EVERYTHING WILL BE OKAY: A book lover’s pledge

Virginia Buckingham
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A member of the Marblehead Current’s Board of Directors, Virginia Buckingham is the former chief executive officer of the Massachusetts Port Authority, chief of staff to two Massachusetts governors, deputy editorial page editor for the Boston Herald and author of “On My Watch: A Memoir.” 

How many books are in your “To Be Read” (TBR) pile? I decided to count mine the other day, after the piles — yes, piles — I’ve made have crowded me out at my desk, on my nightstand and on my overflowing bookshelves. 

Why am I drawn to the books I’m drawn to? Why don’t I read all the ones I buy? And why don’t I read each new one before the next one is purchased? After all, I don’t buy a second cup of coffee (another obsession) before finishing my first. I do read a lot. But I don’t keep up with my purchases.  

Before I confess to my actual TBR number, I decided to seek out Laura Cooper, the owner of the soon-to-be-open Saltwater Bookstore. (Let’s pause here and shout a collective “hooray”!) If anyone has insight into book buying, it’s the person who has to fill the shelves in a 600-square- foot store in Old Town in the next few weeks. 

“The most daunting task is to narrow down millions and millions of available titles to 4,000,” Cooper said.

Four thousand? I feel better about my piles already.

Cooper is working with a veteran book buyer with deep experience in the New England market. There are five major publishers, Cooper explained, each with a catalog and sales representatives. And there are two major book distributors.

Cooper’s looking for a wide selection to meet an array of interests. She’s picking “genre by genre, choosing not only bestsellers but unique offerings.”

There’ll be a local interests section, too. And plenty of books perfect for gift-giving.

Cooper’s vision: “People will feel they can take their time to browse. And there will be something for everyone.”

Her ideal customer “would come in for one thing and leave with something else altogether.”

“How do you know how many to get of each one,” I asked?

The answer: research — of trends, of websites, of bestseller lists. She’ll order three to five of each for the new and noteworthy books, for example.

And then there’s the backfilling — ordering to make up for what sold to get it back on the shelves in one or two days.

An interesting fact I didn’t know: New books are published and released on Tuesdays. So, the new-and-noteworthy table is worth checking out that day.

If Cooper doesn’t have what you’re looking for in stock, she can easily get it, and she has also set up e-ordering with the website Bookshop.org.

Pallets full of boxes of books, including children’s titles from this former second grade teacher, will be arriving at Cooper’s house soon, and she’ll start shelving one category at a time — alphabetically, of course.

Okay, my conversation with Cooper has given me the courage to confess. There are 57 books in my TBR pile.

After I sorted through them last week, I put 20 aside to donate. I forced myself to admit they belonged in the “I’ll never read” pile. So, why did I buy them?

Part of the answer, I admit, is the ease of buying books on Amazon. I’ll see a recommendation on Facebook, or read a review, or hear a new title from a favorite author is coming out, or a friend will mention their last great read, and I’ll pull out my phone. A couple of clicks later, the book is on its way to me.

As an independent author myself, I also know Amazon is a lifeline for writers trying to get their work out in the world in an incredibly difficult publishing environment. 

But Amazon doesn’t offer the kind of curation, the personal recommendation, the careful attention that independent booksellers like Cooper bring to bear on their selections. Buying a book on Amazon is quick, but ultimately it’s not nourishing, kind of like a sugar donut.

As I sorted books, my guilty gaze fell upon my still-full bookshelves. I have a favorite memoir shelf (25 books, all read), a favorite fiction shelf, which has the very first Nancy Drew, “The Secret of the Old Clock,” and ends with my most recent favorite, “Great Circle,” a tour de force on the adventures of a woman aviator.

I don’t always remember why I loved each of the books on the shelf. The plot line of “A Prayer for Owen Meany” eludes me, but I remember I was moved to tears throughout it by the main character.

Total on my favorite fiction shelf? Twenty-two, two unread. If you ask why I have two books on my favorites shelf that I’ve never read, I’ll tell you. But then I’d have to lock you in the attic with, oh, 10 to 20 boxes of books.

My next shelf — spiritual exploration-type books — numbers 30, four not read.

Finally, my craft-of-writing books, 27, five not read.

If I were good at math, I’d confess that actually, then, my TBR pile is 68 books — but I’m not, so I won’t.

Back to Cooper. I follow Saltwater Bookstore on Instagram, which is truly a balm for a book lover.

She recently posted a picture of an old book she will display in the store called “The Illustrated Language of Flowers.” That reminded me of another favorite book I once found browsing at Spirit of ’76, a novel with a similar title by Vanessa Diffenbaugh. I don’t have it on my favorites shelf; I must have loaned it to someone. I told Cooper it would be my first purchase when the store opens.

I won’t buy it on Amazon. In fact, right here and now I pledge to never buy another book on Amazon. I want to support efforts like Cooper’s. I want to give up sugar donuts. Will you join me? Let’s pledge together: No more books from Amazon.

If I can do it, anyone can.

Virginia Buckingham is the president of the Current’s board of directors. Her column appears weekly.

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