Emma Straub on Opening Her Bookstore, Books Are Magic
The Novelist and Bookseller Looks Back at a Transformative Experience
“The staff at BOOKCOURT is both good-looking and well-read, the books are well displayed, and the children’s section is appropriately in its own little nook, perfect for whiling away the hours. Singles say the store is excellent for date browsing as well.”
I wrote that blurb for The Village Voice’s Best of New York issue in 2005, four years before I started working at the bookstore. It’s a little bit like calling my older self good-looking (thank you, younger self ), but more than that, I feel like it’s proof that the store and I were always meant to be. When I wrote the blurb, I lived a few blocks away, having just moved in with my then-boyfriend (now husband), and we would often amble the aisles before or after dinner in Cobble Hill. I meant every word, except for the date browsing, which I’d completely made up, based on the fact that the owner’s young son Zack (younger than me by a few years, then in his early twenties) was a gorgeous flirt with dark hair and bright blue eyes, and every heterosexual woman I knew in the neighborhood wanted to sleep with him.
BookCourt opened in 1981, when Henry Zook and Mary Gannett were just a couple of kids, both only 27 years old. I love to think about what they were like then–the high rounds of her cheeks, his broad shoulders–and wonder what they imagined the future might hold for them and their little store. It’s so easy to look at the neighborhood and to see the bookstore–spacious, light, crowded with well-dressed starlets–as a given, but it certainly wasn’t. Is there any greater piece of advice in New York City retail than to buy the building? Henry and Mary bought the building.
The store takes up two storefronts on Court Street, in what is now prime Cobble Hill retail territory—there is a Rag and Bone shop across the street, the kind of clothing store with low lighting and one leather jacket hanging in the window, and a James Perse expensive t-shirt store down the block. A Barney’s CO-OP—the only one in Brooklyn—is around the corner. A couple of years ago, there was great consternation at the bookstore when it was revealed that J.Crew was planning to take over the deli on the corner where the staff often ran to buy mid-shift bottles of water and gummi bears. Thankfully, the gummi bears remain in place, at least for now.
When I was in high school, about 10 blocks away from the store’s front door, the neighborhood was full of old Italian ladies making mozzarella and Middle Eastern spice shops along Atlantic Avenue. When my male friends would walk through late at night, they worried about boys with baseball bats, a threat that always seemed like something out of a previous century, or maybe a movie musical. I never went to BookCourt as a teenager—I commuted to Brooklyn from Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and I never stayed in Brooklyn after school unless I was going to a friend’s house. Even if I had visited, it wouldn’t have been the same shop that exists now—for the first 15 years of its life, BookCourt occupied a single storefront with a basement, which I would guess maxed out at about 700 square feet.
In 1996, when I was a sophomore in high school, Henry and Mary bought the building next door, and expanded the store into the space that had previously been a flower shop, which added another 400 square feet or so. That was the incarnation of the store that I wrote about for The Village Voice, cozy and densely packed. In 2008, they built a giant addition onto the back of the flower shop space—the Greenhouse, they called it, because the room was where a greenhouse for the flower shop had once stood—tripling their square footage. A Barnes & Noble had recently opened a few blocks down Court Street. BookCourt was doubling down—they knew what people in the neighborhood wanted: a beautiful space filled with a curated selection of books. Places to sit. No coffee, no Wi-Fi. It was a middle finger to the idea of the corporate giant—they were staying put, and getting bigger. The Greenhouse was (and remains) studded with skylights, with a high ceiling, and walking into it feels like a magic wormhole straight to California.
I started working at BookCourt in 2009, just after I returned home to New York City after graduate school. I knew Zack a bit, and we’d been in touch about setting up an event I was doing at the store for a small book of mine, a single short story that was charitably being published by a small press as a novella. I was looking for a job—any job—on Craigslist, and there it was, a posting for a bookseller gig at BookCourt. I wrote to Zack immediately, and we scheduled an “interview,” which is a very loose word indeed for what transpired. I met Zack at the benches in front of the store’s red door, and we went down the stairs at the center of the paperback fiction room, and then we sat down with his father, Henry, also a handsome flirt, who was wearing his running clothes. I would soon learn that Henry was usually wearing his running clothes. (For sartorial fairness, I should add that Mary is most often found in a sky-blue cardigan that matches her eyes, which are even brighter and prettier than her son’s.)
