Talking shop with an indie bookseller
by Kevin Murphy
This is an occasional series that asks some of our favorite independent booksellers a handful of simple questions. The questions are the same, but the answers (predictably) vary. If you’re interested in the business of bookselling, read on for a quick shot of indie insight — this week, it comes compliments of Josh Cook, from Porter Square Books in Cambridge, MA.
1) Could you tell us something of the history of your bookstore? What’s your role there?
Porter Square Books sprang from an irreparable conflict in another store, which caused the buyers and much of the staff to leave. This was in the early aughts, at a time when independent bookstores were closing in droves, but it was clear to all of them that despite everything, they wanted to stay in bookselling. So the buyers became owners (and are still buyers), searched for a place to open a bookstore, and eventually gambled, rather wisely, on Porter Square in Cambridge, MA.
I’m a bookseller, the magazine buyer, and the online presence manager and, yes, I came up with that title myself. Basically it means that, even though I don’t have the HTML skills of an actual webmaster, I manage everything about Porter Square Books that happens online; website, blog, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and whatever else might pop up. I also write for the store’s blog (and beg other people to write for the store’s blog), doing reviews, essay-y posts, and interviews with authors and publishers. I also became the point person for all things ebook in the store, putting a lot of time and effort in promoting our ability to sell ebooks and now Kobo devices and accessories.
2) What got you into selling books? What keeps you inspired, or I guess what keeps you dejected if that’s how you’re feeling lately?
I’ve been a writer (at least self-identified anyway) since I was a teenager, and the only question was, what to do for money until writing paid the bills. After college, I worked for two years as an Americorps Vista Volunteer, in Burlington, VT and when circumstance steered me to the Boston area, I had to find a new job. I wanted to work in a bookstore because I saw it as work that, at the very least, wouldn’t drain the energy I’d need to write; a job where I could get home from a full shift and still be able to put a few hours in at the desk. I happened to land in the Porter Square area right before Porter Square Books was planning to open. I walked by every day until they put up a sign asking for resumes and that was it. Bookselling ended up being much more than a way to pay the rent; by putting me in contact with writers and other people in the publishing community, keeping me on the edge of what’s being written today, and, through galleys and a pretty sweet employee discount, giving me access to more books than I could ever read.
I’m inspired and discouraged by the same idea, it just depends on how I spin it at any given moment. There will always be writers and there will always be readers no matter what form or medium the “book” takes, and so there will always need to be a mechanism that gets the “book” from the writer to the reader. Bookstores are still really, really good at getting books from writers to readers. But those pure impulses, the impulse to write and the impulse to read, don’t interact very well with market economics. Writers will write whether they get paid or not and the inherent cultural importance of reading will ensure that readers never have to buy a new book if they don’t want to. So we have this very strange economy that, in the best circumstances, is a kluge of for-profit and not-for-profit business practices, and in the worst circumstances is exploited by people and corporations with no regard whatsoever for the non-economic value of books. So, on one day, it will look like books and bookselling as we know it will continue for decades and on the next it will look like Amazon will destroy the book industry and on the third I sculpt some kind of reasonable halfway point between the two.
3) If your bookstore were to be granted one wish — by the ghost of Sylvia Beach, let’s say — what would it be?
The biggest and most frustrating challenge with bookselling right now is that nearly everything that affects us is out of our control. There’s nothing we can do about Amazon’s business practices, or the Department of Justice’s insane lawsuit, or the consolidation of the industry or the changes in reading technology. So we respond, adjust, adapt. We sell ebooks, we carry more gift items because they have a better profit margin, we organize buy local campaigns in our communities and fight for sales tax fairness in our legislatures. We get on social media, we try different kinds of events, we create interesting displays, we sell the hell out of the books we love, but none of that reaches the boardrooms where the big decisions are made. If I could get one wish from the ghost of Sylvia Beach, it’s that she, or someone who cares about the inherent value of books, gets a seat in those boardrooms to advocate for readers not consumers, for books as a pillar of culture not as a unit of sales, and for bookstores as community centers not retail outlets and merchandise showrooms. And yes, I can totally see my house from the high horse I’m on right now.
4) Which books do you love to hand-sell to customers?
I constantly sell And Then We Came to the End and The Big Machine. I like to think of those books as being “user friendly,” because they’re written in a way that you can enjoy interacting with them at different levels. Just want to read a book that’s kind of like a novelized version of The Office? You’ll enjoy And Then We Came to the End. Want to grapple with the images, metaphors, and experiences of the modern workplace? You’ll enjoy And Then We Came to the End. Same goes for The Big Machine; if you want to explore doubt, cults, recovery from addiction, messages in the media, etc, it’s all there, or you could just be entertained by the characters, plot and storytelling. Then there’s The Long Ships, which is, by far, the best adventure novel I’ve ever read. Vikings, Caliphs, battles, escapes, the Northward progress of Christianity. I lent my copy to my dad, who read it twice in a row and quietly informed me that I would not be getting that copy back, with perhaps a subtle reminder about the whole bringing me into the world and raising me thing. Finally, (in case you were afraid I wasn’t going to mention anything from Melville House) I always send people to the International Crime series. I don’t read as many mysteries as I’d like to and it’s one of the genres people always ask about. I love Derek Raymond and Andrei Kurkov, and since I know Melville House in general, I can vouch for a book in the series even if I haven’t read it.
5) What’s one book, ours or otherwise, that you’re looking forward to?
The book in the galley stack I’m most excited to read is the new Ron Currie Jr, Flimsy Plastic Miracles. Everything Matters! is a fantastic book, one that didn’t get nearly the amount of attention it deserved. I’m pretty sure it will eventually find its place in American reading, perhaps in the realm of Geek Love and Lord of the Barnyard, where it never quite breaks out into any kind of hit, but is consistently read and consistently gathers readers and fans. So when I saw Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles, I made sure to grab it. I’m also really looking forward to the rumored forthcoming Helen DeWitt novel, Your Name Here. I actually read Your Name Here a few years ago when it was circulated as a PDF. It’s funny, philosophical, and visually playful. DeWitt is another author doing great things and not getting enough attention. Lightning Bolts was a challenging and productively disturbing work, with a mainstream release and some mainstream attention, so hopefully, the time is right for her.
Kevin Murphy is the digital media marketing manager of Melville House.