Shelf Life: Romance, Mystery, Drama. and Other Page-Turning Adventures from a Year in a Bookstore

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.”



May 1, 2004
“Novelist Shea turned memoirist in Songs from a Lead-Lined Room, a chronicle of her bout with breast cancer. She now continues her upbeat recovery saga with a smart and jocund contribution to the ever-popular “year of” genre by telling the tale of her first year working in an independent bookstore. Realizing that although she was healing physically, she needed a reason to leave the house, Shea jumped at the chance to work at Edwards Books in Springfield, Massachusetts. She launches her piquant and irresistible narrative with a hilarious riff on the questions bookstore clients ask, which is followed by revealing glimpses into her experiences as a touring author and a supple overview of the state of the book worked in general and endangered independent bookstores in particular. With her sparkling humor, reporter’s eye for detail, raconteur’s love of anecdote, literary passion, and affection for humankind, Shea fashions a fresh and rousing tribute to the grand and quirky tradition of bringing books and readers together, with insight, finesse, and enthusiasm.”

© Copyright Booklist.

Boston Globe

An author gets a read on bookstore culture

By Judy Van Handle
July 15, 2004
Suzanne Strempek Shea has never been a stranger to bookstores — as a young girl, she treasured her family visits to a downtown Springfield shop. Years later, when she was beginning her first job out of college as a newspaper reporter, she would spend “much too much” of her paycheck at the same store.As her own literary career began to flourish, Shea visited hundreds of bookstores to conduct readings and signings, meeting countless customers and employees on her tour stops. She never thought of complaining because she was “meeting the readers who, in essence, are the people that keep me in business.”

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

April 25, 2004
“I am now an author working in a bookstore,” writes Shea of her three years working at Edwards Books in Springfield, Mass. “I am a spy from another land.” A reader must decide for himself, but in the end, the frantic life of readings and author tours and explanations seems less appealing than life in this quiet family-run store, where the clerks double as psychotherapists and the friendships made are just as real as the sacred object itself. (Shea notices that people tend to carry books close to their chests, like babies.) In a country of 25,000 bookstores, Shea counts maybe 300 “truly outstanding stores.” “Shelf Life” has much the same feel as a browse through a bookstore; the digressions, the snippets of conversation, the lure of new titles and the possibility of something that could change a life.

© Copyright Los Angeles Times.

Publisher’s Weekly

To fill the time as she recovered from cancer and chemotherapy, Strempek Shea volunteered at a friend’s independent bookstore in Springfield, Mass. An accomplished novelist (Around Again; Lily of the Valley), Strempek Shea felt at first like a spy-“a farmer hanging around the dairy section”-as she observed customers in constant discovery of books. Despite the bleak reason for her new job, she embraced it with delight and here recounts her sojourn at Edwards Books with humor and passion.Not a great deal happens though, even during the coverage of 9/11. She looks at the small, independent bookstore, and how it stays in business. Although she can’t help making fun of the inane questions she’s sometimes asked (“What would you recommend for a flight to California? I’ll be sleeping most of the time”), she lovingly portrays devoted book folks, such as “the tiny older woman who arrives on her payday to buy two or three more mysteries. The young woman who received the call that the latest of the Gothic novels her mother collects have arrived.” The author also shares droll, albeit tacitly self-promoting, insights on the tour for her latest book (“there are maybe forty people at my reading, and I even know two of them!”). As readers absorb the life of the bookstore and author, many will be tempted to look for the titles she drops throughout the work. Book enthusiasts who pine for a friendly, like-minded community will love this light, funny memoir.

© Copyright Publisher’s Weekly.

Publisher’s Weekly Daily for Booksellers

Home away from home: one of Suzanne Strempek Shea’s places of employment

By John Mutter
Monday, April 12, 2004
In a charming kind of looping, last week author Suzanne Strempek Shea, who has worked part time in a bookstore for the last three years, helped sell copies of her new book, Shelf Life (Beacon, $20), an account of her first year as an author working part time in a bookstore.The store is Edwards Books in Springfield, Mass., and on Good Friday, PW Daily was on hand as Edwards began selling some of the 400 copies Shelf Life that had arrived the day before–and which now fill several tables and shelves and are impossible to miss on entering the store.

