How This Indie Bookstore Stocks Its Shelves (Algorithm-Free)

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Did you see Stephen Marche’s recent blog post for Esquire — How to quit Amazon and shop in an actual bookstore (and why you damn well should)? We did, and we couldn’t agree more:

A good bookstore isn’t just a place to buy books. The really good ones are bespoke tailoring for your narrative impulse . . . The real problem with Amazon isn’t that it’s strong-arming Hachette; it’s that it leads readers to buy books that they’ve already heard about. When you pick out a summer novel for yourself online, you’re going to pick the book that everybody else is reading, almost automatically . . . A good seller in a bookstore is infinitely superior in every way to a personalization algorithm. Even by entering a bookstore, you’re faced with literally a thousand choices that you’ve never been faced with before. Somewhere in there is something that’s entirely fresh to you, and will reward your soul by exposure. That’s what good books do, and good bookstores, too. They let you step out of your algorithm.

So how does our independent bookstore make those “literally a thousand choices” that lead to the displays you see on the shelves? Not by algorithm, that’s for sure. While we love the “big books” — follow-ups by bestselling authors, hotly anticipated fiction and nonfiction — we also like to highlight great writing, fun reading, and fresh voices that you may not already know about. Here’s how we find out what’s out there and decide what to order.

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1. Publisher’s Reps

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Some visiting reps, after we stuffed them full of bagels in exchange for a preview of their best fall books: (left to right) Lisa, Random House; Whitney, Random House Children’s Books; Eileen, Random House; Melissa, MacMillan; Kate, HarperCollins; Mary Ann, Penguin Group; Allan, Penguin Young Readers Group

Some of the best buddies a bookstore can have are representatives from publishing houses. Several times a year, we meet with each individual rep to go over his or her list and determine what we want to order. They pop in regularly, too, just to say hello or let us know about a new book in the works. Twice a year, we also host our reps for a breakfast meeting. For that event, the whole staff gets out of bed extra early to come in before the store opens for coffee, bagels, and presentations on the next season’s most anticipated reads. Reps bring advance reading copies (ARCs) of upcoming books, so we can read and get to know the books before they’re officially published. (If you want to see booksellers bring out their street fighting skills, just watch them descend upon the table of ARCs at the end of the meeting.)

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2. Conferences

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Karen, our co-owner, took this photo inside the convention hall at BEA in New York last month, where more than 20,000 industry professionals were in attendance. Fun fact: Karen is actually a very talented photographer.

Our leadership attends several trade-only events throughout the year, where publishers, authors, and booksellers interact. Most recently, Karen and Mary Grey attended BookExpo America, the book industry’s annual trade show, in New York City. Other events include the American Booksellers Association’s Winter Institute (which happens . . . in winter), where booksellers gather to share ideas with each other and socialize with authors. Then there are regional shows, such as the one hosted by the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance (SIBA), where we again have the chance to talk to authors and publishers about what they’re working on. Lest you get the impression these trade events are boring: They’re really not. It’s like finding that one other person at a cocktail party who likes to talk about books, except the WHOLE party is that person.

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3. Author Queries

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Here’s a common question: “I’ve written a book. Would you consider carrying it at your store?” Why yes, we would consider it — and we’ve found some great local and independent authors this way. While our shop doesn’t have the physical shelf space to hold a copy of every awesome book, if our supplier, Ingram, carries a book, we can almost always get a copy in for any customer who requests it, and we can often offer it online. To make sure nothing gets lost in the shuffle, the best way to submit a book for consideration is to use the Inventory Submission Form on our website.

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4. Our Customers

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On the red carpet, celebrities get asked, “Who are you wearing?” In our store, you’ll be asked, “Who are you reading?”

The people who come through our doors every day love to read. Or they want to love to read. Or they’re shopping for someone else who loves to read. Our booksellers can get a good sense of what’s trending among readers, what people want to see more of, and what our local audience enjoys just by chatting with our visitors and with the folks who email our store looking to order a special book. It’s not uncommon for our store to stock a book after a customer tells us about it.

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5. Our Staff

staff
They really were talking about books in this photo, but what makes it funny is that we caught Andy (left) standing in the YA section. Andy prefers books about war and sports.

This probably goes without saying, but the people who work here love to read, too. The best part is, none of us have exactly the same taste. Somewhere in this shop at any given time, there are folks who are up on the latest literary fiction, fans of nonfiction on a variety of topics, specialists in books for young readers, etc. Often we’ll end up carrying a book because one of our staff members loves it.

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6. Journals, Magazines, Reviews, etc.

