October 18, 2013
“I started working there for the books”
by Dustin Kurtz
Matthew Lawrence is an author, co-editor of Headmaster magazine, organizer of marathon readings of Casanova and a former bookseller. He is also a perhaps-friend-but-maybe-more-accurately-acquaintance of mine. His latest project is a forthcoming chapbook, a “tell-all about life behind the scenes in the thrilling high stakes world of independent college bookstores. It’s called Coworkers I Have Hadand it contains forty profiles of coworkers that I have had, which is how I got the idea for the title.”
A former bookseller myself, I decided to interview Lawrence about his project.
Melville House: Can you tell us which store you worked in? I imagine the internet might give us the answer, but googling is so invasive.
Matthew Lawrence: I worked at the Brown Bookstore, and was only marginally even near the books, to my dismay. At the end my job was cashier training, online catalog photography, ordering CDs and DVDs and, for some reason, sunglasses. And on Sundays and Mondays I did mail orders, unless it was graduation season in which case I did cap and gown orders. I started working there for the books, though.
MH: Why portraits of fellow booksellers? It seems like more often we hear from booksellers quoting feckless customers rather than their coworkers.
ML: Because of the nature of the store, we had a really high staff turnover rate. (Also, as part of a larger university system, cashiers were only allowed to work a certain number of hours annually, so for a few years they’d let people go in the fall if they’d worked too much the rest of the year. It made no sense.) We had a lot of crazy customers—angry students having cell phone fights with their parents all the time, kooky B&B owners that would special order give or six mystery novels every week, and a bunch of random crazies from the street. The guy who wore the same vest with no shirt every day who’d park and repark his car five or six times before coming in. He always bought paint with pennies and painted large-scale reproductions of the Titanic. I almost miss that guy. But the co-workers, the people you’d see in the lunchroom every day, or sit at the same counter with for seven-hour shifts. Those were the most memorable people. I stopped at 40 but my preliminary longlist had close to 70 names on it.
MH: I think many people, including myself, have this romanticized notion that a bookstore, particularly an indie, is one of the last kingdoms of the auto-didact in this country, one of the last safe spaces for a grimy street-level snobbery away from the ivory tower. Does that play out in a college bookstore?
ML: Yeah, it does. In 2005 Brown looked into leasing the store to a Barnes and Noble or a Follett, and there was a huge outcry from places like McSweeney’s, and also from faculty (and us, the staff). In the leased stores, the bookstore actually dictates what can and can’t be taught based on whether they’ll profit from selling the books. At Brown, where there are big, non-profitable departments like Creative Writing and Portuguese Studies (not to mention a med school) the whole department would really suffer because a Barnes and Noble wouldn’t take the time to import, you know, a dozen out-of-print novels from Brazil. All of which is I guess completely tangential to what you asked.
Providence, for such a highly educated city, has a real shortage of indie bookstores. We have Ada (named after the Nabokov novel), which is exactly the kind of store that romantic book-lovers would be into, and we have Books On The Square, which is a great place to find books for children. But that’s more of less it, at least for new books. Which isn’t much, for a city of 180,000 with seven colleges and universities. Brown’s a pretty unique place in that it’s academic but also has a public presence on one of the only streets here with a lot of pedestrian traffic. So there is that element of feeling like the book selection is across the board educational, even if it’s not. A celebrity story: Chloe Malle was in the store once, she was probably fourteen at the time, and she was complaining loudly to her friend about the Gossip Girl books, exactly as I was on my break actually at that moment reading one of them. (The first seven Gossip Girl books are an awesome heptalogy.) I was in a really grouchy mood and so went to the front of the store and started complaining not totally discreetly about the annoying people in 434 (or whatever numbered section meant Young Adult Series) and her mom, Candice Bergen, was standing there, and she gave me a look that I’m pretty sure signaled that she knew exactly who I was complaining about. And that I was right.
MH: All booksellers are incredibly sexy, true or false?
ML: Oh, definitely false. A few are! But no, not all. [Ed.: Every bookseller who orders our books being, of course, among those few.]
MH: Will there be sequels to this? Are you, in fact, answering these questions while hidden behind an armchair in another bookstore somewhere, taking notes on the staff? What I mean to say is, why are you so creepy?
ML: I’m not currently in a bookstore! I miss being around books terribly—within two weeks of quitting I felt like I’d lost all touch with what was relevant in the book world—and probably, if I weren’t a marginally employed freelancer, I’d be mentally taking notes about my co-workers. I’ve been working with one of our local library systems lately (Providence has two) and one of my personal projects for the fall is to catch up on fiction that actually came out this year. I just picked up—um, blanking on the title, but the Caleb Crain book [Ed.: Neccessary Errors; it’s pretty great]—this afternoon. I miss those free advance copies, though.
Dustin Kurtz is former marketing manager of Melville House.