Sometimes You Don’t Know What You Need, Until You Do

I had no idea what I was doing when I opened a small, independent bookstore three and a half years ago. 

I also had no idea that I had no idea.

A startling worldwide pandemic swooped in six months later, disabusing me of the notion that I understood anything about, well, anything. 

Seemed like as good a time as any to re-evaluate my life choices. Or, more accurately, my book choices. 

When Bookish opened, the shelves were chock full of used books. Only used books. All kinds of used books. And I had an off-site storage unit packed to the brim with … more used books. 

Most of those books would prove utterly useless.

If you’d told me when I opened that I’d haul carton after carton of used books back to the thrift store, I’d have gone into a complete tailspin. I’d spent hours upon hours combing thrift store shelves for (what I thought were) the perfect finds. I would have taken the swing and miss in used book selection as a monumental (embarrassing) failure. 

Except that damn pandemic happened and rearranged the way I thought about everything. 

It didn’t seem like a catastrophe when I realized (three months into Bookish’s existence) that, even if we remained a used bookstore, I’d need to at least be able to special order new books for customers. People needed their DogMan holiday orders. Stat!

And, when we shuttered the store for (two weeks that turned into) 5 months, and then the world ignited itself that summer with systemic racism virtually bleeding out of our societal fabric, harming (or killing) our black neighbors, calling into question (again) how white folks maneuvered in a system that was so clearly built to benefit them at the expense of everyone else, I knew we couldn’t be (only) a used bookstore anymore.

Bookstores are sanctuaries. They are safe spaces to share ideas, to ask hard questions, and (sometimes) to cry. They are also places of great joy and connection. To be that for all the members in my community, I needed to order new books by a diverse collection of authors. Books that spoke to my customers, that reflected at least a piece of their identity back to them, that addressed the simmering need to move toward a more just society. 

And then I experienced the heady power of choosing brand new books. Of pulling in marginalized authors that don’t always get chosen first and handselling the hell out of their books. It’s a rush to pore through the upcoming releases and choose the books that are just right for Bookish and our customers and lining the yearly reading challenge with books by authors from the margins. It’s an absolute privilege to be able to bring these books onto our shelves.

But what I have just begun to experience, as I get a firmer grip on this running a bookstore situation and am doing things that (boring) folks might refer to as “professional development,” is the absolute enthralling event that is hearing an author talk about their own upcoming release. 

Maybe this seems basic. Like, who doesn’t know about author talks? 

But before I opened the store, I wasn’t a reader of the newest releases. For a swath of my adult life, I only got books from the bargain table and Barnes & Noble because the vast majority of my money was earmarked for getting sloshed every night. Add to that the undercurrent of “don’t ever meet your heroes” that runs through my veins, and you’ve gotten a pretty good picture about why author talks might’ve completely missed my radar.

Sure, I’d heard authors I loved speak before, but it was always a more general talk (a speech really), and not a conversation about a specific book. But this kind of talk is the kind where you get the rundown of the plot, sure, but then they answer questions about the fledgling ideas that spurred their work into fruition. Or they talk about their writing process. And at the end of the talk, it’s clear that this act of creation changed them in some profound way. 

But also that they are regular humans. 

Not demigods. 

Just people who require coffee (or tea! I hear that’s a thing) to get the words flowing. Or who have specific foods they like to munch on when they’re writing. Who might always think their first drafts are shitty. And who sometimes have stellar backstories for how their book came into the world. 

For me, as a bookseller, hearing an author talk about their work makes me feel connected to them. And to the book. Which makes me want to get it into the hands of customers. 

As a writer, it brings the whole process of writing down from something mythical, mystical to something like a practice. A discipline. A grand adventure (sometimes). And a slog (sometimes). 

Listening to authors talk about writing feels like being invited to a club that’s both sacred and mundane. It feels like an invitation to see if I can do this, too.  

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