Written by
Hope Edelman
July 2009
Written by
Hope Edelman
July 2009
Where Everybody Knows Your Name One of the big perks of being a writer is the ability to travel incognito. Unless you're Jodi Picoult or Stephen King, hardly anyone ever recognizes you by name. They might know your book titles, if you’re lucky, but almost never your name and never, ever, your face. Once when I was paying by credit card at a Barnes and Noble in Calabasas, California, the cashier asked to check my I.D., looked up at me to compare my face to the one on my driver's license, looked back down at the photo, said my name out loud, and then asked in the most bored tone possible, “Are you an author?” My brush with public fame. The notable exception to this rule are my local independent bookstores, where I’m greeted not just by name but often with questions about new books on the horizon and impending release dates. Yesterday I walked into Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City to say hello to one of the owners, and when she heard I have a book coming out in September she pulled out her reading calendar to make sure there was room for me this fall. Two to three months before pub date seems to be the optimal lead time for bookstores to schedule their events, and Prairie Lights being the venerable institution that it is was already filling up for October. We settled on October 22, a Thursday evening. It was the easiest date to schedule and confirm so far on my fall calendar. Prairie Lights is practically the only store where I can pull off this kind of literary coup, and it’s in large part because I’ve had a relationship that borders on a love affair with the store for the past twenty years. And it made me think about how important it is for writers to cultivate and nurture reflexive relationships with their local booksellers.We’re always hearing about how important it is to support our local independents, but it’s equally important for them to offer support to their local authors, now more than ever. The synergistic relationship that develops between author and bookstore can extend beyond scheduling readings, into store placement for the author's books, increased local traffic for the store, recommendations to reading groups, and additional readings (and additional store traffic) for other local writers the author recommends. Some stores do this as a matter of course. Others have to be courted and massaged. How do you start building such a relationship? Most of the time, it’s fairly simple. The closest independent bookstore to my house in California is Village Books in Pacific Palisades. About three or four years ago I walked in and introduced myself to the owner who, this being a small, locally-owned store, spends a lot of her time on the premises. Whenever I'm walking on that block now, I stop in and say hello to her or the other employees--and also because they have terrific taste and I like to check out what's displayed on their front tables. I encourage my friends to schedule readings there, and I buy novels for my older daughter from their extensive YA section. Whenever I hold a salon or book party at our house, I ask Village Books to be the participating bookseller. It’s the easiest method for me, and that way, they get the bulk sales. I love their little store in Palisades Village, a narrow cavern of books, almost as much as I love the tall, bright grandeur of Prairie Lights. I’ll bet if you ask any writer to name a bookstore that left an early and lasting impression on them you’d get an almost immediate response, and chances are it’d be a neighborhood independent that they remember most. Prairie Lights is at the top of my list, but two others also come to mind. The first is Pickwick Books in Nyack, NY, not far from where I grew up, where towering stacks of book in a cluttered space, punctuated by tall ladders for access, offered a haven for a high school girl desperate to keep her friends from discovering that books meant more to her than boyfriends, or fast cars, or bongs. And also—although I realize I’m seriously dating myself here—I immediately think of the original Barnes and Noble Sale Annex,on the corner of Sixth Avenue and 18th St. in New York City, just a half block from my father’s office, where I spent countless afternoons in junior high and high school sitting crosslegged on the carpeted floor, paging through stacks of remainders special-sticker priced at $1.99. This was back when that annex and the retail arm directly across the street were Chelsea's neighborhood independent booksellers. Believe it or not. The summer my mother died, I was working two jobs, one as a ticket taker at a drive-in movie theater, and another as a busgirl at a seafood restaurant. Both of my bosses were so freaked out by what had happened that they cut way back on my hours to give me more time with my family. But my brother and sister were at camp, my father had to go to work every day, and all my friends had summer jobs. So I would go into work with my father most days and walk to the Barnes and Noble annex on the corner, which was blessedly air-conditioned and understaffed. Because I was barely employed I didn't have money for books, so I would sit on the floor for hours and read. Nobody seemed to mind, or even to notice I was there. I must have worked my way through at least eight or nine books that way. It felt like a rare gift that summer, to escape our small suburb and have a place to go where nobody felt compelled to offer clucks of sympathy, or ask about my mother's last days, or grab me hard against their chests and start to cry. It was a place where nobody knew my name, and I was damn grateful for it. Who knew that ten years later, I’d become a writer whose first book was about mother loss? Who knew those two stores would eventually grow into the behemoth that Barnes and Noble became? Most of all, who the hell knew that the Chelsea district—scrappy little Chelsea of the 1970s!—would be the launching pad for it all?

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  • Hope Edelman

    "Either You're In or You're In the Way" is screening tomorrow night and Saturday afternoon in Iowa City. I am nearly heartbroken that I have to teach over the weekend, otherwise I'd definitely go see it. Looks like a very inspiring story. I'm going to pick up the book this week at Prairie Lights.

  • Judy Clement Wall

    Also in California, Rakestraw Books in Danville. They are really good about making readings "more than." I went to a reading recently for Either You're in or You're in the Way. The bookstore had hooked up with the local high school's film program and presented very short student films as part of the event. I fear the demise of the independent bookstores - thank you, Hope, for the reminder to nurture these ties and keep them strong.

  • Jill Hunting

    Come see us in Sonoma when you're in the San Francisco Bay Area. Here in "wine country," our outstanding local indy is Readers' Books. Lilla Weinberger, co-owner with her husband, schedules readings.

  • Jenny Rough

    My husband is amused by the fact that when we lived in Los Angeles I was terrible at spotting celebrities, but I could always, always spot writers (usually based on nothing more than a small 1" x 1" photo on the back lower corner of the book jacket). Not sure if your book tour will take you to the boondocks of SW Colorado, but I love Maria's Bookshop in Durango.

  • Hope Edelman

    Thanks, Elaine. I"m going to be in Chicago for a few days in early August and will make a plan to stop in Women & Children first to say hello there. I'll try The Book Cellar, too. And Carrie, I'm going to be in Portland at the end of August so I'll most definitely stop in The Children's Place. Thanks for their info!

  • Elaine Soloway

    Hi Hope, thanks for this great post and for letting us know that it is up. When in Chicago, Women & Children First on Clark St. is a must. Miraculously, this feminist-oriented independent bookstore will be celebrating its 30th anniversary this year with a celebration Oct. 3 (details to come later). I'm honored to be on the planning committee. Other great independents in the Chicago-area are The Book Cellar on Lincoln Ave., and in suburban Winnetka, The Book Stall. Skylight in Los Angeles is terrific, too. I hope writers on this site check them all out when on tour.

  • Kari O\'Driscoll

    Mmm, even though it's absolutely enormous, Powell's Books in Portland is still my favorite. Gives me goosebumps to anticipate entering the store.

    As for my current neighborhood, Third Place Books and Soul Food Books are terrific. Thanks for the tips, I'll definitely work on those relationships as I continue to write...

  • Carrie Wilson Link

    Hope, when you're in Portland you should do a reading at The Children's Place, it's (obviously) a children's bookstore, but they have some adult books, too, and they do great readings there. I'll e-mail you with the contact information!