When I moved to the Twin Cities, my first job here was as a bookseller at the Hungry Mind bookstore (later known as Ruminator Books) in St. Paul, where I worked for several years until it shuttered in 2004. Hungry Mind was one of those truly charmed bookshops, known — not just here in Minnesota, but across the country — for its big-draw author events and passionate service, but most of all, for its warren of stacks, shelves upon shelves filled with a wonderfully eccentric and deep catalog of titles.
The books weren’t chosen by sales algorithms, but ordered by real, live people, book-lovers all — informed yes, but also as quirky and varied in their interests and inclinations as the readers who’d eventually buy the titles selected for sale. As is the case in many long-lived Mom-and-Pop bookshops, evidence of the care behind the inventory was everywhere in the store: shelves were festooned with “shelf-talkers,” staff reviews handwritten on index cards placed here and there with favorite books. And customers responded to that care: we tended to sell through “shelf-talker” titles regularly and swiftly (these little cards are such effective sales drivers, in fact, that big-box stores eventually found ways to deploy versions of them in their own branch outlets).
Hans Weyandt, co-owner of Micawber’s Books in St. Paul, is a friend; we also worked together at Hungry Mind in the old days. Needless to say, I’m not an impartial reader of his charming new book, “Read This! Handpicked Favorites from America’s Indie Bookstores,” just released this month by Coffee House Press. But biased as I am, I will tell you anyway: I love this little book, and I think you might, too.
“Read This!” is a paperback, small but handsome: somewhere between a reference book and a novelty, it’s a book of lists which will fit easily in a jacket pocket. It began when a customer in the shop asked Hans for his top 100 books, not bestsellers but personal favorites. She bought some from his list, read them and came back for more.
In the preface, Hans writes, “I’d never thought of books I loved in terms of a [list of] top 10, 50 or 100. After I sold her some of my favorites, I began to think of her question in larger terms… What if we could create a master list from people in bookstores across the country? What kind of odd database might we build?”
And so he set out to do just that, calling and emailing colleagues in independent bookstores across America, hitting them up for their own top 50 favorites – “books you love or love to pass on to other readers.” And at the end of each conversation, he asked them for one final recommendation: “What bookseller should I speak to next?” The resulting lists of books, first published on the Micawber’s Books blog, have been gathered together, edited into tight collection of 25 best-of contributions from booksellers representing indie bookstores from coast to coast.
In a phone interview, Hans asks, “What’s so appealing about lists? I’m not sure, really, but I know I never get tired of reading about what other people love.” When asked if, between the blog posting and the book, he’s had second thoughts about anything on his list, he laughs, “Of course! I’m sure if I made my top 50 list today (and if I’d known at the time my list would be end up in a book), it might look different. But hey – these lists aren’t intended to be the final word on anything. It’s a snapshot of one day’s list of books we love, and love to hand-sell.”
And the lists in this little book are a treasure trove, seeded throughout with surprises that will upend any lingering preconceptions you have about nose-in-the-air booksellers: there’s everything from baseball micro-histories to obscure gems in translation to genre fiction; poetry sits cheek-by-jowl with rock biographies, Jane Austen, fishing memoirs and regional favorites.
“People have this idea that booksellers are snobby, or that they only read a certain kind of books, you know?” Hans says. “You read through these lists, and you can’t help but see that couldn’t be farther from the truth.”
In addition to the lists are little annotations and personal snippets from each contributing bookseller: about the books business, about their lives as readers, about their respective communities. Together, the lists and commentary offer a composite portrait and also persuasive case for the continued relevance of independent booksellers, even in the age of big box discounts and the convenience of online retailers. Readers patronize their neighborhood bookshops, over time, not because they should, but because it’s fun to be there: you want a good book to read, and you trust the booksellers who work there — who know you and your tastes, and who also love books — will hook you up with something good.
And the appeal of “Read This!” is just as simple and beautiful and completely human as that. I guarantee you’ll come away with a whole slew of things on your “to-read” list and a renewed affection and appreciation for your neighborhood bookslingers. Hans says, “I love that the job is different every day. You just never know what the day will bring, who will come through the door, and I like that. And as it turns out, a lot of what I end up reading is something I’ve talked with customers about — books I’d not have thought to read otherwise, about places I’ll never go.”
“Read This! Handpicked Favorites from America’s Indie Bookstores” launches with a party 7 p.m. on Tuesday, September 11 at Micawber’s, 2238 Carter Ave., St. Paul. All proceeds from book sales will go to American Booksellers Foundation for Free Express (ABFEE). For more information: www.coffeehousepress.org/2012/06/read-this-handpicked-favorites-from-americas-indie-bookstores/.
On a related note: Hans and I will also soon moderate a panel discussion on the uncertain waters of 21st century books business, an informal Q & A with writers, publishers and sales reps on the convergence of new media and old in publishing, as part of the Walker Art Center’s “Over-Booked: A Chapter of the New York City Book Fair” free event, on September 15 at 3 pm in the Walker Art Center, 1750 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis.