While recovering from radiation therapy, Shea heard from a friend who was looking for help at her bookstore. Shea volunteered, seeing it as nothing more than a way to get out of her pajamas and back into the world. But over next twelve months, from St. Patrick’s Day through Poetry Month, graduation/Father’s Day/summer reading/Christmas and back again to those shamrock displays, Shea lived and breathed books in a place she says sells “ideas, stories, encouragement, answers, solace, validation, the basic ammunition for daily life.”
© Copyright Booklist.
An author gets a read on bookstore culture
But three years ago, as she recovered from breast cancer surgery and treatment, Shea received an unexpected chance to view a bookstore — and its patrons — from a different perspective.
“For many months you go through being cared for and checked on every day, and then you’re spat out into the world to resume your life,” wrote Shea of her recuperation. “Now what?”
It turned out to be a most unlikely employment opportunity. When her friend Janet Edwards called, hoping Shea could recommend a part-time employee for her family bookstore, Shea had one: herself. Thus was formed the basis of her engaging memoir, “Shelf Life,” an often-humorous account of Shea’s first year behind the counter at Edwards Books in Springfield.
The curious sight of a writer employed in a bookstore is not lost on Shea: “Not unlike a farmer hanging around the dairy section. A fashion designer lurking in the boutique. . . . The quarterback hiding in the back seat during the fans’ ride home.”
Much of her work is mundane — learning how to run the register, shelving books, setting up exhibits, answering customers’ questions, scheduling author appearances — and she often silently wishes she could challenge customers’ buying habits (such as the purchasers of the treacly Blue Mountain line of greeting cards).
Conversely, Shea isn’t shy about describing her efforts at making sure that her own books, five in all, aren’t buried on the shelves — though she also notes that when she said to a customer holding one of her books, “I’ve heard it’s quite good,” the woman responded, “Doesn’t look it.”
Many colorful characters pass through the bookstore’s doors each day, not the least of whom are Edwards family members: Janet, the friend/boss, trumpeting loudly “Look, she’s here!” when Shea shows up for her first day on the job; matriarch Flo, a woman in her 80s who still works full time and whose devotion to her business has kept the independent bookstore thriving amid the influx of chains and online options; and Janet’s seventh-grade daughter, Christina, a frequent after-school visitor who thinks “it’s cool” that her mother owns a bookstore.
The patrons are an eclectic lot, from the pilot who was looking for a book on “rekindling love” to the fellow who just wanted to learn how to talk to — not even date — a woman to a businessman who wanted “nothing complicated. You know, something I’ll just read and forget” and the man who somehow left his teeth behind.
And, as Shea notices, many of them hug their books to their chest: “Maybe it’s a natural way to hold a book. . . . As if between the covers is something precious, sacred, beloved. . . . I watch the customers browse, select, hug, pay, hug again.”
All the while, it’s clear that Shea’s job has brought her full circle back to the legacy of Johnson’s, the legendary Springfield institution that was her first bookstore, located only a few hundred yards from her current shop: “I remember best the air. Johnson’s smelled of possibilities. Something emitted by the pages in all those books on all those shelves. Here is where you can learn this, meet them, get lost, maybe find your way.”
© Copyright Boston Globe.
Los Angeles Times
© Copyright Los Angeles Times.
© Copyright Publisher’s Weekly.
Publisher’s Weekly Daily for Booksellers
Home away from home: one of Suzanne Strempek Shea’s places of employment
“It’s so funny to write a book and sell it, which I did with my memoir and novels,” Shea said. “But selling a book about bookselling here is even funnier.”
In fact, adding to the looping quality, at least one customer Shea discusses in Shelf Life came into the store on Friday: Bill MacGregor, by whom “you can set your watch,” as Shea writes. (A banker, he regularly stops by the store after work.) On Good Friday, MacGregor bought a copy of Shelf Life, which Shea enthusiastically signed. She also highlighted his name where it appears in the book.
It was not a difficult sale, to put it mildly, and the transaction seemed only to highlight Shea’s enjoyment of bookselling. As an employee, she said, for her, “bookselling is like having grandchilden. “You get to have all the fun and give them back at the end of the day.”
Her bookselling experience also gave her an edge over other authors curious about how their new books are doing: when she arrived Friday morning, Shea checked the computer inventory and saw that “only” 390 copies were on hand, meaning 10 had been sold. Working behind the counter has also changed Shea’s experience touring or simply visiting other stores. As an author, she wanted mainly to see how and where her books were displayed. “Now I see how things are set up, how the counter’s done, what sidelines they have,” she said. “It’s almost paid research.”
