Lining the walls above the shelves at Black Oak Books are photographs of "big name" authors who have read at the independent store in Berkeley, California, since it was founded nearly 17 years ago. Toni Morrison, Paul Auster and Tim O'Brien are just a few of the faces that peer down on customers in the store, which sells both new and used books. But it takes more than literary lions to make a successful events program, according to the professionals who schedule and manage the readings at Black Oak Books.
"We are a community bookstore," said Alix Pitcher, a buyer who also handles publicity for the events, "and the readings reflect that fact." Added Rose Katz, the store's events coordinator, "Big names are not necessary for successful readings." In fact, in this diverse, politically progressive city near San Francisco, bestselling authors typically don't translate into big crowds or big sales for the bookstore. Black Oak often gets its biggest crowds from unusual books. Pitcher recalled an event for Kenneth Kann's Comrades and Chicken Ranchers (Cornell), an oral history of the Jewish community in nearby Petaluma, California, where "more than 200 people showed up and bought about 300 books." It's hard to imagine a Barnes & Noble superstore having a reading for a book like that.
"If there's one thing that makes our program stand out, it's that we're willing to take a chance on unknown authors," noted Katz. Not that the store is averse to commercially successful authors. In recent months, Black Oak Books has hosted novelists Jonathan Safran Foer, Robert Olen Butler and James Lee Burke. But on any given evening—the store holds about 20 events per month—customers may come to hear a nonfiction writer, a poet, or even a professor who has just published an academic title. "We often get more than 100 people at a reading of a scholarly book," said Katz. "The key is to tailor your series to the character of the neighborhood." Black Oak Books is less than a mile from the University of California's main campus.
Book sales at readings aren't the sole measure of an event's success at Black Oak Books. "I look at how many people stay after the reading and have conversations with each other or with the author," said Katz. For Pitcher, the primary benefit of the events is generating traffic: "We want to get people into the store," she said. Browsers often turn into buyers.
Pitcher and Katz are frank about the amount of work and resources involved: time, effort and money. Author events "are going to change your cash flow," Pitcher told PW. "Publishers expect you to get a certain number of a books in advance, so you'll be tying up a certain amount of your budget for new books." Clearly, however, the people at Black Oak Books believe that events are worth hosting. They generate sales, they get people into the store, and, ultimately, they are a palpable reminder that in the words of Pitcher, "bookstores are places to go."
Readings in bookstores remain the one place where writers and reader can connect; at Black Oak Books they're connecting nearly every evening.