December 2, 2013

Authors are booksellers on Small Business Saturday


Sherman Alexie demonstrates the correct way to carry the Indies First bag.

Sherman Alexie demonstrates the correct way to carry the Indies First bag.

In a truly wonderful show of support for independent bookstores, over a thousand authors volunteered to work as booksellers at indie bookstores on Small Business Saturday this year.

That’s right: authors, whose very livelihood comes—when it comes—from these bookstores, care about these extremely physical places filled with extremely physical books so much that they reversed the normal order of things and donated their time and energy and literature-huckstering skills to bookstores all over the country on Saturday.

The initiative, called Indies First, was proposed by Sherman Alexie back in September, when he wrote a letter to a small group of authors suggesting that they spend Small Business Saturday working as booksellers. Alexie’s letter (which can be read in full here) asked authors to “be a superhero for independent bookstores” and laid out the general idea:

Here’s the plan: We book nerds will become booksellers. We will make recommendations. We will practice nepotism and urge readers to buy multiple copies of our friends’ books. Maybe you’ll sign and sell books of your own in the process. I think the collective results could be mind-boggling (maybe even world-changing).

But his Indies First idea soon expanded far beyond the original group, and in the end, over a thousand authors volunteered to serve as guest booksellers or signers or stackers or just household spirits for the day in more than 400 bookstores nationwide. Authors could also participate by making an
indie bookstore the first “buy” button on their websites, above buttons for Amazon or B&N.

Interviewed for USA Today, Wally Lamb explained why he was getting involved:

Lamb, who’ll be at R.J. Julia in Madison, Conn., says he signed up “to celebrate the survival and resurgence of America’s indie bookstores,” and “to extend my personal thanks to R.J.’s, one of the best and most reader-friendly indies in the country.”

Among the many, many authors involved (IndieBound made a great map, so you could see who would be shilling at your local store) were Richard Russo at Longfellow Books in Portland, ME, T. C. Boyle at Granada Books in Santa Barbara, Jess Walter at Auntie’s Bookstore in Spokane, Isabel Wilkerson at Charis Books & More in Atlanta, Cheryl Strayed at Powell’s on Hawthorne in Portland, OR,  George Pelecanos at Teaching for Change in DC, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Kelly Link, and numerous others at the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge.

The action as it went down on the day was recorded on an Indies First Facebook page and on Twitter (#IndiesFirst), with tweets from booksellers, authors, and many others. Andy Sturdevant, who worked at Magers & Quinn Booksellers in Minneapolis, definitely won best bookseller formal wear, though Lynn Plourde at Apple Valley Books in Winthrop, ME had him beat in the colorful-glasses department.

Husband and wife Daniel Handler and Lisa Brown mugged adorably for the cameras at The Booksmith in San Francisco. And The Voracious Reader in Larchmont, NY, had its author-booksellers wearing this button:


Alexie himself worked at no less than five bookstores in one day in his home city of Seattle: Queen Anne Book Company, Secret Garden Books, The Elliot Bay Book Company, Third Place Books, and University Book Store.

It was for him and for other authors not only a way to experience what it’s like to be a bookseller, in all its grueling and glorious aspects, but also to give back to places that have supported their careers through many books and over many years.

In an interview with Scott Simon for NPR on Saturday, Alexie spoke about the role booksellers played in his life, and what they continue to offer in the increasingly digital world of book-buying:

My career happened because the booksellers at independent bookstores hand-sold my book. Readers and potential buyers would come into their stores, they would pick up my books of poems, my books of short stories — published by micropresses — and put it in their hands. And that’s the kind of relationship that exists between independent booksellers and their customers, and authors have a chance there that they wouldn’t otherwise have a chance in this giant Internet world where it’s impossible to get noticed.



Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.