Today’s Spotlight on Bookstores is written by David Ebershoff, whose novel The 19th Wife has just been released in paperback. You can read my review of The 19th Wife, an interview with David, and a blurb about his reading at one of my local bookstores. He is an editor at Random House and author of The Danish Girl (which has been optioned for a film starring Nicole Kidman and Charlize Theron) and Pasadena. Read on to learn about a special bookstore whose owner David Ebershoff has dubbed “Mr. Handseller of America” and where, as in many independent bookstores, he feels at home.
The first time I met Michael Barnard, the owner of Rakestraw Books in Danville, California, I messed up big time. It was several years ago, not long after I published my first novel, The Danish Girl, and I was in San Francisco to talk to a group of indie booksellers about the books I was editing for Random House and my own writing. I was seated next to Michael and immediately we found ourselves in a two-hour gab-fest about our mutual interests and experiences, including growing up in California, surviving bad dates, and, above all, books. After dinner Michael asked if I would walk him back to his car to a sign a copy of The Danish Girl. Of course! Outside on the damp street I happily uncapped my pen and began to inscribe the book while Michael looked on. For John, I wrote, while Michael’s face began to twist up. It was so nice getting to know you. That’s when Michael politely corrected me: My name’s not John.
I told that story the first time I spoke in Michael’s store, a few years later, while on tour for my second novel, Pasadena. Michael had packed the place with almost a hundred people, most of whom Michael knew personally. And that’s what makes Michael and Rakestraw special. He knows his customers (he’s much better with names than I am) and therefore he knows what books to put into their hands. If there were an award for Mr. Handseller of America, Michael would have already won it. Multiple times.
Earlier this year, Rakestraw moved locations, growing in square footage at a time when most businesses are cutting back. Recently I made my first visit to Michael’s new store on Hartz Avenue while on tour for the paperback of my most recent novel, The 19th Wife. Many stores are rectangles, with one of the short sides as the storefront. Michael’s new store is a rectangle, but a long side faces the sidewalk, giving the store an unusually long wall of windows that fill the store with easy sunlight. From the outside you can see much of the store, making it impossible to resist one of Michael’s many inventive displays. (Once Michael created displays of books organized not by subject but by color: a table of royal blues and another piled up with orange jackets and spines. Believe it or not, it worked.)
When I walked into the new store, Michael’s mom first greeted me, as she always does. One of the great challenges for any bookseller is how to clone the owners’ (or managers’) knowledge and passion in their staff. Michael figured that out awhile ago by hiring his Mom, Julie. Not only does Julie know her customers as well as Michael does, she looks like him (or, more accurately, he looks like her). Between the two of them, they will find a book you will love.
The best booksellers are curators; they carefully select the books for their stores based on their own personal taste and that of their customers. It’s a myth to think a bookstore’s role is to present all titles equally. Even if a bookseller had the noble ambition to do so, it would be impossible. Rather, the bookstores I fall in love with – bookstores like Three Lives in New York and Vroman’s in Pasadena and Towne Center in Pleasanton and Watermark in Wichita – have thoughtfully, almost magically anticipated the book I want to read next, even when I don’t know what I want to read next. That’s why I walked out of Copperfield’sin Sonoma County a few weeks ago with John LeCarre’s A Perfect Spy, which in turn led to Nancy Olson at Raleigh’s Quail Ridge handing me William Boyd’s Restless from a display at her cash wrap last week. This is how the best independent bookstores work. It explains how the best have managed to hold their own against all the unsettling forces books are facing in 2009. And it’s why whenever we step into a place like Rakestraw we should rejoice, for we are home.