How to Shop at a Bookstore: An Easy 20-Step Guide for Authors

bookshop1) First, smell it. Look at the new arrivals, lined up like candy. See if, for just one second, you can remember what it was like to walk into a bookstore as a reader. Just a reader, a happy, curious reader. With no agenda, no insecurities, no history of bookstores as scenes of personal failure and triumph. Wish for a time machine.

2) Nervously check how the store seems to be doing. Are the lights still on? Do the employees look well-fed? Thank God. The world isn’t over yet.

Bibliobús_Cavall_Bernat3) Find your friend Gwen’s book. It was mind-blowing, but it hasn’t sold very well. They have three copies! Leave one on the shelf, so the staff can find it if someone asks for it. But turn it face out. Scootch stuff down, if necessary. Tuck the other two copies under your arm like you’re considering buying them. Walk back to the front of the store, to the big table.

4) Who, on this table, deserves a demotion? Something has to go, or Gwen’s novel will fall off the edge. That bestselling thing with the vampire on the cover is a prime candidate, but you’re just being a genre snob. Stop it.

5) Scan the table for some author you can convince yourself is unworthy of tabledom. The one who gave Gwen a blistering and weirdly personal review; the one who dumped your friend Greg on his actual birthday;  the one who was so rude to you at Bread Loaf; the one for whom you harbor irrational resentment just because her book came out the same day as yours and did so much better. But none of them is there. Okay, so move the vampire thing. Actually, just put Gwen’s book on top of the vampire one, in case the vampire author is the store owner’s aunt or something. You’re not a monster.

398px-Buchladen_buecher6) The moment of truth: March to your alphabetical shelf. If you’ve done this enough, you know where your book should be just by scanning for the landmarks. You’re always about two inches to the left of the bestseller with the trippy yellow spine, and a few inches to the right of the Pulitzer winner with the naked sailor. You don’t see your book. Be simultaneously devastated and relieved. Because nobody loves you, but also you don’t have to make yourself offer to sign stock.

7) Wait, they do have your book! It was just out of order. Reverse both earlier feelings, completely. You are now elated and terrified.

8) There are two copies. If there were only one, you could walk away right now. Because, you’d tell yourself, it might be sad to offer to sign their one and only paperback copy of your book, a copy they were probably planning to return to the publisher tomorrow. A copy they probably ordered by mistake. If there were five, with a lovely staff pick card right below, you could waltz confidently to the counter. But you have to do this. Because it helps the store, and it doesn’t hurt you either. And everyone knows that this is how you build relationships with booksellers. You think it might be more fun to go drinking with the booksellers. But it’s 11 a.m., and that’s probably not an option.

9) Delay. Take a picture of your friend Jeff’s book and post it to his Facebook wall. Try to identify the one shelf with the greatest concentration of authors you’ve met in real life. Meeting someone online doesn’t count. Change the rules and do it again, because online totally counts.Shakespeare_and_Co._(3357587897)

10) You cannot afford all seven of the books that have somehow wound up in your arms. Acknowledge that you will buy them anyway.

11) Walk to the counter. Let the woman with the raincoat go first. She surely doesn’t want to wait behind you while you sign books.

12) Why didn’t you bring your kids? They’re cute little shields, and half the time they’ll do you the favor of loudly announcing your presence before you have to: “Mommy, they have your book! Hi, this is my mommy’s book!”

13) Thank god there’s a cat on the counter. Stroke the cat manically when you approach. The fact that you hate cats is irrelevant.

14) End every sentence with a question mark. “I’m a writer? You have a couple copies of my book?”

15) The guy behind the counter is lovely. It’s hard to tell if he recognizes your name or if he’s politely bluffing. But he’s smiling, and he has a pen, and yes, of course he wants you to sign stock, and how far away do you live, and when’s your next book out, and you should get in touch when it is, and here’s a bookmark! Don’t be so surprised. They’re always lovely.

16) Sign the books. Resist the urge to ask if you can apply the “Signed by Author” stickers yourself. You’re an adult.

800px-Waterloo_bookstalls17) Wonder, on your way out, if you signed your actual name in the books, or wrote something horrifically Freudian instead. You were talking the entire time. You have no memory of what you wrote.

18) As you cross the street with your bag of new books, remember the first time your mother took you to a bookstore and told you to pick something out. To keep, not borrow. You were overwhelmed by choice and wonder. Remember how you pulled things off the shelf at random because every book was equally unknown and fresh and promising.

19) Ask yourself if it’s been worth it. Ask what it means to have become the commodity sold. Wonder if you’ve killed the thing you love.

20) Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

 

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About Rebecca Makkai

Rebecca Makkai's second novel, THE HUNDRED-YEAR HOUSE, has been called "stunning: ambitious, readable, and intriguing" by Library Journal. She is also the author of THE BORROWER (Viking, 2011) and numerous short stories, four of which have been anthologized in THE BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES series. She teaches at Lake Forest College, Sierra Nevada College, and StoryStudio Chicago, and is the recipient of a 2014 Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Her website is http://www.rebeccamakkai.com, and she tweets at @rebeccamakkai.
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30 Responses to How to Shop at a Bookstore: An Easy 20-Step Guide for Authors

  1. Ralph Lyda says:

    Brilliant! (And unerringly true!)

  2. Katch Campbell says:

    Even more fun in Japan where translation by sales staff essential!! Make the husband and kids ask while you shop inconspicuously in the next aisle!

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  6. Oh, how you nailed that one perfectly, Rebecca! Brava!!!!!

  7. This is so true. And you’re right, they’re always lovely. Great post!

    • They really are always lovely. I heard a story from one author, one time, about a clerk who asked to see his ID before he let him sign. (And he wasn’t claiming to be, like, Thomas Pynchon.) But I’ve never met anyone unlovely in a bookshop myself. Not once!

  8. Tiffany Smith says:

    Beautiful article! Brought tears to my eyes.

    In re: your brilliant book The Borrower, I hope you gift us, your readers, with another soon (& come visit us in Vegas for a signing).

    How to shop for a book to read or gift? Buy Makkai. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

    • Thanks, Tiffany! [[Okay, I originally wrote something here about when my next book will be out, but I'm not QUITE allowed to announce it, yet. So this response is edited to say: I have finished a novel, as well as a short story collection. They will both see the light of day before the next presidential administration.]]

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    • Jean —
      Wow, thanks for the shout-out — and what a fabulous great-aunt. I have great aunts, but no great-aunt, and I clearly missed out! (I’ll refrain from rhapsodizing about Little Golden Books, but maybe that’s a future post.)

  10. Thanks for the amusing essay! I always wondered how authors felt in a bookstore.
    I write travel guides and I can’t resist visiting the most recent edition when I go to the store. And, yes, I rearrange the books so it’s mine and not the other publishers’ books that people see first.

  11. Mel Randles says:

    Been there, done that !
    Spot on, Rebecca, lovely piece.

  12. Yes.
    All true.
    And thank you, booksellers, you wonderful people, for pretending not to notice.

  13. Pabkins says:

    Oh you made me laugh as if I had the crack shakes! Yes you’re an adult – good show haha.

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  16. Susan C Shea says:

    You live inside my mind. No, I live inside yours! What the heck, the bookstores are full of us, trailing around, fingering titles, eyes flicking back and forth, proud that we know so many of the authors, hurt that we’re not right up there with them as bestsellers. You make me wonder how many people in my bookstore AT THIS MOMENT are authors?

  17. O.R. Pagan says:

    Wonderful advice; thanks! I will be doing this for the first time in about 9 months or so… (:-)

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  23. Ooh, this is lovely! Absolutely lovely!