For this week’s A Word With You we chatted with Brad Johnson, owner of East Bay Booksellers in Oakland, California. He was formerly a manager at DIESEL, A Bookstore in Oakland, which he purchased with the help of customers in 2017. Follow him @AhabLives.
So . . . how are you?
It’s unfair that “I’m tired”—that most mundane but necessary of human traits—is now a little clichéd. I don’t know a bookseller who’s been able to work during the past few months who hasn’t had some seriously exhausting, soul-searching, long nights during all this. In between the exhaustion I feel more engaged with the job than ever though, which in turn makes me work harder and get more exhausted. Feedback loops are fun.
What’s some good advice you’ve received recently?
John Evans (my former employer at DIESEL, a Bookstore) made a point to remind me that I need to step away from the job from time to time, even when it doesn’t seem like I have the time. That sometimes the most responsible thing is NOT to do the work. It’ll make you that much sharper when you do step back into it. He didn’t use those exact words—John’s a poet, so it was both more succinct and enigmatic. But that was my takeaway, and it seemed right . . . even if I don’t always follow it really well.
What are publishers or bookstores doing now that you are particularly excited about? Who is inspiring?
I’m especially excited about the work being done on the university press level. The University of North Carolina Press, for example, consistently publishes some of the most interesting and radical BIPOC political theory. University of Texas really sinks their teeth into regional culinary and musical studies. What I love most about university presses are the riches their backlists offer readers (and buyers). Other publishers have great backlists too, but university presses are where worlds are upended & recreated. I’m a lover of the deep dive. I may not have the breath to get as deep as I’d like, but to know that others have, and to have that as a resource when I need it, is powerful and inspirational.
The stores that excite me most are the ones that most clearly pursue a vision of what their store is about. I think we’re now—and maybe always have been— coming up against the limits of the “general bookstore” model that tries to be all things to all people. Being an indie, to me, means blazing a path that is truly independent. There are always market constraints. But the best stores kick against those constraints.
How is contactless bookselling going? How has the East Bay Booksellers community (writers, readers, patrons, etc.) responded to the pandemic?
For the most part our customers and community have appreciated our conservative approach to the pandemic. We haven’t set a time-table to open for browsing. Some will grumble, but more often than not, our customers have appreciated our position. I’ve been upfront about the fact that I think we’re only at the end of the beginning, and that the emergency (not just for the store) is a long one. If we’re in this together, then all things—including how we go about business—have to look and be different.
Can you talk about the Surprise Me function on your site?
It grew out of a conviction early on that I wanted people to focus on buying things we already had in the store. What better way to showcase both your store’s & your booksellers’ tastes? We offer a $20 and $30 option, and ask people to give us a little description of what they’re looking for or what they’ve liked. The best are the most impressionistic. And then we try to find something that’s as far off the beaten path as we think our customer is willing to go. It’s sometimes hard, but it’s always exciting. We wish we had a chance to have face-to-face chats with people about the selections made.
What does business look like right now?
We’re working to transition into a state that isn’t simply order fulfillment. This form of bookselling is exhausting on a spiritual and emotional level, and not at all what I signed up for. We want to devise better ways for people to engage our bookstore in a somewhat similar way to how they would when they were shopping inside it. Right now that means we’re reimagining how we convey “who we are” and “what we’re about” by way of what we actively try to sell. As an example, our Anti-Racist Literature display, which takes up the entirety of our front-window, is pretty politically radical and doesn’t shy away from being intellectual or theoretical. We make no bones about the ideological bones we’re picking and the world we want to help make happen.
Do you have any new practices you hope to continue doing even after this crisis subsides?
I really quite like the shortened hours. I talk to customers about embracing, not apologizing for, the human-scale of our retail. This means right now if you email us on a Friday at 7pm, you’re not likely to hear from us until Monday. I don’t know that I’ll have the conviction to sacrifice Saturday retail, whenever the dust settles on the pandemic. I think that kind of honesty is important and ultimately helpful.
In addition, like it or not, e-commerce is going to be something we have to keep getting better at. Ideally this also means more variety in e-commerce platforms, different stores have different needs and aesthetics. We need platforms that work with us, rather than ones that we have to work around.
What do you hope for the future of bookselling?
Think more radically than “we’re not Amazon.” To me, that’s just an extraordinarily low ethical bar. What I want to see from bookselling is a firmer embrace of independence and a more finely tuned resistance to corporate taste-making. If our independence is only in the regional interests section of our stores or staff recommendations shelves, how independent are we? And this isn’t just a matter of what books we buy, but in the convictions and personalities that motivate what books we’re actively trying to sell. There’s no way to get to this sort of independence without a full commitment to diversity; and there’s no true commitment to diversity without the hard (sometimes uncomfortable) work of transparency and honesty.
What are you working on and what are you reading? Do you have anything you would pair it with (a food, a movie, another book, etc.?)
My co-worker, Elizabeth Freeman, and I recently started a bookselling podcast called Faced Out. It’s pretty raw and opinionated, but our ultimate aim is to be a sort of open door for fellow booksellers (and people in their orbit) to discuss important issues of our industry. Thus far we’ve featured interviews with Hannah Oliver Depp, owner of Loyalty Books, and Lisa Lucas, of the National Book Foundation.
I’m on the National Book Award jury for Translated Lit, so I’m reading so much international fiction I can’t officially talk about! Frank Wilderson III’s Afropessimism, however, has completely rocked my world. Pair it with Joshua Bennett’s Being Property Once Myself, and very little about the world will look the same.