This Saturday, I had the honor of being bookseller for a day at our local indie bookstore, Village Lights. The Indie Bound tradition started in 2013 with Sherman Alexie and involves authors all around the country selling books on Small Business Saturday to show their love for independent bookstores. You can check out the map of all the events here.
You’d think given the wide range of jobs I’ve occupied, bookseller would have made the list. I’ve pierced ears in a mall (even though my ears were and remain un-pierced), sold greeting cards, worked on a produce farm, and waited tables.
The first independent bookstore I remember going to was Lemuria Books in Jackson, Mississippi. It’s a beauty of a store, if you’ve never been. There are always a ready supply of signed books by amazing Southern authors who’ve come through to do readings. Going to college in Jackson, I sometimes had tenuous connections to the people who worked at Lemuria. I knew someone who knew someone who worked at Lemuria. To work at Lemuria was to be a kind of rock star, and maybe that’s why I never worked in a bookstore—I didn’t think I could ever achieve those lofty heights.
Working for a day at Village Lights did nothing to disabuse me of the notion that booksellers are rock stars, only rock stars of the incredibly hard-working variety. Working in retail, even if you’re selling books, is not an easy thing. After just four hours, I went home and collapsed on the couch. As a professor, you perform in front of a “public” in short, concentrated bursts. As a bookseller, you’re on for hours at a time. I don’t want to over-romanticize being a bookseller. People are weird and shitty and stupid sometimes, just like they are in any job.
But sometimes you see how excited people are about a book. Or books in general. One woman was with her husband, picking out picture books for her grandchildren. “She’s the reader,” he said, a note of pride and maybe bafflement in his voice. She nodded as she dug in her purse. “I may not go places in real life,” she said. “But I go places in my head.”
I watched people wander around the store, picking up books until their arms were too full. If they were in groups, they’d ooh and ah over each other’s stacks. People would buy one book and then come back for another before they got out the door. To help people find a book has to be some of the most satisfying match-making you can do. If you want to feel hopeful about the world, go watch people buying books.
Of course, as a writer, I appreciate independent bookstores. Who else would put my tiny little chapbook up on the counter for people to buy and plug it every opportunity they got? Independent bookstores are tireless cheerleaders and supporters for artists of all kinds—writers, painters, musicians. They are ground zero for a vibrant art community in any city or town.
Probably the best moment of the day was watching one enthusiastic young women buying a stack of books. She bounced up and down at the counter waiting for the bag of books to be handed back to her. “My books,” she said, her hands reaching out for them.
Yes, I thought to myself, that’s how it feels. You gather a stack of books and hand them over to buy. You can’t wait to have them back. To open up the covers. To run your fingers across the pages. You want everything and everyone else to go away so you can sink into that world inside. That’s the magic booksellers trade in.
This Friday, I’ll be back at Village Lights for the official launch and reading for my chapbook, The Face of Baseball, from WhiskeyPaper Press. I’ll be there 6-9 with baseball stories, beer, and peanuts. Special guest star David Loehr will be there, too, giving a baseball-inspired sampling of his Radio Theater and Revue.