I had my book party for the little novella on a Sunday night, and started working at 9 a.m. the next day. My book—all 27 pages of it—was that week’s number 1 fiction bestseller. No one on the staff could have cared less. Everyone wanted to talk about Roberto Bolaño’s early work, or John Williams’ Stoner, or Barry Hannah’s Airships, or, even more so, who else on staff they wanted to sleep with. I fell in love with the job immediately, the way some people feel about cocaine or SoulCycle. How had I survived so long without this particular pleasure?
Any long-standing retail establishment that sells culture is going to be staffed by a motley crew of opinionated weirdos, and BookCourt is no exception. The staff is big—maybe 15 people, almost all of whom work part-time, for less money than I now pay my teenage babysitter. In my time, there were always a solid number of recent college grads in cute outfits, the boys with short, tight pants, and the girls in enormous sweaters and mini-dresses that made shelving books a potential peep show. About two-thirds of the staff were PhD students, writers and poets. The rest of the staff were eccentrics, gray-haired and intermittently surly, sometimes in Hawaiian shirts. Anyone who chooses to work the front lines of a shop selling books is going to be both chatty and at least a little bit insane.
We arrived in waves—Chad, Adam, Brisa, Molly, me, Andrew, Maryam. Jack came back after some years away. Glenn, a Brit. Lauren became the new Molly. Christien became the new Chad. Laura and Martha got fired for no reason. Stephen couldn’t have been fired if he set the building on fire. Steve, my favorite employee, came to BookCourt from the funeral parlor down the block, where he also did odd jobs. He packed up the cardboard boxes and wore an FDNY fleece and protested for years when the store cat went to go live with Henry after befouling a stroller or two.
Nothing was fair or equal. We were lopsided in our talents. Zack handsold the same few books to anyone who asked (Arthur Bradford’s Dogwalker and Thomas McCarthy’s Remainder, or a Michel Houellebecq), but I had fallback favorites too (Meg Wolitzer’s The Wife, Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History). We wrote ecstatic shelftalkers, the little blurbs written by booksellers in our Staff Favorites section, and we rejoiced when someone took our advice and forked over cash for our beloved sentences and paragraphs.
Working for a family business is almost irresistible. Among the staff there were usually half a dozen writers, and we would all joke about it: which one of us would write the sitcom, the short story, the novel inspired by the store’s owners, and the rest of us, all of us with our own hilarious storylines. Henry and Mary had split up some years before (I would rather die than ask for more specific details), but continue to run the business together. They get along remarkably well—no worse than any married couple I have ever seen or interacted with in a prolonged way, with no more than an errant eye roll. I know a thousand nominally happy couples whom I regularly see fight far more often and awkwardly.
Still, one would occasionally get asked to do something (shelve these books here!) and then asked to do the direct opposite thing (shelve them over there!) by different family members. Staff members spent a lot of time pretending to stare at the ceiling and/or the floor. Zack, a talented photographer, has since moved to the Virgin Islands, where he does lots of things that don’t involve working with his parents. We all understand.
In my tenure as a bookseller, I hid behind the counter twice. The first was when Jennifer Egan came in shortly before the publication of A Visit from the Goon Squad, and I was too full of love for her to speak. I ducked behind the counter and waited until she was gone to come out. The second time was when a boy I’d hooked up with in high school in particularly gross circumstances (a friend’s pullout sofa, very bad oral sex) came in and browsed—the fact that the store was so close to my school was both a boon and a police baton to the knees.
