East Bay Booksellers out of Oakland, California, has been an essential part of the East Bay’s literary community for more than 27 years. Formerly DIESEL, A Bookstore, the shop seeks to “support an increasingly fragile ecology of creative, mutually supportive/compassionate thought — with an eye particularly at the frayed edges, the marginalized, the silenced, the targets of myriad violence.”
In addition to being a cultural center in its community, the shop actively promotes the personal and professional well-being of everyone who work there. As the U.S. prepares for Independent Bookstore Day (East Bay prefers to call it Independent Bookseller Day), we were delighted to catch up with Brad Johnson to discuss his introduction to bookselling and the titles he thinks more people need to read.
What do you think is special about East Bay Booksellers?
I think we go the extra mile in terms of prioritizing our booksellers. We pay them above industry standard, for starters; but we also try to think creatively about ensuring people know their role in making the store what it is. In addition to the customer staff recommendations, everyone on staff at East Bay Booksellers has a hand in coming up with book ideas. There’s very little top-down decision-making in that regard. Now that so much of what we do is online, we’re rolling out individual bookseller catalogs called “Bookseller’s Choice,” featuring 35-50 titles they either love or simply think need attention.
If money was no object, what changes would you make to your bookshop?
Counterintuitively, I might want it to be smaller. I think all of us get caught up in “bigger is better,” but increasingly I’m not so sure that’s true for bookselling anymore (if it ever was). I know everybody is all about physical distancing now, for very good reason, and will be for a while, but the sustainable scale of most of our operations is often quite small. A smaller space also forces more decisions to be made about inventory and invites a store to formally decide what it’s about.
How / why did you get into bookselling?
I fell back into it after wandering in the desert of academia for about ten years. I was unemployed and seemingly unemployable when the owners of DIESEL, A Bookstore in Oakland hired me. The job, I’m pretty sure, saved my life. I was on a path to nowhere good, and the bookselling the owners encouraged immediately rewarded my curiosities and eccentricities. I never imagined I’d end up being in a position to buy the place in just a few years.
What’s the funniest thing you ever heard anyone say in the shop?
Every day my co-workers say something that cracks me up. A while back, I saw that a customer was ordering the book, 40 Things to Do When You Turn 40, or something banal like that, and asked my co-worker, Thu Doan, what she’d do when she turned 40. Her response stays with me and may come the closest to an answer to your question: “I think I’d just go to a buffet.”
What’s your favourite And Other Stories book?
I really loved Deborah Levy’s An Amorous Discourse in the Suburbs of Hell. A little too unsung, perhaps, even by me. I was not quite as confident a hand-seller back then as I am now. I’m re-ordering a few now to give it another go!
What book published in the last year do our readers need to get their hands on?
Oh, there’s so much! One of the professional travesties of 2020 is so many quality books having gone so far unread. I’m really loving Roni Horn’s collection of meditative pieces about Iceland, Island Zombie from Princeton University Press. Just a mesmerizing piece of prose throughout, about one’s place and time in place and time … and the weather that accompanies it.
What would be your desert island book?
Have to go with my immediate response: Thomas Browne’s Urn Burial. All I want from most books is for the language to do something beyond whatever it’s saying. And it rarely gets any better in this regard for me than Browne.