Literary Women: Interview with Bookseller Manuela Aronofsky

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I first met Manuela Aronofsky when she worked at the Fact & Fiction bookstore in Missoula, Montana, just as she was graduating from the University of Montana and getting ready for a big move to California. Manuela is a 20-something cat enthusiast, travel lover, and bookstore employee for life. English degree in hand, she moved to a Victorian house in Oakland, where she sealed her fate with books by tattooing “Book Club” on her knuckles. Recently, she has made a cross-country leap, and is now excitedly gazing into the bright lights of New York City. If you want a book recommendation, you can most likely find Manuela at Strand Book Store in Manhattan, exploring bagel joints in Brooklyn, or curled up at home with a cup of coffee and a good novel. I am thrilled to be able to interview her today!

What took you to New York?

Ah, I have many answers to this question. Is it okay if I make a list? I hope so. More on lists later…

  1. Bagels & pizza

  2. Seasons!

  3. The voice in my head telling me that if I didn’t pick up and do one more impulsive and probably crazy thing (like drive across the country with my partner, cat, very little money and no job or apartment lined up) before I turned 30, that I would chicken out and never do it

    1. The louder voice in my head saying: What’s the worst that could happen?

  4. The itch to live in a city where everyone walks everywhere, and things stay open later

  5. My sister! She is 6 years older than me, so naturally we only became friends after she had moved away for college, and I could be more than just a pesky little sibling. She and her wonderful husband and truly amazing 18-month old daughter also live in Brooklyn. I had the realization that we had not lived in the same place for over 10 years, and it felt like a good time to change that. It’s still bizarre to me that we can meet for dinner every few days, but so worth it to hear what new words my niece has learned from week to week.

What keeps you there?

It’s only been three months, but I’m already hooked. It may be too early to tell, but I think I’m stepping into a long-term relationship with the Big Apple. I love the big-city energy, the subway, the food, the culture. Also the people and their independent, mixed with “we’re all in this together” mindsets. I love that I see movie stars at my job, and authors on my commute. Tonight I’m actually going to a fancy TV show premiere at the MoMA,  and next week I’m going to a private art opening at the Guggenheim. All of these amazing opportunities, combined with the fact that my lovely, quiet Brooklyn apartment is just a 30-minute train ride away is literally a dream come true. Apologies for the cliches but my life actually sort of feels like one these days.

Plus! (See no. 2 above), going from the extremes of Montana to the temperate Bay Area made me actually miss winter! I can’t wait for the beautiful autumn, then to be cold, then to miss the sweltering summer, then to embrace the spring, then to complain about the heat, repeat…

Photo credit: Janice Battiste

Photo credit: Janice Battiste

You have worked as a bookseller at the fabulous Fact & Fiction bookstore in Missoula, Montana;  at Pegasus Books in Berkeley, California; and now at the mythical Strand Bookstore in New York. Can you talk a little bit about each bookstore, how they are different and what do they have in common?

I was just thinking about this the other day. On a literal sense, it’s been a journey from tiny bookstore to huge bookstore! But obviously there is a lot more than that. I’ll try not to go overboard.

Working at Fact & Fiction in college was what set me on this amazing bookstore trajectory, or as I like to say, what cemented me as a bookstore “lifer.” I am still so thankful to my now good friend Barbara for hiring me as a bookseller during my college years. Fact & Fiction is a perfectly curated, tiny book haven located in Downtown Missoula. It’s owned (until she retires very soon!) by bookstore heroine Barbara Theroux — not kidding about her legendary status, whenever I mention that I worked there to bookstore folks the Barbara praising begins. Along with ingraining in me the absolute importance of bookstores in communities, I learned the jack-of-all-trades nature of bookselling that helped train me for my job today. I also learned how to socialize with authors over Montana-sized gin and tonics.

Through Barbara I got my job at Pegasus Books, right after moving to the Bay Area. Slightly larger, and slightly more hectic, it was there that I learned the ins and outs of used bookstores. It was startling for about three days to dive from the neatness of Fact & Fiction into the constantly shifting inventory, larger space, and loud Berkeley personalities that made up Pegasus. Owned by the amazing Amy Thomas, it was similar in the way that I quickly found my bookstore family. Along with learning to love (as well as buy) used books, I gained responsibility as the bookstore’s Events Coordinator. As one of the East Bay’s last indie bookstores, the number of authors we hosted was unbelievable, and I was fortunate to meet a few authors that I count among my personal favorites: graphic novelists Adrian Tomine and Daniel Clowes, The Toast’s Mallory Ortberg, cultural critic Jeff Chang, the influential Dave Eggers, among others. The hardest part of leaving the Bay Area was leaving the Pegasus community.

