May 9, 2014

A bookseller’s dream: the charming ‘The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry’

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 flamed out.

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 flamed out.

That 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 World.”

“I wanted to write a sentimental book, because people are sentimental about their bookstores,” says Zevin, who appears Monday at Books & Books in Coral Gables.

A 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.

And 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.

“The 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.”

Connecting with book lovers is a goal for Zevin, who grew up in Boca Raton and attended Spanish River High School.

“A.J. 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 writing.”)

A 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 almost unrecognizable.

“Ebooks 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!”

But 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 Company.

And 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.”

In 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?

“There’s 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.”

Rona Brinlee, owner of The BookMark in Neptune Beach, agrees that she has also noted an increasing “shop locally” mentality.

“When the economy hit the skids, people got even more happy to support local businesses,” she says. “The community discovered those resources. The e-reader craze is no longer a craze. This is our time. ... I do have a nickel in it, obviously, but what we all want now is whatever it is that makes it work. If you have a circus come to your store, if it helps you sell books, why not?”

Janis Segress, one of the owners of Queen Anne Book Company, sees the trend continuing.

“I am extremely optimistic not only about our survival but our growth,” she says. “People want the tangible book; that’s not going to go away. … A year later, customers still come up to us thanking us for being here and pointedly spending their dollars here to keep our doors open. I hear that from my peers at other bookstores too. Keeping up with your community, that’s the whole key.”

As 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.

“We’re 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 community.”

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