Category Archives: Interviews

“I’ve Always Understood A Bookstore To Be Approximately Nothing Without Its Staff”: A Word With . . . Jeff Waxman

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.

The Bookstore at the End of the World and Open Borders Books both have digital storefronts on Bookshop. What has it been like using Bookshop? Has it affected how you think bookselling?

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.


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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Filed under Interviews, Reviews

“2020 Is Turning Out to Be a Heck of a Year”: A Word with . . . Lily Tschudi-Campbell

In this week’s A Word with You, we talked to Lily Tschudi-Campbell, buyer and marketing coordinator at Red Balloon Bookshop in St. Paul, Minnesota, where she’s worked since 2015. She also has an MFAC from Hamline University and is writing children’s books of her own. You can find her at @lilywritesstuff

So . . . how are you?

I never know how to answer this question any more! I mean, good, mostly—I still have a job, my family is healthy, things are going about as well as can be expected. But that “can be expected” is a bit of a lower bar than it used to be, isn’t it? It’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the ways our world is changing, by the vast uncertainty of the future, by the many new stresses that have been piled on top of our already-stressful lives. 2020 is turning out to be a heck of a year, and we’re only halfway through. *insert Jake Peralta screaming guitar GIF here*

Has the crisis affected how you buy and think about books?

Oh, absolutely. As an indie bookseller, I’ve always known that the experience of buying/selling a book in person, face-to-face, is completely different than buying/selling a book online, but operating like this has really driven that point home. As a buyer, there are books I would have purchased for the store in the Before Times that I no longer think we can sell without the option of handselling or physical shelftalkers. This feels especially true for books for adults, since as a children’s bookstore, our grown-up section is quite small.

Hours & Directions | Red Balloon Bookshop

Additionally, one of the things I love best about indie bookselling is the way you can see the effect of an individual bookseller on a particular book’s sales. We’ve seen certain books that will be selling consistently and well at our store, and then go into returns six months after their champion bookseller(s) has left. But now that only a couple of our staff members are on phones and no one is coming into the store (yet), the books we sell are skewed towards those people’s tastes.

In losing those things—the power of a handsell, the full breadth of our staff’s taste and opinions and knowledge—I think we’re losing a lot of what makes indie bookselling so special, as well as losing many of our opportunities to promote smaller titles from smaller presses. I haven’t really come to terms with that, to be honest. It definitely means we’re going to need to shift the way we do our business/promotion. I’m not sure yet what that looks like. For now, it’s just another little thing to grieve, among the many changes and losses our society is experiencing.

What are publishers or bookstores doing now that you are particularly excited about? Who is inspiring?

I’m hugely inspired by the folks who immediately found ways to help. During the recent protests following the murder of George Floyd in the Twin Cities, Moon Palace immediately stepped up to be a source of community safety and support. I am amazed by their generosity and strength. The Raven Book Store has been a force for good on the interwebs for some time now, and they’ve only increased those efforts in the past few months. The owner, Danny Caine, even purchased some books from us so we could color in Kansas (with a crayon—we are a children’s bookstore) on our map of places we’ve shipped to since COVID (an idea I enthusiastically stole from them in the first place). I can’t even tell you how supported that made all of us feel.

And I’m in awe of the fortitude Black booksellers/bookstore owners have shown in dealing with massive orders of antiracist books from (white) customers who immediately turn around and demand impossibly instant delivery of books (and which those customers will absolutely still need to read in a month). Places like Loyalty Bookstore and Frugal Bookstore, among others, have been dealing with this entitled nonsense with incredible grace despite the frustration they must be feeling. Plus, last but not least, a brand new bookstore is going to open in the Twin Cities—Black Garnet Books—which will be the first Black-owned bookstore in Minnesota. I can’t wait to see what they do.

What has the switch to virtual storytimes and events been like? Do you think the experience of being read to changes when it’s virtual?

It has been so, so strange, especially as a children’s bookstore. I think the experience of being read to virtually is hugely different than being read to in person, especially the younger your audience gets. Just like the transition to online schooling has been generally harder for first graders than for high schoolers, moving our storytimes to video has completely changed the experience, both for the kids and for our storytellers. Kids learn differently through a screen than they do in person. Storytime for the very young is absolutely a form of education. It teaches listening, sitting with a group (which is obviously gone), following simple directions, and early reading comprehension. And for the storytellers, it becomes impossible to react and adapt to the audience—there’s no way to tell if they’re confused, excited, distracted, all of the above. Virtual events are slightly easier, as their audiences are older, but it’s still quite different from the kind of book parties we used to throw.  

