I sold a book the other day. I’ve sold literally, no exaggeration, millions of books in 45 years as a bookseller, but this was a unique event; this time it was a book I had written.
I was in Green Apple Books, the one on Clement Street, the original. My wife, Judy, and I trade books with them all the time, which is one of the advantages of living in the Richmond District of San Francisco; the bookshop once voted the World’s Best is also our neighborhood bookseller. Back in December when my book first came out, Kevin, one of the partners, and a friend I’ve known and sporadically worked with over the decades, had been kind enough to take some copies of my book on consignment and display them in the store. This I considered something of an honor; Green Apple doesn’t do this for just anybody.
The guys from the Beat Museum and Bird & Beckett, Jerry and Eric, also friends of mine, made similar accommodations for me. I always figured years of making friends in the book trade would eventually pay off in some however small fashion and now ‘eventually’ had finally arrived. That’s how things have aways worked in bookselling.
“Two? Three?” I said. I had to run out to the car to get them.
“Five,” Kevin said, which meant he was going to display them as opposed to just sticking a couple of copies spine-out on a shelf somewhere.
“You’ve earned it,” he said when I registered surprise, meaning the abovementioned 45 years, I guess.
He put them up on the rack in the center aisle of the main floor—face-out, eye-level—next to a book called ‘We Run the Tides’ by Vendela Vida and above Etal Adnan’s ‘Shifting the Silence’ and David Diop’s ‘At Night All Blood is Black’ which, according to the hand-scrawled shelf-talker, won the 2021 International Booker Prize; a prime location and in great company. The fact that Judy and I knew Etel, who died last November at 96, was an added, between-us, bonus.
There’s a thrill that’s hard to describe, one I hope I’ll never get over, to see a book you wrote on the shelf in a bookstore, especially in a bookstore you admire as much as I admire Green Apple.
I took pictures, feeling like a geek, standing there.
The next time we stopped in, a couple of weeks later, I saw someone had moved my book around to the other side of the rack, a slightly less prominent location, but still a good one, still face-out, still eye-level. This time it had been placed between Stephen Graham Jones’ ‘The Only Good Indian’ and the new Roddy Doyle, ‘Love.’ I was pleased; Judy and I’ve been Roddy Doyle fans since The Commitments in 1987. I have no idea who this Stephen Graham Jones is, but his book had a handsome cover, the kind that makes you want to pick it up and take a closer look, maybe turn it over.
“Put the book in the customer’s hand,” was always instruction number one, advice I’d given to hundreds of novice booksellers, “don’t just point at it. Make the customer put it back.” Having a cover that makes the customer want to pick the book up is the next best thing. Just like the cover of my book, or so I’m hoping.
There were still the original five copies on the rack which probably goes a long way toward explaining why someone moved it to a less desirable spot, business being business and all that. This bothered me slightly, but only slightly; after all, the book was never intended for mass distribution; I never entertained fantasies—serious ones anyway—of fame and bestsellerdom. Judy and I had decided to publish my book, and hers, under our own imprint after I’d spent an ungodly amount of time trying to engage with an agent. I finally decided, after over 150 unacknowledged queries, that it didn’t matter to me if my book came with a national bookstore distribution plan, a first edition of 3,000 copies, a five-figure marketing budget, groupies and a budding heroin habit; I just wanted a couple of hundred copies I could hand sell to my friends.
For Judy’s book, earlier in the year, I set up a seller’s account with the Ongoing Criminal Enterprise known as Amazon. It took an unconscionable number of hours to get this done and between being a Luddite with sloppy work habits and being treated like a potential criminal out to make a dishonest buck—takes one to know one, guys— it was an extremely unpleasant experience. The only reason we did it at all was so out-of-town friends and relatives would have an easy way to buy her book.
“You can get it through Amazon,” we’d say breezily.
We sold most of Judy’s books at signings and events and through word-of-mouth. It’s nearly sold out now. In the first four weeks on Amazon we sold something in the range of ten copies. Twenty bucks each, plus shipping. We did the shipping, not Amazon. We laid out for the postage, confident that Amazon would reimburse us since they were strongarming it out of our customers—otherwise known as our relatives and friends. And at the end of the first month Amazon sent us a check for $6.40. This was what was left after monthly fees, the cut they take out of every sale, other fees, surcharges, the pizza fund, additional fees. The Bezos-Is-Out-Of-Beer fee.
“Fuck,” I said, not so breezily.
