller’s role. If we do it well, we’ll stay relevant. If we don’t do it well, we won’t.

And what do you most want to have achieved in the next six years of business?
I want this store to really have a feeling of being so deeply curated. Because I don’t want to exist just for the sake of existing, but to really feel essential to the culture.

On average, how many books do you stock?

Forty thousand.

What are the best-selling sections in your store?
Literature, art, and design.

What books did you most enjoy selling in 2010?
Eating Animals
by Jonathan Safran Foer has brought many customers and booksellers to vegetarianism; Just Kids by Patti Smith, as she is our neighbor and was wonderful about signing stock, and New Yorkers loved this book; Faithful Place by Tana French is one of the best mysteries we’ve read in a long time; and Nox by Anne Carson, whose writing I love deeply and madly.

What is the most unique or defining aspect of McNally Jackson as a bookstore for you?
Our focus on international literature, which is part of a larger effort to create a bookstore that is as diverse as New York City.

Is there anything special you look for in terms of an author event?
We try to avoid single-author readings unless there is a pressing reason. We try panels, interviews, conversations, political discussions—anything that avoids recitation and allows the spark of creation to enter the store.

What would most people be surprised to learn about independent bookstores?
That we don’t sit around all day reading.

Where would you like to see McNally Jackson six years from now?
I aspire only to continue offering a place where New Yorkers can celebrate the written word.

What do you love most about bookselling?
The customers.

Jeremiah Chamberlin teaches writing at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He is also the editor of the online journal Fiction Writers Review.