Hope is the passionate bookseller...

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By hook or by crook
Wednesday 15 March 2000

I live above a bookstore. When I was looking for an apartment in New York five years ago, the thought of being a writer and living above a place that sells books was a very romantic notion. It still is, even more so given how few bookstores there now are.

The bookstore below sells second-hand books. Considering the troubles that have beset small booksellers in recent years, with the advent of the superstore and Amazon.com and its clones, the owners consider themselves lucky to be hanging in there. Even stores that sell books at half price have seen traffic drop dramatically in the past few years. Our bookstore was a bustling bazaar when we first moved in. Now it's a bit desultory. When the owners retire, in maybe five years, it won't be a bookstore any longer. It will probably become a 99-cent store. Or a Burger King.

If you close your eyes and think of Manhattan, you might imagine a place of charming cafes and even more charming little shops that sell books, rather like the place Audrey Hepburn worked at in Funny Face or Meg Ryan owned in You've Got Mail. The truth is such places exist more in fiction than in fact.

Where I live, in downtown Manhattan, which one imagines to be the heart and soul of bohemia, there are only discount bookstores, like the one below, and a single superstore. I have to travel some distance to Greenwich Village to find the kind of store I imagined in my dreams. There are two or three specialty bookstores on leafy Village streets, selling crime or biography, which are holding out against skyrocketing rents and customer apathy. They do so because the residents of Greenwich Village, unlike most other places, still value the concept of the corner shop.

I've just spent a few days in Adelaide at Writers Week, which is held every two years as part of the Adelaide Festival. Straw-hatted Adelaide matrons form the eager audiences for this biennial gabfest, hanging on every word, whether it be the delicious and mordant wit of a mid-western poet/undertaker or the tedious rantings of a Generation Why columnist with kooky pink bits in her hair.

Also mingling under shady tents, chardonnay and carrot cake in hand, are visiting writers, publishers, agents and, bless them every one, booksellers.

As an author, I have a professional relationship with booksellers. They're at the coalface of my business. On the most fundamental level they make the financial transactions between a writer and his or her audience.

But this relationship is not only about money. A good bookseller is both intellectual guide and psych-otherapist, matching a customer's needs and desires to an author's voice. The job requires both a love of books and of people and a certain famil-iarity with customers' tastes and foibles.

I'm a book buyer as well as an author. Given the rather dubious credibility of some book reviewers (I'm being restrained here) and the vast number of books being published now, we book buyers need some serious help.

If we were inclined to judge a book by its cover, we'd be all seasick - the packaging of books these days is so aggressive that covers on a bookshelf dazzle with sexy photographs, foil lettering or even things that pop out at you.

Faced with a wall of literary eye candy, the passionate bookseller is the eager reader's only hope. For years, my personal book guru was Meryl Bartak at Black Mask Books in South Yarra, who now has opened Lorne Beach Books on Melbourne's west coast.

Meryl not only recommended books, she insisted. Once she'd worked out your taste, she pushed you into all kinds of new directions. I remember being dubious about her recommendation of Carl Hiassen's Skin Tight. I'd never heard of him and the cover looked trashy. But I was propelled out the door with it under my arm and, sure enough, it was wonderful.

In New York, I have to resort to Amazon: I'm not fooled by the "welcome, Lee Tulloch''. There is no friendly bookseller there, just a computer that bases its recommended selections for me on the fact that I lately have ordered a book on lawn bowls for my Dad and one on cult photographer/hosiery fetishist Elmer Batters for my husband. I go to Amazon when I know what I want. Most times I don't.

At Writers Week I ran into Meryl Bartak again, along with several other independent booksellers who'd come from all over the country to hear the writers that they sell speak. (Tough going, when you run your own business). "It's the way you love books again," Meryl says of spending a week in Adelaide once every two years.

Loving books. My computer doesn't love books (even if it can enable me to download Stephen King's new novel for $4 next week). The harried clerk at the checkout at my local superstore might very well hate them. But you can be sure the people who work in that small bookshop in your neighbor-hood are passionate about them, as passionate as writers are. It's just too uncertain a business right now to stay in if you felt any other way.

My heroes, booksellers.


"....A good bookseller is both intellectual guide and psych-otherapist, matching a customer's needs and desires to an author's voice. The job requires both a love of books and of people and a certain famil-iarity with customers' tastes and foibles. ....." That's what I think as well. Computers simply aren't sometimes...

Regards from OZ

-- Pieter (zaadz@icisp.net.au), March 14, 2000


Ahh, Pieter, thanks so much for posting this. Lee Tulloch is right on all counts. I love this article. You see I'm a retired bookseller, and some of my old customers are my closest friends. I also wrote a column about books until recently.

I hate to see the demise of the second had bookstores, but Barnes and Noble, amazon.com and all the biggies have taken over just as the small mom and pop stores are now almost totally gone.

But I used to attend writer's workshops, which I loved. And I still frequent used bookstores, cause that's where the bargains are and the good conversation--and the people that can talk books and know what the hell they are talking about.

-- gilda (jess@listbot.com), March 14, 2000.

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