New York City might be home to the big houses, but this scrappy city just happens to be the epicenter of publishing on the Best Coast. Join Alexis Coe every other Wednesday for Read Local, a series on books produced in the Bay Area.
Reinventions rarely work, let alone improve on the original idea, but 33-year-old The Booksmith beat the odds. After changing hands in 2007, the Haight Street independent bookstore received a full makeover. It is arguably the most attractive store on the street, but as always, the inside is what matters. Their book selection is plentiful, and manages to be both discerning and inclusive, which made me wonder about the mysterious buyer stocking the shelves.
Camden Avery, the store's buyer, was kind of enough to indulge me.
You get paid to buy books. That seems unfair.
It does, doesn't it? I like it a whole lot.
Um, I will say that the industry attaches this odd glamour to buying, which I don't really understand. I work with a bunch of excellent readers who all have a say in how the store comes together, so mostly what I do is collect opinions and do homework. It isn't very flashy.
Are these "excellent readers" other employees?
Yes they are! Our staff is amazing. We talk a lot. We actually sell books more aggressively to each other than to customers.
Do you read all of the books you buy for the store?
I do read an awful lot but no, it can't be done, I would go insane. Sometimes I try to pretend that I have, that's a fun game.
Mostly it's about knowing how to talk about books. It turns out you can tell a lot about a book without reading it from cover to cover. There are different kinds of reading.
In grad school, one professor recommended Pierre Bayard's How to Talk about Books You Haven't Read, and my class was scandalized. And while I do (eventually) finish every book I start, I give plenty of recommendations for ones I haven't read.
Exactly! I don't see what's so scandalous about it, really. A bookseller's problem is that they have to know enough about all of their store's books. We're a moderately sized store and we have more than 15,000 unique titles. Have you read 15,000 books? I probably haven't.
What's the most important part of your job?
Deciding. Time, space and money are limited, so what's worth caring about?
What's the best part of your job?
I care more about books than almost anything else, and I get to spend every day with people who understand that.
What's the worst part?
Saying "no," but it's really important. Every book doesn't get an equal chance, it just doesn't. It can't.
As a writer, one can never predict which stories will resonate with people, and that can lead to heartbreak. Have you ever fallen in love with a book and, perhaps, ordered too many copies, only to watch the stack collect dust?
The books I usually fall in love with would be, ah, generously described as a tough sell. But booksellers can be awfully persuasive and bookstore patrons are often willing to be seduced by something new, so I've never been really stuck. The worse mistake is buying a stack of something because a publisher tells you to. Nobody can make you love a book enough to sell it, and they're often wrong anyway.
George Saunders' The Tenth of December has done quite well, leading some to suggest the short story is making a comeback. Do you agree?
Well, I would say Saunders is having a moment. There's also Aimee Bender, and (always) Alice Munro ... but no, generally stories are a tough sell. It's sort of too bad, isn't it? Although I'm not sure they need to come back exactly -- part of their charm is that bastard quality, don't you think?
If short stories get a (rumored or real) comeback, so do novellas! Every single time I visit Booksmith, I can't resist the prominently displayed novellas from Melville House.
I really, really love novellas. A good novella is like a perfect one night stand.
I've just finished Marcel Proust's The Lemoine Affair, but I'm not in one of these monomaniacal Proust phases. Can you recommend another novella?
Any day of the week. Try Julia Leigh's Disquiet.
How would you compare books published on the East vs. West coasts?
Oh, that's so hard to say. First of all the book industry is so small -- there aren't really very many brains responsible for everything that comes out each year. Excellent books come from strange, wonderful places, and there are a lot of places in the world that aren't New York. The fact that most publishing is concentrated in New York probably means that on average the quality is diluted, although like good books, bad books can certainly come from anywhere. Very, very generally, San Francisco publishing means smaller publishers means more focus and flexibility.
Tell us about some of these local publishers with greater "focus and flexibility."
Well City Lights certainly has a vision, Chronicle has a schtick, Ten Speed Press (although that's under Random House now) does great cookbooks. Most Bay Area publishers don't try to do everything, they have a special arena that they work really well in.
Read Local focuses on books produced in the Bay Area, and I make a point to talk about each individual publishing house. Readers don't have brand loyalty the way shoppers do, and I wonder if there isn't some benefit to knowing that, for example, Knopf is literary and Chronicle does beautiful nonfiction and McSweeney's is all of that in one.
Well, I think some publishers do carry brand loyalty -- at least among a small group of readers. New Directions and Melville House are two great examples: They're sort of like specialty record labels in their consistency. For me those distinctions have some value but I think most readers just want a good book.
Are you a part of the San Francisco literary scene? I've flanked both coasts, and I'd say there is more emphasis on performance here. There's always some kind ofreading going on, many of which are organized by our own Evan Karp.
The literary world in San Francisco is very tiny and warm and welcoming. I'm really lucky to be able to talk with writers I admire: Daniel Handler, Kevin Smokler, Julia Scheeres, Andrew Sean Greer. They're all a kick in the pants. Also, Booksmith does more than 200 events a year and has a lot of writerly friends, so as a store we definitely do play on that field.
In Anne Lamott's Operating Instructions, the Marin-based author talks about the importance of visiting local bookstores and forming relationships. Does that engender loyalty, as they no doubt hope?
Well it can. Spreading the word about books is all about a kind of sociability, so in that sense it probably helps.
Lamott also mentioned the practice of visiting a bookstore and straightening up her books, maybe even moving them to a more prominent position. Have you ever noticed that?
Yes, although anecdotally I'd hazard to say that most booksellers don't find that a great practice.
Of course, I have to ask you about the (insert ominous tone) Digital Age. Is it the bookseller's greatest enemy?
Writers can obviously benefit from the Internet, but do those good ol' misanthropic ones, who write in sheds and walk to the post office, miss out? Do the writers who are good at self-promotion through social media do better?
Yes and no. I mean there are many different kinds of writers, and many different ways of reaching a reader. Joan Didion probably doesn't need a Twitter handle, but you know Margaret Atwood has one and it's actually a lot of fun.
The Booksmith's shelves are littered with tiny index cards in which employees have a 3x5 chance to attract a reader. Are they always positive? I was in Bookshop Santa Cruz and noticed a big thumbs down strewn in front of Tao Lin's Taipei, which struck me all at once as refreshingly honest, devastating, and at cross-purposes with a bookstore's most basic need to, you know, sell books they carry.
Well ours are mostly positive, but I think both ways make sense. A bookstore's need is certainly to sell books, but long term, the way to do that is to be a reliable, discerning taste, and that demands honesty.
Which titles sold best in June?
We just hosted Neil Gaiman, so Ocean at the End of the Lane is our bestseller for June.
Which forthcoming titles are you most excited about?
I'm looking at fall books right now, so I'm getting excited about Jhumpa Lahiri's Lowland and Donna Tartt's Goldfinch, which are coming out later this year.
What's your Desert Island book?
Don't laugh: Pamela, by Samuel Richardson. It has a reputation for being very stodgy but actually it's a scream.
Thank you, Camden!
This interview was edited and condensed.