Five Questions with Independent Bookstore Book Buyer Emilie Sommer
Yes, she buys books as a job.
The best compliment I can give Emilie Sommer is that when she recommends me a book, I immediately read it. I’m actually reading one of her recommendations, We Keep the Dead Close, a book that’s part memoir, part true crime, right now.
Emilie is a book buyer at East City Bookshop, my neighborhood bookstore. Yes, that’s right, she buys books for a living. She also runs the store’s new fiction book club and a monthly subscription service, appropriately named Emilie’s Pick.
Emilie was kind enough to answer a few questions about being a book buyer, working at an independent bookstore during a pandemic and, of course, what she’s reading.
What exactly does a book buyer do?
A book buyer decides which titles to stock in the store, and how many copies. I'm the buyer of our adult books; our eminently qualified Children's/YA Buyer Cecilia Cackley buys all of our kid and young adult titles. This is much better for our customers because she knows a lot more about children's literature than I do! I do both the frontlist and backlist buying for the rest of the store. "Frontlist" means those titles that have yet to be published. Just like in the fashion industry, we buy at least a season ahead, so in fall of 2020 I was buying titles coming out in spring/summer 2021. "Backlist" means older titles from previous seasons.
In order to buy frontlist, I meet with representatives from each large publisher and go over their seasonal catalogs. During normal times, most of these meetings are in person. Right now, we meet over the phone or via Zoom. I decide what to bring in based on past sales records, what I think our customers will want, and what I'm personally excited about. I try to cover two bases: books that I know people will be looking for specifically and unknown books that people will be excited to discover. I try to pay particular attention to diversity of identity and experience when it comes to authors, characters, and the content of the books.
For backlist buying, I look each day at what has sold and decide whether it needs to be reordered. I receive our daily sales log every evening and reorder every weekday based on what I think we need to restock. Sometimes something will happen in the zeitgeist and a backlist title we've never carried before needs to be brought in — The Queen's Gambit is a great example. That book was written in 1983, but we never carried it until the TV series came out. I'm always on the lookout for things like that.
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What’s it like working at an independent bookstore during a pandemic?
The best part of being a bookseller (for me) is being on the floor of the shop talking to customers and recommending books. We call it "hand-selling" because, ideally, we're pressing the perfect book into their hands.
For many months this year (March to August), that favorite part of our business was totally gone. I had to work to recreate it in other ways. Our book clubs continued to meet over Zoom, which helped; I started our "Friday Recs" series in our Instagram stories, which remains a really fun way to connect with our customer community; and I started a text hotline where people can text me for recommendations (That's still going — 202-539-2554. Text me if you need a book rec!). All of those things helped fill the vacuum left without face-to-face customer contact.
How can those of us who love indie book stores support them right now? Is there anything beyond buying books?
Thank you for asking this question! Buying books (and gift cards!) from indies is obviously important -- much needed and much appreciated. But other things can go a long way, too, like gently reminding your friends and family to shop local first whenever possible, following/tagging/sharing indies on social media, and generally disrupting the idea that Amazon's model of immediate, anonymous delivery should be the expectation and the norm. Those incredibly fast delivery times come at a great cost for their workers, the environment, and all small businesses who struggle to compete.
What recent releases would you recommend?
I think we can all agree that 2020 was a terrible year in many ways. There were still so many great books, though!
Some of my 2020 favorites were A Burning by Megha Majumdar, Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi, The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett,Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu, The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans, Memorial Drive by Natasha Trethewey (my favorite memoir in years), Hollywood Park by Mikel Jollett (highly recommended if you liked The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls or Educated by Tara Westover), and Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart (probably my personal favorite of the year).
Two books that I don't think got enough attention were The Knockout Queen by Rufi Thorpe and The Butterfly Lampshade by Aimee Bender. A small press title I loved was The Shame by Makenna Goodman, perfect for fans of Sheila Heti or Jenny Offill.
What 2021 books are you looking forward to?
Two of my most-anticipated 2021 reads came out just this month! I loved both The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr. and Better Luck Next Time by my friend Julia Claiborne Johnson.
Other books I loved and can't wait to sell: Milk Fed by Melissa Broder (February), When I Ran Away by Ilona Bannister (March), and Mary Jane by Jessica Anya Blau (May). Taylor Jenkins Reid and Steven Rowley both have excellent new novels coming in May as well.
The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Daila Harris comes out in August and is being blurbed as "The Devil Wears Prada meets Get Out"— accurate! Everyone who loved Alyssa Cole's When No One is Watching should enjoy The Other Black Girl, too.
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