Do you have any new practices you hope to continue doing even after this crisis subsides?

We just recently started having staff Zoom meetings where we can talk about book world and regular world issues, especially race and racism, but also more generally about representation, which authors we choose to support (or not), what constitutes support (carrying a book on our shelves vs. recommending it vs. hosting events around it), etc. I’m really excited to see where these conversations go—I’m hopeful it will make it possible for the store to more accurately represent all of us, and not just those who run the social media, choose which books to carry, or own the store. And much as I miss seeing all of my lovely coworkers together at once, Zoom makes the meetings a little bit more accessible for those with other commitments. I’d love for these to become a regular part of us being a bookstore.

What do you hope for the future of bookselling, and especially children’s books?

I hope that we can keep independent bookstores going strong, in whatever form that takes. In some ways, this feels like another 2008—a year when we’re going to lose a lot of indies and where the rest will need to find ways to adapt and change to survive.

I hope we can keep doing the work on making books and publishing more diverse. The difference in the Diversity in Children’s Books Reports between 2015 and 2018 is far too small for what should have been possible in three years. That data doesn’t even address the ways that, while the characters in children’s books have become slightly more diverse, their authors barely have. That’s a conversation that the whole of publishing needs to get involved with, and that white authors, publishers, and booksellers need to do the work to advance, instead of relying on their BIPOC counterparts. Our industry needs to be better, and independent booksellers need to involve themselves in that conversation as well.

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 all over the place in what I’m working on, to be honest! Writing is coming slowly for me right now—despite the romantic (and nonsense) ideal of the struggling artist, stress is actually very counter to creativity. I have been working on my own version of Jane Mount’s Ideal Bookshelf artworks, though, which I’m finding a very soothing project that still lets me connect with books. 

Reading wise, I’ve been working on our store’s summer reading bingo challenge. Some particularly stand-out titles have been A Song Below Water by Bethany C. Morrow and The Black Kids by Christina Hammonds Reed (coming in August)—both are excellently written books about anti-Black racism and police violence, and one of them has magic! I’d pair those books together, along with a lot of the other antiracist books that have been making the news.

I also recently read Desert Notebooks by Ben Ehrenreich, which was an incredible creative nonfiction combo of personal essays, history, philosophy, contemporary politics, and nature writing. It’s an intelligent and compassionate look at the way our world seems to be falling apart around us (though it does not mention COVID, as it was written before that began). And it’s been very hot in the Twin Cities lately, so I’d pair all of these books with some mango popsicles so you can have something cool and sweet while you read about hard times!


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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Filed under Bookstores, Featured, Interviews

“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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Filed under Bookstores, Featured, Interviews

“Elements of the Comics Community Have Really Pulled Together”: A Word With . . . C. Spike Trotman

In this week’s A Word With You, we chatted with C. Spike Trotman, artist, writer, and founder of the award-winning Iron Circus Comics, Chicago’s largest alternative comics publisher. They are the first comic books publisher to fully adopt a crowd-sourcing business model, and have raised over $1.8 million to date. Her best-known work includes the webcomic Templar, Arizona; the Smut Peddler series; and Poorcraft. Follow her @Iron_Spike.

So . . . how are you?

Busy? Put-upon? Incredibly stressed out, but simultaneously incredibly grateful things are so hectic around here. It’s been a helluva a year, but I am 100% cognizant of the good fortune I’ve enjoyed despite that. Iron Circus has some very briskly moving new titles, and an amazing crowdfunding campaign under its belt, our biggest to date. 2020 is the year from hell on a lot of fronts, but for us? Our trajectory has been upwards for years, but the incline got a lot steeper.

What’s the best (or worst) piece of publishing/writing advice you’ve received recently?

“Find an audience no one is serving.” I think there’s a lot of Follow The Leader in publishing (in LIFE, really), and the impulse, the trend is to do what looks popular, what’s selling thousands and thousands of copies. But the simple fact is, by the time you’ve HEARD about trends like that, it’s probably too late to exploit them that cynically.

