In case you hadn't heard, bookselling—especially old-fashioned "independent" bookselling—is a profession under siege, a business model that has undergone continual, painful revision, an order whose numbers have dwindled. You can hardly blame booksellers, then, for feeling kind of... well, depressed.
But then, you maybe don't know Wendy Werris or Roxanne Coady, both of whom have spent the better part of their lifetimes in the independent book trade and have lived not only to tell, but to crow, about it—in books.
Werris began her book life as a 19-year-old at the legendary Hollywood store Pickwick, where she brushed career paths with now B&N honcho Alan Kahn, among many others. She also worked for Straight Arrow Press (part of Rolling Stone) and had a one-night stand with famously dissolute poet/novelist Richard Brautigan (here's where we could have used more details, but apparently alcohol obscured them); she then became a rep and an author escort. Her An Alphabetical Life, coming from Carroll & Graf in November, is a joyous romp through an era whose passing many of us constantly lament: a time when bookselling was about books, and writers, and people—a time before big bad conglomeratization took all the fun away.
Coady, on the other hand, joined the book biz relatively late, after a stint as a high-powered Manhattan executive; she founded Connecticut's RJ Julia 15 years ago and has served as a president of the ABA. Her book, co-written with Joy Johannessen, is less a celebration of bookselling per se than a celebration of books—she's compiled "favorite books" from many writers, from Dorothy Allison to David Halberstam.
That's all well and good—there are some surprises here among the more predictable recommendations (full disclosure: that includes a last-minute entry from yours truly)—but what I love about Coady's The Book That Changed My Life (Gotham) is the way, like Werris's, it captures a passion that has been muted by earthly concerns about money and competition and sell-through; like a lot of us, these authors clearly love books and its biz. Why else would Werris, whose father was a successful TV comedy writer, and Coady, who made a fine living as a tax accountant for 20 years, want to work in and around bookstores? Hint: it's not for the money.
Call it late summer doldrums or a pending vacation, to be spent on a deck chair with piles of novels, but the appearance, in galley, of these two books this week seems karmic and enlightening and inspiring. They remind me that there is indeed a reason that we do what we do. What made you a book person? What was the book that changed your life? To whom do you owe your passion? Coady and Werris make you want to ponder those questions. They make you want to answer them.
Coady writes in her introduction that her mother loved to read aloud to her when she was a child. The only problem: her mother was a recent immigrant from Hungary and her command of English was phonetic at best. She pronounced "know" as "ka-now" and "high" as "hig-ha," Coady writes. But it didn't matter. The joy, she says, was in the listening, in "trying to figure out the story."
Which is all any of us is trying to do.
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