There’s a warm, well-stocked indie bookstore in walking distance of my house, and I walk there shamelessly and often. The first time I stepped foot in Micawber’s, I requested Gob’s Grief by Chris Adrian. Co-owner Hans Weyandt didn’t have it in stock but offered to loan me his copy from home. Co-owner Tom Bielenberg once leafed patiently through different translations of Chekhov’s collected stories, teaching me, as he did so, the subtle difference between Pevear and Volokhonsky’s interpretations of Dostoyevsky and Chekhov. He’s given me different angles through which to view Walter Mosley, The Hunger Games, and Edward Abbey. The man is forever ordering me books that he doesn’t expect me to buy.
Karen, a Micawber’s bookseller who has been in the business for years, will talk with me about the miracle of Alice Munro’s witty compassion until the lady behind me clears her throat and shifts in line. Karen has been brave enough to ask, when we’ve passed each other on the street: “What’re you reading right now?” (Is there any question a reader craves more?) I know you probably get the idea, but I’m nowhere near done. Last year, my eight-year-old son walked into Micawber’s and said, “Can you help me find a book for My Mom’s birthday?” Hans knew who My Mom was and proceeded to choose these three books: Albert Goldbarth’s Everyday People, Mary Ruefle’s Selected Poems, and The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal. My son left with all three books, though he only paid for two.
In the introduction to Hans’s book, Read This!: Handpicked Favorites from America’s Indie Bookstores, Ann Patchett says, “There is no greater joy for a bookseller than introducing a reader to a book they will love for the rest of their lives.” Hans is the bookseller that handed me Mystery and Manners by Flannery O’Connor, and it is a book I will, in fact, love for the rest of my life. This is what indie booksellers do. If books are conversations between people through the ages, then our booksellers are those keeping the communication alive. That’s why Read This! is a deceptively powerful book. It’s a compilation of independent booksellers’ 50 favorite reads—their beloved recommendations to the rest of the world. Hans originally collected these lists for the Micawber’s blog and converted them, at the suggestion of Chris Fischbach of Coffee House Press, into a book. With an introduction by Ann Patchett, bookstore stats, and interviews with indie booksellers, this literary book of lists is also great, geeky, (sometimes voyeuristic) fun. It’s impossible to talk about Read This! without talking about countless other books and booksellers, which makes it as exciting to discuss as it is to read.
The Rumpus: Ann Patchett calls booksellers “matchmakers at heart.” Read This! definitely has matchmaking magnetism about it. When my husband read it, he began noting when my favorite books appeared in clumps on any individual bookseller’s list, almost like he was trying to set me up with my soulmate bookstore. Why do books connect us so instantly to each other?
Hans Weyandt: They really do. I had a friend who called after buying Read This! and told me she had developed a crush on one of the booksellers.
Rumpus: Which one?
Weyandt: Ha! I can’t.
Rumpus: Yes you can. Just tell me the bookseller and not the friend.
Weyandt: All right. She had a crush on Jay Peterson from Magers and Quinn. And a lot of people, especially women, seem to be connecting to Emma Straub’s list. It’s fun to see people have a deep personal involvement. That’s been a surprise to me. I mean, I thought people would look at the book and find a list that they liked, but the deeper connections have been an unexpected treat.
Rumpus: It’s interesting—I noticed even if a bookseller’s list had only a few of my all-time favorite books along with others I didn’t adore or had never heard of, those few treasured books were enough to win some deep, crazy loyalty.
Weyandt: One book is enough. If it’s a well-loved book, one book is all it takes.
Rumpus: Is there a bookstore you connected deeply with?
Weyandt: I like all of them in different ways, but Fireside Books—which is a place that most people aren’t going to make it to just because of its location [Palmer, Alaska]—is one I now need to go to. I really need to go to that store.
Rumpus: I found myself itching to visit bookstores, too. I want to talk to the booksellers about their choices. For instance, next time I’m in Iowa City, I want to ask Paul Ingram from Prairie Lights, “Why did you list Housekeeping and Home but not Gilead?”
Weyandt: You know Jay Peterson lists all three of Robinson’s novels.
Rumpus: Yeah, he does! Magers and Quinn was one of my top five favorite bookstores. (Look, your book has me thinking in list form.) Any of my top five booksellers could sell me a ton of books because we share some hardcore favorites. I figured Read This! would enable my book-buying but…
Weyandt: It’s a gateway book, for sure.
Rumpus: Well, surprisingly, it’s making me want to re-read old favorites. I started reading My Ántonia again.
Weyandt: That’s what it did for me, too. Books I’d meant to read five years ago, ten years ago—I hardly read for any of my classes—I’m reading them now. I started late.
Rumpus: What do you mean you started late?
Weyandt: People always assume because I work in a bookstore that I read a lot as a kid. I didn’t. When I got old enough to read on my own I read baseball cards, scores, Sports Illustrated.
Rumpus: What’s the first book that made you want to read something other than stats?
Weyandt: Oh man. My freshman year in college, Tim O’Brien came to St. John’s as a visiting writer. All the classes had Tim O’Brien on the syllabus. I remember reading his story, “On Rainy River.” I remember reading about him heading out in a boat toward the border deciding whether or not to go to Canada. I was just in love with that short piece, and so I then read The Things They Carried and everything else by Tim O’Brien.
Rumpus: You weren’t one of those kids that holed up in bed reading your summer break away?
