The Art of Bookselling • The Reader Interview

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Stephanie Valdez and Ezra Goldstein of Community Bookstore

 

“You’re really catching us on quite a day,” said Stephanie Valdez when I met up with her and Community Bookstore co-owner Ezra Goldstein one afternoon early in December. Not only was the usual holiday rush upon them, there were last-minute children’s book fairs to coordinate (“it’s almost like setting up two more stores”), book orders to be completed without delay, and sniffles to be suppressed as best one could. (All sneezes have been omitted from the following conversation.) Yet the staff was in good cheer. When I arrived, Ezra was standing by the front register regaling several employees and a customer with a story. Stephanie laughed as she typed busily at the computer, while store mascot Tiny the Cat lounged with characteristic disinterest inside his basket in a corner of the window.

At the back of the store by several bowls of cat food Stephanie and I chatted before Ezra, busy with orders, joined us partway through the conversation. They spoke of current bestsellers, the books that should be selling better, that episode of “Louie,” the charm of Karl Ove Knausgaard, and a man, his chicken and Tiny the Cat.


To begin, it would be great if you could describe how you found the store when you first took over in 2011.

Stephanie Valdez: How we found it? In what condition?

Exactly, how you would describe the space.

SV: The store was much different then than it is today. Ok, how would I describe it. The owner, who’s a friend of ours, her name is Catherine, she’d moved to Albania, and she was going back and forth between here and Albania on a regular basis, and the store was being run by a couple of college students who were here trying to do their best under the very difficult circumstances. The store was in debt; it was filled with animals. We had two dogs, two cats, a bearded dragon, a bunny, and two turtles. Which made it chaotic. And physically, the store was sort of a labyrinth of shelves and nooks and crannies, and it was in need of some work. We actually bought it in 2011, but we took over in 2010, so we spent some time just fixing it up. And it was really wonderful, in a way, because the work that needed to be done was so clear. Every day you’d come in and you’d just tackle a corner. It was sort of like a fixer-upper project where you’re renovating a house, where every day you can tackle a project and turn it around and make it better. And that process was sort of a gift to us and part of why we decided to buy the store.

What would you say is the most interesting event that you have hosted?

SV: That’s a really tough question. I’d have to think about that a little bit. Certainly our most packed ever was when we had Karl Ove Knausgaard. It’s when he suddenly got very famous, and we knew it would be packed, but it ended up being like, wall-to-wall standing-room-only for 200ish people. We’ve never hosted anything like that, before or since.

Was it in this space, in the bookstore?

SV: [Nods affirmatively] There was a line outside the door. To get him into the space we had to move people aside in order to go through. There’s actually a picture on The New York Times site of him parting the crowds to walk through this completely packed space. That was also very charming, because he ended up staying and hanging out with us for the whole evening in the garden, drinking cheap beer, which is unlike what most authors do.

What do most authors do?

SV: Especially touring authors, when they come to New York they have dinner with their agent or they go out with their friends that are local. It’s rare that they sit in the Community Bookstore garden and drink cheap beer.

Is there a writer whom you have never hosted that you would love to?

SV: I always wanted to host Marilynne Robinson. And then we actually did host Marilynne Robinson and I was judging a literary prize. And of all days, it’s the day we were hosting Marilynne Robinson that I had to be in another city, judging a prize. And I tried to make it work and there was just no way to be in two places at once, and so, I missed hosting Marilynne Robinson. Which was unfortunate. But I have hope that we will host her again.

 

 

Do you have a favorite Park Slope author?

That seems fraught.

It does!

SV: It seems like if I do, I shouldn’t say. [Pause] Probably Siri Hustvedt.

And why is that?

SV: I just love her books. They’re brainy and complex and feminist and brilliant.

Are you yourself a writer?

SV: I dabble a little bit, but I’ll say no, not currently.

I know you also manage Terrace Books. What are some of the challenges you face as you try to manage these two spaces at once?

SV: Time. Time is the biggest. Terrace Books is sort of my side-hustle. My husband runs that shop. But I do most of the book-buying. And I also do a bit of rare books out of that space, and so, that’s my side project. Bookstores require a lot of time. I mean, it’s a small space, you think, how complicated is it to run a bookstore? Somehow there are always new books and there are always new events. So, however much time we have, it doesn’t ever seem to be quite enough.

How would you describe a typical day at Community Bookstore?

SV: A typical day involves coming in, feeding the cat, turning on all the lights and the computers, and then, Ezra orders books every day, every weekday, so he works on book orders. And then the thing about working in a bookstore is that you never know what the day will bring. You never know who will show up and what questions they’ll ask and what conversations will ensue. There’s a lot of email in my job, between events and ordering books and all sorts of things. And tending the shelves, shelving books. I do less unpacking than I used to, but we get boxes and boxes of books, five days a week. So, this time of year, it can be 40 boxes of books.

Do you read all the new books that come in?

SV: Oh, I wish. We try to read as much as we can, but that just depends.

Do you try to set aside time to do so?

SV: Reading is not part of our day-job. It’s all extra-curricular. So, just like anywhere else, we have to fit it into our after hours’ time. I have a one-year-old, so, currently my after hours’ time is a little more limited than usual.

Are you reading any books to your one-year-old?

SV: Oh, yes. He’s a very avid reader so far. He’s now at the phase where he tends to want to repeat the same books.

Which can be both fun and a little maddening, I would imagine.

SV: Yeah, I’ve already memorized a shocking number of children’s’ books, which makes me realize I could have been memorizing all kinds of things all along.

Does he have a favorite?

SV: What’s his absolute favorite right now? He really likes The Quiet Noisy Book, by Margaret Wise Brown. She’s famous for Goodnight Moon. This is sort of a lost book of hers that’s been republished. And a book called Hooray for Birds [by Lucy Cousins]. Which is just about birds.