Banned Book Club, our 2020 flagship title, has been in the works since 2018. We couldn’t have timed its release better with a crystal ball. It eerily suits the mood of the age, with all that’s going on; two weeks after release, and nearly half our print run, our largest single first printing ever, is already spoken for. But if someone were to really slam on the gas and try to make a copycat book right now, hoping for the same results? It wouldn’t work.

It worked for us because Banned Book Club isn’t about chasing a trend; it was about making a book we believed in, something that wasn’t already out there. And that really resonated.

What are bookstores or other cartoonists and publishers doing now that you are particularly excited about? Who is inspiring?

I am equal parts excited and terrified by all the large publishers getting into the graphic novel game. It’s a seismic shift. Random House, HarperCollins. Scholastic’s been around for awhile, of course, but things have really shifted into fourth. It’s sort of intimidating to think, “These are the people I’m competing with for talent.” But at the same time, these are the publishers who decided where the publishing industry goes. They decided what gets to be put on bookstore shelves. They’re bringing a lot of power (and organization!) to an industry that’s been underfunded and disorganized for decades, and that’s pretty incredible.

What does business look like right now? How are online sales and events working? You’ve always had a prominent online presence—how are you seeing the Iron Circus community (cartoonists, Kickstarter donors, customers, etc.) change and support each other?

I don’t think you’re gonna find a single soul that’ll claim the online convention replacements can hold a candle to the in-person events. The revenue, the attention, it’s just not the same as going to a show. And for my part, I like shows because they’re the best places to find new talent. I’m definitely having to work a little harder at that now that they’re not all in the same room with me for three days straight, ha ha.

And yeah, I’ve seen a lot of grassroots support attempts circling. Emergency funds, emergency grants, donations, and the online conventions. Some elements of the comics community have really pulled together, re-posting lists of artists now open for emergency commissions, or links to online stores. We all know it’s rough out there in general, but it’s especially bad now. And even if someone’s doing okay, they for SURE know someone who’s not, and they usually try to help.    

Do you have any new practices you hope to continue doing even after this crisis subsides?

Ha ha, given what I’ve just been saying, this sounds a little odd? But . . . now that we’re not doing conventions for a full calendar year, I’m considering cutting back considerably on our 2021 convention calendar, too. So it’s not so much a new practice we hope to continue doing as . . . a new lack of practice we hope to continue . . . not doing, I suppose.

A big part of Iron Circus’ growth has been shifting my own mindset out of the small-potatoes territory that the traditional comics small press is used to, and INTO thinking of ICC as a publisher in the more mainstream sense. There was a time when going to a convention and making, say, $10,000? That was the ultimate goal, the dream. But at the end of the day, the same way the NASA Space Shuttle program had to be retired, cuz as nice as they are, those things ain’t gettin’ us to Mars? I need to pull away from the hand-selling, direct-to-consumer conventions and start focusing on ALA Annual, BEA, other trade shows that are about a more comprehensive, higher-volume approach. Banned Book Club was pushed hard at ALA Annual in 2019, and we’re really reaping the benefits of that now. I want that kind of performance for all my books.

I’ll never tap out of comic conventions altogether; I love them. But I can see a future where we do, maybe . . . three a year. And leave it at that.

What do you hope for the future of indie publishing and bookselling?

More exposure! More shelf space and industry backing for adult graphic novels! More small press publishers on the shelf beside me, publishing weird and fun graphic novels for an adult audience.

C’mon, everybody, these MILLIONS of kids reading Dog Man and Drama are gonna wanna keep reading comics! Let’s MAKE SOME for them! Let’s meet that need!

What are you reading? Do you have anything you would pair it with (a food, a movie, another book, etc.?)

You mean besides what I’m currently publishing? I just finished re-reading Eleanor Davis’ The Hard Tomorrow. It’s just so horrifying and incredible and powerful and repulsive and compelling and, like, a lot of Octavia Butler stuff . . . maybe not the best thing to read right this second, if you’re look for escapism? But ugh, I love it. I’m orbiting it.  

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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Filed under Featured, Interviews, Our Publishers

“Great books are great books, regardless of the publisher size”: A Word with . . . Cristina Rodriguez

For this week’s A Word with You, we interviewed Cristina Rodriguez, the General Manager and head buyer at Deep Vellum Books, a bookstore in Dallas, Texas that specializes in international literature, independent presses, and marginalized writers. She is a Bookselling Without Borders fellow and a 2020 Firecracker Award judge. Follow her @CristinaRodrgz.