Weyandt: No, my mom jokes that I learned to read from the backs of baseball cards. I think both my parents and teachers, at a certain point, said, “As long as he’s reading something, let him do it.” I think we try to get kids to read what we want at a certain age, and it kind of backfires. If we’d just let them be and let them read what they like, even if it’s not what they’re supposed to be reading or at their age level, it usually works out.
Rumpus: Was it Flannery O’Connor who says we don’t consult young persons’ taste about their reading preferences because their taste is being formed?
Weyandt: Yeah. She’d probably disagree with me about a lot of stuff. And I’d agree with her. That’s how that would go.
Rumpus: Did putting these lists together feel like more shoptalk—books, blah, blah—another day on the job, just busier?
Weyandt: Not at all. No, it was exciting. There was a time last fall where I’d be getting these e-mails [from booksellers] and it would be my favorite part of the day. It was like you said earlier, peeking into the minds of other booksellers and getting to know them well. Even those I knew pretty well I’d feel I’d know better from their lists. There’d be books on there I knew, but there were many that I didn’t. Even for people who read a lot or work in the book world, very few people will know every book on someone’s list. It’s as much fun to see stuff you didn’t know about as it is to see the stuff you’re really connected to.
Rumpus: How many books are you reading a year?
Weyandt: Liberty Hardy is the bookseller in Read This! who reads the most. She reads something like 300 books a year. For me, with kids, it’s changed a lot. I probably read more parts of books than I would like to. I’m at around 75-100 per year.
Rumpus: What percentage do you read only part of?
Weyandt: Probably half. Sometimes a book is getting a lot of attention, so I’ll read a piece of it. Or there are books that I want to read myself and I get 50-75 pages in, and if I’m not feeling it I’ll put it down. A few years ago I got to the point where I decided there’s just too much stuff that I want to read. If I get into it and don’t like it, I just don’t finish.
Rumpus: You mention on your blog having something akin to “writer’s block” but you call it “reader’s block.” That was kind of disappointing to me. I didn’t realize until then that I romanticize the idea of a bookseller as someone who can’t not read.
Weyandt: Yeah, “reader’s block” happens all the time.
Rumpus: I suppose if booksellers are reading between 70-300 books a year, they could start to numb your mind a little. Do they all start to sound like indistinct chatter?
Weyandt: Those are the ones I quit.
Rumpus: What does it take to be the book you won’t put down?
Weyandt: This may be totally evading the question, but for me it’s not one thing. Whether it’s poetry or a YA book or a book of travel, I guess the biggest thing is that if I read ten pages and I feel like I’ve read something really similar once or twice in the last six months or year—I’m probably going to put it down. It’s not a good answer but it’s as close as I can come to the truth.
Rumpus: Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried was the most frequently listed book in Read This!. Do you think part of that is because it was unique?
Weyandt: Yes, it was, and is totally different. All the time I’ll see blurbs where writers are compared to Cormac McCarthy or Flannery O’Connor or whoever. Any time a writer has his own voice, he’s the one who everyone else is compared to. But that doesn’t work! Because part of what makes those writers remain relevant is that, even though others try to sound like them, they just can’t do it.
Rumpus: After thirteen years as a bookseller can you read a book and recognize when it’s unique, but not unique enough to carry into the next decade?
Weyandt: Yeah, sometimes. There’s a book that I read this fall—I don’t believe in slamming writers for no reason, so I won’t say the title. It’s quirky and it’s smart and the author is a good writer, but it seemed so written “of this moment” that I wonder if in two years, let alone ten, if it won’t seem awfully dated. I can read a novel from fifty years ago and set aside some of the things that seem dated if the writing and the story still seem real. But with this book, the story was written for right now. It’s clever for right now. But if I read it in three years? I’m going to be like, meh. I don’t know.
Sometimes I find something that seems refreshingly different and other readers don’t agree. But you know, while booksellers are professional readers, we are still just readers. Once in a while there’s something I read, like Amy Leach, and I’ll think this is different and good enough, that right away I can say, There’s not going to be anything like this for quite some time.
Rumpus: How often does something like that come across your pile? Not something that’s pretty good, or nicely done, but something special enough that you want to hand-sell it to the masses?
Weyandt: I’d say maybe two or three times a year.
Rumpus: Oh really? That’s more than I guessed you’d say.
Weyandt: It ebbs and flows, probably. With the amount of stuff always coming out, two or three a year really isn’t that many.
Rumpus: Mary Ruefle says a book is a “physical expansion of the human brain. It’s not an object to be treated lightly.” What’s a book to you? Are those chunks of someone’s cerebrum lining your shelves inside Micawber’s? Or are you more practical-minded about bookselling?
Weyandt: No. I’m not very practical minded. Hardly, anyway. That said, my wife used to work as a pediatric nurse practitioner on a bone marrow transplant unit for kids, so it’s very easy for me to keep perspective. If a shipment doesn’t come in on time and someone doesn’t get her book, even if it’s for Christmas or whatever…it’s a screw-up and a big one, but in the scheme of things, it’s not life or death. At the same time, reading is a big part of who I am and how I learn things and deal with the universe. I absolutely agree with Mary Ruefle. I see books as a way for anything to be possible. They allow people to change themselves. I see that kind of stuff all the time in my job. Their power is huge.
Rumpus: Do you view books any differently now that you’ve been on the other side?
Weyandt: Well, the amount of work that goes into [making a book], the number of people that touch something like this, it’s really amazing.
Rumpus: So you want make another one?
Weyandt: I think anyone who works in a bookstore gets asked a lot, “Are you a writer?” But, no, I’m not. I’m a reader, you know. That’s it.
The proceeds from Read This! will go to American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression.