In founding her own bookstore, Books Are Magic, Author Emma Straub fights for local booksellers
By Emma Gordon
When the owners of BookCourt, Emma Straub’s neighborhood bookstore in Brooklyn, announced they were closing shop, she and her husband were devastated. Straub, whose New York Times bestselling novel Modern Lovers comes out in paperback this month, had worked at BookCourt, and lamented the loss of an independent bookstore that was within walking distance of where the couple and their two young sons live. Then, she and her husband had an idea: What if they founded their own bookstore?
This April—just four months after Straub first explained the project on her website—Books Are Magic opened its doors in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill. Straub joins a tradition of authors who own bookstores: There’s Ann Patchett, who opened Parnassus Books in Nashville in 2011, Louise Erdrich’s Birchbark Books in Minneapolis, and Judy Blume’s Books & Books in Key West, Florida. Straub sees her store not as in competition with other independent bookstores, but in conversation with and support of them. I caught up with the author over the phone about managing her new responsibilities, engaging a broad audience with reading, and why having a children’s “hidey hole” in the store was a top priority.
Emma Gordon: What skills did you learn at BookCourt that you’re able to use now, as you run your own store?
Emma Straub: The funny thing about my experience working at a bookstore is that I didn’t know how to do anything behind the scenes. I knew how to handsell a book, greet customers, and host events. Those are all really vitally important skills, but they’re all very much front of the house things. When we found out BookCourt was closing, Ann Patchett was literally the first person I called. I said, “Ann, what do you think? Should I open a bookstore? Am I crazy?” And she said, “Yes, you should do it, and you need a partner who can be present for everything when you’re doing your other job.”
Ann’s partner is an incredible woman named Karen Hayes, and at Books Are Magic, my partner is my partner in all things, my husband Mike. He and I together set out to learn everything about the running of a bookstore while in the middle of opening a bookstore. Luckily, my husband is very good at learning new tricks. He really does 99.7 percent of the work. I have a few responsibilities at the store: I am the frontlist buyer, so I have meetings with all the publishers and pick all of the books that I want to order for the next season. I’m also the backlist buyer, meaning I say, “Oh my god, we only have one George Eliot novel, this cannot stand.” I’m also in charge of publicity, but in terms of the actual running of the bookstore, it’s very much my husband’s domain, thank God. It’s my husband who’s in charge of making the store functional and not just my magic playground.
EG: How do you hope to distinguish Books are Magic from other independent bookstores?
ES: We are very lucky here in Brooklyn to have a number of fabulous independent bookstores. Our dear friend Christine Onorati owns WORD in Greenpoint. For children, there’s Stories and Community in Park Slope, and Greenlight. Part of me feels a little bit spoiled that we felt that we needed to do this, because there are wonderful spaces staffed and run by extremely smart experts. But none of those places were in our neighborhood the way BookCourt was. I have a three and a half year old and a one year old, and it’s just not the same. I know people in other places think nothing of throwing the kids in the car and driving somewhere, but in New York City, it’s a pain in the ass to get from one neighborhood to another with two small children, so being able to walk somewhere with a stroller means everything. So we wanted to make sure that we had a fantastic kids section. It’s its own little zone, which feels very cozy to me. My number one priority was to have a hidey hole, that kids could actually crawl into, which we now have. We have a really comfortable couch and beanbags. Then, of course, we have a giant room full of shelves and bookcases for adults, also, because children shouldn’t have all the nice things. Grown-ups need them too.
EG: You grew up in New York, with a father who was also a novelist. How would you compare that literary community to the one you’re in now, in Cobble Hill?
ES: My father writes big, scary books. He’s a poet at heart, and he is extremely well read, but his literary friends mostly fall into one of two camps. There were the people who wore black leather jackets and had messy hair—the sort of Neil Gaiman camp—and then there were the poets. My parents are very good friends with a number of incredible poets. Certainly my father was friendly with a lot of other contemporary novelists, but those are the people who I think of as being around during my childhood.
But in my literary world here in Brooklyn, you can’t throw an avocado without hitting a novelist, and I know a lot of people who write contemporary realistic fiction the way that I do. I also do know a good number of poets, and I know some people who write creepier books than I do, but I see that my literary universe is different than my father’s.
Also, my dad was always friendly with his editors, but [publishing and writing] used to feel more separate. Now, I see all of the publishing people as very much a part of my world as a writer. At BookCourt, I was really interested in meeting the editors, publicists, and publishers, so I’ve always known a lot of people who worked in publishing or worked in other bookstores. I think that that’s both because I’m drawn to those people and because they’re the people in the neighborhood. Many editors live nearby and come in [to Books Are Magic], and many also wrote to me in support when we announced we were opening. It’s a big wide swath of the literary universe that comes through the door.
