I enjoy leaving the realm of business communications once in a while for the purity of storytelling.
It doesn’t get more pure than the “Bookshop Santa Cruz.” Every time I step into the store a sense of discovery washes over me (and under me).
After spending the better part of a Saturday afternoon at the Bookshop – bought “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” – I decided to get in touch with Casey Coonerty Protti, who presides over the operation after taking the baton from her parents in 2006.
Casey was kind enough to answer some questions on the Bookshop’s story arc, one that has faced a few challenges in its time. You might have heard of this thing called the Internet.
Q. I know you grew up with the bookstore. Was there the “aha” moment in your life when you knew you loved books and wanted to point your career in this direction?
A. I was actually in graduate school studying nonprofit management when I realized that I kept relating every class lesson back to the bookstore. It was at that moment that I realized that I wanted to be part of something I believed in, that held roots for me and to be part of a community at its core.
Q. How do you define storytelling?
A. Wow … what a big question.
Q. I guess my interviewing style could use a little finesse. But please give it a shot.
A. I think at the core of storytelling is the idea that you capture someone’s imagination and allow them to find humanity and empathy in other people and places.
Q. When I was in the bookshop last month, I was struck by how the store’s organization seems fresh and so reader-friendly. Can you share some insights on your philosophy when it comes to organization?
A. Bookshop has many of the typical sections that any bookstore has, but we have made a few choices that I think speak volumes about our philosophy. The first is our “hardback wall” – a wall that takes up a large space in the center of the store. We decided to dedicate that wall to new hardcover books. As some bookstores put these books in their categories, we always felt that we need to make a statement about what is new and the value of a beautiful edition of a printed book. Which leads to our next choice – to try to arrange displays and features that allow readers to discover genres they weren’t looking for. The hardback wall is a compilation of many sections as are our displays and our staff favorite sections. It is our hope that someone who thinks they only like history will come to these areas and maybe find something in a different subject they didn’t know they wanted. We want our customers to expand their horizons in what they read. Finally, we believe that displays and organization should reflect our values and our community. We put up many displays about things/issues that are going on in our community, we promote local organization events, and we put up displays about topics that mean something to us.
Q. Is it fair to say that your staff reviews are the foundation of the discovery process for readers?
A. Yes. Besides our free bathrooms, it is the No. 1 thing that people comment on when they talk about what they like about Bookshop. What we can offer that Amazon can’t is a sense of discoverability and the core of that is our staff. Our staff loves books, and they love to share books with others. I hope one day I’ll produce buttons they can wear that say, “I am not an algorithm” to emphasize that their recommendations and conversations with customers are informed with a discussion and a creation of a relationship rather than a data mining experiment.
Side note: We decided to give Casey a running start on that pin.
Q. I love the levity in your store (as reflected in the photo below). How do you cultivate this fun vibe?
A. One of the best things about working at Bookshop is that the booksellers that work here are both incredibly intelligent and well-read, but also incredibly creative. I don’t know if it comes from strong imaginations created from reading books, but Bookshop’s booksellers love working with books, around other people who love books and they love finding each and any way to entice others to discover books.
Q. Is there a novelist that you think deserves more attention/readership than he or she currently receives?
A. My favorite book this year is by a debut author, Anthony Marra. His book, Constellation of Vital Phenomena is a heart-wrenching look at Chechnya through the eyes of a number of residents of one particular town. The writing is beautiful, the topic relevant and most of all, I can’t believe it is just a debut because both the subject matter and the approach are so mature. He is a rising star and the book was just named one of the best books of the year by Publishers Weekly.
Q. Is there anything you’d like to say about independent book sellers? It seems like you’ve cracked the code.
A. After a number of years when it seemed like every media pundit was talking about the death of the book, I am happy to report that many independent bookstores are not only holding their ground, but thriving. I think it is because they know their communities so well and have built relationships with their customers that their customers know they can’t find online. The Shop Local movement has flourished in the last decade which is directly tied to what we do. It is challenging to be a bookseller, but we are seeing that people still love books, and as long as they do and they value a physical place to shop for books, we’ll be just fine.
I can understand why Casey treats her role almost like the steward of a community treasure.
That’s exactly what it is.