“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

By Lois D. Atwood
July 4, 2004
Those of us who think bookstores and libraries are the two best places in the world will enjoy this book by Suzanne Strempek Shea about her year on the staff of Edwards Books. Still reeling and disconnected from the previous year of battling breast cancer, she needed a reason to get out of her pajamas and away for a while from the writer’s solitude of her home. She was offered part-time work at a favorite bookstore in Springfield, Mass., and became part of the staff family. A former reporter for The Providence Journal and the Springfield Union-News, Shea brings a reporter’s eye for detail to her work. She has published four novels and a memoir, Notes from a Lead-Lined Room, has another novel coming out very soon, and won the New England Book Award for Fiction in 2000.Shelf Life is pleasant, amusing, and sometimes passionate. For her, working in a bookstore was like being a sugar freak in a candy store, she writes. One of the bonuses is being able to promote her own books — how many authors get to set up a display of their own just-published novel (Around Again) where and as they want it? Another is feeling all-wise as she matches book and customer.

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)

Seller’s Market

May 16, 2004
If you’ve ever fantasized about working in a bookstore, ‘Shelf Life: Romance, Mystery, Drama, and Other Page-turning Adventures from a Year in a Bookstore,’ by Suzanne Strempek Shea (Beacon, $20), is the book for you. Shea, who is recovering from breast cancer, is having trouble getting a new book under way, so when a friend calls and asks her for help in finding a new bookstore employee, Shea offers herself as a job candidate.The author of five novels, Shea begins to experience literary life from the other side of the counter. She describes the struggles of her store, a family bookstore called Edwards Books in Springfield, Mass.; the changing seasons; the eccentric and wonderful staff. She learns about never judging customers, about instant books (in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks), about how to pack cards properly. Readers will wonder if the airline pilot, a customer in search of a book about rekindling love, was successful; will laugh at the false teeth in a bag behind the counter, awaiting return to their proper owner; will rejoice in Shea’s return to life and health and energy.

“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.

By Mopsy Strange Kennedy
June 9, 2004
Where do books come from? These days, the stork brings them via the Internet, apparently. But the depersonalized mode of literary browsing only makes the human world of real bookstores, especially independent, family-owned shops, more precious. And it’s that atmosphere that Suzanne Strempek Shea sought out. A novelist who’d lived through cancer and written a book about her travails, she went to work at Edwards Books, where she found a world of engagement in the community of readers, the knowledgeable and eccentric hangers-on (one guy loved to read titles out loud and thrilled her by reading one of hers) and in the owner, Janet Edwards.Shea’s love of Brookline Booksmith spilled over to her cozy vocation at Edwards. At this literary watering hole, says the owner, “It really is a world begging for connection.” Shea describes authors’ readings–including her own–that, even with somtimes squirmingly small audiences were exhausting, gratifying, quirky fun. With one foot in book-writing and the other in book-selling, Shea champions authors, especially local ones and celebrates the excitement that radiates through the stores as flesh and book make contact.

© Copyright The Improper Bostonian.

Valley Advocate

Novelist Suzanne Strempek Shea goes behind the counter to experience life as a bookseller