So . . . how are you?

I’m good! It’s funny because I feel like “how are you” is such a loaded question nowadays, but honestly in this moment I feel pretty okay. I’m extremely thankful that I’m still working and that I have very close friends and family that I’m constantly in touch with, but in no way do I want it to seem like everything is perfect. I tend to be a pretty chilled out person normally, but it can be hard to take things day by day when it really feels like things are abruptly changing moment by moment. One minute I’m excited about something, the next I’m feeling down, or restless, but I’m learning how to be patient with myself.

Tell us about the hotline!

Like many of our bookstore friends we’re currently closed to the public. I wanted to find a way to continue interacting with readers that offered some relief but that didn’t feel completely centered around capitalism. So, I created a bookseller hotline where people can call or text to get book recommendations, life advice, daily horoscopes, or just talk. People call in to talk about books, sometimes they want to discuss their love life, feelings about loneliness, or even what reality shows they’re currently obsessed with. I’m pretty down to talk about anything and feel really honored that strangers are willing to share a bit of their lives with me. I know a lot of people find comfort in books, but this hotline has taught me that sometimes that’s not enough.

Deep Vellum Books loves to spotlight indie presses, and obviously you have an up close and personal look with Deep Vellum Publishing. Is the crisis changing how bookstores work with indie publishers?

The moment everything drastically turned for the worst, I feel like indie publishers really stepped in to show that they were listening and trying to support bookstores. I received so many emails and texts from people in publishing checking in with how I personally was doing, but also what they could do to help the bookstore. It’s this kind of support and understanding that you normally don’t see from larger publishing houses.

What I’ve noticed recently is that bookstores are really interacting with small presses and debut authors in such a noticeable way. Everyone is willing to take bigger risks with marketing ideas and events and it feels fresh and genuine. I think readers can sense the sincerity of the indie presses that booksellers love and as a result it gets them excited about a book that might normally be missed amongst the New York Times bestsellers.

I feel fortunate that I work for a bookstore that has an indie press connected to it. I’ve been able to see firsthand what goes into the production of a book. It’s given me a deeper book education about the importance of independent publishing in the book ecosystem and as a result has affected how I do my job. Our bookstore’s inventory is 90% independent presses and that’s intentional. I know that this kind of buying is not possible for a majority of bookstores and I like that stores are able to have the freedom with their inventory to do what works best for them. We’ve made this model work for us and I hope to expand our inventory in the future in a way that is still very thoughtfully curated and shows off best books that are coming out from indie presses. 

What are publishers or bookstores doing now that you are particularly excited about? Who is inspiring?

I’m constantly inspired by all of my colleagues who wake up every day and just keep pushing forward. With everything going on, most days it feels easier to call it and go back to bed. But I think seeing everyone’s creativity and hustle makes me feel a little less hopeless. As far as bookstores go, I’m a big fan of RiffRaff in Providence, Rhode Island and I love their Surprise Book Care Packages they started doing. I’m a terribly indecisive Libra and sometimes I just need to be told what to read. I completely trust and love Emma Ramadan’s book taste, so I know once I finish the books she sent me, I’ll order myself another one. The Transnational Lit Series at Brookline Booksmith has also become one my favorite virtual event series to attend. And I think we can all agree that Coffee House Press’s paid writing program is super inspiring. I hope it motivates other presses to find new ways to support the literary community in a monetary way during this crisis. As an industry it’s nerve wrecking to have to step out of our comfort zone and experiment with new ideas. But it’s exciting to see what progress is being made to change the book landscape for the better.

What does business look like right now? How are online sales and events working?

I wish I had something new to bring to the conversation but like other booksellers have mentioned before everything is so much harder than it used to be. And I didn’t even think things were that easy before the pandemic. Every time I figure out how to do something new, something else will happen and I’m like, lol no girl, you do not know what you’re doing, you better phone a friend. But I guess that’s the positive. Everyone is so willing to help and share their experiences I feel less alone in this.

In terms of online sales, it never feels consistent. We have good and bad days, but I feel like that’s kind of expected for everyone? The hotline gets daily calls or texts and that helps with sales, but nothing will ever compare to being able to physically hand-sell books. We’ve built a stronger following on social media recently and it’s been an interesting challenge to try to convey my bookselling style on the internet. My regular customers know that I don’t really take myself that seriously and when you shop at Deep Vellum, you’re going to get book recommendations in addition to my unfiltered opinions on a range of unprompted topics. I miss that kind of deeper connection with customers and I don’t know if virtually we can ever replace it, but it doesn’t mean I’m going to stop trying.

