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“There Are Always Market Constraints. But the Best Stores Kick Against Those Constraints”: A Word with . . . Brad Johnson!

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. 

Looking for a way to support independent bookstores? Make a donation to the Book Industry Charitable Foundation (BINC), purchase a book online from your favorite bookstore, or visit Bookshop.org.

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This Week’s Reviews

The World’s Poorest President Speaks Out
edit. Yoshimi Kusaba, illus. Gaku Nakagawa, trans. Andrew Wong | Enchanted Lion Books | 9781592702893 | August 2020
“The illustrations accompanying the text play with design and perspective, capturing Mujica’s words in ways that give them great immediacy and vividness. An ideal vehicle to engage children in a discussion on the meanings of poverty, having enough, and social justice.”—Kirkus Reviews, starred review

The Tree and the Vine
Dola de Jong, trans. Kristen Gehrman | Transit Books | 9781945492341 | May 2020
“A careful and muted lament about the sorrow of restraint.”—Wall Street Journal

Skyland
Andrew Durbin | Nightboat Books | 9781643620275 | July 2020
“The book revels in its loose, unfinished quality, weaving tidbits from Guibert’s life and work together with more immediate impressions and anecdotes.”—Harper’s Magazine

The Sprawl
Jason Diamond | Coffee House Press | 9781566895828 | August 2020
“A decade ago, Arcade Fire sang of 1970s childhoods spent in ‘The Suburbs’: Meant nothing at all. Jason Diamond would beg to differ. . . . [He] argues in a series of essays that the suburbs are essential to the development of American art and culture.”—Chicago Tribune

Indigo
Ellen Bass | Copper Canyon Press | 9781556595752 | April 2020
“Reflects the unique perspective of an unusual poetic life and the complex traumas and pleasures of a thoughtful, observant sensibility. Indigo engages the reader with its willingness to face the contradictions of being a human being head-on.”—Los Angeles Review of Books

The Strange Birds of Flannery O’Connor
Amy Alznauer, illus. Ping Zhu | Enchanted Lion Books | 9781592702954 | June 2020

“Like little Flannery, the reader is enveloped by the spaces within these pages. Swathes of green, reds, yellow and blue. We are both in them, and also outside of them, in that often as a reader, we seem to be dwelling in the very mind of Flannery O’Connor herself. Certainly the beautiful paintings in this book, but also the beautiful words vibrate with energy. The pages reveal the vibrancy of this strange woman from Georgia.”—Dappled Things

Toxicon and Arachne
Joyelle McSweeney | Nightboat Books | 9781643620183 | April 2020
“McSweeney remains clever, far cleverer than I, but by the end of this masterful double-text⎯ in which even the unequal parts seem appropriate to staggering grief⎯ any sensitive reader should feel as if they’ve shared in the poet’s singular struggle: that of finding some form, some phrase, that might convey what’s inconceivable.”—Brooklyn Rail

“McSweeney’s poetry collection is a tour de force, forcing us to rethink everything: poetry, loss, language itself.”—Kenyon Review

DMZ Colony
Don Mee Choi | Wave Books | 9781940696959 | April 2020
“The more Choi commemorates the space between languages—that frontier of memory, replication, doubleness, mirrors—the more DMZ Colony’s structure disintegrates and its innovations begin.”—Rain Taxi

God’s Green Earth
Noelle Kocot | Wave Books | 9781950268023 | May 2020
“God’s Green Earth has a wonderful ability to soothe and slow its readers, offering a silent plenitude of spirit and luxuriating in depictions of solitude.”—White Review

Animal
Dorothea Lasky | Wave Books | 9781940696911 | October 2019
“While Lasky has undergone dramatic changes in her five books of poetry—a movement toward simpler, in-phase lineation at the same time that her range of fragmentation and references and masks has grown wider—an unmistakable continuity persists.”—Kenyon Review

Doomstead Days
Brian Teare | Nightboat Books | 9781643620022 | April 2019
“Composed of eight long poems, Doomstead Days is rooted, for the most part, in walking excursions through both natural and built environments… The length and formal intricacy of many of these poems engenders a discursive lyric that is sometimes diaristic, at other times documentary.”—Under a Warm Green Linen

Neotenica
Joon Oluchi Lee | Nightboat Books | 9781643620206 | June 2020
“A totally original narrative that could perhaps only be published by a dynamic, independent press.”— Asian American Literature Fans

Kimono Couture: The Beauty of Chiso
Vivian Li, Christine Starkman, contributions by Riyo Kikuchi and Yukio Lippit | GILES | 9781911282662 | June 2020
“An insightful guide to the intricacy, character, and artistry of kimono design. Kimono Couture embroidery textile art magazine.”—Embroidery: The Textile Art Magazine

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This Week’s News

Christina Ward, vice president of Feral House and author of American Advertising Cookbooks appeared on Padma Lakshmi’s new show, Taste the Nation

The Washington Post wrote about Signs Preceding the End of the World author Yuri Herrera’s new nonfiction book, A Silent Fury (And Other Stories), on June 18.

The NYTBR recommended The Park by John Freeman (Copper Canyon Press) and White Blood: A Lyric of Virginia (Sarabande Books) by Kiki Petrosino on June 9. Recommended on June 16 was DMZ Colony.

