Indie Champion Richard Russo on the Value of Indie Bookstores

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

Bestselling author Richard Russo accepted the American Bookseller Association’s 2016 Indie Champion Award, as chosen by independent booksellers nationwide, at the annual Celebration of Bookselling and Author Awards Luncheon at BookExpo America on Thursday, May 12. In his acceptance speech, reprinted below, Russo recognized the staying power of indie bookstores and shared his appreciation for the booksellers delivering thoughtful book recommendations to customers day in and day out.

The Indie Champion Award is presented annually to the author or illustrator who booksellers believe has the best sense of the importance of independent bookstores to their communities at large and the strongest personal commitment to foster and support the mission and passion of independent booksellers.

Richard Russo is the author of the 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning Empire Falls and, most recently, Everybody’s Fool (Knopf).

When I published my first novel 30 years ago, the relationship between writers and publishers and independent bookstores was vital. Nobody knew me or my books, and if it wasn’t for independent booksellers handselling Mohawk and The Risk Pool, many readers still wouldn’t. Of course, this was long before Internet search engines, before Google and Amazon and Apple. Back then, it was the big box stores that had you guys in their crosshairs, and things didn’t look good. The conventional wisdom was that you wouldn’t make it. And yet here you are. Here we are. Okay, we haven’t taken over world, which continues to change before our eyes, but then we never intended to. We did survive though, both the big box stores and the Internet retailers. How? Well, for one thing, search engines haven’t replaced handselling. The technology itself and the terminology is revealing. You search for something that you already know the existence of. You search for your car keys. Their existence isn’t in doubt, just their precise location. An engine is a mechanical thing, efficient and helpful but thoughtless. Booksellers are human beings, and they alert readers to what’s new, emerging writers, like Richard Russo 30 years ago, whose existence most readers did not even suspect.

By which I mean to say that the relationship between writers, publishers, independent booksellers, and readers is even more vital today than it was 30 years ago. Amazon, Google, Apple — they all sell a lot of books, but they’re not in the book business. They are in the business of business. They’re not book people. That doesn’t mean that they’re bad, but they are different from us because we are book people. It’s not just what we sell, it’s who we are. The noisier the culture gets, the more we crave quiet, stillness. Because beneath the noise and the sheer velocity of life, there is still a conversation going on, the conversation of the democracy. And that conversation is still taking place in the form of books, books written and read. And it’s because it's still important that we strain to hear that conversation. We need to know who’s saying what and what things ring true and authentic. When we press books upon one another — authors on their publishers, publishers on booksellers, booksellers on readers — we are doing what we’ve always done and always for the same reason. You’ll like this, we tell each other. This is worth your while. This will cheer you up. This will break your heart. This will help you understand. Here, right here, is your new best friend, this book.