Recently modeling some newly-arrived (toddler sized) unicorn aprons with Elizabeth (left) and Eugenia Vela (center).
BookPeople’s CEO, Elizabeth Jordan, recently announced her move back to her hometown of San Antonio to become general manager of author Jenny Lawson’s highly anticipated Nowhere Bookshop. It’s obviously bittersweet news for me personally because, while I know this will be a fantastic fit for Elizabeth, I’m going to miss her. Elizabeth has a long history with BookPeople, originally starting as a bookseller before becoming a sales floor manager. Shortly after I started at BookPeople in 2005 and became the children’s book buyer, Elizabeth became the adult book buyer (the grown-up yin to my childlike yang?), then eventually general manager, and then CEO last year. Over the last 14 years, we’ve shared a fair number of hotel rooms at conferences, many a bottle of wine, and a lot of really challenging and productive brainstorms. Long story short, we’ve spent a lot of time slinging books together. Honestly, she is one of the smartest people I know, and Nowhere Bookshop is lucky to have her.
It is much easier to find young adult books set in Maine than it is to find books which feel like they really took place here. Julia Drake’s outstanding YA debut novel, The Last True Poets of the Sea, has, apart from all its other virtues, one of the most authentic Maine settings you’ll find in a novel. The book follows Violet, a New Yorker whose great-great-grandmother Fidelia was the sole survivor of a shipwreck off the northern Maine coast. The redoubtable Fidelia swam to shore and remained there, founding the town of Lyric, Maine. Violet, in the wake of a family emergency in which she has played a critical, and disappointing role, is sent to Lyric for the summer, staying with her uncle. The search for the sunken vessel her grandmother arrived on, along with navigating the personal wreckage which brought her to Lyric, is the foundation of a book teeming with depth, romance, intrigue, and self-exploration. Resting on nuance rather than easy answers, The Last True Poets of the Sea delivers a truly exceptional reading experience. Given all its canny depths, dangerous undercurrents and the centrality of exploration in the narrative, it seems incumbent on us to find out a bit more. Fortunately Julia rallied round to answer a few questions.
“Do you have the New Testament?” asked the customer on our first phone call of the day.
“We do have several children’s bibles, and some collections of stories from the life of Jesus…. is this a gift for a specific occasion?”
“No, no…. the Netflix series. The one that’s a book and all the girls look like nuns….”
“Ah, yes, we have Margaret Atwood’s new book. May I hold a copy or two for you?”
It wasn’t the first misunderstanding about a book title in our store this week, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. In this case, I just wasn’t thinking — how I could blank on THE TITLE of the week is probably due to an accidental decaf substitution at the local coffee shop, not an unclear request. Customers frequently ask for books that they distinctly remember, but can’t exactly name. Often, they also can’t name the author — although for some reason, the color of the cover sticks with them, as does a once-upon-a-time location in a display in our store. Booksellers often joke about the oft-heard “I don’t know the title, but it was BLUE…” but the real challenge as a literary shopkeeper is to keep a straight face when a customer butchers a title or author’s name, as well as to adroitly translate the malapropism, instantly producing the requested title.
Our school year is just three short weeks old, and there are a few items I’d like to address with our educator friends. Before we get any further into the semester, this children’s bookseller would like to make a couple of changes to the curriculum — and perhaps alter some school policies, for the good of the students and the sanity of both parents and my employees. Just for this school year, perhaps we could do away with…
Several of us on the ShelfTalker team have been reflecting lately about some of the intricacies of the bookseller / author relationship, and I thought it might be interesting to ask an author to weigh in. As it so happens, we have an author on our team these days. With over a decade of experience as an author and editor and now with just about a year at BookPeople, Leila Sales has worn a lot of different hats in the book industry, so I thought it would be fun to get some insight into her time on the bookselling side of the fence.
MG: What made you want to join the BookPeople team?
LS: A reason to put on real clothes and leave the house on a fairly regular basis. Also, a community, colleagues, camaraderie. People with whom I can regularly talk about books and exchange ideas. Consistent access to readers, so I can see what they’re excited about and why. A place to bring leftover baked goods, or eat other people’s leftover baked goods. I could go on.
Children in fourth, fifth, and sixth grade take an active interest in the real world. If you were to poll a group of fourth graders as to what books they were reading you would find nonfiction based series such as I Survived and Who Was/Is contending with the might of Wimpy Kid and Dogman for popularity. This is because middle grade readers are very interested and engaged indeed in clarifying the nature of things. Lucretius himself would find them estimable.
Having gotten the macro stuff, that Santa, the Tooth Fairy, dragons and trolls are imaginary, middle grade readers want to explore things with a finer lens. It’s complicated: for example, robots are real, but space robots visiting from other planets are fictional. Even their aforementioned guidebooks to the nature of the real world, nonfiction books are nuanced, and interwoven with fiction. The I Survived books insert the fictional element of child protagonists into their accounts, for example.
Our fall calendar is full. Well, we thought it was full, leaving just a few empty dates for those surprise emails from publicists, who sometimes realize that their author on a Midwestern tour has an extra day between stops in Ohio and Illinois… and since Indiana is conveniently located right in the middle of everything… then “OH! Don’t you guys do story times every day?” Yes, yes we do, and what’s the author’s favorite kind of donut? No, there’s no train from the airport. We’ll pick them up.”
Balancing events in the busiest season of the year is tricky. First, it’s a time when customers flock to our stores unbidden and largely unbribed by discounts, as the cooler air brings gift-giving opportunities that motivate shoppers. Fall birthday parties, when “inviting the whole class” is still the thing to do, leave us wrapping and taping like fiends on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturday mornings (yes, we CAN get you to the party in 8 minutes. You get out your Visa, we’ll get you out the door). Additional holidays like Halloween (“just some little tokens for the class… you know, to make up for the candy we can’t bring to the class party”) and Thanksgiving at Grandma’s (“we need stuff for ALL THE KIDS TO DO…. and maybe a puzzle. And a game. And I like to have a book for each child”) and another ever-popular cause for bookseller glee: fall parent/teacher conferences, when it’s gently suggested that our young scholars might benefit from some additional reading time in the evening…. yes, the bookmark timers are right there, next to the register.
There’s a dangerously appealing Etsy shop called Miniature Books USA that sells teeny classics. There’s even a complete Sherlock Holmes set, sold in a miniature bookcase.
There’s a magic to tiny things, especially when those tiny things are satisfyingly complete. Even when you yourself are very small, so that miniature items are not so improbably sized, there is still a special delight in objects that do not conform to expectations. They seem made just for you, or for a fairy or brownie or visiting elf.
When I was little, I had a set of four little Laurent de Brunhoff books tucked into a box called Babar’s Trunk, which looked like a treasure chest. While I don’t remember a single story from the box, I loved sliding the little books out, reading them, and fitting them back in, endlessly rearranging their order. Maybe I was a weird kid, but I’m in good company. I can’t tell you how many customers’ faces—both young and old—light up when they come across a miniature book.