Face Out: ABA Vice President Robert Sindelar on His Life Among Books

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In the second in a series of ABA Board member profiles, Bookselling This Week talks to Robert Sindelar, managing partner of Third Place Books, which has locations in Lake Forest Park and Seattle, Washington, and a third location in the works. Sindelar is in the first year of a two-year term as ABA vice president.

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

Robert Sindelar: My parents were readers and our house was full of books. But I was not a big reader as a kid. By the time I was in middle school I spent more time trying to find ways not to read the assigned books (and still pass the test) than it would have taken to read them. In my senior year of high school, I had a great English teacher who knew I wasn’t doing the work. She gave me a pass on reading the rest of the year’s books as long as I read Herman Hesse’s Demian (a book that wasn’t assigned that year, but she thought I would connect with it). I did, and it kick-started a love of books and reading that grew even more in college. I guess it was also an early glimpse into the power of putting the right book in the right person’s hand.

BTW: How did you begin as a bookseller, and how long after starting did you feel that you had found a special vocation?

RS: I started working part-time as a bookseller at Books & Books in Coral Gables, Florida, when I was still in college. It was an amazing experience and getting a chance to work so closely with Mitchell Kaplan is something that definitely influenced my career, though I didn’t know it at the time. After college, I moved to Seattle to pursue life as an actor and director in the regional theater scene and got a job as a bookseller at The Elliott Bay Book Company. The combination of working at Books & Books and Elliott Bay, two bookstore meccas, gave me a very broad and intensive education in the world of independent bookselling. Seven years later, I was pretty much done with theater as a profession and was trying to figure out how to take my love of bookselling to the next level and make it a long-term career.

BTW: What was the most important factor that led to your partnership in Third Place Books?

RS: I got lucky. Third Place Books opened right around the time I was trying to figure out what was next. When the store’s owner, Ron Sher, purchased Elliott Bay Books in 1998, months after Third Place Books had opened, I was given a rare opportunity to run the new store (Third Place and Elliott Bay no longer have any shared ownership). As Ron and I worked together on the vision for Third Place and eventually opened a second store (we are opening our third store in 2016), my involvement grew to incorporate every aspect of running the business, and I was made managing partner of the company.

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

RS: Every store where I worked was already an ABA member when I got there, so I felt it was just something you did. By the time it was my decision whether to renew or not (whether to sign that check), I had seen multiple examples of the power of the association in terms of shared knowledge and networking amongst peers, keeping a healthy dialogue going with our publishing partners, and aiding members in aspects of business that might be beyond any individual store (technology being the most obvious).

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

RS: There have been so many. I think the most interesting is one we are still riding right now: what I’d call “the return to the bookstore.” Over the past couple of decades, some of our customers were tempted to fill their book needs elsewhere — at inexpensive retail outlets, online, through e-books, etc. But many of those customers have returned to our stores these past few years with a renewed sense of commitment. Our customers’ awareness of the importance of shopping local, the pleasure of the physical book, the value of browsing a well-curated selection, and the fulfillment that is gained by interacting in person, in a real space with other readers engaged in the activity of sharing and exchanging ideas, is greater than it’s ever been.

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

RS: One of my goals in becoming a Board member has been to try to help the communication of information from and to the association and membership. Having been on the Booksellers Advisory Council, and having participated in a number of ABA programs in the past, I am aware that there is often a gap between the what is actually going on behind the scenes and the perception of what is going on. ABA is such a great organization and a big part of its strength comes from the input of membership. Making sure communication is flowing productively in both directions is key to keeping the association strong and vital.

BTW: What are you reading now?

RS: I’m reading Elvis Costello’s autobiography Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink, and I just started The Yid by Paul Goldberg. The music scene in England in the 1970s and ’80s and a fictional pogrom in Russia in the ’50s seems like a good balance.

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

RS: I’d go on a Dublin pub crawl with Samuel Beckett.