An interview with Casella Brookins of City Lit Books

What’s your favorite area of your bookstore?

I’m our resident speculative fiction specialist, so I spend a lot of time in Science Fiction & Fantasy. We put a big focus on written staff recommendations here, and I get a lot of satisfaction from writing “talkers” that get great, semi-obscure SFF titles into the hands of people who wouldn’t normally think of themselves as genre readers.

What’s the coolest book cover that you like to have facing out on the shelves?

I adore the illustration work Rovina Cai’s been doing, and I face out Nicola Griffith’s Spear whenever I get the chance; it helps that I found the book delightful as well. But there’s so many great cover designs right now — Jeff VanderMeer’s Picador paperbacks are superb, for example, and Simon Prade’s cover for Simon Jimenez’s The Spear Cuts Through Water (another one I loved, and reviewed) is just stunning.

If you had a staff pick for a recent new release, what would it be? Backlist pick?

Ned Beauman’s Venomous Lumpsucker is definitely my top pick from this summer, but it’s been a good year. Backlist? I’ve got too many to list—I will say that getting more people to read Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria and The Winged History is part of my secret job description.

Do you have a strange customer story?

Not all that strange, but I’m always amused when people say, “I didn’t know if it was okay to take this book off the display!” Like: please! We made them hoping you would!

What author have you been starstruck to meet, or have you gotten to host a fun virtual event?

I don’t usually get starstruck, but I could make a case for being the world’s biggest C.J. Cherryh fan, and the language centers of my brain literally shut down when she was in Chicago for a signing a few years ago. City Lit hosted a few online bookclubs for this year’s Hugo Award finalists—as part of Chicon Fringe—that were a lot of fun.

What are some misconceptions people have about working in a bookstore?

That the actual job involves reading! Also, I think most people don’t realize the physical labor in a bookstore—it’s the equivalent of packing up and moving every week or two.

What is your least favorite bookstore task? Favorite part about working in a bookstore?

Doing returns is definitely my least favorite, just kinda spiritually. You want every—well, okay, most—books to succeed, but we don’t have infinite space, and new books are always being written, so we have to make room.

Favorite part is when a customer comes back to let us know that our idiosyncratic recommendation connected them with something they loved—knowing that they would never have wound up with that particular book if they hadn’t come in to our shop.

Can you recommend an underrated readalike book for one of the store’s top titles?

I love when people need a follow-up to Emily St. John Mandel: her books have so many threads leading off to other works. For fans of Sea of Tranquility, I might recommend Michael Zapata’s The Lost Book of Adana Moreau: that sense of place, the multi-generational nature of the story. Plus it’s just beautifully-written.

What’s the best dedication or first line of a book that you can remember?

“For thirty-five years now I’ve been in wastepaper, and it’s my love story.” Bohumil Hrabal’s incomparable Too Loud a Solitude.

What’s YOUR favorite indie bookstore that you’ve visited, besides your own!

Oh my gosh, there’s so many—tons of favorites right here in Chicago. I think I want to shout out to Small World Books in Venice Beach, however—whenever I’ve wound up in LA, I often find myself kind of at loose ends near there, and it’s a wonderful oasis. Have never failed to pick up something great and unexpected there.

Casella Brookins is the assistant manager at City Lit Books in Chicago.