How many times have you struck up a conversation in a bookstore? You’re standing there at the stacks of shelves and suddenly someone pulls a copy of a book you loved. In your overzealous book-loving nature, you exclaim “I Loved that Book!” Before you know it, two strangers who may have never exchanged words are suddenly sharing book suggestions and talking about characters. Anyone within earshot would have thought the two people were long-lost friends, when in fact they are something more—they are book lovers.
Friendships and connections happen in bookstores between readers, booksellers, and authors. I was honored to meet many authors during my time working in bookstores and even more introductions of books through publishing reps I worked with on an individual basis and through people just stopping into my store. Every author hopes and prays that a bookseller will read their book and hand-sell it.
Connecting Through Books
I know that during my tenure, The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein was a book I happened upon after the profound grief of losing my best friend, my rescue dog Naza. I was going through the new books and putting them on the shelf that day when the cover caught my eye—a beautiful golden retriever on the cover in profile. I immediately started to cry as I read the in-flap and proceeded to buy the book at the end of my shift. I read it in two days. From that day forward, I sold hundreds of copies of The Art of Racing in the Rain, to which a few of my favorite customers, including the realtor who sold me my first house, would buy multiple copies and give them to friends as gifts.
When the owner of the store would tease me that I wouldn’t let a customer out of the store without buying a copy of the book, he wasn’t too far off. There were many other books like that over the years that I found hard to contain my enthusiasm for.
Peter Heller’s first novel The Dog Stars was another one. My publishing rep, Pam from Random House, sent it to me as an advanced readers copy, a wonderful perk I miss to this day where the bookstore receives an advanced copy to read and give feedback on.
Heller, a writer for Outside magazine, hit his first novel out of the ballpark. His writing voice was so beautiful and he had such strength in his descriptions of the natural world, his dog, and the woods, that I just escaped into it. Heller became one of my many “go-to authors” that I’d make sure I read.
The power of stories is that you can be people from different cultures, races, gender, ethnicity, or age, but if you are touched or inspired by a story or character, you can talk for hours. Over the course of my bookstore years, I spoke to so many people about countless books, talked up authors, and hand-sold copy after copy of my favorites. The trust I cultivated with customers was sacred to me.
I got to know people just by the books they were reading, and each time I ordered books from the catalogs for the upcoming season, I’d often come across a title or subject and a customer would come to mind, and I’d make a mental note to show the book to them when it was finally released. I took my responsibility as a bookseller very seriously as I knew many people had precious few hours in their week to read, so I wanted to make sure they were making the most of it, that they were entertained and fulfilled in their reading life.
Books From Years Past; Vivid Memories Persist
Customers often asked me how I found so much time to read? My standard reply was that I didn’t have a television and didn’t spend time on social media, save for marketing purposes with my store. Some weeks, I’d read as many as five books. Granted, I couldn’t always remember the details of the stories as time went by and other books took their place, but I could remember how I felt at the conclusion of it. If I absolutely loved it or was changed or moved by it, I’d write a review and include it in my staff picks section.
I remember clearly Julie Orringer’s historical novel The Invisible Bridge, which is set during World War II in Budapest and France, and the characters were so alive to me in my mind that I actually missed them and grieved their loss for weeks after finishing it.
Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes, which took the author 30 years to complete, educated me and made me understand so much about war and sacrifice and the politics of war and race, courage and redemption.
There have been many books that have saved my life over the years and I’d always have them on the shelf:
- Darkness Visible by William Styron
- The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
- Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts
- Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke
- John Adams by David McCullough
- The Alchemist by Paul Coelho
- No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering by Thich Nhat Hanh
- A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
- The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski
- Woodswoman by Anne LaBastille
- Siddhartha by Herman Hesse
- The Overstory by Richard Powers
- The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle
So many books over the course of so much time and so many books that have stood the test of time. They continue to touch lives upon their first reading. And like readers who connect over books, be it in bookstores or on the train, at the checkout line, or on a park bench somewhere, our love of a shared story is powerful. So, the next time you’re in a bookstore, don’t hesitate to strike up a conversation with another reader, suggest a book, or ask a bookseller what they are reading, because so often their recommendation may just change your life.