By Maureen Turner
April 29, 2004
A writer working in a bookstore, as Suzanne Strempek Shea sees it, is a spy of sorts. “Not unlike a farmer hanging around the dairy section. A fashion designer lurking in the boutique. … The quarterback hiding in the backseat during the fan’s ride home,” she writes in her new memoir, Shelf Life: Romance, Mystery, Drama, and Other Page-turning Adventures from a Year in a Bookstore. Strempek Shea’s spy territory is Edwards Bookstore in downtown Springfield. Several days a week, for the past several years, she’s left her home in Palmer and her work as a writer (a career that’s included four well-received novels; the memoir Songs from a Lead-lined Room, about being diagnosed and then treated for breast cancer; and a New England Book Award for Fiction) and headed to her job at Edwards, where she stocks shelves and rings up purchases and plans author-readings — and sees, first-hand, what happens when book and reader first meet. And Strempek Shea is not above making sure readers meet her books particularly. She gamely admits to shameless self-promotion of her own books — relocating them to prime spots on the shelves, sticking them in the cardboard displays that stand near the front of the store. “I have passed customers with one of my books in hand and have said to them, ‘I heard that’s quite good,'” Strempek Shea writes. “Most have nodded, smiled. One informed me, ‘Doesn’t look it.'” And when shoppers come in looking for mindless beach reads, the writer in her cringes. “Because when you lead them to your opinion of a book they’ll read that morning and forget by lunch,” she writes, “you hope that somewhere in some bookstore at the very same moment, a clerk is not leading a similar customer to one of your titles and saying, as you are announcing now, ‘Pick any of these. Trust me. If you remember a single thing from this story, you can have your money back.'” There’s a generosity of spirit in Strempek Shea’s writing, and in her approach to customer service — even when that customer is buying something from a treacly yet popular line of greeting cards called Blue Mountain. “As a bookstore employee, I’m not supposed to judge choices of reading material, and neither should I go jabbing customers about their selections of greeting cards,” she writes. “I should squelch the ‘You’re really buying this?’ and take their $3.75 plus tax and give them a bag and smile. Because people who buy Blue Mountain — especially people who buy Blue Mountain– have feelings. Scripty, swirly, Karo-syrupy feelings, maybe. But feelings nonetheless.” So, too, does she hold her tongue when customers buy, for instance, th maudlin September 11-memorial books, or one of the endless self-help titles that pass through the shop. Strempek Shea’s passion for books is not bound up in snobby notions of what’s “worthy” of such adoration; no matter what kind of stories or information, fantasies or facts her customers are looking for, they want books, and that makes her happy. Working at a bookstore, she’s noticed something she’s never seen at other stores: When the clerk hands customers their purchases, they invariably hug their new book to their chests. Strempek Shea holds booksellers in the same esteem some people reserve for ballplayers and pop stars (and more should reserve for, say, nurses and good teachers). Her first love, the venerable Johnson’s, for decades sat proudly on Springfield’s Main Street before closing a few years ago. Trips to Johnson’s were a treat for Strempek Shea as a child; as an adult, just out of college and working as a reporter at the Union-News, she’d head to Third National Bank to cash her paycheck, “much too much of which was spent next door at Johnson’s Bookstore, which conveniently was connected to Third National by an inner door. That entrance should have been shaped like a funnel, because that’s what it was for me.” But the star of Shelf Life is Edwards, a small but vibrant shop that sits at the top of the escalator in Springfield’s not-especially-vibrant Tower Square. Edwards is as unpretentious as its hometown, not too snobby to stock John Grisham or the various Venus and Mars offspring but also the place to head for Roddy Doyle or books on Native American culture. It’s a second-generation family business, run by the big-hearted Janet Edwards, assisted by a small group of faithful helpers, including her elderly mom, Flo, whom some regulars call “Mother.” Strempek Shea joined the Edwards family in 2001, when her friend Janet was looking for part-time help and Strempek Shea, just coming off her successful cancer treatment, was looking for the next phase of her life. “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,” she writes. “Now what? you wonder. What’s going to get me now? Or what should I be doing now so something won’t get me? Or how should I be living now that I still have a chance to live?” She asked whether employees get a discount. They do, Edwards told her; 30 percent. Strempek Shea took the job, and thus began her life as a spy.

© Copyright Valley Advocate.


June 2004
When she was recovering from treatment for breast cancer, novelist Suzanne Strempek Shea was seized by a desire to be “in an environment that had no connection to the past year.” So she took a job at her friend Janet’s bookstore, Edwards Books in Springfield, Massachusetts. (An author working in a bookstore, says Shea, is a bit like “a dairy farmer hanging around the cheese shop.”) She is delighted by everything she discovers, and she shares her discoveries in this mostly lighthearted book-about-bookstores. Planning a bookstore event in honor of Bob Dylan’s 60th birthday, Shea realizes she has reconnected with “the me I was before the diagnosis.” And this, in the end, is the advice she offers, “should the day dawn when you look in the mirror and aren’t sure who’s looking back.” When that happens, she urges, “Get thee to a bookstore.”

© Copyright Yankee.

