How Indie Bookstores Are Like Cheers Minus The Beer

Small Business Saturday, the day after Black Friday, and two days before Cyber Monday, is a relatively new national campaign to drive business to stores once known as Mom Pop Shops. While we think of Black Friday as the day to shop department store deals and Cyber Monday as a day to shop online deals, Small Business Saturday is a day to shop local and support non-franchised stores. Independent bookstores have their own name for this day: Indies First Day.

On Indies First Day this year, like many authors across the country, I had the wonderful pleasure of being a guest bookseller at two independent bookstores in New Jersey. I spent the morning at The Town Book Store in Westfield, NJ and the afternoon at [words] Bookstore in Maplewood, NJ. It was a fabulous experience to talk to customers and get an idea of what they like to read, how they like to read and why they shop local. It felt very much like I was on an episode of Cheers. Loyal customers walked into these shops and were greeted by name, conversations about Thanksgiving and kids and, well, books, felt really personal. There was a clear sense of community in these shops. I could immediately see the pull. In a world that seems increasingly impersonal, the local independent bookstore is anything but. A sampling of what I heard that day: “How’d you like that book?” “I went to that play you recommended.” “Did your son come home for Thanksgiving?” “I put a book on hold a few weeks ago and I forgot to pick it up.” “Yup, it’s right here.” “That guy knows more about new books than we do.” “Storytime is gonna start in a minute.” “I wish that author would hurry up with her next book.” That last comment was directed at me. Insert sigh.

Several customers talked to me about their own writing aspirations. One woman started writing a book many years ago but lost all of her research on a crashed computer. It was painful to listen to her story, to see on her face that she couldn’t reconcile that loss, nor could she ratchet up what it would take to start over. Another writer told me he’s been thinking about starting a book. He would have started it already but he doesn’t know which of his four ideas to work on. I suggested maybe writing a few sentences of each to see which excited him the most. Start typing–get it out of your head–you can’t edit a blank piece of paper, after all, I reminded. Another man told me he wrote a book under a pseudonym, which he’s never told his friends or family about it. Listening to these people, I got a familiar feeling in my chest. It feels similar to having a walnut lodged midway down one’s esophagus. This mid-chest phantom affliction I get is called fear. Some writers are able to bury it, others wear it on their sleeve. Some wear it on their face.

As I write this, I recall the first time I read the word “fear” associated with writing, and the word “courageous” associated with a writer. This was before I started writing myself. How could it be considered “courageous” to write, I thought. Courage is something a soldier needs on a battlefield. Or a surgeon in the O.R. What the heck was a “fearless” writer? What were the fearful afraid of?
I didn’t understand any of this. It was nonsense to me. Until I started writing. Actually, that’s not true. Because when I started writing, I never thought about publishing. I was writing for myself. It was joyous! And fun. And relatively easy. I didn’t know or plan on it becoming a book one day. Thank god! I’m sure that would’ve ended the joy, fun and ease to a full stop.

My advice for someone who aspires to write a book but is sidelined for whatever reason: write for just yourself. Don’t share it with anyone until you’re finished. Write it secretly. As if no one will ever read it. Hopefully, the floodgates will open, because you’ll be fearless. Don’t worry about what it will become. Or what it won’t become. There will be plenty of days to worry in the future–but by then you’ll have a complete book! Just remember, it’s impossible for anyone to read a book that’s stuck in your head.

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