An interview with Vanessa Deubler of Madison Street Books

What’s your favorite area of your bookstore?

My favorite area of the bookstore is our staff pick wall. There’s such a variety of books on there, all well-recommended by my coworkers, and it’s right by our front windows.

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

The Grip of It by Jac Jemc has my favorite cover ever. The design is striking and creepy, but there are also these little faces throughout that you can only really see when they reflect the light. It’s great for a display.

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

A recent new release I read and loved is Bliss Montage by Ling Ma. It’s only the second book of short stories I’ve ever read! For a backlist pick, I can’t decide between The Grip of It by Jac Jemc and A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles.

Do you have a strange customer story?

So, so many. Recently at an event I had a customer ask me about the color of my sweater and then make arguments for both sides about whether it was pink or purple. He was nice, it was just funny.

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

We’ve had a lot of really cool events, and some with really big authors, but my favorite event so far was the book launch for Shirlene Obuobi, MD, who wrote On Rotation! We had a lot of people show up and there were cake and giveaways. It was really fun and everyone was so friendly! I also really enjoy the poetry events.

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

We don’t wear aprons, contrary to what Joe from You will have you believe. Besides that, I don’t know! I think it might be a little romanticized. It’s not all discussing poetry while dust floats through shafts of light. There is some of that, but you also lift a lot of boxes, shelve a lot of books, and carry a lot of chairs.

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

I love having events but setting up for them and putting everything away is not my favorite. Other than that, I don’t really mind anything in particular unless there’s a lot of it, which can get tiring. But the best parts, by far, are getting to talk about books all day, picking books out for our bespoke subscription recipients, and recommending books to customers, especially when we have similar reading tastes.

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

I’d recommend Dear Child by Romy Hausmann for anyone who read and liked The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides. Also The Grip of It by Jac Jemc is another great haunted house story for the folks who love Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson.

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

That’s a really good question! I can think of a few, but my favorite line ever is actually the last line of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak which, after a book that takes place over the course of World War II, ends with Death saying, “I am haunted by humans.”

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

I recently went to Unabridged Bookstore in Chicago and loved it! It’s definitely strange being a bookseller in a bookstore that isn’t your own. I turned around every time the phone rang. I’m also dying to go to Dog Eared Books Valencia in San Francisco, just as a side note.

Vanessa Deubler is a bookseller at Madison Street Books in Chicago.

An interview with Aaron Jackson of Bookworks

What’s your favorite area of your bookstore?

Well considering I am a poet I have to go with the poetry section. I really love our poetry section because Albuquerque has such a wonderful poetic community. We have so many great local authors who have works in our section and I have been told that former United States Poet Laureate Joy Harjo used to live across the street from the store.

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

I would say Gwelf: The Survival Guide. It is this super cool fantasy book that reminds me of a book about gnomes that I had as a child. It is the kind of cover that compels you to pick the book up and flip through it.

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

I am going to say Mayor Good Boy Goes Hollywood which is a graphic novel for elementary school age readers. For kids who are fans of the Dog Man and Captain Underpants series it is a hit. As a dad I am probably more likely to have read something in the kid lit range than the adult lit range and my daughter loves all things Mayor Good Boy. For a backlist pick I would suggest anything by John Steinbeck who is my all time favorite writer. Also, The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss is in my opinion one of the greatest fantasy novels ever written.

Do you have a strange customer story?

I am an east coast transplant. My family moved to Albuquerque a little over two years ago. Well, one day while working in the store the Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, who is from New Mexico, came in the store to do some shopping. She had a couple of Secret Service agents with her who were very quiet and just observing. I began to talk to a customer who was also a New York transplant and we were discussing memories of the city when one of the Secret Service agents who hadn’t said a word walked over and said, “you know Brooklyn is always in the house” and then he went right back to his post and didn’t say another word. I thought that was pretty cool.

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

I mentioned Joy Harjo above. She came into our store and I thought it was her but wasn’t sure because of the covid mask. She came to the counter with a copy of her book Poet Warrior and when she went to pay I could see the tattoo on her hand which is very distinct. I blurted out “this is you” entirely too loudly to which she nodded and I awkwardly rang her up. She is a very polite person.

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

As much as we wish we could, we can’t read every book in the store. Everyone who works here has their own tastes and likes. So although we might not be able to recommend a book in a particular genre we can certainly steer you to an employee who can. For my part, I am happy to help with poetry suggestions, kids book suggestions and books about dogs.

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

My least favorite task is telling an author we can’t carry their book in the store. As a writer, I know how hard it is to get a book placed prominently in a store and I wish we could take in every title. Unfortunately, we have limited space so we cannot. I just feel bad because I wish we could give every author a chance to shine.

