An interview with Stefen Holtrey of Brilliant Books


What’s your favorite area of your bookstore?

The basement. Every bookstore should have a potentially haunted basement. We have a good one. Long, dark, deep and spooky. Horse drawn carriages used to be able to pull right down into the back for deliveries. There’s still a coal furnace just sitting down there. A single, final bucket of coal is right next to it. Close second: scifi and fantasy section.

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

Recently, it’s been Black Leopard, Red Wolf. The cover art by Pablo Gerardo Camacho is maddeningly beautiful. One that I’m excited to be able to feature is Eric Larocca’s Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke ,due out this September. Kim Jakobsson did the cover and it’s everything a horror cover should be.

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

My pick for new release would be The Employees by Olga Ravn. It’s exactly the kind of sci-fi I’m looking for these days; weird, suggestive, revelatory, and playful in its form. For a backlist pick, I’d have to go with Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun. Towering, magisterial, mysterious in every way, it’s a masterpiece of imaginative literature. Warning: I’d put the MRMR stamp on this one (May Require Multiple Readings).

Do you have a strange customer story?

A man once came into the store wearing a bear suit. Full head with eyes, ears, teeth, a pair of lifelike paws and claws. It was floor-length with very believable fur. I was most worried when he went to the children’s section. I didn’t want him to scare the kids!

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

Garth Nix came to talk about his latest book a few years back. Never thought I could be starstruck by an author, but I was downright giddy to be able to speak to him. Sabriel was very important to me growing up.

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

It’s not all glitz and glamor. There’s blood and tears in the aisles between those shelves. We work long and hard down in the book mines to auger up those precious gems for our discerning customers. But in the end, they make it all worthwhile. That, and the employee discount.

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

So, I come from the food service world (former barista), and I have to say that my favorite part of the job is the sense of serenity and repose that goes along with selling books. I’m allowed to be thoughtful. There’s no split-second, do-it-all-at-once, mind-splitting anxiety to contend with. That said, there’s nothing like the white-hot thrill of finding someone that perfect book. Least favorite thing: answering the phone. It’s the worst.

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

If you enjoyed Sheila Heti’s Pure Color, I would recommend The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories by Bruno Schulz. These works both share a certain sensitivity towards, and inclusion of, the fantastic as an exploration of the mundane, especially when it comes to family. Stylistically, they both revel in the aphoristic effect; the small explosion of insight and image, similar to the shorter works of Kafka, except with more heart, and less anxiety.

Stefen Holtry is a bookseller at Brilliant Books in Traverse City, Michigan.


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