There was a time when I viewed working in a bookstore as just a good side job. I started working in a bookstore at the now-defunct BookCourt in Brooklyn. It had its perks: it was within walking distance from my apartment, there was a Starbucks next door, and it was the sort of work that made me feel smart. I was in my mid-20s, often drifting around to different jobs. Bookseller was a job right out of a 1990s rom-com: smart, hip, discerning.
But it wasn’t long before I realized that there is a lot more soul to bookselling than there is to your standard retail gig. People approached me with deep longings, casual impulses, a need for a particular distraction, and then they would seek counsel: “I’m going to the beach with a bunch of lit snobs, can you find me something that’s fun but also well written?”; “I’m travelling to Turkey, do you have any novels set in Istanbul?”; “I just broke up with my partner, and I need a good cry.”
And so on. I felt less like a retail worker and more like a bartender, or perhaps a fortune-teller. The store regularly held reading events that included free wine handed out in little plastic cocktail cups, so sometimes I even played actual bartender.
Maybe it was the wood shelves, or the old, lumpy couches inviting people to sit and sample the wares. Maybe it was all that paper absorbing the noise, maximizing coziness. Maybe it was the free wine. But as time wore on, those four walls felt less like a store and more like a warm communal hall. As an employee, I gave customers my time, attention, and advice—but astoundingly, I found they also gave the same back to me.
Julia, an author who ran the local Sackett Street Writers Workshop and hosted readings at our store, gave me discounts on classes and later blurbed my novel. Emma, once a coworker and now a bestselling author with her own wonderful store, Books Are Magic, gave me writing tips and recommendation letters. Tim, a local environmental lawyer and fixture at all the store’s reading events, personally helped my husband and I move into our first apartment together in Queens.
Now we live in Long Island, and I work at Sag Harbor Books. Covid is in full swing; we’re not allowed to gather for readings like we used to, but the feeling of community is still strong. People still approach, now in masks, and ask for counsel, their questions similar to, and different from, what they were before: “I haven’t been able to read much since the pandemic started, do you have something that will soothe me?”; “I know it makes no sense, but I can’t get enough of apocalypse stories. What can you recommend?”; “My kids are bouncing off the walls from being stuck inside, do you have anything that will hold their attention?”
And then there are the people who walk into the store with no questions, just hushed awe. They look around with tears brimming in their eyes and say, “It’s been so long since I’ve been in a bookstore.”
This is what I mean about bookstores not really fitting the definition of retail anymore. You don’t get that kind of reverence at a T.J. Maxx.
When one store doesn’t have a book, we’re always happy to recommend another one down the road. When a store is facing hard times (a sad fact of lockdowns), we do what we can to spread the word. Stores praise each other to their customers. Bookselling is the least cutthroat business I’ve ever seen. We hope that rising tides will raise all boats, and in the lonely world of small businesses, those of us who think of ourselves as part of a community are the ones most likely to survive.
Technically, bookselling is still a side job for me; I am a writer first. But it is so much more. My own debut novel, The World Gives Way, will be coming out in June, and the owners of Sag Harbor Books were some of the first to congratulate me and share in my excitement. They’ve already arranged for preorders on the store’s website. My coworkers have been taking turns reading galleys, as have friends at neighboring bookstores. Releasing a book to the public can leave one feeling vulnerable, and these friends are a warm blanket insulating me from the scary stuff. They cheer me on.
We cheer each other on.
Marissa Levien is the author of 'The World Gives Way,' due June 15 from Orbit.