My favorite part about working in a bookstore is certainly getting someone to read a book that I love and having them love it as well. Every time I sell a copy of Merle’s Door or The Name of the Wind to an adult or a copy of The Phantom Tollbooth to a child I feel such a sense of accomplishment.

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

Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain is always a big seller for us but I think Medium Raw is actually his best work, so I am always trying to steer customers in that direction.

What’s the best dedication or first line of a book that you can remember?
I am gonna be super biased here and go with the dedication from the book For One Day of Freedom. It is a book written by my father Blyden B. Jackson Jr. and posthumously published nine years after his death. The book is dedicated to my sister and I which makes it super meaningful.

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

Since I worked there for ten years as the Director of Visual Merchandising and in many ways it was my second home and family, I have to say the Strand in New York City. I can’t quantify how much I learned in my time there and I certainly have a lifetime of memories, it was such a great job for me at that time in my life.

Aaron Jackson is the store manager at Bookworks in Albuquerque.

An interview with Holly Dowell of WORD Bookstore – Brooklyn

What’s your favorite area of your bookstore?

I love our staff pick section and our themed window displays! Our staff has such varied tastes and I enjoy seeing them all side-by-side. We also swap out the front window seasonally to match the heritage months and other bookish celebrations like Banned Books Week. Often people find new books by seeing the featured selections there.  

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

I’m a sucker for beautiful, creative covers that also perfectly align with the book. Briefly, A Delicious Life by Nell Stevens fit this excellently with 19th-century pastels of oranges concealing a pale face. I also swooned over the hardcover editions of Infinite Country by Patricia Engel (opalescent folklore!) and Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi (the strong dichotomy of pink and black is stunning). They’re all good books, to boot!  

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

Two recent new releases I’ve adored have been The Strange Inheritance of Leah Fern by Rita Zoey Chin and Acceptance by Emi Nietfeld. Chin’s debut novel is enchanting and tender, mixing all of my favorite elements – a road trip, scavenger hunts, and a young woman searching for answers. Nietfeld’s memoir is a must-read. She candidly describes her childhood in and out of foster care & institutionalization. 

As for backlist, I have to show some love for my favorite author Anthony Marra. His book A Constellation of Vital Phenomena left me forever changed, offering a deeply human perspective on the Chechen Wars. In the nonfiction realm, I cannot quit recommending It’s What I Do by Lynsey Addario. She writes of her time as a war reporter with such conviction and honesty. 

Do you have a strange customer story?

I have no shortage, haha. One that comes to mind is a customer who came and asked for our help remembering a title she’d read about recently but couldn’t remember. She was confident it was nonfiction nature writing, recently reviewed in a major publication, and had something to do with birds. We racked our brains and used all our Googling techniques but came up empty-handed. She thanked us for our efforts and left, convinced that her partner would remember. A few hours later she came back, exuberant. The book? Where the Crawdads Sing.

What author have you been starstruck to meet?

This is one of the coolest parts of working for an indie shop in New York City. I’ve had a number of such instances, but particularly notable was getting to host the First Lady of Iceland to celebrate her book, Secrets of the Sprakkar. The event was even recorded for C-SPAN!

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

Honestly, I could write a book about this! A common misconception is that I know about every book ever written. I wish that was true, but thousands of books come out every month! I couldn’t possibly keep them all cataloged in my brain. Another misconception is that we get to read on the job, but there’s just far too much to do with a lean staff. That said, it is accurate that we spend a whole lot of time chatting about books.

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

Least favorite? Shelving. It’s the dishes of the bookstore – it always feels like you just did it! My favorite part is making recommendations, whether it’s in-person, on our Instagram stories, or for our WORD To Your Mailbox subscription service. I love learning the nuances of people’s preferences and helping direct them to the perfect read.

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

Can I make a few? If you liked Pachinko, I suggest We Measure The Earth With Our Bodies by Tsering Yangzom Lama. For readers of Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You, try Happy Hour by Marlowe Granados. And if you picked up bell hooks’s All About Love, follow me right this way to See No Stranger by Valerie Kaur.

Holly Dowell is a Bookseller & Social Media Manager at WORD Bookstore – Brooklyn.

Books Forward BFFs November Influencer Newsletter

Check out the latest newsletter for our Books Forward Friends. This issue features highlights of our BFFs, fun titles available for review, and special opportunities for our friends.

Download the November 2022 newsletter here!

