What I Learned From Interviewing Indie Booksellers In Every State
Stephanie Kent on the Ambitious Call Me Ishmael Project
I miss reading a book, alone, at a bar. I miss sitting in crowded movie theaters, watching horrible film adaptations of wonderful novels. I miss listening to authors read their books, packed in shoulder to shoulder with a small crowd around me, inhaling a writer’s every word. I really miss bookstores.
Where I live in New York City, stores are open, but a good, long bookstore browse feels risky at best—careless at worst—and touching books you aren’t certain to buy feels like some sort of new bookstore sin. When I visit bookshops now (and I do!) my mask stays on, providing limited access to the bookstore smell and meager communication with the hero booksellers on call during these trying times.
I really miss the full experience of bookstores, which is why a recent and unusual endeavor—conducting phone interviews with owners of at least one independent bookstore from each of the 50 states—has been a light in a very dark year.
Why did I interview over 50 bookstore owners about their buildings and their love of books? To complete the final element of an interactive book that I’ve spent the last one-and-a-half years creating, along with Logan Smalley, The Call Me Ishmael Phone Book: An Interactive Guide to Life-Changing Books. You can learn more about my book below, but first, here’s a taste of what I learned from what adds up to the greatest collective conversation of my life.
Read on for some of my takeaways from these conversations, or, to hear them for yourself, call 774-325-0503 and dial the four-digit extensions listed below.
Many people are shy about their favorite genres, but to booksellers, there’s no such thing as guilty reading.
“We hear from so many people who are embarrassed by what they’re asking for, when it’s generally something that isn’t embarrassing at all. It’s something that we can help people feel comfortable and excited about what they like to read.”
–Leah, The Ripped Bodice, CA
Large online and big box retailers have algorithms and intel, but these pale in comparison to the wisdom and humanity in indie bookshops.
“Customers come in for a lot of different reasons. Some were in grief. Some were in recovery. Some were looking for spiritual growth. Some were trying to understand a social situation that had come in. I’ve learned that people come into bookstores for solace and safety and comfort and to be recognized and known.”
–Cheryl, Chapter One Books, ID
If you find yourself in a bookstore with an unusual name, ask about it; there’s usually a great story there.
“For many years I would… dream of owning my own bookstore and try to think of a name and nothing ever stuck. And then my husband and daughters and I went to Philadelphia, and while we were there we went to the Ben Franklin Museum. I was going through the Museum… and stumbled across the fact that he had been instrumental in starting the lending library in the United States…
They had a tin on the counter that was a face of the lion painted on the lion and slit where the mouth was. And it was a suggestion box for titles that people wanted to see in the library. Once I stumbled upon that and read about the story it just made perfect sense to me. As an independent bookstore, our purpose is to serve our customers. It just sort of fit and it stuck and that’s where Lion’s Mouth comes from.”
–Amy, Lion’s Mouth Bookstore, WI
Bookstore staff don’t want to admit they have favorite regular customers… but they totally have favorite regular customers.
“It’s hard to narrow it down! But there’s one customer who is just so delightful and has such a calming presence and just has this light about her. She reached out to me during the shutdown and said ‘I just miss hanging out.’ So we started having Saturday afternoon coffee on the patio. We both decided that during these stressful times, when you run across people who are positive and make you happy in any way, make time for that.”
–Nicole, Book Bar, CO
Independent bookstores can only carry so many books at one time. The necessity for selectiveness has made them into curation experts.
“I’ve read a lot of these books. I’ve met some of these authors. I’ve sat down and thought about how different books have conversations with each other.”
–Katie, Good Books, GA
Booksellers are full of great advice on how to fit more reading into your day. One common tip? Try grabbing a book in the morning.
“My favorite time of day to read is in the morning. When you grab your phone and start scrolling… set a time limit on that. Maybe five minutes, maybe ten minutes. And use that extra five or ten minutes to sit down and read a few pages of a book. I think that if you can read a book over a cup of coffee in the morning, that’s the best way to start the day.”
–Lori, Interabang Books, TX
Bookstore owners spend much of their time thinking about reading. As a result, they have some incredibly beautiful meditations on why books matter.
“They provide an outlet for people to become creative individually… So that their mind is going when they’re quiet and alone. And not just in a creative personal sense, but generated by other people’s wisdom and thoughts.”
–John Evans, Lemuria, MS
These bookstore interviews are excerpts of The Call Me Ishmael Phone Book, an Interactive Guide to Life-Changing Books. The Phone Book is designed like a retro telephone directory, and features thousands of unique phone extensions you can call from any phone, each leading to a short clip of bookish audio.
You’ll hear anonymous messages about the books people love, descriptions of literary monuments and museums, prompts that invite you to call and leave a story of your own, and more interviews with independent bookstore owners.
Some of the stores I had hoped to speak with went out of business this year. Some were too busy keeping up with online orders to take time for an interview. The bookstores varied in states of openness and financial strain from pandemic; they all missed their customers and marveled at books’ powers to heal during this horrible year.
Speaking to the people behind independent bookstores was a lesson in entrepreneurship, in community leadership, in being a good neighbor. There is so much to admire and learn from the people behind the independent bookstores that are vital and beloved by their communities.
The Call Me Ishmael Phone Book, edited by Stephanie Kent and Logan Smalley, is available now.