Celeste Ng: Bookstores Are the Center of the Literary Ecosystem
In Conversation with this Year's Ambassador for Independent Bookstore Day
In 2014, the first-ever Independent Bookstore Day launched in California. It was conceived by bookseller and writer Samantha Schoech, who partnered with the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association to highlight the important cultural value independent bookstores bring to their communities. The following year, Independent Bookstore Day became a national event. Since then, writers like Roxane Gay, Stephen King, George Saunders, and Lauren Groff have donated their work to the holiday.
Now in its fifth year, the 2018 Independent Bookstore Day on April 28th (tomorrow!) will host special events, readings, performances, and more at over 490 bookstores nationwide. This year’s ambassador is bestselling novelist Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You and Little Fires Everywhere. I had the opportunity to ask Ng about the value of independent bookstores, what her dream bookstore would look like, and why people should support Independent Bookstore Day.
Matt Grant: Tell me a little about Independent Bookstore Day. What is it, and what is your role as an ambassador?
Celeste Ng: Independent Bookstore Day is a one-day national party that takes place at indie bookstores across the country on the last Saturday in April—this year it’s on April 28th. Because every independent bookstore is unique and independent, every party is different as well, and can include everything from cupcake parties to literary scavenger hunts to live bands and author readings. Every year there are also exclusive books and literary items that you can only get on that day at your local bookstore. As the Independent Bookstore Day Ambassador, I get to spread the word about Bookstore Day and the important role that independent bookstores play in their communities.
MG: Why did you become an ambassador for independent bookstores this year?
CN: As a reader, I’ve appreciated independent bookstores for a long time—they were a place to feed my reading habit, obviously, but they were also a place to discover works I might not have found on my own and hear from authors. The first time I went to a reading, it was hard to believe an actual writer was standing right there in the store with me. Now, as a writer myself, I appreciate indies even more. I see how they get books into the hands of readers who need them, and how they nurture not only the literary community but the entire community around them. So when I was asked to be an ambassador for Independent Bookstore Day, I jumped at the chance.
MG: Did you have a favorite bookstore growing up?
CN: When I was a kid in the 1980s, I didn’t have any independent bookstores near me—I grew up haunting the B. Dalton and Waldenbooks in the mall. So my first indies—the long-gone Booksellers in Beachwood, Ohio and the redoubtable Mac’s Backs in Cleveland Heights—were revelations; they carried such a wide array of books, including niche titles that a more mainstream retailer wouldn’t have. I discovered many of my favorite authors just by browsing their shelves. Then, when I went away to college, Harvard Book Store became a haven for me. Porter Square Books in Cambridge is now my local—I can walk to it from my house—but I’ve developed crushes on many indies across the country as I’ve traveled, including (in no particular order) The Red Balloon in St. Paul, Bookshop Santa Cruz, Powell’s in Portland, and Loganberry Books in my old hometown of Shaker Heights, Ohio.
“Now, as a writer myself, I appreciate indies even more. I see how they get books into the hands of readers who need them, and how they nurture not only the literary community but the entire community around them.”
MG: Is there a bookstore you’ve always wanted to visit but haven’t been able to?
CN: Women and Children First in Chicago. Books and Books in Coral Gables, Florida. Tattered Cover in Denver. Shakespeare and Co. in Paris! Okay, I’ll stop here, but PS I would also like to spend a week in Powell’s; I only visited once, to read, and I didn’t get to browse. NOT THAT I’M STILL KICKING MYSELF OR ANYTHING.
MG: What would your dream bookstore look like?
CN: Lots of shelves of books, obviously—far enough apart for easy browsing but just close together enough to give you that cozy, warren-like feel. Plenty of little nooks or armchairs for sitting and reading. Art by local artists on the walls. Quirky, well-read, and opinionated staff. Lots of shelf talkers and a few special displays around the bookstore for whatever the staff wanted to highlight—books related to recent news topics, themed or seasonal displays, etc. A good-sized children’s section with toys and places for kids to sit and read, so we can start encouraging readers early on! Maybe a bookstore dog or cat (optional). And a cafe section with a decent amount of seating, because 1. (selfishly) I like to write in bookstores and bookstore coffee shops are a great place for that, and 2. (more practically) people seem to buy more books when they linger, and coffee and snacks help with that.
MG: The common belief (outside the publishing world) is that indie bookstores nationwide are dying, and yet more than 40 opened in 2017. Why do you think there’s a disconnect between perception and reality?
CN: It’s human nature to not notice a problem until we’re on the verge of disaster, right? And it’s also human nature to extrapolate any signs of progress into victory. The truth is that indie bookstores have been fighting for survival for years—decades, even—as big-chain bookstores and then online book sales started to edge them out. It was only when many of the indies had closed that people started to realize what they were missing and tried to reverse the trend. So the growth in indie bookstores is a pretty new bend in the curve.
Maybe a good analogy is putting an animal on the endangered species list: when its population starts to rise again, it’s great, but it doesn’t mean you stop all your conservation efforts. There’s still a long way to go. It’s fantastic that more communities are recognizing the value of independent bookstores, and that more people are opening stores across the country. But as any bookseller will tell you, it’s hard work and the margins are pretty thin. A more telling figure might be how many of those new stores are still open in five, ten, fifteen years—and that really depends on whether customers support them.
MG: What do you hope people will discover or get out of Independent Bookstore Day?
CN: I hope Independent Bookstore Day will help more people see that bookstores aren’t just places to buy books; they’re the center of a whole ecosystem of readers, writers, and booksellers, and they’re important centers for conversation and community, as well. And then I hope they’ll start buying more of their books at their local stores, to support them.
To find out more about Independent Bookstore Day and find out what events are near you, check out their website.