How I Spent My Summer Vacation -- Bookseller Style

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Gayle Shanks, co-owner of Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe, Arizona, wrote this "letter" to friends of the store, for the bookstore's September e-mail newsletter, BookStories. BTW is grateful for permission to reprint her letter, which is a wonderful travelogue of a true bookperson's busman's holiday.

Dear Bookstore Friends,

I can't live in Arizona unless I can escape for a week now and then in the summer, and I can't seem to travel without visiting every independent bookstore within a hundred-mile radius of wherever I am. This summer was no exception.

After 28 years in the book business, we have made many bookseller friends who we love to visit, sharing our favorite new authors, our trials and triumphs as business people, our concerns about culture and community, and our struggle to maintain independent retail stores amidst the onslaught of the chains that continue to pop up like the Bermuda grass in my garden.

We talk endlessly about making our stores more profitable, so that we can pay our employees more so they will stay with us longer; we marvel at the great books that pour out of our favorite authors and alert each other to new voices; we talk about our Web sites and wonder if we can ever make a dent in the market, or if we even want to; we try to imagine who will buy our stores when we no longer have the ability to climb stairs, read the small print in publisher's catalogs, or have the energy it takes to manage the many details of store ownership.

This summer I spent time in Oakland and Berkeley, California, and met the owners of Diesel Books (a small, tastefully stocked store with a great collection of Summer Reads and Staff Recommends, many of which my sister and nieces bought on the spot). I visited our friends at Pendragon and Pegasus bookstores (smart, well-read staff, selling the best remainders to be had mixed with great used books and a few new books for those who can't wait for them to be recycled), and had dinner with a sales rep/friend who invited us to a delicious Chinese meal with the buyer from University Press Bookstore and the Diesel folks. We ordered food but the talk was so engaging that I can't remember what we ate.

A few days later we drove north into the wine country. Copperfield's is a small chain of bookstores in the Napa Valley. Each of their five stores is unique to its home city -- thoughtfully stocked with books (new, used, and remainders), wonderful gifts, enticing displays, great signage and helpful staff. We shared a wine country lunch with owner Paul and his wife, Ellen, and then drove over the hills to one of my favorite stores, Reader's Books, in Sonoma.

Housed just off the village square, Reader's has an odd collection of rooms filled with the very best choices of books that you'd ever hope to find. They specialize in fiction, and their displays in the front room sell stacks of new titles that the owner, Lila, reads and recommends. Mouth-watering smells from a small restaurant that shares their storefront encourage you to stop reading about Tuscany and start eating pasta. Lila and Andy live on an old dairy farm, and we had a country dinner with them that included fresh-caught fish, tomatoes from their garden, and berry cobbler with whipped cream for dessert.

Back to work for a month and then off again, this time to Utah. We surprised our friend Jan by popping into her store in Midway -- an old Victorian building housing regional fiction and nonfiction, wonderful children's books, and a watercolor painting of the bookstore by a local artist. Jan seemed to know every customer who walked through her door and although her rent is doubling and she is about to move, these same customers will move right along with her, I'm sure.

In sharp contrast, the trade book department at the BYU Bookstore in Provo had little of the atmosphere of Books and Beyond in Midway but, nonetheless, was filled with just the kind of books you'd like the students there to be exposed to in their college years. Linda, the general manager, started working in the store during her freshman year and 30 years and two weeks later is still enthusiastic and excited about bookselling. She has great Book Sense Bestseller displays and a depth and breadth of titles that many independent stores would love to have but can rarely afford.

And then came The King's English in Salt Lake City. An old house with a beautifully landscaped front yard, a labyrinth of rooms, which seem to pull you into them, tables stacked with books, displays from which, were you to close your eyes and lower your hand, any title you picked would be a great read. In addition, the store has one of the best newsletters ever written by booksellers. Betsy and her partner, Barbara, read. They think. They have passion for the written word. On September 10, they are celebrating their 25th anniversary by publishing their list of the 25 best books of the last 25 years, and I'm anxiously awaiting the winners. I intend to read, if I haven't already, every one of the books on the list.

So, that's how I spent my summer vacation -- reading books, talking bookstore, hiking the wilds of Utah, eating minimal carbs, and savoring my time with friends and family. While I was gone, Changing Hands refused to melt away in the heat and, nurtured by our loyal staff, prepared for the fall. Calendars appeared, the Rare Books moved to a new, more prominent home in the store, and a continuous stream of used books arrived daily at the trade-in desk. The sidelines buyers were busy finding new gift items, and the staff spent long hours culling out books that hadn't sold to make room for the new releases that will continue to arrive into the fall season.

And all of you? Did you find ways to stay cool? Did you find bookstores in your travels? Did you read any great books? Come in and tell us about your summer.