One of my 2016 resolutions is to visit five new bookstores this year, in order to support small businesses and promote the hidden gems in the literary community. In March, I interviewed the owner of Recycle Bookstore in San Jose, Calif., and during my European vacation in May, I discovered Pocket 2000 in Rome.
I may not be purchasing any books this year (yet another goal of mine), but that doesn’t mean that I can’t give independent bookstores the shout-outs they so rightfully deserve!
Last week I interviewed Simon Crafts, bookseller and event coordinator at Alley Cat Books in San Francisco. Alley Cat opened in 2011 in the Mission District, known for its cultural diversity and emphasis on the arts.
A unique aspect about Alley Cat is that the store’s owner Kate Rosenberger is a painter and prides herself on featuring local artists in the gallery at the back of the shop. As its bilingual website demonstrates, Alley Cat is also dedicated to stocking a wide variety of new and used books in both English and Spanish.
Simon is one of four Alley Cat staff members, currently studying poetry and creative writing in his MFA program at San Francisco State University. He was gracious enough to answer a few questions for Book Club Babe, so let’s jump into the Q&A!
“Book people are great. People who care about physical books are generally decent, interesting human beings.” ~ SC
Book Club Babe (BCB): What are the most challenging and most rewarding aspects of working at a bookstore?
Simon Crafts (SC): The most challenging aspect is paying the rent! This is challenging because it involves being the best possible small independent bookstore we can be and making people want to come and shop here, while trying to be as different from a thing like Amazon or Barnes and Noble as possible. We want this to feel like a more intimate and interesting space than that, and we don’t want to sell books like they are just a product.
To that end, I think we’ve settled on trying to make an argument with this place to the people who come in: that books and bookstores have a deeper and more profound value than money and convenience and that there is something intangible and beautiful about a room full of books and the people, ideas, and things you might encounter inside a space like that.
This is also the most rewarding thing about working here. It feels exciting to be a caretaker, and so intimately involved in a place that is so electric and creative, like a big strange antenna into the world of ideas. It’s almost a sanctuary for certain sorts of people (both old and young) in the digital age and you’re stewarding that sanctuary.
BCB: How has the digital age affected your business?
SC: The damage has already been done. People who shop on Amazon do that now and I don’t think there is as much intersection or competition between the two worlds as people think. In fact, I’ve seen more people coming in and trying to wean themselves off Amazon this year than ever before. I think the public opinion has turned (at least in San Francisco) and this thing that was thought of as a revolution of convenience at first has lost its charm because it’s been revealed to be capitalism as usual. There is a silver lining to Amazon and e-books in that they shut down or greatly damaged the viability of big chains. This has actually improved our business by getting rid of competition here on the ground or “IRL” as it’s known on Twitter.
BCB: How are you involved in the community, and what role, if any, does social media play in your business?
SC: We are very involved in the community here. We have a gallery and event space in the back of the store that hosts poetry readings, fundraisers, open mics, book releases, film nights, square dances, and occasional music. We promote through newsletters, social media, and print calendars and good old-fashioned word of mouth. We try to give priority to local artists and people in the neighborhood. We really feel an obligation to participate in a positive way in this neighborhood and its community given that it is being threatened by intense gentrification.
We’ve also recently joined with fellow 24th Street bookstores Modern Times and Adobe Books to form an organization called United Booksellers of San Francisco whose mission it is to try to protect San Francisco bookstores as cultural and literary resources. Rents are (seemingly always) climbing in San Francisco, and we are all in threat of being priced out.
BCB: What does your inventory look like, and how do you select which books to highlight in your store?
SC: We carry used, remainder, and new books. We buy used books over the counter every day. We don’t stock romance novels or textbooks, but we have a more extensive art, poetry, and queer/feminist/radical politics sections than most bookstores.
BCB: What trends are you seeing in the books that are purchased?
SC: So people are talking a lot about it being “the golden age of television” but I think it’s really the golden age of the essay. There’s this sort of “hybrid-essay” genre that has appeared. Books like Maggie Nelson’s “The Argonauts,” Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen,” Brian Blanchfield’s “Proxies,” and just about anything by Rebecca Solnitt. They really blur the line between essay, poetry, memoir, and criticism. They’re also simultaneously tackling some of the hardest cultural discussions and problems of our age. I’ve been selling a lot of these kinds of books, and it gives me hope for the future because it means people are interested in what they’re saying and they’re carrying these ideas into their lives.
BCB: What are your favorite books/authors/genres, and why?
SC: Well, I write poetry, so my favorite books are generally poetry, which is not everybody’s cup of tea (though I wish it was!). Frank O’Hara’s “Lunch Poems” is a touchstone for me and a classic that I think even non-poets can enjoy.
As for fiction, anything by Eileen Myles (who is also a poet). Her novel Chelsea Girls was re-released last year, and I recommend it to everyone. She writes like she is speaking to you in the room with this really infectious, casual voice. It’s like the opposite of fussy overwrought MFA fiction. The stories are autobiographical and short, but they all fit together into a larger tapestry. It’s a really amazing and quietly experimental book that is totally enjoyable for almost everyone.
BCB: Our book club is all about wine. Which wines would you pair with your favorite books, and why?
SC: We’re not really wine drinkers here at Alley Cat, so I would be lying if I claimed to know about any kind of wine except two buck chuck! We’re mostly beer and whiskey folks. I think a moderate amount of alcohol pairs well with just about everything (read or otherwise), but too much alcohol and poetry can have you speaking in tongues. That could be a good thing or a bad thing depending on your friends.
BCB: Anything else you think Book Club Babe readers should know?
SC: We’re sister store to Dog Eared Books and Dog Eared Books Castro (which opened in June)! They are amazing independent bookstores, each with a slightly different aesthetic than ours. You should check them out as well!
“There is something intangible and beautiful about a room full of books.”