Bookselling Heroes

Jeff Garrett, who helped his wife Nina Barrett launch Bookends & Beginnings in Evanston, Illinois. Photo by Robert C. Trube, all rights reserved.

They don’t look like our idea of heroes. They are not frontline healthcare workers. The aren’t military service men and women or public safety officers who put their lives at risk for a higher cause. But they also contribute to preserving the fabric of society, the richness of our communities, and the intellectual and emotional health of our citizens. They are booksellers.

If they are independent booksellers, this means they are small business owners who have assumed both the risks and benefits of owning a business, having to pay rent, vendors, and employees. It means long hours and lots of unglamorous work. Everything from cleaning the sidewalks and toilets, lifting and unpacking boxes of books and getting them onto shelves.

One bookseller I know has not been able to open his business during COVID, nor sell books at conferences where he makes a good deal of his profit. He works hard to publicize good books through his online reviews and special offers. His books are meticulously packed, and often order acknowledgements are accompanied by personal notes. In other seasons, I’ve seen pictures of him unloading a truckload of books and then arranging them all meticulously by topics on tables, spending hours over several days interacting with buyers to help them find the right book, and then re-packing and unloading them back at his store. I first met him at a conference and it was a joy to watch him in action, recommending books I’d never heard of, or some which I couldn’t call to mind. It was like watching a virtuoso musician performing. My bookselling friend didn’t just sell books–he knew and loved books and cared deeply about connecting the right book and each of his customers.

And he and his wife work very hard at this, day after day.

While booksellers are all unique individuals, I would say they all have this in common–the work and the love. So, is it right to be considered a hero for doing work one loves? I think so. Having models of people who work hard with excellence to serve others, usually at minimal financial benefit, are worth noting. Beyond this, many of these people see their work as part of the civic fabric of their “main street” or whatever other street on which they work. They participate in community events. They host events from author appearances to readings for children. They highlight the voices of distinctive parts of their communities, whether of women, of people of color, of LGBTQ persons, or those of different religions.

Living in a bigger city, I love visiting small towns. I especially love the ones with a rich mix of shops and restaurants that my wife can spend an afternoon browsing–antique shops, boutiques, hardware stores, and bookstores. It’s the mix that makes it fun. What we don’t often appreciate his how hard all these business owners work to create this magic. But when we visit one of the forgettable small towns that are little more than civic buildings, a convenience store and a gas station, we begin to appreciate the value booksellers and others offer.

Sometimes these heroes have to give up their businesses. Maybe the finances just don’t work out, despite pouring time, energy, and in many instances, personal resources into the venture. More often, the challenge is just time, and the lack of another hero to pick up the mantle. I’ve seen more than one bookseller whose stores I really enjoyed visiting and who did great work for many years come to the realization that they no longer had the energy for that work, or that they wanted to use what remained to see and do things they had denied themselves for many years.

Sometimes, the community is blessed when someone younger comes along who shares the passion of the bookseller and takes over the business, often breathing new life into that business while preserving what brought a reliable clientele through the door. I’ve watched that happen with a store in a small town about 30 miles from us, and how that store is a community gathering place.

I hope these heroes survive the challenges of the pandemic. The books they’ve sent me have tided me and many of my friends through this time. I don’t think these heroes are looking for any acclaim. What would mean the most, particularly if you live in their town is that you would give them your trade, come to a few of their events and buy books, and tell your friends what a grand place their store is.

5 thoughts on “Bookselling Heroes

  1. “If they are independent booksellers, ”
    Why would you say that? Is this article meant to be speculatory ? Why cast doubt upon your featured subject; wouldn’t it be helpful to have researched the question, then provide a definitive declaration that follows the topic of your first paragraph?

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