Bookselling’s Next Generation: An Interview With Shabeeh Syed

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Bookselling This Week’s new column profiles younger indie booksellers who are having an impact on their stores and communities, whether that means developing a specific store initiative, cultivating a positive environment in their community, or just being ultra-creative in their bookselling work or management style. 

Shabeeh SyedThe second profile of the series shines the spotlight on Shabeeh Syed, assistant manager at Anderson’s Bookshop La Grange, Illinois, who spoke with BTW in the midst of preparations for an author event for Andrew Rea’s cookbook based on his popular YouTube show “Binging with Babish.”

While working at Anderson’s third location for the last four years, Syed, who is 25, was also pursuing her bachelor’s degree in neuroscience at nearby DePaul University. After graduating, Syed took the job of assistant manager in August and is currently figuring out her next steps, which may include graduate studies in neuroscience. Syed told BTW she wants to be a part of the Anderson’s family for as long as she can, but either way, she hopes to use her knowledge of neuroscience to improve science literacy through her work at the bookstore and beyond.

“My goal long-term has always been doing some form of science communication, whether that’s teaching, reading and reviewing, or hand-selling science books,” she said. “I don’t really like being in the lab. I like finding out more about what we are as human beings, and I feel like reading is really a big part of that. I mostly studied behavioral and cognitive neuroscience, the mechanisms behind what we think and what we do and how we feel. I still don’t know what I’m going to do with my degree yet, but I really love learning and reading about it. I think a lot of what I love about science writing is how informative it can be but also how casual it can be. The more contemporary science writers write in a way that helps bring science awareness to everyone and also makes it less scary.”

After dropping out of her school’s pre-med program in 2015, Syed was in search of another direction. While looking for jobs during this period, she remembered IndieBound, which she first heard about through John and Hank Green’s Vlog Brothers YouTube channel; on the site that day was the news that a new bookstore was opening up nearby. After interviewing with Anderson’s, she was hired as a bookseller to help as the store prepared for its August opening. But the decision to take the job was not made without some trepidation, she said.

“One of things I care about most is representation, but I was kind of scared going into this job as a woman of color, as a person who wears a hijab, to come into a public space and put myself out there. But I figured that if I care about representation, I might as well represent,” said Syed. “Applying to Anderson’s in the first place was terrifying because at 21, it was the first job I’d ever had. Before then I had never really done something like this. I had always been part of an online community that cared about community-building and civic engagement, but I’d never taken that step to my real life. But once I started here, I loved it. I’ve always been an introvert, but here was this community of mostly introverts but also people who like to think deeply and care a lot about things, people who aren’t afraid to show how much they care about things, who are big fans of books and movies and things in general. And that was what helped me be ok with putting myself out there.” 

Now, as assistant manager, reporting to store manager Alex Yount, Syed’s duties have shifted from typical operational tasks like shelving, organizing, hand-selling, general customer service, and holding down the register, to managing orders for publishers, scheduling staff hours, and human resources responsibilities like training, informing, assigning, and counseling the store’s staff of 10. Syed is also the store’s resident creative maven and has become known to staffers as the “birthday fairy” for her personalized staff birthday cards. At the moment she is also working on another creative task: fashioning a Wizard of Oz-themed skeleton to set outside the store for Skeletober, the local business association’s annual Halloween project for downtown businesses.

“I ended up in the assistant manager position because I realized I loved the job and I wanted to use whatever I can use of my skills to help out the store,” she said. “I love crafting. Any crafting project, I am on it. I can get down with a glue gun, I love my glitter and my markers, so I do a lot of signage for the store, I create a lot of organization systems, and I like to work on improving how different sections are organized and identified. I enjoy getting creative and I feel like it helps bring the world of books to life. It’s always been something I loved doing and it just sort of naturally transitioned over to the bookstore.”

“What’s great about indie bookstores is that we just work toward each individual staff member’s talents,” added Syed. “We’ve got a bookseller here named Paul who is amazing at chalk art and does these beautiful designs, so I always ask him to work on some of our chalkboard signs. Because I’m very close to our staff I’ve looked at the details of their personalities, and I try to have projects where their assigned roles suit their talents.”

Another duty she has taken on in her new role as assistant manager is putting together donation requests for local fundraisers and charities, most recently for Child Link and Pillars, which works with women and children affected by domestic violence.

“I think we just have a duty, since we are this community hub, to promote civic engagement, and we want people to be able to see the store adapt and change in ways that reflect their desires and needs. We’ve always promoted that. I think that really comes out with our book displays as well,” she said.

In her role as assistant manager, Syed also continues to help with publicity for the store, including appearing in the store’s HarperCollins Facebook Live video, and to help run events, updating staff on event details so they can spread the word, overseeing the evening, and using her creative side to put together energetic playlists for the signing line.
When it comes to hand-selling books that reflect her own personal literary interests, Syed told BTW she is a big fan of #OwnVoices books and is enthusiastic about bringing diverse books for adults and children into the store. Going to BookExpo in Chicago and seeing a panel on We Need Diverse Books was a gamechanger for her early in her bookselling career, she said. Another interest is reading books in translation and books from around the world, said Syed. “I had a phase where I was just reading books that were set in Nigeria, and another where I was just reading books set in South Korea. I love to promote diversity in authorship and in setting,” she said.

Syed was a constant reader as a child, and has remained so, she said, but her other longtime interest is following online communities that promote civic engagement such as Project for Awesome, created by authors and YouTube’s Vlog Brothers John and Hank Green as a way for their followers to help raise awareness and money for various charitable causes. Syed said she hopes to bring that brand of activism into the store in some form, perhaps through an international book club, now that she has a bigger opportunity to make her ideas into reality. 

“The Vlog Brothers’ message is to be comfortable being as enthusiastic as you are. I found that message really relatable growing up. I always kind of had this view that being a brown, Muslim woman who wears a headscarf, I had too many superlatives already so I couldn’t also be a bookseller or a crazy Harry Potter fan. But the bookstore and online communities like that make me feel more comfortable with it,” Syed said. “I get really excited about things. I can be very extra! But I think it really helps as a bookseller to be very enthusiastic about everything.”