An interview with Danielle King of Left Bank Books

1. What’s your favorite area of your bookstore?

It has always been the basement lol. Under normal circumstances – we’re undergoing some downstairs construction and renovation due to some recent flooding – Left Bank is a two-story bookstore, with a robust and lively upstairs, and a quieter downstairs area that houses our used book department and the science fiction/fantasy collection. SFF takes up ⅔ of the longest wall in the room, and I have spent hours, as both customer and employee of Left Bank, perusing the shelves. It feels like you’ve found something a little secret the first time you walk downstairs, and you are immediately confronted with our graphic novel section, which presents an apt visual transition to the fantastic worlds depicted on the covers in the sci-fi/fantasy section. There’s usually a table with some chairs adjacent to the section, so you are welcomed to sit with those covers, to open them, to take a glimpse at a possible future.

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

I genuinely try to get away with facing out every single book by (MacArthur Genius) NK Jemisin, and I love that our backlist buyer/merchandiser Randy is so willing to let me get away with it. The art is so striking, and often a bit gothic, and gives you somehow not very much but also a tremendous amount about the story it represents. I also am nothing short of obsessed with the cover of They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by (MacArthur Genius) Hanif Abdurraqib. I mean, it’s a wolf in a track suit and a chain, somehow both approachable and containing a warning, and I can’t think of a better visual metaphor for the wonderful and devastating prose that the book contains.

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

God’s Children Are Little Broken Things (Arinze Ifeakandu) is this remarkable, heart-rending collection of short stories about (mostly) queer men in modern urban Nigeria, and it broke my heart with characters who are desperate for acceptance, but willing to take so much less.

White Teeth (Zadie Smith) & The Secret History (Donna Tartt) are often, in my mind, vying for the role of my Favorite Book. It’s never entirely clear who’s winning that battle. If you feel the need to slip into the classic “dark academia” text, Donna Tartt’s first novel is a bildungsroman and thinly veiled autobiographical account of her own time at the somewhat infamous Bennington College. If you’d rather be swept into one of the great family dramas of the modern age, a young Zadie Smith is flexing her considerable linguistic muscles in this wonderful unpacking of the role of the ones who love you in the quest for a fulfilling sense of identity, and no one is left behind on the ride.

4. Do you have a strange customer story?

I once had a customer who tried to order a book that had no release date several days in a row. She called every day, pretty close to when we would close, and would ask if I would be able to order the illustrated edition of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. And every time she called, I told her that they’d only released the first few books, and that it probably takes a good bit of time for them to produce. And every time, she would respond, with a morose, “Oh, ok, I just would have figured that book would be out by now.”

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

Bernardine Evaristo was a genuine delight to host. She was exactly the right mix of self-inspired and self-demanding as a creator, and her curious and remarkably generous attitude kept me on my toes throughout the interview. I had already held her in tremendous esteem, but there’s something about being told to get to work on your novel by such an accomplished and down-to-earth artist that really sticks with you.

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

I think a lot of folks attach a romantic notion of casually reading and browsing shelves aimlessly to working in a bookstore. But it’s actually quite a lot of work to keep up with inventory, to maintain order on the shelves, to keep up with the various tasks that make it possible for us to point folks towards their next favorite read.

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

My least favorite task, in the bookstore and in life, is probably cleaning the bathroom. My personal favorites are probably pulling returns or doing inventory details, as they’re opportunities to see all the books that we have to offer our customers. I add so many things to my to-be-read pile whenever I’m doing a task that involves any degree of close shelf reading.

8. Can you recommend an underrated readalike book for one of the store’s top titles? (For example: If your store sells a lot of The Song of Achilles, you might recommend Tin Man.)

We sell a TON of Stuart Turton’s The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle and our customers are constantly thrilled by the twisty, perspective-shifting mystery story. To me, a classic version of the locked-room (locked-building?) mystery that I think people have forgotten about is The Westing Game (Ellen Raskin). While technically a middle-grade book, I’ve returned to it maybe a dozen times, and it never fails to deliver, and is great for kids and adults alike. A more adult-oriented suggestion would probably be The Starless Sea (Erin Morgenstern); though not a genre mystery, the layers of understanding that unfurl before your eyes going through this book are as stunning a magic trick as I’ve ever seen.

assistant manager/used book buyer/IT specialist

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.

 

An interview with Mika Tuzon of Scrawl Bookstore

What’s your favorite area of your bookstore?

I love our fiction wall at Scrawl– it takes up an entire wall of the store from floor to ceiling and it gets the best natural light!

