Many a long years ago (okay, maybe not that long) I worked at the Curious George Goes to Wordsworth Bookstore in Cambridge, MA and it changed my life. So when the store recently interviewed me, I thought the least I could do is return the favor.
So, as a part of the Enchanted Inkpot's Indie Interview Series, I bring you Curious George Bookseller Extraordinaries: Katie, Michelle, Natasha and Rachel!
1) Can you tell us a little bit about how you got into bookselling, and about your bookstore?
Michelle: I’ve always loved books – as we all say! I’ve wanted to be a writer, or somehow involved in the book world, since I was in middle school. I had a wonderful opportunity to intern at Houghton in college, and it was fascinating (and a bit overwhelming!) to see how many steps there are in the process of getting books from a writer’s typewriter to a bookstore. But my favorite part about reading books was missing from this kind of office experience: the talking about books, the passing along of a much-loved, dog-eared copy, and that amazing feeling when you’ve connected the right book with the right person. This store is constantly supplying me with that opportunity, from my colleagues to parents and kids themselves sharing their recommendations and their reactions to my own recommendations.
Since we are a small, local, independent operation, we really strive for that personal approach: we really know our books, and we want every kid, student, grown-up, whoever, who comes in here to find that book that they cannot put down even for dinner. I can’t describe that feeling when someone comes back to us and says, “That was just what I wanted! What’s next?” The same goes for our toy selection; our buyers have children themselves and we wouldn’t carry something that they wouldn’t give to their own kids. We want people to come here for toys they remember from their own childhood, to pass on that joy they remember from say, a classic Fisher Price telephone, or a giant shark stunt kite on a perfect March day. We love our books, our games, definitely -- there's not a day goes by that one of us isn’t buying something for ourselves -- but we love those kids running down our stairs yelling, “THIS IS SO COOL!” just as much.
2) How do you view your role as an independent bookseller? What do you find most rewarding about your job? What is most challenging?
Rachel: I think indie bookselling is all about personality and personalization. I talk to a lot of customers who really value our recommendations, whether they live in the area or just stop in once a year when they’re visiting relatives in Boston. My job as an indie staffer is to keep a library in my head of what’s new, what’s classic, what’s good, and what’s on the shelf, so that when someone comes in asking what my favorite new picture book is or what to give to a sporty 13-year-old girl, I can find them something they’ll be really happy with. That’s my favorite part -- when someone comes in knowing who they want to buy for but not really knowing what to get, and I can find just what they’re looking for. On the flip side, sometimes it’s hard to make just the right suggestion to customers who don’t know who they’re buying for. Gender and approximate age are good starting points, but I always feel like I could find the perfect thing if I just knew more. I even practiced my handselling skills on my family last Christmas, and even the most book-phobic of them really enjoyed what I picked out.
3) How can readers and authors work with and support independent booksellers?
Natasha: Readers can always stop by or read our blog to see what’s going on in the store. New events like book clubs, signings, readings, and parties (especially with the holidays coming up) are always going on. If you have read a great book, tell the bookseller! It’s always nice to hear from customers what they love, so we can recommend favorites to similar readers. We just set up a “Kid Pick” review board for kids to let us know what they think of books they’ve been reading. Authors can always drop a line on their blogs or websites to grab their books at a favorite local, independent place. They can keep in contact with stores when they have the time to participate in signings, events, or even just to ensure that booksellers have their books. We love it when authors stop by and sign whatever we have on the shelves!
Readers and authors alike can always help independent bookstores the same way: word of mouth. If you love us, tell your friends! If you think of a book you love, tell your friends to pick it up here! If someone you know needs to find an awesome gift, send them here!
Katie: We have a lot of scheduled author events, with a signing and usually an activity, where kids get to interact with their favorite author or illustrator. Readings, drawing activities, discussions, writing workshops – really, any way that an author or illustrator can reach out to their audience, at the venue of a local independent bookstore, benefits everybody! As Natasha mentioned, we also love to have authors and illustrators just drop in to say hi and sign stock. We’re all book lovers as well as booksellers, so the staff tends to get flustered and fangirly about these visits! But it’s also a great opportunity for me as event coordinator to broach the idea of an event or guest blog spot with that person.
If authors sell their books from their websites, they can put a link on their site to IndieBound rather than a chain online bookseller. Independent stores register with IndieBound, so customers can order online directly from their local indie bookstore with the same convenience of other online shopping.
4) Can you tell us about a few of your recent favorite YA or MG fantasy books?
Rachel: There are so many! Ash by Malinda Lo is excellent, as is The Good Neighbors graphic novel series by Holly Black (the second installment just came out). There’s also the Chaos Walking series by Patrick Ness (The Knife of Never Letting Go is in paperback now and The Ask and the Answer just arrived in hardcover), which are more sci-fi than fantasy, but exceptionally good reading. For the middle grade set, I really love The Night Tourist by Katherine Marsh and Savvy by Ingrid Law.
Katie: I tend to read a lot of supernatural romance and “creature feature” YA fantasy! Shiver by Maggie Steifvater has an unusual take on werewolves. Not only is the romance in that one compelling (I have such a crush on Sam!), but the plot is nail-bitingly suspenseful. Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments trilogy is a great series about demons and angels. Right now I’m in the middle of The Vampire Academy series by Richelle Mead, and I’m hooked. Blood Promise, the fourth in the series, came out earlier this month. I’m probably the world’s biggest Neil Gaiman fan, so I’m constantly recommending his books for middle grade through adult. Odd and the Frost Giants will be here soon!
Some other titles on my looooong to-read list are Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld, The Swan Kingdom by Zoe Marriott (a MG “Wild Swans” retelling), and the third in Nancy Farmer’s Sea of Trolls trilogy, The Islands of the Blessed.
5) What's the most memorable experience you've had bookselling?
Katie: Other than some "kids say the darndest things!" moments and authors/illustrators dropping in to chat, a lot of bookselling is pretty episodic. A customer asks a question, you pull together your resources -- the store's inventory, your coworkers' brilliant brains, quick online research, and most importantly, your own internal database of awesome books -- to try to answer that question to the best of your ability and give the customer as many good options as you can, and hope that they will find something that is just what they're hoping for. Then there's another question! But when you can find someone "just what they're hoping for," the feeling is memorable even if the actual incident doesn't stay with you that long. We have many loyal customers who have been on the other side of that experience, and who keep coming back to us for that reason. And we enjoy the challenge of the unusual question. Often the booksellers are learning from each other and discovering new favorites, right along with our customers!
Just as we have learned from you! Thank you, ladies!