Ever since freshman year of high school, when I was first introduced to the likes of Great Expectations and The Ox-Bow Incident, talking about books—for me—has always come a close second to actually reading them.
So, in December, I boarded a plane in Philadelphia to live every bibliophile’s dream: selling books. I couldn’t have felt more prepared to help my brother Tom during the holiday season at his independent book store in Bend, Oregon. For the year, I’d already read a lot of reviews and nearly 40 books—including, thanks to publishers’ advance reader’s editions—two of the bestselling nonfiction titles: Endurance, astronaut Scott Kelly’s International Space Station memoir, and Walter Isaacson’s Leonardo da Vinci. My fiction diet had included Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach, John le Carré’s latest espionage deconstruction and the store’s favorite 2017 novel, Gabriel Tallent’s uncompromising coming-of-age tale, My Absolute Darling.
My hubris, however, evaporated as soon as I walked into Dudley’s Bookshop Café. Scanning the 60 new hardback titles on display, I quickly realized that I knew just a little—or worse yet nothing—about most of them. Nearby, the first-floor shelves held nearly 2,000 more new and used hardback and paperback titles of mostly literary fiction.
Upstairs, another 5,500 used books lurked.
I was Lucy Ricardo flailing at the end of her out-of-control chocolate candy conveyor belt.
Indeed, when two customers asked me during my first day for a self-help title, I was clueless—and nearly so when another customer inquired about A Wrinkle in Time. Somehow, I remembered that Madeleine L’Engle had written it and thought it might be science fiction (it is). But, to avoid the embarrassment of possibly being wrong, I referred the woman to my brother.
Ultimately, though, I grew more comfortable. No one, I realized, could read every title. Each evening, as my brother and many other booksellers are forced to do, I sampled a few more books—including Jesmyn Ward’s National Book Award winner, Sing, Unburied, Sing, and Ali, Jonathan Eig’s magisterial Muhammad Ali biography. And by simply spending more time with the books—straightening up the displayed hardbacks, filling holes on the shelves created by purchased books—through osmosis they grew more familiar.
Re-stocking the shelves, in fact, became one of my favorite tasks. I constantly encountered old favorites I’d gladly read again, such as Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient and David James Duncan’s The River Why; others I’ve long meant to read, like Larry McMurtry’s iconic Western, Lonesome Dove; and books I’d never heard of that are now on my must-read list, like Pamela Royes’ 2016 Idaho sheepherding memoir, Temperance Creek.
The juxtapositions I kept stumbling upon on the alphabetized shelves also delighted me: Charles Dickens, Joan Didion, Annie Dillard and E.L. Doctorow perched side-by-side next to Anthony Doerr’s long-lived contemporary WWII bestseller, All the Light We Cannot See. Nearby, Gustave Flaubert and Ian Fleming hung out with Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl). Hunter S. Thompson, Henry David Thoreau, James Thurber and Colm Tóibín staked out another shelf—right next to Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace and John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, his posthumous, insanely comic New Orleans masterpiece. Anyone for dinner with that sextet?
Whether or not they articulate it—and some of my customers did—the first thing many people today wonder when entering a book store is: how is it still competing with Amazon? Rather well, in my brother’s case, and he isn’t alone. Last year, according to the American Booksellers Association, the number of independent book stores topped 2,300—a robust 40 percent increase since their nadir in 2009.
Just selling books, however, doesn’t cut it any more. With the exception of the holiday season, Dudley’s book revenues generally match those generated by the café—espresso coffee drinks and locally produced organic teas, pastries and pies. Add some Aretha on the sound system and the café creates a comfortable vibe for the books, and vice versa.
Like most thriving independent book stores, Dudley’s has also become an informal community center. Occasionally, there’s live music and author appearances, and each month numerous groups—book reading clubs and writing groups, Italian, Spanish and knitting clubs—gather. One group discusses current events using the Socratic method, another how to be better humans. Afternoons, you might find young people playing cards upstairs while a math tutor works with her high school students downstairs.
One couple even got engaged in the store’s upstairs nook; another got married in the large upstairs room.
My third day at the store, I greeted a woman with what had become my standard opening: “Welcome to Dudley’s. If I can help, let me know.”
