An Idea Every Independent Bookstore Should Steal

Last Friday I helped host the “bookswap” at San Francisco independent bookstore The Booksmith. (I also do a translated fiction reading group there; if you’re in town, think about joining us.) It’s something I think a lot of indie bookstore could learn a lot from, and I’ll explain why. First, a little background.

The Booksmith is one of the oldest and most respected indie bookstores in San Francisco, and a couple of years ago it came under new ownership–Praveen Madan and Christin Evans. If you’ve spent any time at this bookstore since then, their mark is evident. Even if you don’t attend an event there, just passing through it will be clear that The Booksmith is making extensive efforts not only to be a substantial part of the neighborhood community but also to rethink the ways in which a bookstore can be part of a community and entice and seduce readers.

I need not explain why this is essential in an age of Amazon, the Kindle, and Google Book.

The bookswap came from a few simple facts that you can read about in this post, written by Madan and Evans for The Huffington Post. Essentially, they realized that readers want more than to buy books at a bookstore–they want to meet other readers there and have experiences that have to do with authors, publishers, great books, and literary culture. This is why people will go to bookstores for author events, and it’s also the reason why so many author events can feel flat. It’s nice to see your favorite author read from a new book, but if you’re just an isolated reader who is permitted to squint at your author on a podium for an hour and then walk away, perhaps with a signed book and an anxiety-ridden ten-second conversation with said author, you feel just as isolated and alone as you did before the event started.

So they and the employees of The Booksmith came up with the bookswap. Here is their description of it:

On a select Friday evening we shut down the bookstore early and turn it into a private party space. Guests are asked to bring a book they are willing part with in a swap. Upon arriving, guests are greeted by a Booksmith host and offered a welcome drink. The center table brims with goodies — feta stuffed peppers, cheese and crackers, chicken skewers and on — and another staff member mans the bar, stocked with a selection of wines, beer, and other drinks. Guests are introduced, fill their plates and their glasses, show one another their books. They then break into small groups of 5-6 and sit around tables spread throughout the store — each table is supplied with food, drinks, and a Booksmith or local author host. The groups chat for 20-30 minutes at which point they are rotated to a new table with new people. Over the course of the night, you might talk about the brilliance and tragedy of David Foster Wallace and the best sex scenes in literature at one table, and engage in a nostalgic reminiscence of Roald Dahl, Judy Blume and other favorite childhood authors or a lively talk about which science writers can make a literary minded person laugh or swoon (we heard Mary Roach and Rachel Carson) at the next. After two rotations, we reconvene as a group for the swap.

So much of what is happening at The Booksmith–and, indeed, so much of what the bookswap is about–is changing this dynamic. I have to say that I was surprised at how well the idea worked when I helped host on Friday.

Before the event, I had some firm notions about what kind of person I would be meeting at this event: young, somewhat hip, probably the kind of person who reads more than the average individual, but not excessively. I did of course meet this person at the bookswap, but what surprised me was that I also met so many people that were not this person. The diversity was in fact much broader than I expected, as were the ranges of literary tastes and ideas that were on offer there.

What also struck me about the evening was that I was in a room full of people passionate about reading, and who were sharing that passion with each other. The idea of the bookswap is that everyone brings a book that they want to give away, and you spend a good part of the evening telling everyone else why your book is so excellent that you want to share it with others. The result is that you have a lot of people together bursting to tell one another about a book they loved, and then branching in conversations about great books from there. I can hardly imagine a better conversation-starter. A lot of people there specifically bought a new copy of a book they owned to give away at the event, and I was struck by the fact that people were buying great books to give away to complete strangers simply because they wanted to share that book with somebody else.

If people will tell you that print culture is dying, or that the novel is dead, or that people just don’t have the attention span to read books any more, then they should see what I saw on Friday night. A bunch of people who had never met before talking for three hours about great books, important reading experiences, and about why books were an essential part of their lives.

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