As far as events go, I’m still trying to figure it out. I’m perpetually tired and virtual events are so much work and often have very little pay off. I also think people are just exhausted by Zoom events and while I would never turn down an author event for a book that I think is exciting, I’m trying to be considerate with the kind of programming I put out. I want it to be fun, interactive, and not feel redundant. If that’s not possible then I don’t see the point.

Do you have any new practices you hope to continue doing even after this crisis subsides?

I definitely plan on keeping the bookseller hotline because as much as it’s meant to help others, I would be lying if I said it didn’t help me too. And while I’m not really a Zoom enthusiast, it has made me re-evaluate what I can do to improve event programming and the inclusivity in the store after the crisis ends. Event spaces should be more accessible and the fact that we haven’t offered some kind of virtual or live feed for those who are physically unable to attend feels likes a disservice on our part.

What do you hope for the future of indie bookselling and publishing? What trends do you hope will end?

I mean, I have a lot of questions, comments, and concerns regarding all facets of the book industry, but I’ll try to keep this short. I would love to see greater solidarity over livable wages and Medicare for all, but most of all I would love to see better representation in bookstore staffing and the publishing world. If we want to diversify the types of books our culture reads, we first have to address how we discuss voices of different cultural backgrounds and expand the representation of who is selling and publishing their books. I want readers to think critically about their own roles within stories of marginalized experiences and for booksellers to not have to avoid any aspect of a book (if it’s translation, queer, POC, etc.) in order to sell it.

I’m actually quite terrible at identifying what a “book trend” is, so I just read and do what I want, otherwise I think it would overwhelm me. I do kind of wish people would stop doing “small press” merchandising displays in stores. It feels gauche. I think when you put indie presses in a small book display to “normalize” them to customers it does the exact opposite. It almost feels like pandering to independent presses and an attempt to distract customers from the fact that a majority of what you order is Big 5 bestsellers. My hope is that bookstores with larger credit lines become more thoughtful with their book buying and try to allocate a better percentage to indie presses. Great books are great books, regardless of the publisher size. 

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 project list feels endless at this point, but my main focus right now is getting our new website launched. I’ve also been working on some fun video stuff for preorder campaigns and a collaborative project between the bookstore and Deep Vellum Publishing is in the works. We want to dive in and talk about their backlist catalog a little more, create more interactive content, and of course allow me to ramble about books and pop culture. This should hopefully launch soon!

As far as reading goes, I watch a stupid amount of television. Then try to read a significant number of books to balance out the fact that I have low-brow interests and no real hobbies, so I’m going to do this book pairing a little bit differently.

Does anyone remember the movie Thirteen? Starring a young Evan Rachel Wood and Nikki Reed? If no, it’s a chaotic teen drama that I probably watched too young and took a little too much direction from in 2003. I just re-read Maidenhead by Tamara Faith Berger and it’s the perfect match. Similar to this movie, Maidenhead depicts everything from young drug use, underage sex, but takes it a step further by examining issues of porn, race, and class. It’s one of my absolute favorite books. 

I finished Seven Years by Peter Stamm at the beginning of quarantine and the only way to describe reading a Stamm book is that it’s like smoking a cigarette after a long stressful day in perfect weather. Or like listening to Ariana Grande’s song “ghostin” for the first time. It’s sexy, it’s sad, and has the appropriate amount of drama and longing that I want in a book.

I just started reading The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek and have every intention of watching the French film after I finish because Isabelle Hupport is a babe and erotic dramas are kind of my thing. If you’re like me and also love unapologetic, depraved, erotic fiction, some of my favorites that I plan on revisiting this summer are: The Mirror in the Well by Micheline Aharonian Marcom, Wetlands by Charlotte Roche, 100 Strokes of the Brush Before Bed by Melissa P., Hashish by Oscar A. H. Schmitz, The Skin Is the Elastic Covering That Encases the Entire Body by Bjørn Rasmussen, Story of the Eye by Georges Bataille, The Ancestry of Objects by Tatiana Ryckman, Johnny Would You Love Me If My Dick Was Bigger by Brontez Purnell, and Leash by Jane Delynn.

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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