In Praise of Booksellers

The world of words and ideas lost another champion recently with the passing of Nancy Olson, the founder and longtime owner of Quail Ridge Books and Music in Raleigh.  Nancy was a kind, warmhearted and generous person who loved books and loved authors.  When you went to Quail Ridge to promote a new book, Nancy drew a crowd, made you feel at home, and made sure everybody who came in the store in the days and weeks after knew about your work.

Nancy was an independent bookseller, and one of the most successful anywhere.  Booksellers all over the country knew about Quail Ridge and admired the way she ran her store.  Those who studied how she did it knew that she combined the two essential ingredients of any successful bookseller: a love of books and authors and a keen business sense.  She made her store a warm and inviting place, she was a master of personal service to her customers, and she knew how to promote and market.

Not all that long ago, there were thousands of local, independently-owned bookstores in America, a great many of them started by good folks whose main attribute was a love of books and writing.  Any town of any size had at least one independent store, and in larger communities there might be scores of them. 

Then along came the big chains with huge stores and inventories and great buying and marketing clout.  It was devastating for the independents, just as the mom-and-pop grocery stores fell victim to the Krogers of the world.  Hundreds of independents fell by the wayside.  But a few, like Quail Ridge in Raleigh, survived because folks like Nancy Olson knew that a love of books wasn’t enough.  You had to know how to count and how to let the world know what you were doing.

More recently, bookstores of every size and shape – chains and independents alike – have struggled in the new world of e-books and online ordering.  When you can turn on your Kindle and order an electronic version of the latest hot seller, or go online to Amazon and get a physical copy delivered in a couple of days, why bother to get in the car and drive to a bookstore?  The reason you should is that those booksellers who have weathered the storm give you individual service, host authors to tell you about their work, and generally make you feel at home when you walk in the door.

My books are available in all sorts of formats and sources, but so-called “midlist” writers like me would not exist if it were not for people like Nancy Olson.  When you enter one of their stores and ask, “What have you got that’s good to read?” they can recommend a book that fits your particular taste.  To a bookseller like Nancy, every customer is an individual, unique and special.

I sure do miss Nancy Olson.  But Quail Ridge Books and Music is still going strong under new leadership, and when I have a new book to show off, I’ll make a beeline for that place.  And I’ll feel unique and special, too.

Give A Bookseller A Hug

Some authors are shy.  I’m not.

I remember a bookseller telling me some years ago about a visit to her store by an author whose work I admire.  This fellow had a fine new book, which the store owner had read in advance of his visit and was eagerly looking forward to recommending to her customers.  She arranged an appearance for the author, drew a crowd, had plenty of books available.  But she realized to her chagrin that the author was a terminal introvert.  He mumbled a few pages from his book to the assemblage, didn’t take questions or comments, barely met the eyes of people whose books he autographed, and scurried quickly away as soon as possible.  It was not a successful event.

Contrast that with another writer whose work I like a very great deal – Pat Conroy.  Pat is warm, funny, self-effacing, accessible, generous, and enormously talented.  When Pat appears at a book store, he seems to reach out and gather people to him.  Pat’s writing alone guarantees him an audience, but Pat makes the experience of meeting him in person a treat.  And it’s all completely genuine.  Booksellers love Pat Conroy.

Booksellers have a tough job – especially independent stores whose very existence has been in jeopardy for years.  The big box stores, Amazon, the e-book tsunami, have decimated their ranks.  In one good-sized city I’m familiar with, there were perhaps a dozen fine independent full-service bookstores not too many years ago.  Now there is one.  The stores that have survived are owned and run by people who combine savvy business sense with a love of books and work hard to deliver personal service to their customers.

Mid-list authors like me survive because of the independents.  We love to have our books available in any store of any size, and we have come to embrace the brave new world of the e-book.  But independents hand-sell our books.  Walk into one and ask, “What have you got that’s good to read?” and the bookseller will have a ready recommendation.  If independent booksellers like an author’s work and are willing to recommend it, that’s huge.

Park Road Books, Charlotte NC     

Park Road Books, Charlotte NC  

When I visit a book store of any kind or size, my attitude is that I’m there to help the bookseller.  I’m grateful for the invitation and I love meeting and talking with readers.  I really like people, and I’m thrilled when someone thinks enough of my work to want to read it and hear me talk about it.  If I enjoy myself and genuinely connect with the folks who take time to come out, it makes a successful event for the store and leaves a warm glow that will last long after I’ve left.  I try to be just like Pat Conroy.

I’m embarking on a promotional tour that will take me to a lot of bookstores of all kinds in the next couple of months.  After the years of hard labor it took to bring my new novel, The Governor’s Lady, to life, this is the payoff, and I don’t just mean in monetary terms.  It’s a time when I get to tell booksellers and readers how grateful I am for having the work to present, and the opportunity to present it.

We’d be a poor, sad society if we didn’t have booksellers.  So visit a store, give the bookseller a hug, and take home something good to read.  If you visit while I’m there, I’ll be mighty glad to see you.  Hugs are optional.