Green Apple had recently shrunk itself, giving up the second storefront it had occupied for years and, in the process, moving the fiction section upstairs to the second floor, with its floorboards that creak and groan under the customers’ weight. I had a bookstore with an upstairs once; we called it “the mezzanine,” rather than “the upstairs” though the difference between the two lies somewhere between negligible and non-existent. People warned me it was next to impossible to get people to climb a flight of stairs to shop on a second level. I ignored them. They were right.
The day I sold my book there weren’t that many people upstairs at Green Apple either, at least compared to the number visiting the main floor. Maybe that will change as people get used to the fact that fiction, mystery, sci-fi, all popular sections, are upstairs. We’ll have to see.
Coming into Green Apple is always an opportunity for me to scan the display racks from a professional bookseller’s remove, especially now that I’m retired and out of day-to-day touch with what’s happening. I can’t help feeling like an outsider looking in. I’ve only been two years away from this end of the business, not a long time, but I’m definitely not part of it anymore.
I take in what’s new—new books by authors I’m familiar with, new authors I’m not familiar with, new books by authors I know, authors with different publishers, books about people or subjects I’m interested in; snakes, punk, birds, reactor meltdowns, midgets. Who’s climbing the hill, who’s on top of it and who’s over it. A swirl of colors, typefaces, images. I’m also watching for trends and currents in design, geography, content, authorship, etc., and shifts in those trends and currents.
For four years the shelves were heavily populated with books dealing with Trump and his troupe of malevolent morons. Biden hasn’t managed to capture nearly as much interest, at least so far.
Undoubtedly the war in Ukraine will soon become the dominant subject. The environmental crisis is still prominent but not as much as a while ago. I think people are more depressed about it than anything at this point, and don’t want to read about it as much. I keep in mind that these racks are a cross-section of popular thinking only in San Francisco and its environs; one needs only to step into a bookstore/newsstand in any airport in the country to get a graphic, eye-opening measure of just how far-right the country has drifted.
Currently, women authors are being published, and purchased, at an unprecedented clip. And race has been in the front of everyone’s mind since Trayvon and George Floyd and before—
since Emmett Till really—with books by authors of color, and about race in general, elbowing with the women for display space particularly with this month being Black History Month and with Women’s History Month right on its heels. Diversity is all the rage, writers from all over the world are being published and grabbed up. The briefest glance at the racks tells you the centuries-long hegemony of white male writers is now over, thoroughly stomped out.
After I take in the display racks I check out the overstock stacked neatly in bins underneath them, seeing what the buyers are betting on, what they think they’re going to sell in quantities large enough to warrant investing serious dollars in, to have enough handy to replenish their displays several times a day. The trends hold down there as well. People of color. Women. Diversity.
My book is about exactly none of these things. It has a few black characters, one Puerto Rican, but no one makes a federal issue out of it. More men than women, I would guess, but mostly because a lot of the stories are about my father, who was a man.
If you really stretch the definition of diversity I suppose you could get it to cover a female Czechoslovakian character that figures into one story in a minor way. A couple of kids—one white, the other Black—want to make their local wetland into a National Park, but it’s played more for laughs than for any eco-agenda. Not bucking trends, just sort of ignoring them.
I also looked around the main floor and didn’t see my book anywhere. It’s pretty hard to miss with an illustration of a giant ‘54 Buick Roadmaster busting out of the cover and down your throat.
I figured they’d moved it to New Fiction upstairs to create room on the racks on the Main Floor which are more valuable, more productive, real estate by dint of not being the second floor if nothing else. I knew Judy was already upstairs, looking for novels and stories about women’s relationships with horses—Annie Proulx, Larry McMurtry maybe.
After a brief search, I found my book up there in a carrel in the section labelled New Fiction, as I’d anticipated. It was still face-out but down around knee level, you had to be really looking for it. There were still the same five copies, which explained the knee level.
Still the same intoxication, though, the same jolt of recognition. The need to pinch myself. I remembered as I stood there how my friend Jack Hirschman put it, “The fulfilment of a lifelong dream.”
There are other attendant thrills that come with that dream fulfillment; being able to tell your friends you’re a writer with a straight face, without feeling like a complete fraud, putting “Writer” in the blank space on a form where it asks, “Profession:________.”
