Face Out: ABA Board Member John Evans on His Life Among Books

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In the third installment in our series of profiles of American Booksellers Association Board members, Bookselling This Week talks to John Evans, co-owner with Alison Reid of DIESEL, A Bookstore in Oakland, Brentwood, and Larkspur, California. Evans is in the middle of his second three-year term as a Board director.

Bookselling This Week: Please talk about your early experiences with reading and books.

John Evans: I grew up in a reading household, the youngest of three. My parents believed very much in education and reading. Some of my earliest favorites were The Nutshell Library by Maurice Sendak and Ferdinand the Bull.

I was an avid reader from an early age, but had a kind of epiphany around age 13 or so, in a small books-and-cassette store in Boston. I was shopping the shelves and was overhearing the conversations at the counter: on music, on books, on a wide range of subjects.

Where before I’d always thought abstractly about what job I would do in the future — interested in history, I’ll be an archaeologist; love stars and constellations, I’ll be an astronomer — in that moment I thought what an actually good job it would be to work in a bookstore. Dress any way you want, listen to music all day, and have discussions with people about books, ideas, experiences, about music and listening to music, and about a wide array of subjects.

The three books that I got that day were Mythologies by William Butler Yeats, and two books by Borges — The Aleph and Labyrinths.

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?

JE: So, I always thought I would work in a bookstore one day. I did many jobs, the closest being working in the library at the University of Delaware. But it wasn’t until a year after I finished college, when I moved to California and began working at Pendragon and Pellucidar (the precursors to Pegasus, now owned by Amy Thomas — who started working there a couple months before me). The hook was set.

BTW: What do you think was the most important factor that led you to establish your store?

JE: Alison and I discussed opening a bookstore. There wasn’t a bookstore that we knew that we actually wanted to work in at that time. So, we opened our own! I think this is a common bookstore owner story.

We wanted it to be urban, light, and accessible to everyone, with an emphasis on customer service — that is, finding the right book for the person looking for one.

BTW: When did you first become a member of ABA? What motivated you to join?

JE: I imagine it was when we opened our first store, in 1989. We sometimes dropped our membership, feeling that it didn’t really represent us well. ABA has changed a lot over the years, and we came to feel it was offering more, was more responsive and representative, and wanted to support it with our membership and our participation.

BTW: What do you think are some of the most important changes in bookselling since you opened your store?

JE: Computerized POS/inventory systems; publisher consolidation; chain and now online monopoly distortions of the business; and the decline and now rise of independent bookstores are the major changes to bookselling that I’ve seen since we opened.

BTW: What are your key goals as an ABA Board member for fostering the book industry, and bookselling in particular?

JE: I want our Board to more successfully reflect the diversity of booksellers. We could do better at this, well-served as we all have been by all Board members past.

The Board only does so much, and the ABA staff does the lion’s share. What we can do is clarify the purposes of the organization and ensure the proper governance of ourselves toward the highest good for the organization and our members.

I want to see more public understanding of independent bookstores’ purpose and, perhaps, necessity for a civil culture. I would like this front-of-mind in the media and in the minds of readers. Also, in the minds of governing officials and publishers and authors. We are great at doing this for ourselves and like-minded publishers, authors, and customers, but less good at those wider afield.

I want to see the majority of our membership feel more positive about their futures through more substantial support from ABA and representation in all aspects of ABA’s programming — councils and Board membership, for example.

I want to see more diversity in the industry and in the Board’s makeup. I would like more understanding of the availability of e-commerce solutions within the indie ecosystem. And given the unique role that bricks-and-mortar bookstores play, I think it would benefit both the industry and readers for publishers’ terms to recognize the essential value bookstores provide in the discovery of new titles.

With the help of ABA, I want to see more stores becoming profitable and more stores popping up through the next few years. It seems that applying more financial resources, harder negotiation, continued educational support, better marketing, improved technological infrastructure and implementation, and more aggressive advocacy would amplify the likelihood of more, and more profitable, stores.

In short, everything ABA does well, but more so.

BTW: What are you reading now?

JE: Right now, I am reading Collection of Sand: Essays by Italo Calvino and David Talbot’s The Devil’s Chessboard.

BTW: You get a day to walk through any city, town, or landscape with any one writer. What writer and what place?

JE: John Berger, in the place where he lives.