Handselling books is one of my favorite parts of my job. There’s nothing more gratifying than talking about a book I enjoyed, seeing a customer’s eyes light up, and hearing her say, “That sounds great. I think I’ll get that one.” It gives me a little thrill every time. It’s especially fun when the customer asks me, “What’s your favorite recently?” That’s my moment to pitch a book I loved or really believe in. Often it’s my chance to talk up a book I think deserves more attention than it’s getting, one the customer might not have discovered on her own.
I understand all reading tastes are different, so I’m usually not disappointed when I recommend a book and my customer doesn’t buy it. But in our neck of the woods, sometimes I’m unable to sell books I love for reasons I still don’t understand. In my time at Paulina Springs Books, I’ve developed an almost fail-safe prediction for what type of book I can’t handsell, and it’s this: If the book has a gay main character, no one will buy it.
I can hear you now, urban booksellers, gasping in dismay, or possibly squawking like chickens: “How can that be? Is it that conservative down there? I guess Central Oregon really is full of rednecks!” I know you might say things like this, because I hear these remarks every time I go to Portland. From my perspective, most of my customers are neither rednecks nor conservative. Most read books on all kinds of topics. So I still don’t know what makes their eyes glaze over and slide away from me when they realize, from something I’ve said or from a book’s back cover, that the book is about a gay person.
I probably found this most frustrating with Robin and Ruby by K.M. Soehnlein. The advance reader was my find of the year. Brother and sister characters Robin and Ruby (yes, Robin is gay) became so real to me that I missed them when the book was over. Soehnlein’s writing is remarkably immediate and vivid, and I thought it would be great for book club discussions. But I think I managed to handsell all of two.
I was also disappointed that I couldn’t sell Emma Donoghue’s graceful, moving novel Landing, which is about the tension between loving a place and loving someone who doesn’t live in that place. I think this is a theme many of us can identify with. But women readers of literary fiction, whom I saw as the perfect target group, acted like they couldn’t possibly relate to the story. When Donoghue’s novel Room came out and hit the bestseller lists, everyone was buzzing about what a brilliant writer she is—which I had tried to tell them with Landing! I guess it’s just so much easier to relate to a woman who’s held captive by a psychopath than it is to relate to two women in love.
When I expressed my frustration to one of my co-workers, he suggested I not mention that the main character is gay when talking up the book. I try this sometimes, but I always feel odd about it, as if I’m keeping the character in the closet. It’s relatively easy not to mention Lord John’s sexuality when pitching Diana Gabaldon’s Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade, and to focus on the book as a historical intrigue. But one of the things I found most compelling about the book is how Lord John handles his life as a gay man in 1740’s London. Interestingly, Lord John has done well for himself on our staff pick table and is a pretty easy handsell. Is this because I’m not mentioning Lord John is gay, or just because people like historical fiction? I don’t know.
I’ve been disturbed by the lack of response from my customers to these books for a number of reasons. I worry that our community has some homophobia lurking in it. I’m frustrated that people are missing out on great literature because of this detail. I get a little discouraged when I try over and over to sell a book I liked so well and get no results. I have moments when I feel like writing into my reviews of these books, “Read the damn book—it won’t kill you!”
“Why try to sell people these books if you know they’re resistant to them?” you might well ask. First of all, it’s far too easy as a bookseller to slip into trying to talk up the books you think are an easy sell and to ignore your own passions. That takes away some of the joy in our work. Also, literature changes culture. A literature professor told me part of the job of the artist is to make new or different ideas normal and acceptable. K.M. Soehnlein once called me his “handselling advance guard.” Maybe if I keep plugging these books, some people will read them and find that becoming attached to these characters lets them see how alike we all are, how common our human experiences. Most of all, though, I keep trying to sell these books because I still hope for that thrilling moment when I know what I’ve said resonates with the customer and she takes the book from my hands.
Amanda MacNaughton is a front-line bookseller and the events manager at Paulina Springs Books in Sisters and Redmond. MacNaughton has interviewed Jane Kirkpatrick, Anjali Banerjee, Marcus J. Borg and Brian Doyle for NWBL.