She also talks with booksellers differently, she said. For example, she asks how certain books are selling or where they buy sidelines. In general, she said, her experience at Edwards has given her a greater appreciation of independent booksellers, particularly “the things they do to get people in.”
The author of Selling the Lite of Heaven and Hoopi Shoopi Donna, among other titles, Shea was recovering from breast cancer surgery in 2001 when Janet Edwards, owner of Edwards, where she often shopped, asked if she knew anyone who might be interested in working the store. “I was spending too much time alone at home,” she said, so she took the job, which had more of a healing quality than she expected.
“It’s such a fascinating thing,” Shea continued. “If I could have landed anywhere, I couldn’t have picked a better place. It’s such a welcoming environment. They’re good, good people, like family. They’re a blessing.”
In Shelf Life, Shea captures many of the blessings and difficulties of bookselling, made all the more poignant because Edwards is in Springfield, an old New England mill city whose downtown has struggled for many years. But her spirit, like that of her colleagues, is contagious, and other booksellers will find many of Shea’s observations familiar and knowing–and delightfully expressed.
She sets the tone in the beginning, noting the variety of interests the store’s customers have. “They all have many questions. And so they come to me…. I have what everyone is seeking. Because I sell books.”
One customer, for example, is a pilot looking for “a book on rekindling love.” Janet Edwards spends half an hour with him, finding what he needs, a book that gives him an idea. Later that day he returns to the store to show a pair of gold earrings that he hopes will help in the rekindling effort.
Shea appreciates the attachment many customers have to the books they find, which extends to how they hold them. She writes: “The hugging to the chest is something I see often in the store. Maybe it’s the natural way to hold a book, as there is sort of a natural way to hold an infant or a watermelon. But since taking note of it, I have observed that people in the CVS downstairs don’t go walking the aisles with even the most costly Pantene clutched to their bosoms.”
At the same time, Shea laughs at some customers’ classically dumb questions. Among them: “This trilogy has only three books. Where’s the fourth?” Or the vague demand, “I want a book by that woman who was on TV the other morning.” With a newcomer’s perspective and imagination, she has fun with certain elements of the business many of us in the industry have too long taken for granted. For example, she translates ISBN to herself as “I Sell Books Now.” Similarly, when she mentions the computer system, she describes it as having “the frog-vocabulary name IBID.”
She captures the importance of bookselling for herself as a writer and other writers. “I know what it’s like to create the work. Now I am finding out what it’s like to watch that work go off to its audience.”
She traces the rhythms of the store during a typical day as well as from season to season, and artfully sketches the personalities of other booksellers at Edwards. Gregarious Janet Edwards, for example, explains why she keeps the store open: “It really is a world begging for connection. And you don’t have to look very far to find it. It’s unbelievable what happens when people come through those doors. Maybe community is lacking elsewhere, but here, in this store, sometimes we know too much about one another.”
Happily Shea works in a kind of bookstore that encourages booksellers to take the initiative. As Flo Edwards, Janet’s mother, puts it: “Suzanne can do anything she wants.” So Shea becomes involved in most parts of the business. She nearly single-handedly introduces sidelines to the store. She helps organize and put on events. The only problem about working at Edwards, it seems, is the employee discount and temptation all around her. “It’s like working in a candy shop,” Shea said. “I spend so much money!”
© Copyright Publisher’s Weekly Daily for Booksellers.
Providence Journal/Sunday Bulletin
Recovering in a bookstore
Shea rapidly learned that confidentiality in a bookstore is important. You don’t make the careless remark that may embarrass a customer, or comment in any way about who buys what. She discusses the independent Denver bookstore that refused to release a customer’s purchase record to police. The court recognized the public’s right to buy books anonymously without government interference, and the store kept its records to itself. This is less tightly written than Shea’s novels, with a few lists of what’s available in a good bookstore and a lot of good anecdotes. The author recovered her health and her joie de vivre during the year spent at Edwards, and now, two years later and back to writing, she is still on the staff part-time. By the time I finished reading, I was ready to go hunt a bookstore job for myself.
© Copyright Providence Journal/Sunday Bulletin.
Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA)
“Get thee to a bookstore,” is her mantra, and it is a good one. “You never know what you’ll find in there,” she writes. “Maybe a copy, as well as the feeling, of ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being.’ Or as one shopper called that book, ‘Lightheadedness.’ ”
You will want to rush out to a bookstore when you finish “Shelf Life.” But you may not be in search of a book; you may want a job instead.
© Copyright Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA).
The Improper Bostonian
Shelf Life tells of writer Suzanne Strempek Shea’s year working at a bookstore in Springfield, Mass.