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You can take Mary Laura’s laptop away when you can pry it from her cold, dead hands.

When there’s a quiet moment around here, we hop online and read about what other book-lovers are writing about. Some of our favorite bookish sites, newsletters, and blogs are: Shelf Awareness, Publishers Weekly, The New York Times, Brain Pickings, the School Library Journal, VOYA, Kirkus, Chapter16 . . . The list goes on, but you get the idea. We also peruse the catalogues from smaller publishers & university press catalogs, where we occasionally stumble upon a special find.

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7. Mail from Editors, Publishers, Authors, etc.

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Sometimes we get just a wee bit behind on reading the ARCs that come in, but if we all pitch in, we can keep this stack on Niki’s desk from tipping over and burying her in a book avalanche.

We often receive ARCs directly from editors (as well as publicists) with notes about why they love what their authors are working on. Over time, they get to know what our customers are looking for, and we get to discover new books we might have otherwise missed. We also stay in touch with the authors who visit our store. Often, they’ll write to let us know when they have another book in the works or if they’ve just read something they love.

If we had to sum up all 7 of these book-sources in one word, it would probably be relationships. But if we really wanted to get sentimental about it, we might even say love. The conversations and connections that form among booksellers, customers, authors, and publishing folks — people who love books — are what lead to the choices you have before you when you browse these shelves. Every single one of these books is here for a reason: Someone, somewhere, picked it out. So if you want to step out of your algorithm, step through our door. You’re here for a reason, too.

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Want a glimpse at what’s coming up? At BEA, a handful of books are selected for each year’s Editors’ Buzz Forums. Three separate committees of booksellers, librarians, and other industry professionals review numerous submissions in each category and vote to determine final selections. Passionate debate erupts over the enormous number of qualified books submitted for consideration as everyone argues for their favorites. You can pre-order most of this year’s buzz list now:

BEA Editors’ Buzz Adult Books

$24.95
ISBN-13: 9780385353304
Availability: Coming Soon – Available for Pre-Order Now
Published: Knopf, 9/2014

$28.00
ISBN-13: 9781476756660
Availability: Coming Soon – Available for Pre-Order Now
Published: Simon & Schuster, 8/2014

The Miniaturist (Hardcover)

$26.99
ISBN-13: 9780062306814
Availability: Coming Soon – Available for Pre-Order Now
Published: Ecco Press, 8/2014

$24.00
ISBN-13: 9781555976897
Availability: Coming Soon – Available for Pre-Order Now
Published: Graywolf Press, 9/2014

Neverhome (Hardcover)

$26.00
ISBN-13: 9780316370134
Availability: Coming Soon – Available for Pre-Order Now
Published: Little, Brown and Company, 9/2014

$27.00
ISBN-13: 9781476731902
Availability: Coming Soon – Available for Pre-Order Now
Published: Scribner Book Company, 9/2014

and: My Sunshine Away, by M.O. Walsh — available for pre-order soon

 

BEA Editors’ Buzz Young Adult Books

The Jewel (Hardcover)

$17.99
ISBN-13: 9780062235794
Availability: Coming Soon – Available for Pre-Order Now
Published: Harper Teen, 9/2014

$17.99
ISBN-13: 9780373211333
Availability: Coming Soon – Available for Pre-Order Now
Published: Harlequin Teen, 9/2014

The Walled City (Hardcover)

$18.00
ISBN-13: 9780316405058
Availability: Not Yet Published
Published: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 11/2014

I’m Glad I Did (Hardcover)

$17.99
ISBN-13: 9781616953560
Availability: Not Yet Published
Published: Soho Teen, 1/2015
$17.99
ISBN-13: 9780385736183
Availability: Coming Soon – Available for Pre-Order Now
Published: Delacorte Press, 9/2014

 

BEA Editors’ Buzz Middle Grade Books

$16.99
ISBN-13: 9780062125163
Availability: Coming Soon – Available for Pre-Order Now
Published: Balzer & Bray/Harperteen, 8/2014

Pennyroyal Academy (Hardcover)

$16.99
ISBN-13: 9780399163241
Availability: Coming Soon – Available for Pre-Order Now
Published: Putnam Juvenile, 10/2014

$16.95
ISBN-13: 9781616203511
Availability: Coming Soon – Available for Pre-Order Now
Published: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 9/2014

$17.00
ISBN-13: 9780316236621
Availability: Not Yet Published
Published: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 1/2015

$14.99
ISBN-13: 9780803741034
Availability: Coming Soon – Available for Pre-Order Now
Published: Dial, 9/2014