An interview with Giselle Durand of The Book Cellar

What’s your favorite area of your bookstore?

I love the cozy corner by the front windows. We have these really comfy chairs there and the sunlight streams in in the afternoon, so it’s a little book heaven. I also appreciate whatever weird corner our life-size John Green cutout is in. I like to move him around.

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

I love having Atlas of the Heart by Brene Brown facing out. The cover is just gorgeous, and the dust cover is actually textured and raised which adds wonderful dimension. Other honorable mentions include The Atlas Six by Olivie Blake, Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao, and Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner. I guess I really like red covers?

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

I can’t decide between Honey and Spice by Bolu Babalola and Dead End Memories by Banana Yoshimoto. Honey and Spice defines the genre of romantic comedy- Babalola is a self-proclaimed rom-connaisseur and I wholeheartedly agree- the book breathes so well. The chemistry between the characters is electric and I was thoroughly engrossed in her writing. I can’t recommend it enough! Dead End Memories is a short story collection translated from the original Japanese by Asa Yoneda. I’m not normally a short-story person, but the writing style captivated me and it was so light and easy to read. At the same time, I felt heartbroken after every story. Yoshimoto is really good at creating really specific atmospheres, and the short stories centering on missed connections and finding our way back to people, or not, are beautifully reflective of the nature of relationships.

Do you have a strange customer story?

Too many to count! I actually keep a note on my phone called “People of the Bookstore” for customer stories, so I immediately opened that up when I read this question. This story isn’t so strange, but it’s one of my favorite interactions I’ve had. A woman came in looking for books for her four granddaughters. She said something along the lines of “They live in a very conservative town, so we like to give them things to stretch their minds.” Once we settled on One Last Stop for the 22-year-old, Red, White, and Royal Blue for the 19-year-old, The Song of Achilles for the 15-year-old, and The Mysterious Benedict Society for the 11-year-old, she was visibly gleeful. “I hope their mother throws a fit,” She told me while checking out.

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

We did a partnership with the Chicago Public Libraries for Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s children’s book, JUST HELP! and Spanish counterpart SOLO AYUDA!, and it was really cool working on a project with a Supreme Court Justice. I didn’t work the actual event, so I didn’t technically meet her, but I got a bit starstruck when we received bookplates with her signature. Melissa Albert is one of the nicest authors I’ve ever met. She wrote the Hazelwood series and launched her newest book, Our Crooked Hearts, with us in store. She is so talented and sweet!

Also, I loved the Divergent books when I was younger, and when I started working at the Book Cellar and found out Veronica Roth was a Chicago native and frequenter of our store, I freaked out! I got to meet her a few months ago when she came in to do some shopping, and she signed my advanced reader copy of her book Poster Girl that’s coming out in October. She is so nice and has fabulous taste in books- it’s always fun to see what she orders.

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

“Is it nice to sit around and read all day?” I wish I had time for that! Between assisting customers in-store, processing online orders, receiving shipments of books, manning the cafe, and making sure the store looks nice, it’s a busy job. It’s not nearly as lax and romantic as people make it out to be!

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

My least favorite task is shelving books when the shelves are chock-full. It’s hard deciding what should be moved around or off the shelves to make room for things, while still making sure the displays look nice and some books are facing out! My favorite task is giving recommendations, oral or written. When someone comes in and the word “recommendation” leaves their mouth, I can feel myself activate. I love the challenge and excitement of finding them the perfect book. Especially if they come back at some point and are clawing for the sequel, raving about the book and asking for something similar, or gushing over how the person they gave it to loved it. It’s so rewarding. We also have “Rec cards” where staff members can write recommendations to accompany books on the shelves, which is a great way to highlight books that might be passed over if someone were just scanning the spines.

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

I love this question. We sell a lot of Gideon the Ninth (and sequels) by Tamsyn Muir, which is a dark sci-fi fantasy with necromancers, queerness, love interests who hate each other, and a compelling mystery. One of my favorite books is Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas, which also includes queerness, love interests who hate each other, a compelling mystery, and shepherding souls to the land of the dead. It’s a gorgeously written book about a young trans man trying to prove himself to his family by summoning a super annoying (and much to his chagrin, hot) ghost. It’s a ghost story and a love story and has a similar atmosphere to Gideon!

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

“Look, I didn’t want to be a half-blood,” will always be one of my favorite first lines in a book. It’s from the very first Percy Jackson book, The Lightning Thief, by Rick Riordan, and it sets the tone for the entire series so well. Another good first line that I love is from Circe by Madeline Miller; “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” It’s so intriguing and makes you want to keep reading! I’m kicking myself for not remembering what book it is, but there’s a dedication out there that’s along the lines of “For you, bitch” that I just think is so funny.

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

Wild Rumpus in Minneapolis is one of the coolest bookstores ever! They have chickens and cats that roam around the store and you can pet them and play with them as you look for books. It’s more geared towards kids, but there’s something for everyone.

Giselle Durand is a bookseller at The Book Cellar in Chicago.