Thursday, May 13, 2010

Ghostwriting - No. 1

Hello and welcome to the Haunted Bookshop Blog. I'm Nialle Sylvan, and I'll be one of your hosts here. I'll be posting a weekly entry on Thursdays about bookselling itself - from the unexpected aspects of the profession to the body of the printed book, from thoughts on genre and marketing to a little history of books and bookshops.

As the blog progresses, we'll have regular entries by the staff of the shop on topics of interest to each member, and we'll be requesting guest opinions on books and related topics. You may also notice entries including silly quotes and momentous occasions at the shop. Feel free to jump in with your own thoughts and anecdotes!


By way of a starting observation on the art and practice of bookselling, I'd like to solicit discussion on the topic of the general impression people have of the actual profession of bookselling. Over the years, I've encountered a lot of different points of view on who booksellers are and what we do. Some people seem to think we sit behind the counter and read all day, which is kind of the opposite of true. Other people imagine glamorous forays to antiquarian fairs, which I wish were true for us, but we aren't doing that kind of thing yet. Some ask us whether we know where the fiction section is, while others ask which authors we'd consider to be magical realists. So let me ask: When you imagine owning a bookshop - and don't tell me you never have, I won't believe you - what do you think it would be like? What is your ideal bookstore? What do you expect from your local bookstore?

I ask in part because one conversation that crops up from time to time, most recently last Tuesday, is the "I've thought about opening a bookshop" conversation. Not that any two of these conversations are very similar - in fact, the opposite is true - which tells you something about bookselling right away. Every independent bookseller has an independent vision. But if there's one line I keep delivering during these conversations, it's this: "It's not what you expect."

By that, I do not mean "don't expect to make money" - you shouldn't, but most people who have thought seriously about opening a bookshop know that - or "it's a lot of work," which it is, but again, seriously aspiring booksellers know that, too. I mean that the bookselling profession, in my experience and in the experiences of pretty much every other bookseller I've ever met, is in part a flight on the Seat of My Pants Airline with unscheduled stops in very unlikely places.

For example, I knew before I bought my shop that I'd have regulars, and, given the city in which I intended to purchase a bookshop, that some of them would be really interesting folks. I didn't expect that, for the first three years of my career, I'd get all my international news not from the papers or online services (which I didn't have time to read for quite a long time), but from a retired Croatian neurologist who read widely, had a curiously pragmatic feminist streak, and only bothered with sports news if it involved horses. Neither did I expect to get seriously sick of "Fur Elise," but that I maybe should have anticipated when the piano first arrived in the old front room of the store. Nobody could have predicted, least of all me, that I'd end up placing orders for rubber chickens via telephone while picking through boxes that contained both Gore Vidal and Alan Moore. And - here's my point - I'm not sure I would have understood, even had someone told me, that these things would come to be the reason that I opened the shop every morning, even more so than the books and the readers themselves.

There are booksellers who are most interested in the books, and booksellers who love the readers, and booksellers who make money (yes, really) and booksellers who mostly sit behind the counter and read (but they unfortunately tend to go out of business pretty quickly). I'm not not part of these groups, but I am definitely part of the Orders Rubber Chickens and Shakespeare Action Figures group, as well as part of the Loves Weird Discussions group, as opposed to the Shh, This Is A Bookstore group. Actually, any kind of diagram of the various and overlapping types of people who end up in this line of work would look like a bowl of four-dimensional Cheerios as seen through a kaleidoscope, so I don't know whether trying to set out groups is even meaningful. But when I envision the bookshop in which I want to work, it looks pretty much exactly like what is here: Our House Where People Talk and Find Books and Buy Some and Teach Us Things and Learn Others and Mostly Comprise Something Between a Literate Flash Mob and a Neighborhood.

I still have to clean the bathroom and wince at the sales totals and clean price sticker goop off of books and get the cat down before he knocks Bobble Head Shakespeare into the recycle bin, but it's incredibly worthwhile to be in this place, in this town, with these regulars, wondering what unexpected thing will happen next.

Does that sound anything like what you had in mind? Would you do it differently? What bookshops have you visited that did do it differently? Would you be a specialist - all film crit, all cookbooks, all mystery novels - or a generalist? Would you have sidelines? A piano? Couches? Readings? Would you stock from a distributor? From garage sales? Would you be for-profit or not? Those of you who have done or are doing bookselling, what makes your shop (open or private) different?

Next week I'm going to get into a little more detail, specifically, the mystique of old books and some tips on long-gone publishers I've learned to love - or to hate. But first, I'm looking forward to your thoughts on bookselling in general, and if there are particular topics that seem to be of general interest, we'll revisit them in later posts.

Thanks for joining us, and look for other columns and articles to begin in the next few weeks, as well as some fun retroactive entries, since I just found all the stuff we were going to use to make a scrapbook for the Haunted. Don't worry - I promise not to post anything that will embarrass anyone other than Logan, who is, like all cats, immune to indignity.

Warmest regards.

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