— Gabrielle Zevin understands that readers can be
passionate about books — and about the places where
they buy them. Despite iPads and ebooks and dire
predictions of the extinction of the printed word, our
love affair with bookstores and their wares hasn’t
passion is a big part of what prompted Zevin, 35, to
write the novel booksellers have fallen madly in love
with this spring. "The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry"
is a charming tale about a widowed bookshop owner in a
small New England island community who is rescued from
grief by a child, a romance and, of course, books. His
"persnickety little bookstore" bears a telling
motto: "No Man Is an Island; Every Book is a
wanted to write a sentimental book, because people are
sentimental about their bookstores," says Zevin.
perfect fit for any reader who enjoyed "The
Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society," A.J.
Fikry won over booksellers immediately for obvious
reasons (the story also features a wise publishing house
representative, and each chapter opens with a
shelftalker, those enthusiastic little notes you find on
the shelves in indie shops the world over). A.J. Fikry
broke the record for endorsements for the American
Booksellers Association’s IndieNext program, was the
No. 1 IndieNext pick for April and could end up a book
club staple for years.
when publisher Algonquin sent out the galley to media,
booksellers, librarians and other industry types, the
ardent letter of introduction that came with it was
written not by an editor but by Miami’s Mitchell
Kaplan, owner of Books & Books.
biggest running conversation in the bookstore I’ve had
for 30 odd years is: ‘What are you reading?’ This
book does that as much as anything," Kaplan says.
"It’s a real love letter to readers."
with book lovers is a goal for Zevin, who grew up in
Boca Raton, Fla.
says, ‘What in this life is more personal than books?’"
Zevin says. "People get very flustered and
embarrassed about their favorites. The relationship is
very intimate." (Her favorite book? E.B. White’s
"Charlotte’s Web," because "I relate to
Charlotte — web-spinning is a great metaphor for
screenwriter ("Conversations With Other
Women") and author of seven other novels including
the popular young adult work Elsewhere, Zevin also sees
the novel as an examination of our reading lives and how
what we read reveals who we are. But the idea for A.J.
Fikry grew from a simple question: Why do bookstores
matter? She had published her first novel in 2005, and
in the years since, the publishing industry has grown
were addressed in my contract as an afterthought,"
she says. "Now they’re a major thing. There have
been so many changes. But if you look back, you see we’ve
been looking at the End of Publishing since the end of
the 20th century!"
after years of hand-wringing over print’s demise,
"The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry" arrives at a
cautiously hopeful time for booksellers. Independent
bookstores seem to be staging a comeback, despite the
death of chains like Borders, the struggles of Barnes
& Noble and the explosive rise of digital sales
(though sales have leveled off, according to Publisher’s
Weekly). Novelist Ann Patchett made a splash when she
opened Parnassus Books in Nashville in 2011.
Restaurateur Paul Ruppert plans to open Upshur Books
this fall in Washington to go with two other businesses
on the same street. Seattle neighborhood Queen Anne lost
its store in fall 2012, and bereft customers spent one
long, cold holiday season missing it. In March of 2013,
three locals came to the rescue, opening Queen Anne Book
in 2013, Publisher’s Weekly named Oren Teicher, CEO of
the ABA, as its Person of the Year, writing that "(t)he
independent bookselling community has been counted out
more than once over the past three decades. ... by 2013,
the sector had recovered enough that independent
bookstores are once again seen as critical to the
success of the book industry."
Zevin’s novel, Island Books lures patrons with a
memorable author appearance and a variety of book clubs,
one of which is for cops and run by the police chief
(weapons must be checked at the door after "a
particularly heated discussion of The House of Sand and
Fog"). But what has fueled this slow return to the
indies in real life?
been a sea change," Kaplan says. "It falls in
with the whole slow food movement, recycling, living a
more mindful kind of life, being mindful of where you’re
spending your dollars and time. People like authentic
and unique experiences. Bookstores in other towns are
unique to those towns. When you go to New Orleans you
don’t want to eat at a chain restaurant. You want to
eat somewhere unique."
for Zevin, she acknowledges that she has a reason to
champion brick-and-mortar stores, but her interest isn’t
only because she hopes to sell her books there.
realizing on a national level that bookstores are good
for a place," Zevin says. "I will be asked
sometimes, ‘How do we keep our bookstores?’ You just
have to shop in them. Go there and buy things! When I’m
talking to young readers, I tell them they have a say in
what the future looks like. I’m optimistic. If people
decide bookstores are important to our community, they’ll
support them. They like the things they can do for a