I’m extremely excited to be one of the recipients of the James Patterson Bookseller Holiday Bonuses for this year. I was one of 87 folks to get one (out of 2,848 nominations) and I realize how lucky I am to be recognized in the vast, impressive landscape of book lovers working at independent stores everywhere. I wanted to take a moment to talk about how important this job is to me.
I started at Powell’s in November of 1997. But just a few years before that, I was just a dude who never went to a real college, was barely interested in books as a kid, and probably thought Tennessee Williams was a baseball player. I had finally picked up the habit (the addiction!) of reading when I was 22 years old. I would choose books by the covers, their reputations in history (banned books were of particular interest), the stories of their troubled authors. I didn’t know many readers when I started reading. I didn’t know who to ask for recommendations.
It’s funny how your trajectory as a reader can be forever determined by one book or one author. I recall particular booksellers in Spokane, Seattle, Fort Smith, Arkansas, and Portland that put books into my hands that would alter my brain and my life. In Spokane, that book was The Abortion by Richard Brautigan. In Seattle, it was Jesse Bernstein’s Personal Effects and Dennis Cooper’s Closer. In Fort Smith, it was Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior. In Portland, it was Gordon Lish’s Dear Mr. Capote, Kathy Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School.
When I started at Powell’s, I would observe how other booksellers would help customers with such kindness and intelligence. Specifically, those customers who asked us, with all the trust in the world, “What book should I read next?” Throughout the years, these have been my favorite sort of customers, especially if they say things like, “I just got into southern fiction” or “I want something funny” or “I want to know more about Portland poets” or “I like heartbreaking Mennonite authors.” These kind of statements make my heart pitter-patter. For them I offer: Barry Hannah, William Gay…Jonathan Ames, Myriam Gurba…Emily Kendal Frey, James Gendron…Miriam Toews! And I could go on.
When you do something for eighteen years, you’ll probably get good at it. Especially if you watch and learn from those around you. Some of the best booksellers I’ve known starts with Vanessa Renwick, who as the mother of the legendary small press section, showed me the value of helping out tiny presses, the self-publishers, the scrappy zinesters, and the industrious literary weirdos of Portland and beyond. I’ve written elsewhere on Vanessa’s importance to where I am today. There’s also the late Marty Kruse (who also ran the small press section before me), and other fantastic ex-cohorts like Steffen Silvis, Meredith Schreiber, Elizabeth Miller, Aaron Gilbreath, Joseph Lappie, Jessica Patton, Nicolette Lind, and Liz Olufson. Currently, I work with bookselling superstars like Gin Enguehard, Jason Chan, Jacob Schraer, McKenzie Workman, Chris Faatz, Dianah Hughley, Liz Vogan, Linda Watson, Mark Savage, Chris Hagen, Tove Holmberg, Santi Elijah Holley, Ryan Hall, and so many others that could fill several blog posts.
Anyone who loves books and places books into readers’ hands is a person whose value is beyond measure. Our position–as recommenders, taste-makers, readers, sellers, book displayers, etc.–is important to culture. Heck, it’s important to the whole world! It’s maybe the most important thing I do in my life. When I meet people outside of work and they ask what I do, I don’t start off by saying I’m a writer or publisher or collage artist or whatever. I always start by saying, “I work at Powell’s.”
Here’s a photo of me with Carol Easter, another member of the Powell’s bookseller family, standing in front of the James Patterson books at the store. Mr. Patterson seems to know the importance of books, readers, and bookstores. His website shows not just his mammoth bibliography but also his inspiring array of community service. Thanks to everyone who voted for me for this award. Come in any time and I’ll help you find a book.