When author Emma Straub and her husband Michael Fusco-Straub opened Books Are Magic in May of 2017, their community in Brooklyn, New York immediately embraced it as their new neighborhood bookstore. Emma and Michael recently spoke with Read It Forward about creating a welcoming space for all customers, the smart, young women writers they love, and the magic of a poetry gumball machine.
Tell me about your store Books Are Magic. What’s it like? What’s special about it to you?
Emma Straub: There are a lot of things that are special about it to me. One of them is the space we found. It was one of the first spaces we saw, and it was by far the best. It has high ceilings, it has character, it has brick. It has two separate rooms, which made it feel warm and welcoming. It was really easy for us to imagine not only the space as a bookstore, but as a bookstore where people would actually want to spend time. We also just went through our list of top ten books sold this year, and almost half of them are by women of color. There are like two men on the list, and one of them is a children’s book author who wrote Dragons Love Tacos. I feel like that tells you everything you need to know about where we’re putting our energy in this bookstore. I think we are an energetic and enthusiastic group of people, and we feel really strongly about supporting women writers in particular.
I read that you worked at BookCourt before you opened Books Are Magic.
Emma: Yes, I worked at BookCourt for four years, after grad school and before I had children, though including the time when I published my first two books. I quit while I was writing The Vacationers, because I was pregnant and I was leaving to do research for my second novel, and I finally had to quit. But at that point, I was only working like two shifts a week. I loved it; it was a great job. You get to be bossy, and then people thank you for it. I have a lot of novelists on my staff, and I think there’s no better job for a writer than to work in a bookstore, because you’re surrounded by people who care about what you care about. Also, especially in bookstores in New York City, you get to meet so many writers. When I worked at BookCourt I already felt like a part of the literary landscape. I already felt like, “These are my people; this is what I want to do; this is the community that I am a part of.” I think every writer should work at a bookstore. Or open a bookstore! Why not?
And that was my next question. Working at a bookstore and opening a bookstore are two very different things, so what drew you to bookstore ownership?
Emma: The only thing that drew me to open Books are Magic was that BookCourt closed. If BookCourt hadn’t closed, we wouldn’t have done this. It was just a necessity that we had a bookstore in the neighborhood that we could walk to, that we could take our children to. And we knew that we could do it well. My husband is really good at a lot of things, including being organized and staying on top of things, which are not two of my skills. So I knew that together we could do a really good job, because I could do stuff that he couldn’t do and he could do stuff that I can’t do. Our only real training for this was working as the merch team for a band called The Magnetic Fields, which we did for about ten years. We would make their t-shirts and order the boxes of CDs and drive the van cross-country every time they went on tour. So we had done that, which is like a tiny version of what we do here, where he’s in charge of keeping all the books in stock, and I’m in charge of remembering people’s names when they come in. And I do all the frontlist buying.
You’ve talked a little bit about your love for bookselling. What challenges do you encounter?
Emma: There are so many. I don’t want to complain about this, because it’s very, very good. But we came in going like 1000%. There was no time to be like “Oh, let’s get to know this business before we get busy.” We just opened the door and it was busy. People were used to going to BookCourt. They were used to having a bookstore in the neighborhood, and people have just included us automatically on their daily sojourns around the neighborhood. The events are just bananas. We’ve been open for seven months and we’ve had about 140 events so far. We have events almost every day of the week, and sometimes more than one in a day. So we’ve just been absolutely like headless chickens. We’ve been headless chickens! Which is not great because we have small children at home who need our heads. But that’s been the hardest part, is just trying to make sure that we’re doing everything and we’re not dropping balls, just because we haven’t done any of it before.
What’s been the biggest surprise for you?
Michael Fusco-Straub: I knew that people were excited in the neighborhood. What I think I’m most surprised about is how devoted everyone has been to the store, and how many people from all over the country and world have been coming specifically to Brooklyn to come specifically to this store to get a mug and a book, or to take their picture in front of the mural, or whatever it is. It’s mind-blowing! Another thing is that it’s been so incredible and invigorating at this stage of my life to learn this whole new trade and figure it all out and to do all this cool stuff. It’s been really fun. And we also have this incredible staff who are just as excited as we are, just as dedicated as we are, and they are the reason why this place is doing so well. Because if it was just me and Emma being cheerleaders we would never have been able to do it. We were lucky enough to find twelve people who are just as excited, and understand just how important it is for us to be here right now. And that is really nice. I really appreciate that every day.
