I’ve recently become an independent bookseller at M. Judson in Greenville, S.C. My reps have taught me most everything I know. I can order books through Edelweiss and check an event grid. I can pretty much manage Basil at point of sale, but I still push the Back button disastrously when reviewing a reorder in the system. I think I can make a spreadsheet, if somebody walks me through it. I have zero previous experience to qualify me for a job in retail.
Except that I’ve been a writer for approximately two decades, and a reader since my mother taught me how to read. Perhaps more importantly, I have strong opinions. I have particular taste, and an eclectic group of things I like to read about: obsessive collectors, fabulous meals, doomed lovers, dark magic, poetry, your basic brave weirdos who don’t see the world like anybody else. I like to laugh, and my sense of humor is offbeat. And I wrote book reviews for a long time. If I like something, I like to talk about it.
The reason people go to independent bookstores is because they like to talk about books, too. They too have particular tastes and strong opinions, and they know, as I do, that sharing them with someone who might be able to recommend just the right thing to read next is like going on an old-fashioned date, the kind where you get swept off your feet by a sparkling conversation and maybe a corsage of gardenias (superior to swiping right on Tinder). Process matters, is what I’m saying. How you do what you do is what makes up your life.
If I’m good at bookselling, it’s not for my mastery of technology, but because of my relationship with books, how I still read hoping to be surprised and amazed, and probably how I write for those same reasons. With such overlap, you would think I’d be extra good at selling my own book, the place where all these strengths should come together. But in fact, the prospect of talking to customers about my new novel, The Arrangement, the story of a love triangle involving the legendary food writer M.F.K. Fisher, the way I’d talk to customers about Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, or Abby Thomas’s Safekeeping, or Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik, makes me pretty uncomfortable.
Whereas being a bookseller is a public, social activity, writing is a very solitary one. I write novels at a desk that faces a blank wall, mostly after dark, when the house is quiet and everybody else has long gone to bed. And I carry with me the knowledge that just as I write my books alone, people also read them alone, curled into themselves, hopefully long into the night, too. Sometimes I wish selling my own books could be a similarly private process. I’m bad at all the stuff a writer is supposed to be good at these days: I’m bad at Facebook, I have no Twitter account, and I mostly use Instagram to record great meals and keep up with my kids.
Luckily, the bookstore has all these things—plus a blog!—and even though we’re new at this, a couple thousand people already follow us across these platforms. They come into the store because we’ve talked about events online. They buy a book because we’ve posted about it. It’s different when we do this stuff together, and for the kind of true-believer enterprise that is an independent bookstore. I haven’t found myself able to post about my own book just yet, but I know someone will help me do it—or rather, make me do it—soon enough. Thankfully, I have partners, my friends and an incredible staff, who are helping me start to look at The Arrangement from the perspective of a bookseller rather than purely as its blushing author. They are helping me see the novel as something a little separate from myself, something that’s going to become a part of the life of the store.
And for the store, I’m happy to do anything.
Ashley Warlick is the author of The Arrangement (Viking, February) and the buyer at M. Judson, Booksellers & Storytellers in Greenville, S.C.