On the one hand, it meant that I could handsell copies of my short story collection, published in 2009 by a very, very small press, to every single person I knew. Parents of friends, former teachers, everyone—the print run was 2,000, and I sold 800 of them over the counter at BookCourt. On the other hand, it meant that I often had to make small talk with people I had never liked, such as my friend’s stepfather who accused me of stealing something from him in 1995. I didn’t.
There were other writers who charmed us all—the drinkers and the storytellers, the nervous, the Irish. One former staff member who was always on drugs walked in on Jonathan Lethem in the bathroom. There were the writers who knew how boring readings could be and instead played Donna Summer on their iPads and did stand-up comedy (Colson Whitehead), and the writers who did the old-fashioned boring reading thing so well that we all wept from the beauty (Colm Tóibín). Someone passed out when Don DeLillo read, which I assume was because it was too hot and crowded, and not because of the material. Jonathan Franzen endeared himself to me hugely by hurrying to Paula Fox’s side at his packed event for Freedom—he was clearly so honored and moved to have her there, and made sure she was comfortable. Yes, Jonathan, we all thought, yes, you can stay. (Another favorite to handsell: Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters.)
Of course, in a beautiful, clean, safe Brooklyn neighborhood, most people are more interested in movie stars than writers, even the booksellers. It’s humiliating, the ways in which a bookseller will attempt to have a conversation with a browsing movie star. I love your yoga mat, Hope Davis. Sure is rainy out there, Paul Giamatti. I love your overalls, Emily Mortimer. Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan were our little ringers, our favorites—they bought books all the time.
Most of the famous customers were the ones you would assume you would like in real life, whose noses were a little bit funny to be proper leading ladies, who looked like they had messy piles of books on their nightstand. The bad movie stars were the ones who came in with their friends and tried (loudly) to tell them everything that they’d ever read—we loved those the most, because we got to make fun of them the moment they left. I once had to ask poor Natalie Portman for her billing zip code because our credit card machine wasn’t functioning properly and she looked at me as if I’d asked for her home address and social security number.
I quit when I was three months pregnant. It was January, post-retail Christmas rush. Anyone who works retail, whether it’s books or broomsticks, will tell you what Christmas is like, a zippy blur. Wrapping presents, enormous stacks of books. People will buy whatever you tell them to, so desperate to buy anything. I need something for my step-grandfather, I need something for a tween, help! (David McCullough, Rainbow Rowell.) I was down to two shifts a week, and loath to give it up, but my double deadlines were looming—my baby was due in August and my new book was due in September. I was about to go to Mallorca to do research, and it seemed silly to not just quit. I met Mary in her apartment (she lives above the store, of course) to tell her, both about quitting and the reason why, and we both cried.
I’m still in the store every few weeks—my son, now a year and a half old, loves to pull books off the shelves, and will sit and read as I saw thousands of other tiny people sit and read in my tenure. On a recent visit, my son and I were sitting on a sofa in the Greenhouse, reading. A young man—maybe 23 years old, in a cardigan and glasses—was working his second shift. He ducked behind the counter to ask his co-worker how to do something—ah, the keystrokes I’ve forgotten. I welcomed him to the store, as if it were my place to do so. I didn’t tell him that I was a writer, or my name. I just said, “I used to work here. It’s nice, isn’t it?” He nodded, flustered, wanting to get it all right. He might last six months. He might last six years. I hope the store lasts forever.
It is astonishing what a few years can do.
Mike and I sometimes fantasized about taking over for Henry and Mary when they retired. We talked about it from time to time, with the same level of seriousness that we might talk about moving to California someday, or getting in an Airstream trailer and driving across the country. Sounds like fun, but probably won’t ever do it.
In 2016, we had just moved back to Cobble Hill. The child who was a toddler when I wrote Part I was now three, and we had a brand-new baby. The four of us were in BookCourt on a late fall afternoon, and the baby was getting fussy, so I took him outside. Steve was there, in his firefighter t-shirt, his face prickly with whiskers. Steve told me that Henry and Mary had sold the building.Mike and I sometimes fantasized about taking over for Henry and Mary when they retired.