Emma: On the subject of our staff, they’re really amazing and impressive. So far three people have quit. The first is Tyler Ford, who is a dear friend of ours who only left because they got a job at this new Condé Nast publication called Them, where they’re doing all kinds of fabulous, important, good work and we’re very proud of them, and we feel reluctantly okay that they don’t work here anymore. Then, Sarah Gerard, who wrote Sunshine State, one of Dwight Garner’s top books of 2017—she comes and goes. When she’s around and can work she works, which is nice. Then we hired a woman named Jane Drinkard who had just graduated from college when she started working for us, and she was like “Oh, I also got this internship at New York Magazine; I really want to do both.” So she did both. And we were like “You understand, they’re going to hire you because you’re so amazing. They’re going to hire you full time.” And then they did! And we were like “We told you so!” Basically, our staff is just brilliant and wonderful.
Michael: The other thing that I think is really cool about our staff is that we hired people who were booksellers before, but we also have a high percentage of people who’ve never sold books, who just are passionate about books. And I love that, because it’s so fun to see them learn the way that I just learned. I just love all of our employees a lot. I just love them. They’re so great.
If you had to put it into words, what’s your bookselling philosophy?
Emma: I guess our bookselling philosophy is that books are magic. And that we are nonjudgmental and we aim to be encouraging. For example, we didn’t have a science fiction section, but then we had a couple of staff members who really wanted us to have a science fiction section, so now we do. The poetry section has just grown and it’s so beautiful because we have staff members who care about it and because people buy it.
Michael: Yes, one of the main things is that we wanted it to feel like a new and exciting experience to come in this store, because it was new and exciting for us to open it. We wanted everyone to feel really included, which is not always the case. And that was one of our baseline goals, from day one. Everyone on staff can read whatever they want; we are excited about all of it. And that’s basically been our philosophy. It’s nice. I think people just walk in here and feel comfortable, and that was the goal. I wanted it to feel like we’d been here for a long time and we’d been welcoming to everyone for a long time.
Emma: We also wanted there to be places for people to sit. Because not all bookstores have that.
Michael: The events were very important, too. Before we had kids, I used to go on tour with Emma, and as she was telling you, we used to tour all over the country with the band. So pulling off events was really important to us. I think we kind of treat events like a cross between a standard book event and a show for The Magnetic Fields. The space is really important for the events, because we have two spaces. We have the front room where we can have the really big blowout events, and then the kids’ room where we can have fifty people and have it be packed, and if there are twenty people it feels nice and warm and cozy down there. From the beginning, we’ve done all of the events in conversation, and we’ve gotten some really cool conversation partners. We had Elizabeth Strout and we got Amor Towles to be her conversation partner. Michael Chabon wanted to come to the store and specifically asked to come here, and then he specifically asked Emma to be in conversation with him. So we put a lot of thought into our programming. We have a great events coordinator who is on the level with us in terms of our goals. It’s been so fun.
Emma, you’re a novelist, and as I understand it, Michael, you’re also a graphic designer? Or currently just focusing on the bookstore?
Michael: I had been working for twenty years designing book jackets and logos and things like that, and I was kind of getting burnt out. So I was kind of looking for something else to do, and then this came around. I designed the store with a friend of ours who is a carpenter. And Emma picked all the books. That’s how we divided our work.
Emma: I think when we started this, in our heads we imagined that you would still be doing some design work somehow? I don’t know what we were thinking.
Michael: Yeah, I’ve gotten a couple of offers, and I just can’t right now. But it’s okay. Right now I’m fulfilling that part of my brain by designing everything in here. And being like “You know what would be cool? Books Are Magic lip balm. Let’s do it!” And then making that, or designing a new t-shirt or whatever it is. So I feel like I’m still working that part of my head. But anyway, you’re a novelist.
Yes, how do you balance writing with owning a bookstore?
Emma: I’m in the bookstore on Mondays and Thursdays, and I’m home on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. That’s how. We opened at the beginning of May and I gave myself the summer to just be here, because it was too crazy. But then once our older son went back to school in September, I started dividing my time. So now I try to split up the week. It’s hard. It doesn’t always work. There’s never enough time. I have three full-time jobs, basically, because it’s not like I won’t answer emails about the store on those other days, or if one of my children is sick, I need to be home. I try to keep it balanced and I understand that it doesn’t always work, but that’s okay.