“Do you have East of Eden and Lonesome Dove?”
“Wow,” she said as I quickly pulled them off the shelves. “I can’t believe you have both!”
What I couldn’t believe was that I actually knew, without first checking, that we had them.
However, since browsing is the raison d’être for brick-and-mortar bookstores, I learned not to approach some customers until I saw that they were considering a book I either really liked or could otherwise recommend. When I overheard a couple discussing Stephen Ambrose’s Lewis & Clark history, Undaunted Courage, I suggested two related books: Peter Stark’s Astoria, about the hair-raising establishment of John Jacob Astor’s early 1800s fur-trading center at the mouth of the Columbia River, and Rinker Buck’s engaging 2015 retracing of The Oregon Trail—a book that I sold multiple times.
A couple’s interest in Neil deGrasse Tyson’s popular Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, meanwhile, triggered a conversation between us about a starlight canoe paddle my brother and I had taken a year earlier on a nearby lake. I recounted our great views of both the Milky Way Galaxy, which Tyson discusses, and of the International Space Station racing overhead. Hence my additional endorsement of Kelly’s ISS memoir.
“I’ll come back later to get my husband one of the books for Christmas,” she confided.
“Get him both,” I said, sotto voce. We both laughed.
More than once, my own narrative—older brother from Pennsylvania who loves reading volunteering to hand sell books—became part of the discussion. Some customers were envious. One of them, an athletically trim 80-year-old retiree living in Bend, wanted a book for her husband. When she learned where I was from, she reminisced about flying into Philadelphia during the 1960s as a United Airlines flight attendant. During the charming conversation that ensued, she mentioned that her husband was an amateur pilot.
“Then he’d love Scott Kelly’s memoir,” I told her.
Later, after checking out, she again approached me. “Great talking with you,” she said, brandishing Kelly’s book. “I got this for my husband.”
Some of my dialogues with customers were also a two-way street. When a middle-aged woman saw me restocking John Vaillant’s 2009 eco-terrorism tale, The Golden Spruce, she recommended it to me: “I grew up in Montana timber country and he’s so good about what it was like to take down trees by hand.”
That prompted me to suggest a popular Dudley’s title, Indian Creek Chronicles, Pete Fromm’s 1993 memoir of spending a brutally cold winter babysitting 2 million salmon eggs planted in a creek in the Bitterroot Mountains along the Idaho-Montana border. That, in turn, led to a broader dialogue about Montana’s many fine writers, including the late Norman Maclean. Not only had she read his indelible novella, A River Runs Through It, but also his equally masterful nonfiction classic, Young Men and Fire.
The woman left the store with five books—including Indian Creek Chronicles.
Prior to my arrival, my brother had asked me to pick a few books I wanted to tout with “shelf talkers”: hand-written staff-pick blurbs. He ordered five copies each of my selections, including paperback editions of two outstanding 2016 novels—Michael Chabon’s Moonglow and Louise Erdrich’s LaRose—and Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, his audacious 1979 account of the Mercury 7 astronauts. My supposedly brilliant idea: display it next to Endurance, since Wolfe’s book inspired Kelly to become an astronaut.
My last day at the store, eight days before Christmas, a visitor from Eugene and her three teenagers had already selected 10 books when I saw her considering Erdrich’s novel.
“It’s a great story with an intra-family dilemma of Biblical dimensions,” I said.
“I love her,” she said. “I don’t know how I missed this one.”
“Well,” I responded, guiding her over to the new hardback releases, “you’ll also have to get her new novel (Future Home of the Living God). It’s the independent booksellers’ pick of the month.”
As she walked out of the store with those dozen books, however, I ruefully realized that she was the first to buy a copy of LaRose during my 10 days there. Only one copy of The Right Stuff, and none of Chabon’s Moonglow, had sold.
“You swing and miss sometimes,” my brother shrugged.
Two weeks later, though, he texted me: “I’m down to two copies of both Moonglow and The Right Stuff, and one copy of LaRose. Books usually sell, it can just take time.”
Bruce E. Beans is a freelance writer who lives in Bucks County, Pa.