On Sunday, April 25, I had the pleasure of moderating a panel discussion with an exceptional group of writers who also own bookstores: Ann Patchett, author most recently of The Dutch House and owner of Parnassus Books in Nashville, TN; Kelly Link, author of short story collections like Get In Trouble and owner of Book Moon in Easthampton, MA; and Alex George, whose The Paris Hours is out in paperback on May 4 and who also owns Skylark Bookshop in Columbia, MO.
If you’re wondering how I got so lucky, let’s just say that volunteering for the festival planning committee has its perks: You can do things like suggest completely self-indulgent panels with a dream list of panelists and see what happens.
Also, turns out the pandemic hasn’t been all bad. The thing about planning a virtual festival, rather than an in-person one, is that the world is suddenly your oyster. Participants can join from anywhere in the world. The time commitment for them is significantly less, too, than if they had to get on a plane and travel, so they’re more likely to say yes. This was why a panel like “Did the Butler Do It? A Conversation with Three British Crime Masters,” including Ruth Ware, Elly Griffiths, and Dorothy Koomson was possible; traveling these incredible writers in any other year would have been prohibitively expensive for the festival, which is run completely by volunteers and funded through generous donations from the community and grants.
But back to the author/bookstore panel: As I prepared my questions, I had to remind myself that most audience members would care more about the books than the bookstore. Nobody but me would want to know which POS (point-of-sale system) they each used. When I ran some of my questions by my husband ahead of time he called me out on too much jargon. Publishing has a lot of jargon, it turns out. I deleted phrases like “reading line” and “big box stores and the clubs” and focused more on questions like, “How did you come to own a bookstore after publishing books?”, “What is the reality of owning a bookstore, i.e. when do you write?” and “How do you balance your reading time and how do you decide what to read next?”
The answers were unexpected and fruitful. Ann and Alex both opened bookstores after finding a hole in their respective markets. They felt they needed to step up and fill it. Kelly had been interested in owning a bookstore for a while and finally found the right one for the right price about two years ago. The reading question unearthed a lot of feelings: about how overwhelming the amount of new books to read can feel, but also about how much they love certain titles and what joy it is to put the right books into the right hands.
Alex recommended The Book of Delights by Ross Gay as a terrific book for these troubled times; Kelly says she has been recommending Molly Gloss’s The Hearts of Horses regularly since she took over her store; Ann said she thought Elizabeth McCracken’s new collection of short stories, The Souvenir Museum, is her best yet.
An engaged audience was icing on the cake for the event. It was a pleasure to see viewers logging in from all over the country and asking varied and intelligent questions. I only wish we’d had more time to get to them all. We learned that Libro.FM offers audiobooks with the same rates as Audible but Libro.FM sales support indie bookstores; we learned how Ann has figured out how to talk about The Dutch House in fewer than 10 words: “Brother and sister reconcile the past.” And we had some fun along the way.
If you’re into watching (or rewatching!) the panel, A Mighty Blaze, a group formed to help publicize new books during the pandemic, has the event on their Facebook page. And, in another week or two, the festival will have all events from this year’s festival archived and accessible through its website: newburyportliteraryfestival.org.