Bookseller, co-owner, and self-proclaimed libromancer at Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Josh Cook offers us a backstage view of some of the inner workings of the world of independent bookselling in his new work of nonfiction. What is a libromancer, you might ask? The suffix –mancer indicates someone who uses magic and the power of divination (think: necromancer or pyromancer) to achieve some end. As a libromancer, Cook uses the magic of his decades of bookselling experience (he joined PSB in the early 2000s) to connect customers in the store with great books. In The Art of Libromancy, he presents booksellers, publishers, and readers with a kind of manifesto for progressive independent bookselling today.
The Art of Libromancy’s fourteen essays (plus a reader’s introduction defining terms for readers unfamiliar with the lexicon of publishing and bookselling), evolved out of a chapbook published in 2021 by the innovative Canadian literary press, Biblioasis. The Least We Can Do: White Supremacy, Free Speech, and Independent Bookstores, included as one of the essays in this expanded collection from the same publisher, makes a case for the important role independent bookstores and booksellers can and should play in the fight against bigotry, racism, and rising fascistic ideologies. Cook argues that the least indie bookstores can do is not provide white supremacists and other hate-mongering idealogues with a platform by refusing to stock their books or host their events. Further, he implores bookstores to “[b]e active and intentional in your support of antiracist, antifascist, marginalized, and own voices with your staff picks, events, social media, in-store displays, handselling, and other publicity, marketing, and promotions.”
This argument—that bookstores cannot simply be neutral spaces in our socially unjust and politically-charged times—runs throughout The Art of Libromancy as Cook delves into and offers guidance on topics ranging from how to improve working conditions and pay for booksellers (hint: present circumstances aren’t stellar); to the eternal question booksellers face concerning genre and where to shelve books; to the challenges and rewards of reading experimental literature in translation; to the challenge of bookselling during a pandemic; to the status booksellers can embrace as stewards of early-career authors, championing their work and helping them “navigate the capitalist field of authorship, bringing them to places where they are most likely to enjoy enduring success.”
In “Bookselling in the Real World,” Cook confronts the whiteness and institutional bias inherent in the publishing industry. “White people are encouraged to go into publishing,” he points out, “white writers are supported and their visions and voices are validated by the craft of writing pedagogy and a number of literary institutions, white people in publishing publish white writers, white critics and journalists cover white books [guilty as charged here], white books get the most media attention and so books by white authors sell better than books by other people. Because only one Black author seems to sell with any consistency at any given time, they publish very few Black authors and give significant support to even fewer.”
Cook rightly asserts that this lack of support for authors of color results in lower sales which skews publisher data then used to make decisions about which books to stock in bookstores. Basing these decisions solely on what the distorted data suggests sells, rather than taking a curatorial approach to book buying “with justice in mind” therefore upholds systemic bias and racism in the industry. The solution Cook proposes sounds simple enough, or at least it would be in a world without the profit-driven influence of Amazon and consolidated mega publishing houses—the devastating effects of which he deftly explains in the reader’s introduction: “We need to buy fewer stacks of already popular, already well-supported, already privileged white writers and more books by everyone else.”
Not only do bookstores need to buy more books by everyone else, but as Cook explains in different ways in three separate essays, “On a Moving Train,” “Advocacy and Stewardship, Peace and Destiny,” and “Good Taste is a Thing You Do,” indie booksellers have an invaluable opportunity to steer readers in the direction of these books and into a richer, more diverse reading experience, and even toward books that “contemporary conservatives in particular and oppressive forces in general would prefer no one read.” Inspiringly, and maybe a little quixotic, Cook takes a heroic view of booksellers, fighting to “open what fascists strive to close,” making the business of bookselling sound more like a higher calling than an occupation. And maybe it is.
Cook is really at his best describing the art of handselling and making recommendations, a powerful skill that not only takes time to develop but also requires a deep commitment to reading “a shit ton of books,” talking to customers and other booksellers about what they’re reading, engaging with book recommendations and reviews online, and constantly familiarizing oneself with store stock. In “Tell Me Everything You’ve Ever Thought and Felt in Thirty Seconds,” one of the most delightfully personal essays in the collection, Cook breaks down his intuitive approach to handselling, which he notes involves an element of mystery. How does he know which book to recommend from his “mental bookcase”? Even after all these years, he is not entirely sure. What he is certain of, however, is the value of making personal connections with readers: “Books help us be together. It means something when a bookseller sees you in such a way that they can connect you with a book. Being seen is a felt experience, being connected is an emotion, and for readers, being seen and connected through books can be especially powerful.” As a one-time junior independent bookseller who witnessed more seasoned colleagues work their magic with handselling, I can attest to this power and to its capacity to build a loyal community of readers around a bookstore.
There are some overtly didactic moments in The Art of Libromancy as Cook outlines lessons for writers on how to form and nurture relationships with booksellers and, like an enthusiastic English teacher, gives us tips on how to read difficult books while assuring us we are smarter than we think. But this collection of essays comes from an undeniable place of passion for and commitment to social justice and the betterment of a venerable profession that has had its fair share of hard times. It’s intelligent, in many ways practical, a must-read for booksellers and a should-read for bookstore customers. As Cook says from the outset, “If books are important to you because you’re a reader or a writer, then how books are sold should be important to you as well.”
by Josh Cook
Published on August 22, 2023