An interview with Emilie Sommer of East City Bookshop

What’s your favorite area of your bookstore?

It’s hard to pick, but my first true love is always fiction. In all sections of our store, but especially in fiction, we try to make sure that we have the books that people walk in looking for, but also lesser known titles that they didn’t know they wanted. We always want people to find what they need as well as discover something new. I feel like that happens routinely in Fiction. My other favorite section is Biography and Memoir. I gravitate toward personal stories about dealing with trauma and grief, and I also love celebrity memoirs!

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

Right now it’s Shit Cassandra Saw by Gwen Kirby. It’s a wild, bold cover that has definitely sold some copies.

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

For a recent release, I’d pick The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka. It’s a tiny book, but it packs a huge punch. I love its structure — it begins in the first person plural with a group of swimmers at a community pool, then moves in closer and closer to become an intimate story about one of them — and I love Otsuka’s writing.
For backlist, I’ll pick a book that has been a favorite ever since I first read it in the late 90s: Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? by Lorrie Moore. My favorite micro-genre might be “an adult looks back at a formative adolescent friendship” and Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? is just a masterpiece. More recent examples of that form are The Girls from Corona Del Mar by Rufi Thorpe, Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson, We Run the Tides by Vendela Vida, Marlena by Julie Buntin, and Bewilderness by Karen Tucker. Anytime someone mentions that they loved one of those, I press Who Will the Run the Frog Hospital? into their hands.

Do you have a strange customer story?

I only have a couple of strange ones and I’m not sure I’ll put them in writing… but I have so, so many wonderful ones! There are a million great things about being a bookseller but becoming friends with customers is high on the list. I’ve made some true, treasured friends out of customers and I’m so grateful.

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

We hosted a wonderful virtual event with Jessica Anya Blau for her novel Mary Jane (a delight, now out in paperback) and she was in conversation with Nick Hornby. The first night I met my husband, we discussed how much we loved High Fidelity, and Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch is the sole reason my husband and son are ardent Arsenal supporters. I almost got choked up telling him that his books have been central to the creation of my family.

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

I bet every bookseller says something similar: people think we get to sit around and read all day. Sadly, that is just not true. If it were true, it would mean our store was not very busy, and that would be sad. I’m actually glad that we are too busy to read during work because it means the shop is doing well.

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

Least favorite part: boxes of books are VERY heavy! Favorite: The sheer magic of putting the right book in the right person’s hands at the right time. There are lots of other favorites, too — getting advanced copies of highly anticipated books, getting to meet authors, getting to know editors, and — as I mentioned before — our super customers.

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

This is more of a companion recommendation than a readalike, but hear me out! Patrick Radden Keefe’s Empire of Pain continues to sell well for us, and for every person who purchases that (or Dopesick by Beth Macy, or Dreamland by Sam Quinones), I want to recommend Liz Moore’s Long Bright River. I love to pair a novel alongside non-fiction, and there’s no better book about the devastation of addiction. Long Bright River is a mystery, but it’s also, I believe, the great American novel about our opiate/opioid epidemic — an unforgettable, staggering achievement that I can’t ever recommend enough.

Emilie Sommer is a book buyer at East City Bookshop in Washington, D.C.