2010 at 5am Posted by Rebecca Joines Schinsky
Like most avid readers, I have a to-be-read (TBR) list that is a constant (and constantly growing) fixutre in my life. There’s the official file on my computer’s desktop, the notebook in my purse, and, of course, the hurriedly scribbled titles on post-its and random scraps of paper that are wedged into books, under coasters, and in pants pockets only to be discovered months later.
I used to live and die by the TBR. In college, I began each month by ordering four books from the list, and I relished outings to the bookstore so I could browse displays and add to the list. When I started blogging, things got all loosey-goosey for a while, and then I started a TBR spreadsheet to keep track of what I wanted to read, what I had in my pile, what I was supposed to be reviewing on certain dates, etc. And it was nice to be organized, but it took some of the spontaneous joy out of reading.
Now, I pile upcoming releases wherever they’ll fit, and have a rough idea of which galleys I’d like to read when, but I’ve loosened up about my reading schedule quite a bit, and I’ve learned that it is with books the way it is with just about everything else in life—often, the best things happen when you just. let. go. Lately, I’ve been putting this into practice when I visit indie bookstores, and because of it, I’ve been meeting books I either wouldn’t have heard of or wouldn’t have picked up otherwise.
By way of illustration, let me tell you about my recent experiences at several new-to-me indie bookstores. (Yes, I have officially become the person who cannot visit a new city without visiting at least one of its bookstores, and that’s a badge of nerdery I’m proud to wear.)
I was in Decatur, Georgia last week for the Decatur Book Festival, and as you might expect from a town that hosts a full-scale literary festival, it is chock full of bookstores. I arrived several hours before anyone else in my group, so I found myself with plenty time to kill before the much-anticipated Jonathan Franzen keynote event. I wandered my way down Ponce de Leon Avenue and right into the charming and cleverly-named Little Shop of Stories.
The website proclaims that they provide “books and more for kids & the grownups they become,” and I can’t think of a better way to capture the energy of this great store. The walls are lined with picture books faced-out so kids can see what they’re all about, and the young readers and YA sections are well-curated and thoughtfully arranged. There’s a wall full of adult titles as well, but it’s clear that this store is for the kids, and they know what they’re doing. The staff were friendly and quick to offer assistance, and since I know virtually nothing about children’s literature, I asked for help picking out books for my nieces and nephew here in Richmond.
Here’s what I got:
For the 6-year-old girl who loves the playfulness of Skippyjohn Jones but wants to be the one reading to me at bedtime instead of having it the other way around, the bookseller (who had this amazing deep voice) recommended Fly Guy Meets Fly Girl! by Tedd Arnold. It’s colorful, funny, and fun to read, and the words are simple enough that my niece should be able to read them to me.
For the 9-year-old boy who loves stories about nature and adventure (and who recently wrote a paper about gaboon vipers, which he saw on the Discovery Channel, when everyone else was writing about dolphins and penguins and other generic creatures), a different bookseller suggested Rebecca Stead’s First Light, about a boy who joins his parents on an expedition to Greenland. Stead’s newer novel When You Reach Me is highly acclaimed, and I’m excited to introduce my nephew to this great writer.
My 10-year-old niece is the hardest to shop for out of the three kids. She is independent and uninterested in boy-craziness (thank goodness for small blessings!), and while she likes to read, she doesn’t quite love it the way I (being the pushy book-obsessed aunt) want her to. She’s just about the age I was when books really started meaning something to me, and I want to introduce her to the possibilities while she’s still young enough to be open to them. But here’s the thing: when I select books for her, I strike out time and time again.
So it was time to consult an expert, and I was thrilled when the bookseller asked all the right questions and handsold me the first in Meg Cabot’s Allie Finkle’s Rules for Girls series. All told, here’s what I brought home from Little Shop of Stories:
And those are just the books! I also spotted this button I’d like to make a million copies of. (UPDATE: You can buy one here!)
The next day, I hit the Blue Elephant Book Shop, where I picked up Skippy Dies on the recommendation of my friend Ron Hogan (who, yeah yeah, isn’t a bookseller…but recommendations from smart bloggers are pretty great, too), and Sarah Vowell’s The Partly Cloudy Patriot because…well, because Sarah Vowell is amazing, and I love her. No indie booksellers were directly involved in my selection of these titles, but Blue Elephant’s layout (it is located inside an old house) is conducive to the kind of wandering and browsing that best leads to discovering new books, and if it weren’t for their displays, Sarah Vowell wouldn’t have come to mind for this shopping trip at all.
After Decatur, I was off to St. Louis, where I visited the famous Left Bank Books to meet up with a longtime blog reader. I (yet again) neglected to take photos, and I got too caught up chatting about books to do much buying, but I loved the store and was thrilled to spend some time in what is recognized as one of the country’s best independent bookstores.
And then….then it was on to Kansas City, my hometown. I spent 12 years in Kansas City (my family has called it home for almost 20 now) and had been to Rainy Day Books countless times, but not in the last several years, and not since I really gained an appreciation for independent bookstores and what they do for our communities. I arranged to spend some time with bookseller Geoffrey Jennings (if you follow @rainydaybooks on Twitter, Geoffrey is the tweeter-in-chief), whom I now think of as something of a book swami.
It was on this trip to Rainy Day that I fully let go of my preconceived book buying agenda and put myself into the hands of an expert. I arrived ready to have a pro bookseller handsell me, and let me tell you, I was not disappointed. Knowing that I’m already swamped with fiction, Geoffrey went straight for nonfiction and asked me what I like. My standard response for this is something along the lines of “single subject narrative nonfiction, or well-written essays that are a variation on a theme.” If you’re scratching your head about that at all, you are likely NOT an independent bookseller.
For single subject narrative nonfiction, Geoffrey recommended Chandler Burr’s The Perfect Scent. I wouldn’t ever have picked up a book about the perfume industry before, but Geoffrey’s description had me convinced I would not only read it but love it. As we wandered the nonfiction shelves together, Geoffrey handed me several options (all of which were appealing), but something about the way he lit up when he put his hand on Down Around Midnight by Robert Sabbag told me I had to get it. Well, that and the fact that Geoffrey was quoted in The New York Times describing the book thusly:
I was reading the book at night and my wife came down and I said ‘there is nothing you could say or do — in fact you could not even pay me — to stop reading this book.
I started Down Around Midnight the next day and read it on my flight back to Richmond (NB: reading a plane crash memoir is a great way to keep your seatmates from talking to you on a flight), and all I can say at this point is that Geoffrey was right.
And this is just a taste of what can happen when you leave it to the professionals. Among the books I’ve read this year, the following ended up on my pile because of recommendations from booksellers at my favorite indie, Fountain Bookstore:
- Dear American Airlines by Jonathan Miles
- Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism by Temple Grandin
- Winging It by Jenny Gardiner
- The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors by Michele Young-Stone
- The Singer’s Gun by Emily St. John Mandel
- The City and the City by China Mieville
- The Typist by Michael Knight
There are also at least a dozen titles currently sitting in the pile that wouldn’t be there if not for customized recommendations from booksellers who take the time to know their customers as more than bodies lined up behind the cash register. Sure, the folks at the big box bookstore might recognize you if you shop there often enough, but you can’t beat the service and relationships you’ll find with independent booksellers, especially when you’re willing to relinquish some of the control and trust them to guide you in the right direction.
And come on, it’s not like B & N is going to get behind your crazy idea and let you take photos there in your underwear!