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The Art of Libromancy by Josh Cook

Reviewed by Timothy Niedermann

This collection of essays is both a hard read and a necessary one. Hard, because he is mostly talking about the challenges of running a business, and that can get a bit dry. Necessary, because of what else he is saying.

Author Josh Cook is a part-owner of Porter Square Books, an independent bookstore in Boston, Massachusetts. In addition, he is a bookseller. You thought they were the same? Not quite.

“Libromancy” means the interpretation of books, i.e. their texts, with the goal of obtaining a greater understanding of their context. In each of his essays, Cook examines aspects of the role of books play in our lives, at least the lives those of us who read.

After some early—and justified—digs at Amazon and those who buy books on that platform, Cook turns his focus on the work of independent bookstores and the challenges of the work they do.

Selling books means getting someone to buy them. In general, there are two classes of book buyers: those looking for something specific, and those just browsing. The job of the bookseller is to interact with both types to make sure there is a sale. In the first case, this means guiding them to the book they want and suggesting similar titles. In the second, it means finding out what sort of book they might be interested in, and, again, suggesting titles. For both cases, this means finding a way to engage with the customer without seeming pushy, while still drawing on an extensive familiarity of different genres of books and authors to offer appropriate suggestions. And, as Cook points out, the effective bookseller must be able to do this on the spot.

Cook talks a good deal about operating an independent bookstore. This could be dry stuff, but Cook livens up his prose up in two ways. First, he curses. A lot. The appearance of “fuck” and “shit” and a few other choice words is off-putting, to say the least, and probably unnecessary, but it is likely he throws them in both to keep the reader’s attention and to underscore the passion he feels for his subject matter. Like it or not, it works.

The second thing Cook does is to engage in some compelling discussions about the economics and, yes, morality of bookselling. Quoting Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s description of independent bookstores as “sickly gazelles” for Amazon to prey upon like a cheetah, Cook rejects the idea that competition needs to be predatory. The point, he says, to do a better job than your competitor, not engage in destructive behaviour (as Amazon has).

Obviously, there are more books out there than any one store can stock, so the bookstore owner has to choose what titles to offer—and, implicitly, what titles not to offer. This means that many bookstores specialize and, in doing so, develop a community of customers who know that their preferences will likely be met at that particular bookstore. And this begs the question: What types of books should a bookseller offer? Is it okay to prominently display books on the top of the bestseller list—that is, books that you can sell large quantities of—even when those books are spouting what amounts to racist or fascist (another term Cook likes to use) garbage?

Cook doesn’t hold back on his contempt for the American Right and their disinformation campaigns, but he also recognizes that any sort of censorship is a slippery slope. There is a long and nuanced discussion of the bestseller American Desert, a beautifully written, emotional tale of a Mexican woman fleeing that country with her child because of her fear of being killed by drug gangs. The author got a seven-figure advance, and the book was well on its way to bestsellerdom when it ran into trouble. Despite the quality of its writing, the author, who is not of Mexican descent and has limited personal knowledge about that country, was portraying Mexicans as an outsider would do and making some serious, almost laughable errors in the process. Several writers of colour with Mexican backgrounds pointed this out, and protests erupted.

What are the responsibilities of a bookseller in this and similar instances? Cook is an advocate for minority writers and not a fan of American Desert, but he acknowledges that others do not share his opinion. But, given that no bookstore can stock everything, what are the desirable standards to be used? And how long does it take before imposing one’s own taste sinks into censorship? Should booksellers impose their tastes on the books they sell?

Cook does not provide any easy answers. Instead, he presents the arguments and counterarguments that make up the debate, while making clear how difficult it is to make these sorts of decisions. For this discussion alone, The Art of Libromancyis well worth reading.

A very thoughtful, very timely, very compelling read.

The Art of Libromancy is published by Biblioasis.


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