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

I am definitely guilty of judging a book by its cover. They’re more often art pieces in and of themselves (it’s a plus when the content is great, too)! Disorientation by Elaine Hsieh Chou is a recent favorite– the cover is what sold me on grabbing this title and I always make sure it’s out for the customers to see. I’m obsessed with the pink ombre and all the floating objects. I would love to know in general how authors go about deciding on their book covers. It seems like such a vital part of the process– it is the first thing readers see when they’re deciding on their next read, after all!

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

Two Brown Dots is a collection of poetry that came out in late April by Danni Quintos. It’s separated into three parts– Girlhood, Motherhood, and Folklore. Danni deep dives into what it means to grow up Filipina American and navigate the world as a woman of color in her poetry with exquisite vulnerability. I’m a little biased as she is my friend and fellow Kentuckian writer– she’s the first person I really saw myself represented in as far as poets go. As far as backlist titles, there are so many! I’ll just list out some favorites: Brown Girls by Daphne Palasi Andreades, The Mismatch by Sara Jafari, World of Wonders by Aimee Nezhukumatathil, The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, Daisy Jones & the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid, Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid, and anything by Mary H.K. Choi and Jenny Han!

Do you have a strange customer story?

There was a customer that came in one time that was incredibly rude and seemed eerily familiar, so naturally I looked her up (as one does). I probably can’t go into too much detail about who she is, but let’s just say I had seen her on TV before as she was one of the defense attorneys for a man in Hollywood who had fallen from grace.

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

We had an event with Monica Hesse a couple of years ago. She’s a columnist for the Washington Post who focuses on topics of gender and she’s written amazing YA historical fiction like The War Outside
and Girl in the Blue Coat. That event was coincidentally attended by mostly teen femmes– it was so lovely to witness their energy and enthusiasm as they asked her a lot of questions regarding writing and journalism. She is also just a really lovely person!

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

People often romanticize working in a bookstore. Booksellers do a lot of heavy lifting– literally! Contrary to popular belief, we spend little to no time reading during our shifts. Sometimes, it’s just one person to a shift, which means one person is receiving shipment, answering the phone, shelving, manning the register, restocking, bringing out curbside pickups, helping customers, the list goes on and on! That being said, I wouldn’t trade this job experience for anything. It’s really special to work at a family-owned independent bookstore. Another big misconception– meet cutes don’t happen here! At least I haven’t witnessed or been part of one.

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

Restocking can be a pain– our shelves are more often than not filled to the brim! However, I prefer restocking and shelving to receiving shipments. There’s a lot of little steps required of receiving shipments so it’s easy to mess up. I’ve been here for five years, so I have lots of practice at getting more titles to fit on our shelves. Also, shelving often gives me the opportunity to find books I never would have thought to look at. I often go home with my discoveries– it’s exciting for my TBR pile, not exciting for my wallet! I think the worst part about working at the bookstore is when people are rude about the mask policy. We still require them which I truly appreciate, and most customers are understanding. However, we get the occasional naysayer which can be a little hit to the positivity I try to exude while I’m at the store. My most favorite part though is getting to know our neighborhood regulars. We have quite a few people who come in and/or order from us very frequently. I love when they come in and I remember them by name– people love being remembered! Getting to talk about books everyday is a big win, too.

Can you recommend an underrated read alike book for one of the store’s top titles? (For example: If your store sells a lot of The Song of Achilles, you might recommend Tin Man.)

If you’re a fan of nonfiction books like Crying in Hmart, you’d definitely enjoy Carefree Black Girls: A Celebration of Black Girls in Popular Culture by Zeba Blay. I believe this book deserves more love and is essential reading for all– it was my favorite read of 2021 by far. It’s a collection of essays that ponders
Black women and their contributions to culture in general. Blay’s wit and insight are razor sharp, and it’s great to see women of color celebrated. More of that, please!

Mika Tuzon is a bookseller at Scrawl Books

 

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.

Books Forward BFFs October Influencer Newsletter

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An interview with Natalie Freeman of Skylight Books

What’s your favorite area of your bookstore?

At Skylight we technically have *two* stores. We have our main store which is home to all of our fiction, genre books, and most of our nonfiction books. Then two doors down we have our Arts Annex with all of our graphic novels, design, music, film and other art books. The Annex is also home to our super rad zine collection, mostly curated by my colleague Alex. My favorite thing to do when I see Alex receiving and restocking in the Annex is to just ask him what’s new and what’s cool. We have zines by local authors/illustrators/artists and a lot of imported collections from around the world. I get lost in the zines everytime I walk back to my office and I’ve discovered so many cool things on those displays.

