“You can’t call yourself a writer if you’re not a regular at your local independent bookstore.”
That gauntlet comes from Gina Barreca in a recent essay for Shelf Awareness, and it’s gotten me thinking about books, reading and my own rule for bookstores. I’m including the sentiment as a Tuesday Writing Tip as a reminder of the second-most important practice for writers after writing, namely reading. As Stephen King instructs us in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft): “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
So here’s my bookstore rule, which is pretty basic: if I enter a bookstore, I have to buy a book. Browsing is fine, dipping into a novel for a few chapters is acceptable, checking to see if they carry my own books is par for the course. But the visit must end with a purchase.
Why is this? I don’t have a similar rule with other stores, though truth to tell, I can’t remember the last time I walked into Kroger without walking out with something, and the same is true for just about every other place I shop with the possible exception of antique stores (though come to think of it, at the last antique shop I visited, I found a doorstop-sized collection of football journalism, which, naturally, I bought). You could argue that my bookstore rule ignores market forces in the pursuit of a semi-self-serving goal, supporting brick-and-mortar shops that sell books, that in turn supports my profession, and you would be correct. I’m going to do it anyway, since–speaking of rules–one of my many resolutions of New Years past is to do a better job putting my money where my mouth is. By the way, I’m not a literary Luddite. I regularly buy books online, for the same reason I buy a lot of things via the Internet: the convenience and savings. But those purchases are different than the times, sometimes intentionally, sometimes in passing, I find myself in a bookstore.
I began formulating my rule after hearing Jim Huang speak at the Magna Cum Murder mystery writers’ conference last year. Huang directs the Bryn Mawr College bookstore, and formerly ran the bookstore at Kenyon College (my alma mater). Before that he owned the Mystery Company bookshop in Indianapolis. At a Magna session on book-selling, Huang argued that supporting independent bookstores is often just a matter of people deciding to make a single purchase they might have made elsewhere. As he says, “It’s not that hard to make a difference for independent stores. Getting just a few people to each buy just one more book a day would be noticeable for most any local, independent store.”
This takes me back to Barreca and her essay, which is a concise paean to the importance of writers taking what they purport to do, and be, seriously. In an essay about writing and reading, she gets the last word:
“Writers read. Writers read promiscuously, aggressively and relentlessly. Have an open book in every room and an open mind towards every writer. Discover authors you haven’t yet read. Whether they’re doing a reading from the bookstore’s platform or their book is sitting gracefully on the shelf, they’re eager to tell you their stories. They’ll help you to create your own.”