For the Love of Books and Bookstores: A Session with Rick Simonson

As a kid growing up amid the Crosswords and Landmarks of our time, I often marvelled at the beauty and structure of bookstores abroad each time I saw one in the movies. There was a certain sense of elegant quietness to them that beckoned me, and once home from the cinema, I’d look up photographs of the world’s most beautiful bookstores.

I reminisced my childhood amazement during the masterclass with the legendary bookseller Rick Simonson from the Elliott Bay Book Company, the iconic bookstore in Seattle. For Rick, the customer is a key element while dealing with the literary world. Which was all too present as he sat behind us in the session prior to his, taken by Kerstin Schuster and Philipp Theisohn. As the lecture progressed, I felt as if he was assessing the questions we asked them, in order to get a better picture of how he should in turn interact with us later. It was as if he wasn’t leaving a stone untouched, in the way he was going about things.

Prior to his class, we were shown a presentation that made us better understand the Elliot Bay and the space it has created for its customers. The bookstore looks quite rich in taste and yet has the tag of simplicity attached to it. One little feature that caught my attention—and everyone else’s, I am sure—was what Rick later said made the customers particularly glad: there exists a Recommended Books shelf whereupon each book has a pleasant yellow sticky-note with comments, quirks, approvals and witty synopses written by members of the staff who have read the book and want others to experience the magic too. How charming an idea! And as he remarked later, customer interaction with the staff proved to be a very important technique in generating more sales.

Rick has worked at the Elliott Bay since 1976; he had joined when he was only a student. The senior book buyer now, he had founded the ‘Author Reading Programme’ in 1984—which chiefly presents writers from around the world to their readers.

The session began with Rick commenting on the initial stages that the bookstore had undergone. He mentioned how Elliot Bay emerged at a time when the US was experiencing several political upheavals. The Vietnam War was winding down, Richard Nixon was being re-elected. At the same time, he remarked how there was a sort of trial-and-error phase in-between, when they tried out a multitude of books—the sales figures of course depended on the books’ popularity. Soon enough, the kind of titles they displayed expanded as the readers increased and began to visit more. The bookstore began taking on a more organic shape, so to speak.

My interest in the master class peaked when he mentioned T2F. A community space for open dialogue, T2F (also known as The Second Floor) is a brave platform in the inner streets of Karachi, Pakistan, featuring rich cultural activities in the form of poetry readings, film screenings and art exhibitions, among other events. The reason T2F struck a nerve was because of my previous job at a similar creative arts space, the Gyaan Adab Centre—the founder who had set it up in Pune was also from Karachi and had been immensely inspired by T2F’s work!

Talking about the magic of author readings, Rick gave us several examples when things had gone as they had planned, but sometimes, the other way around as well. Like Senator Barack Obama’s visit to the bookstore drew a crowd upward of 22,000 in 2006, whereas an afternoon session with the South Korean author Kyung-sook Shin was an unexpected hit—a staggering number of fans made it to the event.

As Rick went on to talk about the localization of talent, I couldn’t help but think about my previous workplace where I had the exact same experience. It was a delightful mix of the past and the future as my walk in memory lane was interspersed with Rick’s talks about the future of bookstores. With this class and many others, I have come to realize that the ‘soldiers’ in a publishing industry not only perform a myriad of tasks but also are on different sides of the finished book. They arrive with their own sets of skills but from different facets of the literary world. The publishers interact with the authors. The authors converse with their inner monsters. The distributors deal with the bookstores–but it the bookstore that finally makes sure that we, the customer, grab the book we so deserve to read!

Ushnav Shroff

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