If you could expand the space infinitely, what would you add to the store?
Emma: I would add a seated theater that held like 200 people. I guess I would add maybe 300 square feet to the front room so we could get some couches in there too. But that’s it. I like our store the way it is. But you know, this is New York City; we could always use square footage.
Are you seeing any trends in the book industry? Any predictions for the future of bookselling?
Emma: When we opened the store I wasn’t sure what we would be selling. I knew what my taste was and what I wanted the store to feel like, but I just didn’t know what the people coming in would want. And it’s been so fun to see what they want. I was telling you about our top ten of the year. So Samantha Irby’s book We Are Never Meeting In Real Life, we have sold hundreds of those. It’s a collection of funny, short essays. Too Much and Not the Mood by Durga Chew-Bose came out right around the time we opened, and we have sold hundreds of copies. And I was like “Oh, essays! Essays by smart young women. That’s what people want to read.”
As for larger trends, I think that everyone, at least on one side of the political universe, has had it. And they’re looking for things that specifically speak to them as women. Meg Wolitzer has a book that’s coming out in April called The Female Persuasion, and that is going to sell one trillion copies in this bookstore, because that’s what people want. We all know that more women buy books than men, but specifically in this neighborhood, that’s what people want. We’re all hungry for things that are feminist and smart and have heart. Our top sellers are smart essay collections by women and smart novels by women.
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What are some of the best books you’ve read recently?
Emma: I always read galleys so I’m reading like six months ahead. I just read Meg Wolitzer’s new book, which is so perfect and wonderful. My friend Rumaan Alam has a book coming out in May called That Kind of Mother that’s about adoption and race. It’s really smart and interesting. In the nonfiction realm, I just read And Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood Before I Was Ready by Meaghan O’Connell. I met her through her husband because he worked at McNally Jackson and at Word, and then they moved to Portland, Oregon when they had a baby. This book is all about her getting pregnant and them sort of being like “How does this work?!” It’s one of the best books about pregnancy and childbirth and postpartum life that I have ever read. There are so many books that I’m excited to read and sell.
Do you have other books that you like to consistently recommend to customers?
Emma: Oh, yeah. I think everyone has their pets. When I worked at BookCourt, my pets were Kate Christensen’s The Great Man, Stoner by John Williams, and Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado. Those were my back pocket recommendations. Meg Wolitzer’s The Wife is probably the book that I’ve hand-sold the most copies of because I’m obsessed with her. It came out before The Interestings, so not as many people have read it. But it’s so perfect. It’s this tiny little book and it’s all about a marriage and it’s hilarious and wonderful. What else do I like to sell people? A Visit from the Goon Squad.
Anything else you want people to know about Books Are Magic?
Emma: We’re wonderful. We’re pink! We’re soft and fuzzy. We have a bathroom with a changing table. That was really important to me. When we opened, I was like, “There are three things that we need. We need a place for people to sit down, I want something that kids can crawl into, and we need a changing table in the bathroom.” Because I know this neighborhood, and everyone has a baby strapped to their chest. It sucks to take your child somewhere and be having a wonderful time, and then when you need to change them, to go into the bathroom and have to put them on the floor. It’s terrible! It happens all the time. But not here!
What else is good about us? We have a poetry gumball machine. You put a quarter in, you spin the knob, you get a hand-painted poem. And the quarter goes somewhere good. We change the recipient of the money every month, and it usually works out to about $150 worth of quarters.
We’ve raised money for hurricane relief for Puerto Rico, for Planned Parenthood, and right now in December, we’re raising money for EMILY’s List, which is an organization that helps get pro-choice women elected to office.
We’re just having fun. We made a t-shirt that said “Reader’s For” and then we had a whole list, because we felt like everything was so negative. We’re against idiots, we’re against racists, we’re against homophobes. But rather than have that list, we had a list of things that we were for, like compassion and kindness, and snacks. We sent all of the proceeds from those to a place called the Ali Forney center which offers housing and resources for LGBTQ youth. Yeah, we’re just…we’re doing what we do one day at a time.
Photography: Jacqueline Harriet