© Copyright The Improper Bostonian.
Novelist Suzanne Strempek Shea goes behind the counter to experience life as a bookseller
© Copyright Valley Advocate.
© Copyright Yankee.
Worcester (Mass.) Telegram & Gazette
Drama unfolds between shelves; Bookstore stint inspires writer
Ms. Shea hung up the phone. Several possible candidates passed through her mind before she happened upon the perfect one. She called Ms. Edwards back. “How about me?’ she asked.
“You need to write,” Ms. Edwards said.
“I need to get out of here,'” Ms. Shea answered.
So she went to work at Edwards, a move that ensured she would get out of the house at least one day a week. And she did write, tooa book on her bookselling experiences that tells, in a delightful and engaging way, of her experiences as a novice bookseller based on her time at Edwards and the hundreds of stores she has visited nationwide while on book tours for her novels.
Ms. Shea will sign copies of the book, “Shelf Life: Romance, Mystery, Drama, and other Page-Turning Adventures from a year in a Bookstore,” (Beacon Press, $20, hardcover) at two local venues not unlike the independent bookstore that inspired the book. She will be at Tatnuck Bookseller, 335 Chandler St., Worcester, at 7 p.m. Thursday; and at the Booklover’s Gourmet, 55 East Main St., Webster, from 1:30 to 3 p.m. May 22.
Ms. Shea , the winner of the 2000 New England Book Award for Fiction, is the author of four novels, “Selling the Lite of Heaven,” “Hoopi Shoopi Donna,” “Lily of the Valley,” and “Around Again,” and the memoir “Songs from a Lead-Lined Room: NotesHigh and Lowfrom My Journey through Breast Cancer and Radiation.” She lives in the Bondsville section of Palmer.
“It’s going really well,” she said, by cell phone recently as she rode the Mass Turnpike from Palmer to a publicity gig in Boston. (Her husband, Springfield Republican columnist Tom Shea, was doing the driving.) “It’s interesting because ‘Songs’ was my first nonfiction book and I was very close to it. But with this book, I feel happier about the topic, for apparent reasons, and so for me it’s wonderful to see that others are finding that too. I’ve gotten better reviews and comments on this than I have on most things that I’ve written.”
The book is alternately tenderly insightful and downright funny. Ms. Shea, 45, has been on book tours that have taken her from coast to coast.
In one stretch of 12 months, she made no fewer than 200 appearances in bookstores, book fairs, libraries, church picnics and hospital gift shops, inside and outside in all weather.
And we mean all weather.
A reading at the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley coincided with a hurricane warning. Ms. Shea called the store owner to find out when she wanted to reschedule the reading as the trees in her yard began to dance in the wind. “People have been calling,” the store owner said. “They say they’ll come if you will.”
“I had nothing planned but a night hiding out in my basement with a transistor radio and a bag of Doritos, so I hopped in my car,” Ms. Shea writes. “The way I saw it, and as this very sentence proves, a reading in a hurricane would make a story somewhere down the line.” (About a dozen people showed up)
A poignant moment came when Ms. Shea, before she worked at Edwards, stopped into the bookstore as a customer, just after her first novel was published.
“I can still see her (Janet Edwards) standing at the right hand side of the counter, handing an Ohio salesman my book with the guarantees ‘If you don’t like it you can bring it back, but I promise you you’re going to love it.'”
“At first I thought she must have seen me come in, but there was no way she could have,” Ms. Shea said. “I was totally amazed. I didn’t know her that well at the time and she was doing this for me. I’ve tried to return the favor. There are authors that I may never meet and I’m continuously bringing people over to their books and saying ‘You’ve got to read this.’ or ‘You’ve got to add this to your shelf.’ I think this is one thing that makes small bookstores such special places.”
She’s been in hundreds, but each is unique, she said, including the two local ones she will visit.
“It’s really great,” she said of the tiny Booklover’s Gourmet, where she has read once before. “It has all these different hallways and sections and a little cafe area. It’s very intimate. It’s one of those places where you really feel at home, and book clubs meet there and it’s just like sitting in somebody’s living room.”
Tatnuck also is very much its own place. “You hear about how Tatnuck started in this tiny little store, and look at it now. It’s got all these little sections and it’s unique. I’ve been fortunate enough to see hundreds of places and I can’t compare anything to either one of them.”
But, unique as each is, independent bookstores do have a few things in common.
“It’s basically the spirit of themand nothing against the bigger stores, because they’ve been great to me, toobut when you walk in these small stores, someone will actually approach you and even if you don’t know what you want they ‘ll start leading you around and say ‘I read this’ or ‘this is just in,’ or ‘let me run out back and check.’
