Bibliophiles stopping by Barstons Child’s Play or Politics and Prose Bookstore for Small Business Saturday this weekend will find more than just books. Some of their favorite authors will appear among the displays, giving readings, signing books and even acting as temporary booksellers.
The authors are volunteering at both D.C. stores as part of Indies First, a campaign sponsored by the American Booksellers Association to promote independent bookstores throughout the country.
Author Sherman Alexie, best known for his young adult novel “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” came up with the idea for Indies First last year. He conceived it as a way for authors to take advantage of Small Business Saturday and support local independent bookstores while championing books and book sales.
“It’s the camaraderie — the relationship between booksellers and authors,” Alexie said. “Also, people want a glimpse into an author’s entire intellect. Having them sell you books they love is one way to do that. And it’s a great thing for authors — we don’t have to be so narcissistic for a day.”
Best-selling fantasy author Neil Gaiman, one of the spokesmen for this year’s campaign, thinks it is important to support independent book stores.
“Independent book shops are the lifeblood of publishing, and the lifeblood of the book world,” Gaiman said. “It’s very hard to fall in love with books on Amazon. A well-curated book shop is where you fall in love with books.”
At Barstons Child’s Play, authors visiting throughout the day include four who have written children’s books: Jerdine Nolen (“Irene’s Wish” and others), Mary Quattlebaum (“Pirate Vs. Pirate” and others), Gene Weingarten (Washington Post columnist and author of “Me & Dog”), and Fred Bowen (Washington Post contributor and author of “Double Reverse”).
Politics and Prose, participating in Indies First for a second year, will put its nine visiting authors to work as booksellers, as well. Kids and teens could ask author Jessica Spotswood (“Cahill Witch Chronicles”) for recommendations; fans of David Baldacci (“Absolute Power” and others) or Azar Nafisi (“Reading Lolita in Tehran”) can get those authors’ two cents on holiday gift picks for a favorite relative or friend. The store’s Web site (www.politics-prose.com) lists the times for each author’s visit.
“They’re going to be booksellers, which is kind of a unique experience for them,” said Lena Little, director of marketing for Politics and Prose. “We do have lots of authors in the store, of course, but it’s one of the rare days we put them to work — helping out in all the sections, giving recommendations, and interacting with customers.”
Authors hope the effort will show book-browsers the difference between shopping indie and buying online or from a big-box store.
Steven Aarons, the owner and founder of Barstons Child’s Play, said independent bookstores can promote books that are overlooked by larger chain stores.
“We can talk about the quirky books that are not getting advertised,” Aarons said. “Big-box stores can talk about the things that are getting advertised, but they’re not set up to talk about [other] books. So if there are certain series that for some reason didn’t get the [publicity] push straight off, or the author got in with a small press, not a big press with dollars behind it, I feel like we can dig those gems out. We’re not getting advertising dollars for putting those books out there. ”
Deborah Johnson, book buyer for Barstons Child’s Play stores (in addition to the District, the toy and book store has locations in Rockville, Arlington and McLean), said independent bookstores offer individualized book recommendations that can’t be duplicated when buying books online.
“Here, you get a lot of people who are highly trained and really know their stuff,” Johnson said. “We have people who have children, have read these books with our own and other peoples’ children. People come in with a very specific question — ‘My child has never read nonfiction; my child doesn’t like books’ — and we can recommend something.
“We have a lot of people who come back and say, ‘Boy, my kid really loved that book,’ ” she added. “It’s moving sometimes. People come back and say ‘You got my kid interested in reading.’ And I’m a big believer in that; so it’s lovely.”
It’s that connection of books to readers that sets indie bookstores apart, Gaiman said.
“One of the most fantastic talents that a bookshop owner has is to say, ‘You know, I think your niece might like this.’ And they will do it more accurately than an Amazon algorithm ever will.”
Lanyi is a freelance writer.