Here at Libro.fm, we wanted to hear from booksellers around the country about how they and their bookstores were coping with the effects of the pandemic. For this series, we spoke with Mike Kelleher—one of the booksellers hired by Libro.fm in their effort to help indie booksellers—as well as a bookseller at A Great Good Place for Books in Oakland, California.
Could you give us a brief overview of your career in bookselling?
“Career in bookselling” is an interesting question for me because most of my work at my neighborhood bookstore, A Great Good Place for Books (“GGP”), is on a volunteer basis. I started helping the store when my daughter worked there and the store needed help with its website. Over the last decade, I’ve gradually taken responsibility for the website, social media, and technology support for the store.
When I’m not selling books, I pay my bills by helping other attorneys go to trial with litigation graphics and in-court technology. (I litigated for 16 years as an attorney myself, but I now focus on courtroom technology and graphics). My litigation-technology gig often leaves me with big blocks of time between projects, so I fill that time with my volunteer-bookseller role.
How has the pandemic affected your bookstore?
A Great Good Place For Books reopened its doors to customers in May after a shelter-in-place closure in March and April. GGP is not a big place, so only six people are allowed in the store at a time, and customers wear masks and disposable gloves that we provide. On the positive side, we have succeeded in introducing more customers to audiobooks from Libro.fm. We are keeping up engagement with our customers with author chats streamed on Zoom, and with bi-weekly virtual book clubs. It is heartening to see all the support from our community, which has really stepped up to keep GGP in business through this time.
What does your bookstore offer your local community?
Our store prides itself on serving a community of families and booklovers. Kids grow up in our store, moving from their first picture-books to early readers to middle-grade books, YA, and beyond. Like many of her peers, my own daughter Liz had her first high-school job in the bookstore.
Our bookstore’s name, A Great Good Place for Books, derives from the title of Ray Oldenburg’s book, The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community. Oldenburg’s book discusses how communities need “third places,” or “great good places”—the many public places where people can gather, put aside the concerns of home and work (their first and second places), and hang out simply for the pleasures of good company and lively conversation.
GGP is a community hub. Kids gather there after school to hang out, eat cookies, and read books. Many people stop by during the day to chat and get the latest recommendation from Kathleen Caldwell, the store’s owner. Kathleen and GGP also give back to the community with school events, author talks, collecting books for donation, and more.
Are there ways in which your community has eased the difficulties brought on by Covid-19?
Our customers have been incredible in continuing to support the bookstore through this crisis. Customers have been ordering on our website, and also trying new services like audiobooks from Libro.fm. We have also appreciated an outpouring of support in social media. In addition, we’ve enjoyed new forms of gathering like our virtual book club meetings conducted on Zoom. Those gatherings have allowed us to share audiobook samples and stream author interviews from YouTube.
What’s been helping you to cope, not necessarily as a bookseller, but on a personal level?
Keeping busy has helped. Since the pandemic, I’ve learned how to webcast and I’ve used that to help the bookstore with virtual bookclubs and author chats. I’ve also been a camera-crew and video-editor to help my wife (an elementary school principal) communicate with her community. I’ve also enjoyed the opportunity to work with Libro.fm creating samples of audiobooks that we post on YouTube, Vimeo, and Soundcloud. In addition, I’ve been running, baking sourdough bread, and listening to audiobooks.
Have any great reads been getting you through this?
I recently helped the store establish a science-fiction & fantasy section, so I’ve been listening to more sci-fi of late. I really enjoyed The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin which came out in mid-March. It is a story of how New York City comes to life and battles an attack by extra-dimensional invaders. Timely. Before that, I really loved The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel—beautifully layered literary fiction.
What audiobooks are you listening to during this time?
I usually switch off my listening between one fiction and one non-fiction book. My fiction book right now is The Peripheral by William Gibson. Gibson is a famous science-fiction writer who coined the term “cyberspace” in his first novel, Neuromancer. Gibson recently published a new novel, Agency, which I enjoyed in February. Agency is a follow-up to The Peripheral, which I had not previously read. Both turn on the idea that future post-apocalypse societies have learned to communicate with people in the present using “peripherals”—androids controlled by people from the future.
My nonfiction listen now is Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David W. Blight. It’s a long one, and I’m now about half-way through. I’m learning a great deal about slavery and the Civil War, and the book has many lessons applicable to our time of crisis now.
My wife and I enjoy listening to audiobooks together, and I highly recommend trying that. Just today, we started Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick, a collection of stories by Zora Neale Hurston. Very good so far!
What are your hopes for the bookstore community on the other side of the pandemic?
For many people, this crisis has driven home the importance of community, and I hope that realization continues to spread and grow. Bookstores are important for bringing people together, and I look forward to the time when I can recommend books again in-person.
What can we do now to help independent bookstores?
Keep reading, and keep buying your books from indie bookstores.
Anything else you’d like to share?
Audiobooks have been life-changing for me because I love books and now I am getting through so many more. When I pick up a book in paper, I often find my attention wandering. In contrast, a well-narrated audiobook sucks me into an immersive new world.