An Interview with Local Booksellers for Independent Bookstore Day

Posted by – April 26, 2018
Categories: Event Info Interview

April brings a flurry of activity to the Bay Area literary scene. Here at NAB, we’re gearing up to host our annual booth at the Bay Area Book Festival on April 28 and 29. Come say hello if you’re in the neighborhood! Yet, amidst the chaos (and fun!) of this undeniably bookish season, who could forget about Independent Bookstore Day?

This year, in celebration of all that our bookstores do for our communities, Publicist Julia Sadowski (JS) spent an afternoon volunteering at the local bookstore, Books Inc. in Berkeley, shelving books and chatting with some incredible booksellers about what they’re reading, thinking about, and why their work matters in 2018.

When I first arrived at the store I was presented with my name tag, and soon got to talking with bookseller and resident children’s book specialist, Rachel Birenbaum (RB) about Bay Area bookselling. Here’s some of what we discussed:

JS: What do you think is the role of an independent bookstore, or the role of booksellers at an independent bookstore?

RB: Honestly, I think our role is to be a space where you can go and get recommendations and browse physical books. I loved as a kid going into bookstores and being able to sit there all day and browse.

One of the big things that we do is hand-sell books to people all day. I love it. And I love writing book recommendations. That’s a big part of what you get with an independent bookstore: You get people who love books and who want to give you good experiences, and to sell you stuff that they love. We have families who come in all the time who will come to me and say: “You recommended this book to my kid, what’s something related to it?” You’re also getting a place where you can come look around, and sit and read a couple chapters if you want.

JS: What do you enjoy about working at an independent bookstore in Berkeley?

RB: It might be a stereotype, but I like that Berkeley reads. We’re a very well-read city! I think that’s also what keeps us going. Someone will come in saying, this book was on NPR and I need to find it! If you look at our nonfiction table it’s full of everything from politics to nature and everything in between. This is a community that likes to read and that likes to keep up with what’s going on in the world.

With these ruminations in mind, I went back to helping customers, shelving books, and the inventory of the film and drama section that I had been tasked with completing. In between projects and the bustle of the Friday afternoon, I chatted with another bookseller and poet, Cameron Stewart (CS) about how his passion for poetry translates to his work at the store:

JS: What do you enjoy about working at a bookstore in the Bay Area?

CS: Well, definitely the enthusiasm of the audience. It feels like here there’s always such a waft of it from every age group. People that are 17- and 18-years old come in and are telling us: “Oh, this is a classic! I’m re-reading it now!” Or I get inspired when an eight-year-old rushes in and lists off these four books that they NEED to read this week. I love that! I think, God that’s fantastic. You know that this kid is going to be okay. And we’ve just expanded the poetry section.

JS: It looks great! It probably feels like your baby.

CS: I’m pretty thrilled. It’s so satisfying when someone buys something from it. The lovely thing about this is we can face out and advertise not only the books that are, for whatever reason, selling well nationally. We can also feature great Bay Area poets, or peculiar poetry that we’ve read and really enjoy, and we can try to pass on that enthusiasm. That’s fantastic and very satisfying.

JS: Do you think what you’re reading has changed since you started working at a bookstore? Are you influenced by what you see other people reading? 

CS: I would definitely describe the experience as reciprocal. So, for instance, I know that I’m prone to try to pull people over to the poetry section. If someone says: “Oh I’m thinking about a young adult book for this person,” I’ll say, “Do they like poetry?” I’m always looking for those opportunities.

I predominantly read poetry and non-fiction, but I’ve found I’m a lot more intrigued by contemporary fiction now. I find myself picking up a little bit more of that. Also, just some of the daily tasks in the bookstore, like shelving, or inventory, I like that I’ll regularly revisit these classics. If a book registers enough times in your head, you find yourself thinking “Yeah! God, I’ve got to read this.” That’s how I came across a Thomas Pynchon book again. There are little moments like that when constantly having all your peripheral senses soaked in pages is quite a nice thing.

As I finished up my afternoon of volunteering by helping a few more customers find just the right book, Rachel and Cameron’s thoughts resonated with me. As many of us prepare for this year’s Bay Area Book Festival, it feels appropriate that on the day that we give thanks to our bookstores for the services they provide us with, a confluence of booksellers, authors, publishers, and readers will come together to celebrate our shared love, (and obsession), with books.

About the Author

Julia is a publicist at North Atlantic Books who loves spreading the word about our fantastic books and authors. Before joining NAB in 2017 she was the Event Coordinator at Books Inc in Berkeley, CA.