Standing in the New Fiction carrel with me was a tall woman in her forties with an armload of hardcover books and giant black clogs strapped to her feet. The swoon of seeing my book again prompted me to blurt out, “Here’s my book,” and point to it. I said it to bring myself back into the world of worn wood floors and an ancient PA calling people to the phone. To touch base with Mission Control. I’m not normally one to strike up conversations with women I don’t know.
The woman said, “What?”
I said, “Here’s the book I wrote.”
“Oh? Can I see it?”
I took one off the shelf and handed it to her. She took in the Roadmaster on the front cover and flipped to the back and started in on the slightly-inflated author bio and the blurbs—written by some of my better-known buddies—glancing at me furtively to confirm that I was indeed the same person as in the ten-year-old cover photo. She slapped it on top of her stack.
“I’ll take it,” she said, “My husband is starting a collection of short stories—books of short stories—and this’ll fit right in.” Nice. A literary couple. So many times you hear about one spouse wanting to talk about Cormac McCarthy and Ornette Coleman and all while the other wants to watch Pro Wrestling or The Shark Tank or something and wishes everybody would just shut the fuck up.
“Great,” I said, “Thank you.”
At that point I beat it over to the carrel where Judy was building her own stack. I had nothing constructive to add to my conversation with the woman and figured it would be best at that point to just leave well enough alone. I couldn’t wait to tell Judy about what had just happened but had to wait until the woman went back downstairs.
Now there were four copies left on the shelf.
One part of getting ready for my book to come out was Judy and me deciding to give the Ongoing Criminal Enterprise the old heave-ho and starting our own web site to sell our books directly. A friend helped us set it up, a friend who had been my deputy for going on two decades before I hung up my bookselling shoes. Bookstore sales didn’t figure into this plan either, if we sold any we would consider it incidental, lucky.
In what seems a stunningly small-minded policy for an immense organization run by a certifiable megalomaniac, Amazon informed me I could never, ever again have a seller’s account if I cancelled the one I had. Infantile corporate petulance, Bezos taking his ball and going home. My brain shrugged at this news, and it was, for a change, right to do so. For one thing, it made a huge difference to us to be able to control our own destinies, to make our own decisions. The Ongoing Criminal Enterprise pressured us as sellers with strict deadlines, and serious consequences for missing them, insisting we pack and ship every order in less than 48 hours, constantly making us run off to the Post Office, I’d wait in the car while Judy would go inside, stand in line, listen to people bitch. And all for no money.
We sold books like mad, too, both of us, off our new website, people were coming out of the woodwork, from high school fifty years ago.
“They’re selling like French toast,” we would say.
And the money was ours. We still charged postage, but we could take the packages to the Post Office Any Goddamned Time we pleased.
After the woman tromped downstairs with my book on top of her stack, I told Judy about the little incident, and she seemed happy for me. She knows me and she knows booksellers; small delights are the only delights most of us can count on and even those are few and far between.
I gathered a stack of my own: Denis Johnson’s ‘The Stars at Noon,’ paperback, a nice hardcover of the first volume of Larry McMurtry’s four-volume ‘Berrybender Narratives’ (I always get aspirational in a bookstore, like in a million years I’m gonna read a four-volume “saga”), a new copy of Jennifer Haigh’s ‘Mercy Street,’ which Richard Russo had glowingly reviewed on the cover of the previous Sunday’s Times Book Review. Judy took home an Annie Proulx, though not the one she was looking for, and a collection of Alice Munro stories. And—What could be better?—we exited with a small balance remaining on our credit slip, not enough to get us very far, but still.
A woman I’d never seen before went home with a copy of my book. I can only hope she or, more likely, her husband, get a few laughs out of it. I thought it might be a good way to pass the day, standing there in New Fiction, handing copies of my book to everyone who came up the stairs. But I’m not a bookseller anymore, I’m a writer.
‘Mercy Street’ turned out to be very good but not as good as Richard Russo made it out to be. He and Jennifer Haigh are probably friends. That’s how things work in the writing game too.
* * *
Meet The Author of ‘Rounding Up a Bison’!
“…Byron Spooner spins stories from the busted front porch of a faded American Dream.” – Robert Mailer Anderson
Byron, along with a variety of North Beach artists, will be selling and signing Rounding Up A Bison in Kerouac Alley, San Francisco, December 12, 11 AM – 4 PM
Stories by Byron Spooner, Andover Street Archives Press
My story, ‘Elvis Walks the Earth,’ has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Read it here, at the Lakeshore Review web site: https://www.lakeshoreliterary.com/elvis-walks-the-earth/