Lillian Li’s memorable and insightful debut novel, Number One Chinese Restaurant, takes readers behind the scenes of a Chinese restaurant, the Beijing Duck House, in Rockville, Md., as Jimmy Han and his older brother, Johnny, have had a running argument about the direction of the restaurant—Johnny wants it to remain traditional; Jimmy is trying to sell it to transition to a more upscale venue—since the death of their father. Li, also a bookseller at Ann Arbor's Literati bookstore, discusses indie bookstores, authors, and how important they are for each other.
As a bookseller, I have met a fair amount of authors on tour, enough to start noticing a strange pattern of behavior. Nine times out of ten, a few minutes before their event, the author will approach the register with a slightly dazed look on their face and a note of apology in their voice. “I’m the author?” they will say, sometimes so softly that I have to ask them to repeat themselves. “The author?” they say again.
In the two years that I’ve worked at Literati, I have yet to meet an author who introduces themselves with conviction, let alone confidence. Even the authors who have packed the space half an hour before the event starts, authors with more books than I have fingers, authors who have hit the bestseller lists, act as if they are trespassing on their own event. Why the shyness? I wondered each time. You’re the author! But when it became my turn to be the dazed, overly modest author on tour, I began to understand how a statement of identity could become a question.
The first bookstore where I had this experience was my own. The day before the official release of my book, I launched at Literati. I hauled a big sheet cake decorated in electric blue frosting. “You bought your own cake?” a fellow bookseller asked.
Of course I did! How else could I thank everyone, my co-workers included, for attending my first reading? As I walked into my event, I continued to be flabbergasted that people had shown up at all. A student from the first creative writing class I ever taught; a high school friend I hadn’t even known was in town; the glamorous, globetrotting woman who does my eyebrows. “You came?” I exclaimed to every familiar face I glimpsed, with the overwrought glee of a child on Christmas. “You came for me?”
Certainly this level of shock and awe over attendance could be blamed on beginner’s jitters, but it trailed me from city to city, quickly spreading into other areas. Soon, not only could I not believe that people had taken an hour out of their lives to hear me read (even close friends; even my agent), but I also began to wonder why the bookstores where I was reading were giving me the time of day to begin with.
After Literati, I read at two more bookstores: Books Are Magic and Politics and Prose. Both are bookstores I’ve long admired (Politics and Prose was actually the first indie bookstore I ever stepped foot in), and at both readings, I wore my Literati shirt. The primary reason for this costume was to rep my indie bookstore love. But hidden underneath that love was a more confused desire. I wanted to feel like I belonged in those bookstores. For some reason, the fact that I was an author invited to read in the bookstore was not reason enough to feel comfortable there.
When I chatted with booksellers at both stores, I brought up my own bookstore constantly. “I wish we had offices this nice!” I’d proclaim. Or, “Our store is selling a lot of this book too!” At the start of my Books Are Magic event, I asked, “Can we do a bookseller exchange program?” Again, all these statements were genuine, but what I realize also is that the entire time I was in those bookstores, I wished to be seen as a bookseller first, an author second.
In all other facets of my life I am proud to have written and published a book. I am happy to call myself an author/novelist/writer. So why, in a place dedicated to books, do I suddenly falter? Perhaps for the very fact of that dedication.
“I’m the author?” I’ve begun to realize, is not a question of identity, but good fortune. It also isn’t the full question. The full question is something like this: “I’m the author you have chosen to host in this beautiful place devoted to words and stories? Me?”
It isn’t false modesty, or stage fright, or a fugue state brought on by dehydration and exhaustion (or not only those things) that causes writers to lose their self-assurance. Rather, the timidity of entering a bookstore is the understanding that we the authors are the honored ones. To enter a space with so many books, representing so many authors, a space that has the ability to connect an entire community with your work, is to feel a sense of awe and undeserving.
On the other hand, it is this same dedication to books, to supporting authors and serving readers, that allows the very independent bookstores that set off my small crisis of confidence to rescue me from a much larger one. After all, I was surprised not just that I had been invited to read, but also that anyone had bothered to show up. I had bought my own cake!
In a world where Amazon ranks your book with literally millions of other books—the vast majority of which could only be mistaken as the same species as your book by people who think horses and seahorses are related—it is easy to believe that the stories we write are indistinguishable and minute, deserving only a fraction of a fraction of the time and attention that we spent writing them. Refreshing your Amazon page only reinforces that belief.
Yet at all my bookstore readings, I heard words of thanks from not just attendees, but booksellers also. Thank you for coming. Thank you for reading. Thank you for what you wrote. The same people I was so grateful to appeared to be just as grateful to me. Because, and it’s shockingly obvious to write this, without authors, there would be no bookstores. Without events and readings, no community of readers. It is easy, when feeling like one of innumerable cogs in a giant machine, to forget that to be a cog is to be an inextricable part of what makes the system work. A deeply unromantic way to say a very romantic thing: that by the end of each of my readings, the bookstores and booksellers reminded me that I was an author, full stop, again.