“It’s just really wonderful, the one-to-one contact you get when you walk into a place like that.”
© Copyright Worcester (Mass.) Telegram & Gazette.
Strempek Shea has a rare ability to make ordinary people and humdrum happenings sound interesting, such as opening packages containing books, taking out the layers of books (all titles are mentioned) until the invoice appears – and then going to the computer and recovering the same invoice there, and then doing what is necessary to confirm recept. Sounds boring? Strempek Shea makes it vibrate. Add to it the delightful little portraits of people, coworkers as well as customers, and, of course, comments on books and cards and the “stuff” one buys in a bookstore. Strempek Shea’s small tome is likely to make a booklover out of a person whose only encounter with hardbound books is the “how to” manual on house decorating.
When this reader first learned that this is a story of the author’s first year in a bookstore, apprehension set in. After a few dozen pages I felt that the book could not be put away – it had to be read to the end even though its plot is thin. Strempek Shea makes one realize how incredibly interesting human beings are, event the most boring ones. Once their portraits are sketched out in words, tey acquire a second life, as it were. Oh, the power of words. Strempek Shea possesses that power to a high degree. So many writers live off unusual plots and adventures, or the method of t’pater le bourgeois. Strempek Shea makes a cake out of a sack of cement, and it tastes good and is good for you. There are certainly ups and downs in the book, and occasionaly there are passages which one feels could have been deleted. But the book flows and the reader’s interest does not flag. The staff of Edwards Bookstore in Springfield, Mass., has been immortalized.
Strempek Shea is one of the few successful writers of Polish background in the United States today, and she got there without the help of kingmakers. She can only count on us readers, and we should not fail her.
© Copyright Sarmatian Review.
© Copyright Olympian.
Fine Books and Collections Magazine
Any bookseller or librarian will recognize these characters. These professions are kindred specialties. Both field questions and decipher the wants of their patrons, finding the right book for the right person on the right occasion. They wield empathy and patience to understand what their customers need, especially when their customers aren’t aware themselves what exactly they want. It inspires the enthusiasm of a guru in Shea. “I do indeed have what everyone is seeking,” she proudly quips. “Because I sell books.”
Janet Edwards has run the store for nearly 30 years, and her presence in the community is at once rock solid and catalytic. “The customers call the store Janet’s because Janet is the heart, the soul, the furnace from which emanates the warmth, smarts, unflagging energy and goodwill that, despite the rather hidden location, a ping-ponging economy, and big-box competition, keeps the place alive.” Her coworkers (all of them women) have a tight-knit symbiosis with the store. It’s not simply a job for them, but a second family, providing close company, emotional support, and potluck dinners. Janet correctly claims, “This is a family business. We hire only family.”
Shea finds herself in he curious position of being an author in a store selling authors’ wares, straddling several links in the publishing food chain. She surreptitiously uses her position arranging the store’s displays to promote her own titles at the expense of big-name authors like John Grisham, who needs no help in moving volumes. When she recommends one of her books to a potential buyer with a modest “I’ve heard it’s quite good,” the woman responds, “Doesn’t look it.”
There is another fascinating character at the center of Shelf Life – the bookstore itself, a destination drawing people of different backgrounds together to learn, exchange information, and interact with each other. It’s a case study of the bookstore in the ecology of a community. The story of Edwards Books encompasses the story of Springfield, an industrial city in western Massachusetts trying to revitalize itself after industry has abandoned it. Stores like Edwards are institutions that form the DNA of a good community, and like the strands of life, they are entwined in its survival.
There are thousands of retail bookstores in the United States, yet comparatively few are so special that they create a sense of ownership in the community. Shea links the demise of so many independents to the enormous inventories and influential buying power of chain stores. “All the more reason,” she suggests, “for traditional stores to stress ‘Let me find that for you.’ ” Small, personal courtesies pay off when customers tell her, “I could have gotten this online for thirty percent off…but I wanted to do business here.” That single statement may point to the major problem confronting many independent bookstores today – and to a possible solution.
Shelf Life is a personal missive from the frontline of the independent bookstore struggle. Shea warmly observes this world and captures her colleagues’ and her own enthusiasm, but doesn’t romanticize it. Bookselling, for all the magic bibliophiles find in it, is also mundane, and Shea’s readers might see how difficult and tiresome running a bookstore can be. Seasons and years pass, children grow up and leave town, catastrophe strikes, wars come, old friends pass on – but as of this review, Shea still works at Edwards books.
© Copyright Fine Books and Collections Magazine.