An interview with Kim Bissell of Broadway Books

What’s your favorite area of your bookstore?

I love the picture book section! We are primarily a store for adults and so our children’s section isn’t very large, but we try to be well curated. We have a side slatted wall of some of the best well-loved picture books available. There are so many richly illustrated stories filled with the sadness and grace of humanity and some that are just for FUN! It’s my favorite spot to stop and have a good read or chuckle.

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

I love the cover of debut novelist Juhea Kim’s fabulous new book Beasts of a Little Land. It’s an incredible mélange of two paintings. One a historical landscape of the mountains of Korea and the other a fanciful depiction of a wild tiger. The spectacular design is by Allison Saltzman, senior designer of Harper’s Ecco Books with art created by Jasmijn Solange Evans. I also love Tarana Burke’s recent memoir of starting the Me, Too movement – Unbound, published by Flatiron books. The cover is an image of a quilt of Burke done by artist Bisa Butler, who is one of the finest artists in America today.

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

My favorite new title is Chelsea Bieker’s collection of short stories, Heartbroke. The candy-filled image on the cover is just the beginning, a sweet intro to the crafted stories inside that are full of innocence lost. Described as “refreshingly unsentimental and relentlessly compassionate”, Bieker rips out your heart and hands it back to you smarter and thicker. It’s really, really good.

As for an older pick, I’m still a lover of anything by Elizabeth Strout. She had me at Olive Kitteredge and has kept my attention with every further story from Lucy Barton’s home town of Amgash, Ill. Strout’s ability to gently lead you to a character, show you their worst qualities and still allow you to appreciate them is a mark of her true talent.

Do you have a strange customer story?

It’s always such a kick when a famous author or local literati drop in for shopping and either surprises us or blushes when we gush over them. Kevin Kwan came by to sign books when he was in town and is a huge fan of Cheryl Strayed (we’re her local bookstore and offer personalized copies) and we had a fan fest on both sides of the counter. He’s a really lovely guy and his books are so fun.

What author have you been starstruck to meet?

We were lucky enough to host a book club meeting with Michelle Obama when she was on tour for Becoming. The conversation went on for over an hour and she made a point to really listen to how the book had touched all the club member’s lives. She is such a warm and intelligent person and we were ALL starstruck.

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

I know you’ve heard this before, but that all we do is READ! Running a small business is challenging under normal circumstances and has been complicated so much more by the pandemic. We are thankful for our lovely customers and their commitment to buying local. And while we all love reading we sometimes need more hours in the day to tackle our bedside stacks.

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

Perhaps they are the same! It’s always such a disappointment to have to tell a customer that we are unable to get a book they are interested in reading. Although, when we can solve the puzzle and make someone’s day, it’s sheer joy!

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

Anne Lamott has been an elixir for so many folks during the pandemic and her books are treasured by our customers. I think if you like Lamott, you’ll LOVE Brian Doyle. His good friend, David James Duncan help craft some of his best essays in a posthumous collection entitled A Long River of Song and it’s just wonderful to read and re-read. It’s a perfect collection to help understand all of life’s blessings and challenges

We also sell a lot of the amazing Margaret Atwood and particularly A Handmaid’s Tale. Similar in topic and also masterfully written is Leni Zumas’ Red Clocks.

Kim Bissell is the Co-Owner of Broadway Books in Portland, OR.