Worcester (Mass.) Telegram & Gazette

Drama unfolds between shelves; Bookstore stint inspires writer

By Nancy Sheehan
May 4, 2004
The call came when popular local author Suzanne Strempek Shea was sitting squished up in an armchair one Saturday afternoon in 2001. It was Janet Edwards, owner of Edwards Bookstore in Springfield. She needed someone to work at the store an afternoon or two a week. Could Ms. Shea help spread the word?She wasn’t asking Ms. Shea to take the job because she knew she really needed to work on the novel she owed her publisher. And there were health issues. A year earlier Ms. Shea had been diagnosed with breast cancer and undergone extensive radiation therapy, which left her with bouts of fatigue she still battles occasionally. She had been sitting around the house wondering what she would do with her future, now that the apparently successful treatments had given her one.

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.

Sarmatian Review

By Sally Boss
September 2004
A bookstore is about a community. In the age of universal literacy there cannot be a real community without a bookstore. Unfortunately there are plenty of “communites” without bookstore. These are false communities consisting of people united by the same income level or a desire to live in the same suburb, share the same guarded and fenced subdivison entrance, and note imperfections in each other’s lawns and living rooms. Perhaps the reason people feel so lonely in middle-class subdivisions of American cities is that in spite of their literacy their major contact with the printed word occurs through reading labels on grocery packages. They might pick up a free advertising sheet in the local mall, and some of them even subscribe to a local paper. But the idea of going to a bookstore and browsing among the recently published books is alien to them. this is mass society, and it does not make for good citizenry.Such thoughts come to mind as one reads Strempek Shea’s newest book, Shelf Life. It is about working in a bookstore, and it is autobiographical. After a bout with cancer which she commemorated in Songs from a Lead-Lined Room, she reentered life via the bookstore door. She began to work in a local store, and the book under review is the fruit of her year-long career as a bookseller.

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.


By Lew Hamburg, a community library assistant, Timberland (Washington) Regional Library
Doesn’t it just fry your bacon when someone writes the book that you had intended to write but just never got around to? I spent 17 years managing stores for the big chains, had my own bookstore for a while and still occasionally drop a little something on eBay. Droll stories and anecdotes? I got ’em. So, Ms. Shea waltzes into her neighborhood independent bookstore, fiddles around for a year part time, and voila! A book. Jealous? Who, me? Of course I am!Suzanne Shea is an author who has spent quite a bit of time doing author tours, in and out of hundred of bookstore. A bout of breast cancer knocked her world out from underneath her feet. She landed wobbly, but on her feet. Exhausted, depressed and suffering form writers block, she was sort of drafted into working in her neighborhood bookstore. Up the escalator “…into a small, family owned independent bookstore in a half-dark, half-closed urban mall…” Ms. Shea describes a year in the life of the bookstore from holiday display to holiday display. You find out along the way how the book business works and that reports of the demise of the independent bookseller have been greatly exaggerated. But you also learn the importance and impact of books in Ms. Shea’s life and the life of the customers in the bookstore. The author is familiar with the territory of books as a writer and books as a reader, but books as a business is uncharted waters that she sails courageously into. This is a thoughtful well-written and entertaining book . Much to my relief, Ms. Shea didn’t tell all the good stories about the book business. She left me a few good ones for my own venture into writing and publishing.

© Copyright Olympian.

Fine Books and Collections Magazine

By Pasco Gasbarro, book review editor
November/December 2004
Shea is a writer whose previous book, Songs from a Lead-Lined room, described her diagnosis and treatment for breast cancer. Following her recuperation, she took a job at Edwards Bookstore in Springfield, Massachusetts, at the request of friend and storeowner, Janet Edwards. Much to her surprise, the author became an employee of a retail bookstore, stocking shelves, filling back-orders, and arranging window displays. She capture the mundane mechanics of selling new books, including the drudgery, the frustrations, and the job’s greatest satisfactions – answering questions and helping customers.Edwards’s customers provide the book’s most humorous and illuminating stories. A woman who needs a magazine article calls the store and asks, “I don’t suppose you could…cut out the article I want and mail it to me?” A traveling businessman wants “something I’ll just read and forget.” Shea considers creating a window display – Books That Won’t Make you think – but discreetly shelves the notion. There are schoolchildren whose excitement about books is not dampened by required reading lists and customers who would sooner skip their morning cup of coffee than their regular shop visits. An older gentleman, awkward and unsure, wants to know how to talk with women or, more specifically, how to rekindle a romance with one particular woman. “I’ve found the right one,” he ways. “I just don’t want to make a mistake.”

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.