Pitchfork wrote about Alison Mosshart, author of Car Ma (Third Man Books), on June 17, as did Spin on June 16.

Facing the Climate Emergency by Margaret Klein Salamon (New Society Publishers) was recommended in Jacobin by the performer Raffi on June 14.

Spellbound by Bishakh Som (Street Noise Books) and How to Carry Water: Selected Poems of Lucille Clifton edited by Aracelis Girmay (BOA Editions) were named by Top Ten picks for Fall 2020 by Publishers Weekly on June 19.

Karen Tei Yamashita, author of Sansei and Senibility (Coffee House Press) wrote an essay for Guernica on June 23.

 Andrew Krivak, author of The Bear (Bellevue Literary Press), appeared on NPR’s Marginalia on June 23.

Marianne Chan talked to The Rumpus about All Heathens (Sarabande Books)the latest pick for their Poetry Book Club, on June 22.

A number of Consortium titles were finalists for CLMP Firecracker Awards, including Flowers of Mold by Ha Seong-nan, translated by Janet Hong (Open Letter); The Incompletes by Sergio Chejfec, translated by Heather Cleary (Open Letter); The Not Wives by Carley Moore (The Feminist Press at CUNY/Amethyst Editions); Axiomatic by Maria Tumarkin (Transit Books); Hatred of Translation by Nathanaël (Nightboat Books); Knitting the Fog by Claudia D. Hernández (The Feminist Press at CUNY); Socialist Realism by Trisha Low (Coffee House Press); We Both Laughed in Pleasure: The Selected Diaries of Lou Sullivan edited by Ellis Martin and Zach Ozma (Nightboat Books); Dunce by Mary Ruefle (Wave Books); Personal Volcano by Laura Moriarty (Nightboat Books); and SLINGSHOT by Cyrée Jarelle Johnson (Nightboat Books).

Iowa Public Radio’s annual summer books show recommended The Bear by Andrew Krivak (Bellevue Literary Press) on June 16.

An excerpt from American Follies by Norman Locke (Bellevue Literary Press) was shared at Big Other on June 15.

Spirituality & Health Magazine featured an article by Sarah Bowen, author of Spiritual Rebel on June 15.

Columbia Tribune interviewed Jill Orr about The Full Scoop (Prospect Park Books) on June 19.

Thorn by Anna Burke (Bywater Books) was named the Foreword Reviews Indies LGBTQ+ Adult Fiction Book of the Year. Have I Got a Cartoon for You edited by Bob Mankoff and The City of Light by Theodore Bikel and Aimee Ginsburg Bikel, illus. Noah Phillips (both Mandel Vilar/MomentBooks) won awards in Adult Nonfiction and Juvenile nonfiction, respectively. The City of Light also won an Honor Award from Skipping Stones Magazine.

And Go Like This by John Crowley was shortlisted for the 2020 Neukom Award.

Ashley Toliver won the 2020 Stafford/hall Award for Spectra (Coffee House Press).

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This Week’s News

David Collier was interviewed by The Spec on June 10 about his new book, Topp (Conundrum Press).

Fowzia Karimi, author of Above Us the Milky Way (Deep Vellum Publishing), talked to KCRW on June 11.

Spirituality & Health ran an article by Sarah Bowen, author of Spiritual Rebel, (Monkfish Book Publishing) on June 9.

Banned Book Club by Kim Hyun Sook and Ryan Estrada, illustrated by Ko Hyung-Ju (Iron Circus Comics), was nominated for YALSA.

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This Week’s Reviews

Hull
Xandria Phillips | Nightboat Books | 9781643620084 | October 2019
Hull demonstrates Phillips’s ability to expand the lyric to its breaking point, which makes this book a promising debut.”—Rain Taxi

Small Mercies
Bridget Krone, illus. Karen Vermeulen |
Catalyst Press | 9781946395177 | February 2020
“This poignant, charming, perfect gem of a novel  has the wonderfully timeless feel of a classic although it is set in modern-day, post-apartheid  South Africa, in the City of Pietermaritzburg, the author’s home. It’s a small book with an uplifting message of love and community that resonates in our troubled times.”—Buffalo News

Growing Up Below Sea Level: A Kibbutz Childhood
Rachel Biale | Mandel Vilar Press | 9781942134633 | April 2020
“Biale is a gifted storyteller.”—Jewish Journal

Bluebeard’s First Wife
Seong-nan Ha, trans. Janet Hong | Open Letter | 9781948830171 | June 2020
“Uses myth to make visible the human condition—one marked by disappointment, loneliness, and loss.”—Ploughshares

The Malevolent Volume
Justin Phillip Reed | Coffee House Press | 9781566895767 | April 2020
“Reed’s incendiary new collection, The Malevolent Volume, celebrates a selfhood germinated in the darkness of those spaces that society deems monstrous. With breathtaking lyrical dexterity, Reed first rebukes and then remakes western literature and myth, bringing Black queerness to the forefront. . . . Reed performs a deft sleight-of-hand to embrace the territory of horror and monstrousness—harnessing its inherent power to threaten the status quo.”—Adroit Journal

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