Sherman Alexie proposed a couple months ago that authors should work a day at a local indie bookstore, recommending titles and just in general getting out there and supporting books and the favorite local stores that sell them. Handselling–putting a book into a reader’s hand and selling them on it–is what he’s talking about, and he’s so much fun to be around that I can’t see him doing it poorly. I can easily see myself being convinced by Alexie that this book, or that one, is the one I should be reading. Of course that kind of persuasion can be very powerful, especially coming from an author, and I think it’s a great idea.
In fact, I think it’s so great that I’m going to do it myself, on the day my book is coming out. I’ll be working at the Kid’s Department Information Desk in the University Bookstore from ten in the morning until 4 in the afternoon on November 5th (today!), followed by eating my dinner, followed by my reading and signing that night, and possibly maybe I’m biting off more than I should chew on a day so very much filled with excitement? Hrm…. I arranged all this before Alexie’s letter, and it’s kind of cheating as I was, for a great many years, a bookseller at that very store. So I’ve got a definite advantage in that I know where everything is, know how to use the inventory system to look things up, can work the registers, all that rot. But, and here’s the thing: I’m not any better at recommending books than anyone else.
I really do mean that, too. Everyone who reads regularly (I’m willing to admit I’m better at handselling than someone who read the Steig Larsen books and the newest Dan Brown and that’s it for the last five years) has favorites, books they love and can get excited about. It’s so much fun when you see those people out in the wild, as it were: the shy teenager who for just a moment waxes poetical about their favorite classic of literature; the motherly lady who can’t stop talking about something by Krakauer; the older gent who dearly loves his Regency mysteries, though he can’t explain why. Everyone has a book they rave about when you get to talking to them, and that’s the point of Alexie’s idea, I think. On a larger scale, it’s the fun idea behind the Movable Type mixers in Seattle, where you show up at a bar with the book you’re reading, and get ready to talk about why you’re reading it and why you like it (or don’t, but that’s another post.)
Every day, in every bookstore, booksellers hear from their customers what the good books are. When someone’s buying their foot-high stack, they talk about how good this author is, or how excited they are to read this new book that got a blurb from their favorite author (blurbs, those little quotes on the covers of books, are just Alexie’s idea spread small but widely). And every one of us (bookseller or ordinary reader) can be that person. When you’re walking the aisles, be ready to say about the book that the stranger has picked up, “That’s a good one,” even if it’s not your store; even if you’ve never worked a day in a bookstore or given it a moment’s thought. Because in the end, a good book is a good book, and all you have to do is get someone to open the cover to see that.
So when someone comes up to the desk today and says, “What’s a good book for a ten year old girl?” I might freeze up for a moment (I was never a girl! I barely recall being 10!) but then I’ll just mentally search out a good book, and be ready to put it into the customers hand, and remember that there’s nothing better than a good strong recommendation for a book you love. And has she read The Peculiar? Because I think she’ll like it.
Jason Vanhee was born and raised in Seattle, Washington. He writes in several genres and styles, including contemporary fiction, historical fiction, young adult, fantasy and horror. He once drank at every bar within the city limits of Seattle in a year in order to get out more often. He has worked around the world on Semester at Sea, which still amazes him. He appeared in a movie that was never released and as a result has a filmography scattered about the Internet that is essentially imaginary. He lives in his hometown with his husband, Adam. Vanhee’s first novel is Engines of the Broken World, is available now at a bookstore near you.