I wrote to Henry and Mary that night. Come over, Mary said, and we did.
Over the next week, we talked to Henry and Mary about everything—the finances, the business, the costs. We didn’t know anything, except this: The neighborhood needed a bookstore, and people were going to be heartbroken. It was October, a few weeks before the election. We had no idea how heartbroken Brooklyn was about to be.
But the buildings were sold, and so we couldn’t stay. Mike and I started looking at other spaces, and found one: a corner spot with a skylight and brick walls. A place that felt comfortable and warm. We wrote a business plan, and asked every bookseller we knew for advice. (We knew a lot of booksellers.)
The election happened, and what had seemed like two choices (open a bookstore, or move) now seemed like one (open a bookstore, the world is going to need solace and information). Steve died, as if BookCourt’s own center could not handle the transition. The store put up a sign in late December that they would be closing for good on New Year’s Eve.
We signed the lease for Books Are Magic in February, and opened in May.
I loved BookCourt, but I don’t think I ever grasped how much it meant to Henry and Mary and Zack and their family, how hard the work was, how endless. I knew about the margins, of course—that’s the thing that people love to say to me now, when they know I own a bookstore. Oof, they say. Must be tough. It is. But what I didn’t understand was the all-consuming nature of running a small business, and growing up in one. Just because I loved it, I thought it was mine.
There were some things I got right: There are generations of booksellers, in every store. Some of those waves are fantastic and some of those waves are tricky, but they always keep moving. Booksellers love candy and caffeine. There are always poets and intellectuals and eccentrics. Working for a family business sometimes means being told contradictory things. There are still movie stars—the same movie stars, and new ones. Everyone gets older, and most of the time, that means they are less guarded and more friendly. It is a privilege to be someone’s bookseller, especially small children. It is a good idea to have giant bags of dog treats behind the counter. Books are meaningful things to provide.
But there are also things that I got wrong—mostly, that just because the store was open to the public, that the story belonged to me as much as it did to Henry and Mary. Mike and I have now owned Books Are Magic for four years, a tiny drop in the bucket of BookCourt’s 35. Each year has been harder than the one before it. I email with Mary now and then, and I am always happy to tell her what I will tell the world now: I don’t know how you did it. What I got wrong before was that just because I saw the place as an institution, because there were so many of us booksellers moving through the place, and so many thousands of books coming and going, and so many writers, that it was somehow impervious to pain, or struggle.
I saw BookCourt the same way I saw the Natural History Museum, or the Met: as solid as a mountain face. Henry and Mary were private people—they remain so—and what it felt like to run a small business for three and a half decades was invisible to me. All I saw was the glamour of putting a book into someone’s hand, and staying up late—BookCourt, you flirty scamp, you were open so late—talking and gossiping with friends when I should have been alphabetizing.
Before, I wished that BookCourt would last forever. Now I wish that someone, anyone, will love Books Are Magic as much as I loved BookCourt, that it will be a part of children’s internal maps of their neighborhood, that couples will stroll the aisles together and flirt and marry, or flirt and not marry, but still think about those dates fondly. I hope that some of my booksellers will think of their time at the store as warmly as I think about BookCourt. I hope that my husband and I will get better and better at being bosses, which is a hard thing to learn.
Can you believe that bookstores exist? Heaven on earth—places full of books that you can bring home with you, to keep forever, or to give to someone you love. Do you know who has walked through our doors? Do you know the writers we’ve hosted? Have you ever watched a kid who has just learned how to read sit on the floor and just plow through a chapter book, one you know they’ll finish before bed? Do you know how much I think about our booksellers, past and present, and how excited I am for the rest of their lives to unfold? Whatever BookCourt was, whatever Books Are Magic is, whatever your favorite bookstore was when you were a kid, or whatever your favorite bookstore is right now, that feeling is the same. It’s huge, endless, infinite love. Come and see us sometime.
Excerpted from Wildsam: Brooklyn Field Guide. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Wildsam. Copyright © 2021 by Emma Straub.