December begins my third month living in New York City and working at Other Press. Before October I lived in Colorado and worked as a bookseller at both the Boulder Book Store in Boulder and the Tattered Cover Bookstore in Denver. These beautiful independent stores and their supportive communities helped me to realize that I not only love to read, but I love to talk about reading, and I love to hear about others’ reading, and I love to put the right book into a customer’s hands.

Helen in the office

Which is how I’ve ended up as the Marketing Manager at Other Press. Because we are a small, independent press, our hopes are much like those of any bookseller. Given that we only publish books we truly love, and we only publish around twenty-five books a year, we want each book to find its way to the reader who will appreciate it and feel in its pages the unique magic that captured us.

Of course, because I don’t get to look into the face of each prospective reader, the mission becomes a bit more complicated…

So in my first two months here at Other Press, I’ve plunged into stacks of reading, challenged my math-phobia with spreadsheets, researched different styles of sealing wax (they make sticks that melt in a hot glue gun! who knew?), lingered over drafts of catalog copy, and Googled “Zumbo” and “plague victims” one time too many (if you’ve read Rupert Thomson’s novel Secrecy, out next April, you’ll understand why).

But what has taught me the most are the thirty-nine independent bookstores I’ve gotten to visit.

Because what could be better than seeing the stores that put our books on their shelves, and meeting the people who read and love Other Press? That’s right: not much.

New York City

McNally JacksonSince I’m new to New York, the first stops Paul and I made were right here in the city: the Greenwich Village gem Three Lives & Company (small but with some of the most perfectly curated shelves I’ve seen), Chelsea’s 192 Books, McNally Jackson Books in Nolita, and St. Mark’s Bookshop in the East Village. A ramble north took us to both Book Culture locations, and my first train rides into Brooklyn took me to Greenlight Bookstore, Spoonbill and Sugartown, WORD, powerhouse Arena, BookCourt, and Community Bookstore. Whew! When people ask me my favorite thing about living in New York City, I think first about the density of hot dog and giant pretzel stands, and then usually admit that it’s how many amazing, successful, unique independent bookstores this city sustains. It’s a reader’s paradise. In fact, we even purchased Other Press a copy of the new “Independent Booksellers of Brooklyn 2014 Calendar.” I’m trying to be patient and not hang it up until January. (You can check it out here.)

Connecticut and New Jersey

wordsIn the throes of autumn sunlight we headed upstate and then into Connecticut—a more beautiful drive could not be found! Surrounded by gold and red leaves, we arrived at Oblong Books & Music in both Rhinebeck and Millerton (check out the Millerton store’s wood floor, newly refinished by owner Dick Hermans himself) and later stopped by The Hickory Stick Bookshop in Washington and Books on the Common in Ridgefield. Then we went down to New Jersey to see the narrow but beautiful watchung booksellers, Maplewood’s [words] Bookstore, Mendham Books, and the aptly named Labyrinth Books across from Princeton University—a store with the perfect balance of academic texts alongside trade books.

Portland, OR

Powell'sBy now it was mid-November and New York weather stations were announcing the first snowfall, so we hightailed it just about as far away as we could get—to Portland, Oregon. In my first-ever trip to Portland the skies stayed surprisingly clear, and I was enchanted by the good food and welcoming smiles we found in every neighborhood. I made it to two locations of the infamous Powell’s Books—the City of Books itself, and the Hawthorne store. It’s hard to not want to move immediately to Portland when you’re wandering through nine separate color-coded rooms full of books and, well, more books. Meeting the Powell’s booksellers was inspiring—they spoke of the store’s need for “seismic upgrading” and of the laborious process of updating the data behind their website, but these concerns didn’t dampen their excitement when we showed them Minae Mizumura’s beautiful A True Novel and asked about the books on their shelves. Wandering about the rest of Portland brought us to Annie Bloom’s beautiful display of autumn-colored books and Broadway Books’ thoughtful front tables.

The Bay Area, CA

Green Apple BooksWhile sad to leave Portland, Paul and I next headed down the West Coast to explore the San Francisco Bay Area. From Oakland’s A Great Good Place for Books to the original Diesel store, and then up to Corte Madera’s thriving Book Passage (they call themselves the Bay Area’s liveliest bookstore, and with an event schedule as full as theirs, they just might be) and over to the NEW locations of Diesel in Larkspur and Copperfield’s Books in San Rafael. The Larkspur Diesel is stunningly beautiful—floor-to-ceiling wooden shelves, glowing lights, and a working fireplace evoke the intimacy of a cabin and make it the perfect store for comfortable browsing. The aroma of fresh-cut lumber doesn’t hurt, either.

On to Berkeley, where we visited Books Inc. and explored the lovely hybrid of books and gardening supplies offered at Mrs. Dalloway’s. Despite coinciding with the adventures of Miles Scott (who lived the Batman dream we’ve all secretly had) we found our way through San Francisco to land at the legendary City Lights Books, a longtime haven for progressive politics and quality literature, and over to Green Apple Bookstore, where I found myself equally enamored of the quality selection of translated fiction and the twenty-different types of flooring layered like geological strata throughout the winding, twisting, book-lined corridors. If you love older buildings as (embarrassingly) much as I do, then you can’t miss this one. We explored the newly redone Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park and even swung by the Books Inc. in Burlingame en route to the airport.

I’ll say it again: whew!

Baltimore and DC

The Ivy BookshopA final whirlwind carried us down through The Ivy Bookshop in Baltimore, Maryland, where bookseller Shirley Fergenson explained the decisions behind her carefully chosen front table of new books and the store’s central “living room.” Then we continued into Washington DC for a full investigation of Politics & Prose (a thriving center for community classes, serious reading, and some of the most innovative uses of an Espresso Book Machine I’ve encountered—they’ve named theirs Opus), Kramerbooks (a bookstore open 24 hours on the weekend), and Georgetown’s Bridge Street Books. Like New York City’s Three Lives & Co, Bridge Street Books transforms a small space into a haven of carefully selected titles, including an unrivaled poetry section tucked behind the stairs on the second story—courtesy of the poet and manager Rod Smith.

Madison and Mystic

banksquareAnd just before Thanksgiving, on an invigorating 30°F day, Paul and I made it back up to Connecticut to see the beautiful dark wood of RJ Julia Booksellers in Madison (with a lovely café featuring beautiful cupcakes) and the newly expanded Bank Square Books in Mystic, where owner Annie Philbrick shared her excitement over the upcoming Small Business Saturday.

 

 

Back in NYC

And now here I am, back in my office, back in New York, back to doing what I love—trying to get good books into the hands of good readers

What have I learned?

That bacon-patterned socks do actually sell well in bookstores, and that America is full of thriving, devoted, intelligent independent booksellers who can’t wait to read new books and talk about new books and help their communities to love reading and talking and gathering together and the occasional bacon sock just as much as they do. I love getting to tell these wonderful booksellers about the new and exciting books Other Press will be bringing to their shelves, and I love seeing the different ways each store embraces its customers and the community it supports.

All thirty-nine stores and I agree: it’s been a good fall for Other Press books, and it’s shaping up to be an even more page-turning spring!

And while all this has left me ready to settle in for a long winter’s nap, Paul’s already talking about the great stores up near Boston….

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This article originally appeared in the December 2013 issue of the Other Press e-newsletter. Click here to subscribe.