In the latest installment of our series profiling American Booksellers Association Board members, Bookselling This Week talks to Christine Onorati, owner of WORD Bookstores in Brooklyn, New York, and Jersey City, New Jersey. In May, Onorati was elected to her first three-year term (2017–2020) on the ABA Board.
Bookselling This Week: Please talk about your early experiences with reading and books.
Christine Onorati: I was a bookworm from as early as I can remember, getting in trouble for reading at the dinner table and never leaving home without a book. I viscerally remember the summer reading club at the local library; more than 40 years later, I can still see the cardboard box our individual records were kept in and the cardstock forms we filled out with the titles of the books we read. We got to pick out and affix our own sticker after we told the librarian what the book was about, and I remember it all like it was yesterday.
BTW: Did you hold other positions in the book industry before becoming a bookseller?
CO: I majored in publishing in college and worked at various houses in the publicity and marketing departments before opening up my first store in 2001. Having worked in my family’s stationery stores most of my life, I felt like bookselling was a natural retail path for me to take after spending my early years in publishing. My most memorable position was in the advertising and promotions department of St. Martin’s Press. I recently went back to the Flatiron Building for a meeting and was immediately transported 20-plus years back, to when the old hydraulic elevators used to get stuck and we’d have to walk down 15 flights.
BTW: How did you begin as a bookseller, and how long after starting in bookselling did you begin to feel that you had found a special vocation?
CO: My first store was predominantly used books and was in the Long Island suburbs, where competition from Costco and a nearby Barnes & Noble was pretty fierce. It wasn’t until I moved the business to Greenpoint, Brooklyn (where my husband and I had just relocated), that I felt the welcome arms of the community in a major way. I loved the years I spent in my first store and I had a handful of really wonderful customers, but I look at those years as training for the real thing. Connecting with the community in North Brooklyn in those early days was a really special time. People constantly thanked us for opening our store in their neighborhood, we started a literary dating board and a basketball league, and we had a regular comedy show in our basement and a standing-room-only midnight party for the last Harry Potter book. Those all gave me the taste for really connecting with my community through books.
BTW: When did you first become a member of ABA? What motivated you to join?
CO: I joined ABA as soon as I opened WORD, in early 2007. Discovering that community of booksellers and the support from ABA staff was indispensible to me back then. Len Vlahos was assigned as my Book Buddy and I was able to e-mail or call him with questions at any time. What could be better than that??! I vividly remember sitting in [former ABA CEO Avin Domnitz’s] finance workshop and realizing that this business takes so much more precision and focus than I had expected. Having ABA’s resources definitely helped get me through some tough times early on, and I will always be grateful for the education and support I received — and I hope I can pay that forward now as an ABA Board member.
BTW: As an ABA Board member, what are your key goals for fostering the book industry, and bookselling in particular?
CO: My main goal is to brainstorm new and creative ways for bookselling to exist in this somewhat crazy retail environment. Our relationships with publishers and the ways in which they can help direct book buyers to indies and not automatically to online sellers is a big focus, as is fostering the next generation of young booksellers and making sure bookselling is a viable career path for those who want to take over existing stores or start their own. I also believe, as booksellers today, we need to be ahead of the trends and try to stay competitive with the ever-changing technology of the retail and book worlds.
BTW: What are you reading now?
CO: I am currently reading Al Franken’s Giant of the Senate, which I absolutely love, listening to David Sedaris’ Libro.fm audiobook of Theft by Finding, and also just dipping into Nicole Krauss’ Forest Dark — as well as a plethora of picture books and Little Golden Books, which are read nightly to my twin toddlers.
BTW: You get a day to walk through any city, town, or landscape with any one writer. What writer and what place?
CO: Ah, that’s a tough one. But I’ll choose a night out on the town in New York City with F. Scott Fitzgerald and his crew.