August 29, 2012

Talking shop with an indy bookseller


This is a new and occasional series that asks some of our favorite independent booksellers four 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 indy insight — this week, it comes compliments of Megan Wade, from Skylight Books in Los Angeles. 

1) Could you tell us something of the history of your bookstore? What’s your role there? 
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?

Skylight opened in 1996, taking over the space where Chatterton’s, a long-time staple of Los Angeles’ literary scene, had closed just a couple years before. We were lucky that the space remained available, and though there are many ways that Skylight differs from Chatterton’s, many of its customers and others in the neighborhood were very supportive.  And Skylight is really marked by the neighborhood, which is a place that may contradict the stereotype many have of Los Angeles: our street in Los Feliz is marked by several very walkable blocks of small stores; it’s easily reached by public transit; and the surrounding residential blocks are quite dense and diverse. Our customers are quirky and intelligent, with a wide variety of tastes, and dedication to our more unique sections, including our translated lit, our local zines and art magazines, and our “Alt” section (which includes anarchist theory, drug culture, and conspiracy theory and culture).

I play an interesting role, in that I came in as a bookseller but in the last year also took over much of our bookkeeping. That was a skill I didn’t have at first but wanted to learn, to just get a better overall sense of the business. It means lots more interactions with publishers, mostly their credit departments, and for me, there’s been a little bit of shock to see the out-of-date, bureaucratic processes that make up so much of how publishers and bookstores interact — or for that matter, the modern, globalized bureaucratic processes that seem inherently unfriendly to the idea of small, independent businesses. There’s a disjointed experience for me in that my role as bookseller is focused on personalized, face-to-face interactions and conversation with customers — what I really think bookselling is about — while in my bookkeeping job generally involves being treated in a very impersonal, distant manner by those on the financial end of publishing. Some days it feels a little like all give and no take. There’s a similar experience with the various financial and banking institutions — daily reminders of how our legal and economic structures are not set up to easily benefit small or independently-owned businesses, or their workers.

So that’s the part that keeps me dejected, not only because of the pretty obvious dehumanizing aspect of it all, but because it makes me worry about the possibilities of publishers and independent bookstores partnering together to prevent larger monopolies are handle the future technological and social changes that will effect bookselling.

But for me, part of why I’m in bookselling is actually about social change; I am interested in the creation and rebuilding of alternative, localized cultures, as well as more democratic, localized economic institutions. Independent bookstores are a pretty perfect intersection of those two things. I come from both a community organizing and an academic background, but feel that most non-profit models and university models are not helping us do the type of grassroots political and intellectual work that needs to happen for real change in this country. A bookstore, on the other hand, is a place to curate both ideas and experiences in the form of books and conversations for a really broad audience, to constantly prod and provoke people in ways they aren’t necessarily looking for.So seeing that type of slow change happen with our customers is part of what keeps me inspired, as well as those moments where we are clearly aiding the creation of an alternative artistic or political culture in face of the national, monopolistic culture; for instance, every time we have a customer come in who is there to talk as well as shop, who brings in their own poetry or comics for consignment at the same time as they’re picking up both a staff recommendation and something from another local author.

3) If your bookstore were to be granted one wish—by the ghost of Sylvia Beach, let’s say—what would it be?

All of my coworkers are talented, smart, individuals who bring really different contributions to the store. And many are interested in making bookselling a lifelong career. But the state of the book industry — and the perceived value of retail workers — makes that a rather difficult prospect for most of us. So I’d say my main wish would be the transformation of Skylight into an enterprise that can financially support its staff through the ongoing economic turbulence that will continue into the future. But then, I guess that would be my wish for every independent bookstore in the country.

4) What’s one book, ours or otherwise, that you’re looking forward to?

Well, I’ve been promising lots of customers Debt in paperback for awhile now — so whenever that makes it out I’ll be happy.

I’m also looking forward to one of Semiotexte’s upcoming Intervention titles: The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance, by Franco Berardi. If it draws on some of his recent short writings, it should expand his idea on poetry and irony as ways of challenging both the political cynicism so prevalent today and the ways the current cultural, linguistic, and technological nature of capitalism effects our personal desires and psychological habits. Much critical theory seems to propagate a certain type of paralysis, or speak of capitalism as so totalizing that there’s no ability for change, but I think in the way that Berardi discusses how capitalism actually preys on our thoughts and emotions, he also provides a way of thinking about how we can resist, and move from individual to collective resistance. His The Soul at Work has been very important for me, both politically and personally, so I have high hopes for The Uprising.