In this month’s A Word with You, we talked to Jeff Waxman, the partnerships director for the House of SpeakEasy’s bookmobile, serving books and book culture all over NYC. He’s also a bookseller, a marketing and promotions consultant for book and magazine publishers, and a co-creator of mutual aid projects The Bookstore at the End of the World and Open Borders Books. Next year, he plans to host BERNED, a roast of Thomas Bernhard on Zoom. You can find him at @FriendJeff.
So . . . how are you?
That’s an awfully rough start to a low-key interview! I’ve torn two ligaments and fractured my femur, I had a kidney stone, and I broke a tooth this year. But I didn’t catch coronavirus, I didn’t die in a hospital bed in Javits Center, and none of the accidents that befell me happened at the hands of the government thugs or right-wing goons, so let’s call that a win. How are you doing?
Can you talk about launching the Bookstore at the End of the World? What were your hopes for the project, and how has it been going?
The Bookstore at the End of the World came about to address a need and name a problem. Booksellers, dozens of us here in NY, but also in Portland, in Philadelphia, in Chicago, and all across the country, were let go when our shops closed. There were a lot of high-profile GoFundMe-type deals for those shops, but I’ve always understood a bookstore to be approximately nothing without its staff and there was not enough being done for those people who make bookstores great. BINC is admirable in many ways, but I don’t personally believe that booksellers or anyone else for that matter should have to prove their need to receive funds. The Bookstore at the End of the World was a collective that put an equal share in every participating bookseller’s pocket and we got that money by selling the books we love. Revolutionary, right?
What does business look like right now across your various roles? What community building efforts have you found to be effective during the pandemic?
My roles are always varied and so the challenges I’ve had to respond to have been pretty variable, too. In one sense, I’ve had to refashion what book publicity looks like in a world totally on fire. How do you compose an email to someone who is watching their business go to pieces and then pitch them a book event on Zoom? Is it kind to do so, to proceed with business as usual when their doors have been shut for two months or more?
How do you write a journalist and ask them to redirect their attention from actual secret police abductions and widespread state-sponsored violence to a late-career book about the craft of writing? Is it even ethical to do so?
If my role is to promote access to books in communities without bookstores—as it is sometimes—what steps can I take to do that when we’re in the midst of a public health crisis that spreads, as best we can tell, through airborne droplets from the face holes of nearly every human reader? How much risk/droplets should I personally absorb to get books back onto the street through the bookmobile I run for House of SpeakEasy or through the mutual aid bookstore, Open Borders Books, that I operate with my friends every Sunday?
I had always understood community to be the people I surrounded myself with, but sitting in my apartment with ambulances going by at all hours of day and night, I had to seriously reconfigure that notion. It’s every fucking person who needs anything I can give them. That’s where it ends in this forsaken year.
What are publishers or other bookstores doing right now that you are particularly excited about? Who is inspiring?
Chad Felix at Two Lines is an inspiration. That guy pitches books the way he does everything else—with verve and feeling and a moral clarity that I admire all day long. And if you’re looking at a Bookstore at the End of the World t-shirt, or reading Jean-Luc Persecuted (out recently from Deep Vellum), or gazing at the wall at Pilsen Community Books, you’ve seen his art. He’s one of the good ones who says what he means and means what he says.
Jisu Kim at Feminist Press is pretty badass. It helps that she’s pushing one of the best books of the year, Fiebre Tropical, and that the author, Juli Delgado Lopera, is a dream to work with, but Jisu has been deeply supportive of Open Borders Books in a variety of ways and she even arranged for Juli to come to our first book club meeting.
And, speaking of Open Borders—I’m always speaking of Open Borders—the folks who run this bookselling project are constantly inspiring me: Natasha Gilmore, Emmy Catedral, Terrie Akers, Dave McMullin, Thomas Evans, and Katherine McLeod. Every one of them has a thousand things to do at their day jobs making, selling, marketing, promoting, editing, archiving, and studying the printed word and they still spend four hours every Sunday making sure that our community has safe and friendly access to books. And half the proceeds go directly to local aid organizations like our community fridge, New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE), Make the Road, and Damayan while the other half is reinvested in bringing this community a permanent brick-and-mortar store.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Bookshop came to play at exactly the right time for bookselling. It isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to the problems of the digital age. It’s not a giant-slayer where Amazon is concerned. But the folks at Bookshop kept a lot of bookstores afloat when nothing else could have this year. And they hired five booksellers from The Bookstore at the End of the World to work customer service when their own shops had cut them loose—shout out to Genay, Amanda, Nathan, Justin, and Jacob!—so let’s give credit where it’s due and watch the next chapter unfold.
Do you have any new practices you hope to continue even after this crisis subsides?
Drink more water. Sleep at night. Continue developing a truly exceptional grip [that’s] worthy of the Captains of Crush certification.
What are your hopes for the future of bookselling and independent publishing?
Girrrrrl, you haven’t got time for me to answer this. I’ve got big dreams about building more collectivist bookselling and publishing schemes, book festivals without all the corporate logos, an artbookmobile, and a special adaptation of When Harry Met Sally starring Myriam Gurba and Hanif Abdurraqib.
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.)?
I’m working on all the above. But I’m reading Permafrost by Eva Baltasar in Julia Sanches’s translation. Add it to your TBR list for next year and remember to thank me when you get to it. It’s the caustic and queer confessional novel that readers of Sheila Heti, Maggie Nelson, Anne Garréta, or Max Frisch have been searching for. Also, for the record, the official drink of 2020 has been Gilka Kaiser-Kummel.