I know you mentioned [Tiny] the cat earlier as well. I’ve read a few different stories about him. Do you have a favorite?

SV: Well, my favorite was when I was hosting a story-time for an author and there was a group of toddlers sitting here on the floor and a man walked into the middle of the event and pulled out a chicken from under his coat, and put the chicken down on the ground. And within an instant, Tiny was chasing the chicken and we were chasing the chicken and Tiny to try and prevent disaster in front of this group of toddlers.

Why did this man bring a chicken to the store?

SV: I guess there was a chicken in the book and they thought it might be fun if he just showed up and brought a chicken. It was a show-and-tell type thing. But we weren’t warned about the chicken, and cats and chickens don’t really mix. And I guess he had a cat at home as well as a chicken, so, as far as he knew, cats and chickens cohabitated just fine. But our cat, Tiny, does kill birds with some regularity, so, this was not your average cat.

These were not characters from a children’s story.

SV: Exactly.

[Ezra joins]

What is your current bestseller here in the store?

SV: Is it Jennifer Egan?

Ezra Goldstein: It would be close between Manhattan Beach [by Jennifer Egan]and Sing, Unburied, Sing [by Jesmyn Ward], I think.

Are there books that you believe ought to be selling better than they are? 

EG: Well, there are a lot of books like that. But there are a couple of books that I’ve read recently that are really outstanding that didn’t make any of the best lists that should have been on the lists. One of which I’m reading now called Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor, terrific book. Another is Solar Bones [by Mike McCormack], really good book. But that’s up to us, because a lot of books that we think are really good don’t get the publicity that they deserve, because they come from small presses or they go under the radar. In general, small presses don’t get the publicity they deserve, so that’s why we exist, to put those books in people’s hands.

How do you try to find the smaller under-the-radar books?

SV: We talk a lot to those small publishers as well as talk to other readers, whether it’s other booksellers, customers who come in. We read reviews. You try to keep your ear to the ground for good things coming out.

EG: The book Reservoir 13, one of our customers told me I had to read it. And she was right.

Do you have customers coming in and asking you for books that are not currently stocked?

SV: Every day. We do a lot of books by special order, because we’re such a small store, and we can often get books within a day or two. So, yes. We often have people special-order books. And then we often take a look at them to see if that’s something we should carry.

EG: I think it’s also that it’s connected to our reputation, that we can get books and we’re really good at getting books. And also our clientele tend to be people who go very deep into backlist books, you know, books that came out 20 years ago or 30 years ago. Those are the kinds of readers that we have.

SV: Our customer base is filled with just great readers and they often recommend us books, so it is a two-way conversation.

Have you ever had a particularly unusual request?

SV: For a book?

Yes, for a book, something that was very difficult to find, that was very old, or very rare. Speaking of Terrace Books as well.

SV: Well, we don’t do rare or used special orders. So mostly, it’s just things that are out of print. I think the most frustrating thing is when there’s something that’s out of print that shouldn’t be. There have been various points in time when certain books are just out of print, and it seems like it shouldn’t be out of print.

EG: With some regularity we’ll track down a book in England that we order for people. It’ll take a month to get, but, you know, we’ll get it.

SV: We don’t really have a zany story. It’s mostly pretty prosaic.

EG: One of the great stories was that Laura Ingalls Wilder book, the original one that came from the South Dakota historical society. It got written up somewhere and became this surprise bestseller.

SV: In The Times, yeah.

EG: This poor tiny historical society in South Dakota was cranking out books. So I was calling South Dakota and we actually got—I think we got just about every copy they had. [Laughs]

What is the book that you’ve been recommending the most recently?

EG: Well, you know, it depends on who the person is. But, the Sing, Unburied, Sing, which won all the prizes, deserved them. It’s a very fine book. But it’s not for everybody because it’s a very grim and hard book. That’s the art of bookselling, is trying to match the recommendation with what people want.

I also saw that Community Bookstore was featured in an episode of “Louie” a few years ago. Have you had customers coming in and asking you about that?

SV: I actually haven’t had any inquiries lately.

EG: Not lately.

SV: Since the scandal.

EG: But a lot right after the show came out. A lot. People would come in and wander around and say, ‘Nah, this isn’t the store. It’s not big enough.’ [Laughs]

SV: It’s unfortunate. We weren’t necessarily fans of his, and a couple of years ago quite a few rumors were flying around about these allegations. So we haven’t really used that footage as publicity or anything and we met him in passing once. I don’t think we have anything especially interesting to say about him or the scandal.

EG: Although I did get to hang out with Parker Posey, so.

Is she cool in real life?

EG: Oh, yeah. She’s really neat. Yeah. She’s really nice. She was in the episode.

SV: And Chloe Sevigny as well.

EG: Yeah, Chloe Sevigny, that’s right. Both very nice.

SV: Both readers.

Did they buy anything?

EG: Yeah, yeah, oh, yeah. And the producer, who’s a wonderful woman, bought a whole big stack of books.

SV: We’ll probably continue to just keep our distance and move on.

You read a lot about the resurgence of independent bookstores nowadays, in spite of Amazon. To what would you attribute your continuing success here?

EG: A very loyal customer-base. And just being fortunate to live in a neighborhood where people like to shop small and like to see what they’re buying and like books, love books.

SV: Dedicated readers. We are very lucky because we are one of the few independents that we almost only sell books, we don’t have to entice people in with toys to get them to buy books. We just focus on books. We’re very lucky our audience is made up of very avid readers. We don’t have to convince them that books are a necessity.

 

 

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About Author

Anna Storm is a writer, graduate of George Washington University and Brooklyn resident. Most importantly, she’s an obsessive fan of fiction and film, and an unrepentant peanut-butter addict.

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