If the world were a just place, there would be a constant spotlight from heaven shining on bookseller Paul Ingram. Instead, he's swathed in the glow of fluorescent lights in the basement commons room of First Unitarian Church in Davenport, Iowa. At 10 on a Sunday morning, he's practicing the fine art of the hand-sell. A tiny man, he has to reach up to the pulpit to address the 35 people that have gathered to hear him preach about books. I am here as the choir.

Ingram, of Prairie Lights in Iowa City, Iowa, has brought with him a dozen copies each of 20 books for an event he calls his “Ministry of Books.” Every selection, according to Ingram, is a “Best Book of the Year” in its genre, though most have received little publicity. Some are more difficult than others to sell.

The Easy Sell: Leonie Swann's murder mystery Three Bags Full, about a flock of sheep that solve the mystery of their shepherd's murder. Ingram: “These sheep are very, very stupid and very, very funny!”

The Tough Sell: Simon van Booy's short story collection The Secret Lives of People in Love. Ingram: “What do I talk about, one story? The themes of the stories? The author's prose style?”

Both of those books—a translation from the German and a boutique publishing house story collection—sold out at the ministry events I attended. Last Christmas, Prairie Lights sold over 100 copies each of both of these under-the-radar books on word-of-mouth alone.

The crowd is still waking up this morning, and Ingram sees room to emphasize his point. “People in Iowa, they always make a nice little line,” he says to them. “If they think there's not enough potato salad, they will leave some for the next person. If you see a book you want, take it!” Thirty seconds later, a woman in the front row stands up and snatches The Discovery of France (Ingram: “The best book I have ever read about a single country”). “I'm from Illinois!” she yells. Four more follow in turn. Suddenly, there is a run on Three Bags Full. A room of readers heaves a polite sigh that really means: “Damn. We missed our chance.”

As disciples go, these are some of the most devoted. I should know, for I am one myself—and have been since my first visit to Prairie Lights six years ago. I had hoped no one would interrupt me as I walked the stacks alone, sullen and brooding. But somehow I tipped off this elf of a man, who can judge a book by its cover. He stopped midstride, cupped his hand to his mouth and whispered, “Alice Munro. Open Secrets.”

I hadn't yet joined Munro's flock. After Ingram introduced us, I fell fast and hard. Like any believer who is prone to stray, I continued to seek his counsel regularly in the years thereafter. He may not know me well, but he knows how to pick a book for me, always pressing it into my hand and saying, “This is the book that you need to read at this exact point in your life.” In my reading life, he became my spiritual adviser.

Ingram is probably the only evangelist who will admit he's out to make money. But no one really believes him, because he talks of books as if he is channeling the Holy Spirit. People often speak of his passion, but one woman I met at a ministry event, a sociologist, said he works more like a gang leader. We, the gang, sitting rapt in our church chairs, believe what he says. Then we go home to our circles of book-buying friends to spread the word.

Independent bookstores around the country would do well to join this fold, too. For what they need may not be more author events, bigger floor space or guaranteed bestsellers. They need booksellers who can help readers discover something about ourselves. They need to be cultivators of taste, not meeters of demands. They need to tell us what we have to read—right now—not offer us X: The Sequel if we liked X: A Novel. They need more Paul Ingrams.

If that sounds preachy, remember this: Ingram sold about 75 mostly hardback books that Sunday morning. Not a single one was discounted.

Author Information
Emily Grosvenor is a journalist, translator and former Fulbright scholar who has written for the Des Moines Register, the Washington City Paper and Poets & Writers magazine.