EG: That puts you in an interesting position because you’re not only contributing as a writer but you’re also now having a say in terms of what books or trends you choose to highlight. What voices in publishing do you hope to make more prominent at Books Are Magic?
ES: A few months ago, I think it was surrounding the Women’s March, a bookstore posted a photograph of their shelves with all of the books by men turned around so that only the books by women were spine out, and it was pretty sparse. I have told my staff—especially the people who are in charge of helping me buy—that that is the opposite of what I want in this store. There is already a distinctly feminist bookstore in Manhattan called Bluestockings, but I said, “I want us to be second.” I want to make sure that women, people of color, and other groups that have historically been underrepresented in publishing are well-represented on our shelves and on our tables and in our staff picks and at our events.
It’s extremely important to me to use this enormous space to make sure that people are seeing books. If you don’t see something, you’re not going to buy it. If you don’t buy it, you’re not going to read it. And we do want to make sure that people see books they’re not going to see otherwise. What makes a bookstore better than the Internet is that you can actually see books with your eyeballs and then pick them up with your hands and look at them.
I should also say that the other independent bookstores in Brooklyn are doing this also. We’re not breaking new ground here. We’re just trying to be a part of it.
EG: I’m interested in your emphasis on a physical bookstore space in connection to your work for Rookie, an online magazine for teenagers. How do you think we make the bookstore an exciting place for young people, and why do you think it’s important for them to have that space, in addition to finding things to read online?
ES: It’s something that we’re still definitely trying to figure out. One of the things that other bookstore owners told us before we opened was that YA [young adult genre] doesn’t sell. There was this enormous boom in the market a few years ago when publishers realized that there were teenagers and other readers who were hungry for YA, and everyone was reading Rainbow Rowell and John Green. Now, there are so many more books coming out that it’s a little crowded. I was just talking to my husband an hour ago about how we have to move our YA shelf because we have so many books.
I’m also not sure yet how much teenagers are coming into the store and looking at or buying books. I think that as a teenager it’s hard to have privacy. When you’re in a bookstore, the likelihood is that you’re maybe with your parents or that your parents have given you money or you have to ask your parents for money to buy whatever it is you want to buy; whereas when you’re at home, you can read Rookie, or another online publication, for free. It’s something that we’re still observing. Another Rookie writer/contributor named Tyler works for us and is a YA phenom. They keep giving us lists of books and we might ask them to host a YA book club. We want so badly to engage those readers who are hungry for it, because we know they exist. But it’s a hard group to reach, because you can’t reach them in the same way that you can reach adults. For example, I don’t know if teenage readers look at our Instagram. Maybe there are, maybe there aren’t.
EG: What has been an unexpected challenge of opening the store?
ES: Sorting out the logistics of getting books into the store and keeping them in stock. Every book comes from a different publisher or distributor, and some of the publishers take longer than others to send things, so if you order a book from a smaller distributor that might be farther away, it takes a week to come. We’re having to work out the math. If we need three copies of this book for the weekend, we might order it from our distributor, which is closer, but then they charge us more money than the publisher, which takes a week and a half.
EG: What’s a goal you have for Books Are Magic that you haven’t yet been able to achieve?
ES: I want to have book club. I want to have a podcast. None of these are difficult, and we’re planning all of them, but there are so many things that we want to do. I want to have just the most special events in the world, but there are only so many hours in the day, and there’s only one of me, and I have two children. We have a great staff, but we’re all still learning how everything works, so it’s going to take some time to get everything we want off the ground.
EG: Has opening the bookstore limited your own writing time?
ES: At the moment, I have zero time to write. Negative zero. I’m hoping to get back to work on my new books in the fall. Right now, my children wake up at 5:30, and we have school drop off at 9, and then we come to the bookstore and we have school pickup, and then they go to bed at 7, and then if we have an event, I often have to come back. There’s no time.
EG: What are you reading with your children? As an adult?
ES: My older son is three and a half and has just discovered Star Wars. Right now, we are reading this little golden book, a Star Wars compendium over and over and over again. I personally do not care about Star Wars, but he does, so we’re spending a whole lot of time on Star Wars right now. My little one is 16 months, and he likes any book that has flaps.
As an adult, I just started reading the new Tom Perrotta book called Mrs. Fletcher that comes out in August. He is so funny and so dark. It’s about a mother and son, the son has just gone off to college. The story follows both of them, her with her empty nest, and him with his idiot friends and roommates. That’s really good so far.
Emma Gordon is a contributing writer to The Riveter and a California native who didn’t appreciate how tan she was there until she left. She is about to graduate from Northwestern University with a degree in creative writing, and she hopes her future includes some really good books. You can find her work at www.emma-gordon.com.