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

I know we’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but judgment doesn’t always have to be bad! When I saw the cover art for the new editions of Juneau Black’s SHADY HOLLOW mystery series, I thought “Okay this book is going to be a good time!” And I wasn’t wrong! I always face these out in our mystery section and recommend them to anyone who’s looking for a fun read that feels like a cozy afternoon on the couch with a *perfect drinking temperature* cup of tea.

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

We do staff picks every month at Skylight, and this year I decided to feature kids, middle reader, and YA books for all of those (you can find all of our staff picks on our website!) But I’ve still been reading big kid books too! If I had to pick a recent new release, I’d recommend Jennette McCurdy’s memoir I’M GLAD MY MOM DIED. I read an early copy and finished it in like two days. My favorite memoirs are the ones where the author is so self-aware that you can feel it dripping off the page. Having been through lots of therapy and constantly working on discovering new things about myself, this book really blew me away. A blacklist pick would probably be A PSALM FOR THE WILD-BUILT, the first book in Becky Chambers’ Monk and Robot series. I read this and the latest installment A PRAYER FOR THE CROWN-SHY while I was camping this summer and I couldn’t imagine a better place to read these beautiful little books about a traveling tea monk and their robot companion.

Do you have a strange customer story?

So much can happen in a day of consistently interacting with customers. One of my favorite interactions was when a customer came in looking for the new Melissa Febos book BODY WORK, but it was the day before it went on sale. The customer had just been in a class where Melissa was a guest speaker and she mentioned the book, so she had come to the store the next day to get it. I happened to have an advanced copy at my desk because I had been reading it, so I told the customer to hang out for a second and I’d be right back. I brought her the galley and let her have it since I was almost done. She emailed me a few days later saying she had already finished it. Those kinds of interactions only happen when everyone is in the right place at the right time, and it’s always so fun when it all works out.

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

I’m the assistant events manager at Skylight so I’ve been fortunate enough to meet a lot of wonderful authors, and I also produce the Skylight Books Podcast so I’ve also gotten the opportunity to interview some of my personal favorite authors and illustrators. Earlier this year I interviewed Akwaeke Emezi about their YA novel BITTER, which was surreal and I still think about that conversation a lot.

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

Something that always seems to surprise people about working in a bookstore, at least our bookstore, is that every piece of the business happens HERE. If you order a book on our website and it says that it’s in stock, someone who works at the store is going to pull it off the shelf to fulfill your order. We have a very small (but mighty!) team that works on orders and shipping, and your order is also packaged and shipped by someone working at the store. Then we walk all of those packages across the street to the post office. The bookstore you’re shopping in is the place where all the magic happens!

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

My least favorite bookstore task is probably alphabetizing haha. It’s one of the most foundational tasks of working at a bookstore – you need to alphabetize things as you shelve, restock and maintain sections. But after the hustle and bustle of a day helping customers or working on events, my brain always has trouble remembering the alphabet.

My favorite part of working in a bookstore is definitely handselling. When I started working on the events team, I stopped working on the sales floor and I didn’t realize how much I would miss it! Whenever I happen to be bopping around the store and someone stops me to ask for help, I feel like a kid in a candy store. I love helping people find their next great read, it fills me with so much joy. My colleagues will also call me at my desk to see if I have time to help someone find a kids book, and that’s when I drop everything and I show up next door before they’ve even had a chance to hang up the phone.

Can you recommend an underrated read-a-like book for one of the store’s top titles?

I think that 99% of customers who have come into our store recently have read at least one Ottessa Moshfegh book. Sometimes they’ve read a few of her books and want to read another, or they’ve read one and liked it, but want to read another author before diving into her backlist. For anyone that loved or was thinking about reading DEATH IN HER HANDS, I always recommend Olga Tokarczuk’s DRIVE YOUR PLOW OVER THE BONES OF THE DEAD. They both have a character that inserts themselves into a whodunnit, plus DRIVE YOUR PLOW OVER THE BONES OF THE DEAD gives you a chance to read around the world (translated from the Polish) and spend some time with a cranky old lady who lives in a snowy cabin and loves astrology.

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

This book has a dedication, a few intros and many beginnings. I’ve thought about Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir IN THE DREAM HOUSE pretty much every single day since I first read it.

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

I grew up in Lakewood, CA and there was a used bookstore about 10 minutes away called Once Read Books. They’re located on a corner and whichever direction you approach from there are shelves and shelves of books outside the front doors. I spent countless hours sifting through their sections and always found piles of books to bring home. Now whenever I’m back in that area I always have to stop by. On my last trip I found an amazing book on Eliot Porter’s Appalachian wilderness photography and a handful of old regional cookbooks.

Natalie Freeman is the assistant events manager at Skylight Books in L.A.