I half-told myself that moving to New York would mean a chance to transition out of bookstores, but honestly I think that was a lie I made up to feel better about not having a job upon leaving the Bay. If I’m telling the truth, I just didn’t think it would be possible to grow professionally in a bookstore environment after Pegasus. And yet here I am now, working as a Manager at the (as you say) ‘mythical’ Strand in Manhattan! I actually applied on a whim for the position right before our cross-country drive, not sure if my years of bookstore work would trump my lack of managerial experience. I received the call about an interview somewhere in North Dakota, and was hired the day after arriving in Brooklyn. So basically it has been a non-stop whirlwind since I landed on the East Coast. The Strand is gigantic, colorful, crowded, loud, yet extremely well-run, professional, and organized. I’m very into it. My staff is diverse and fun, and my fellow managers have all been there for years, so they’ve been excellent teachers and friends.

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Can you describe a typical day at the Strand? What about an atypical day?

I’m not sure I can totally answer that, not having worked there a full year! But, compared to my other bookstore jobs I’m working around more customers, more dollars, and more books on a daily basis. By “more” I mean literally thousands more of each of these things. The register lines and customer questions are effectively non-stop, from when we open to 10:30pm when we close. I help customers of all ages, and from all different parts of the world. My job as a manager is to basically make sure everything is running smoothly on the floor. This means assigning staff to sections for shelving and alphabetizing, making sure the clearance carts outside are maintained, and meeting the needs of the used book buying desk. The Strand is extremely customer service based, as bookstores need to be these days in order to compete with dreaded Amazon, so we really ensure that every single person is being thoroughly assisted, and walked to the section because the store is HUGE! Of course there’s also general administrative work: maintaining the schedule, keeping up on emails, and I’ve recently been given the responsibility of writing the internal weekly newsletter!

I honestly don’t think I’ve had an “atypical” day yet, but I can say that I’m already noticing a palpable pre-holiday energy shift. I’m gearing up for the holiday craziness, which is just a complete shocking non-stop rush, from what I’ve heard. Oh wait, the other day Benjamin Netanyahu came into the store along with about 60 guys from Secret Service. Being called into the freight area by one of them and told that an “extremely important dignitary” was about to come into the store, followed by security screenings of all of our customers and about an hour of chaos was pretty atypical.

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What book would you sell to absolutely everyone?

Wow, I don’t know if there is a single book that would appeal to everyone. It’s honestly whatever I’ve read and loved recently that I tend to hand-sell the most. But it also depends on the customer’s vibe: if people want an honest love story I’ve been recommending Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies. If they want Historical Fiction I love to recommend Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, or Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. If someone wants something less popular, or they’ve read everything on the Bestseller table (there’s a lot of those customers at Strand!) then I like to recommend the German novelist Jenny Erpenbeck. I’ve also been seeing an awesome shift from people just wanting to read well-known white male authors, so I love to sell books written by authors with different perspectives. The new Jacqueline Woodson book Another Brooklyn is fantastic; Claudia Rankine’s Citizen is a hit; I sell a lot Ta-Nehisi Coates’ memoirs; Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist is fun to recommend; also Maggie Nelson’s Bluets if the customer is looking for something autobiographical and unique.

to-do-list-manuela

You have a long to-do list! When and why did you start writing out lists?

I’ve always been a list-maker! I remember making lists of books I’d read, and books I wanted to read when I was a little kid. Then I double majored in college, worked full-time, and also decided to finish school in three years. Crazy when I think back on it, but making to-do lists became the only way I could keep track of everything I had to do. I obviously don’t have homework anymore, but I do maintain a busy schedule and pride myself on keeping a generally organized lifestyle. I always keep a list going so as to not feel overwhelmed, and it’s pretty much my biggest personal satisfaction when I cross off a completed task. The act of crossing something off a list is also a big reason as to why I still use pen and paper!

What is the best advice you have ever received?

I remember my mom telling me when I was 10 or 11 that it is much easier to accomplish something if you keep a positive attitude. I don’t remember the exact context, but I think I was probably frustrated with some homework I wasn’t understanding. I have kept that in my head ever since, and I still think it is so true! Whenever I’ve been frustrated about something, or even started to feel regretful, I’ve found that if I focus on the positive things happening around me that it is much easier to keep going. Also I completely believe that it is impossible to learn something new if you allow frustration to get in the way.

What advice would you give to someone interested in working at a bookstore?

That is a great question. Honestly, that if it is important for you to be around people who still live and breathe physical books, despite the fact that it is still customer service and that the pay probably won’t be great, then it’s the job for you! I always tell people that yes, it’s retail, but caring about the product you’re selling makes it totally worth it.

PS: My Instagram bio says “Only qualified to work at bookstores forever,” which was sort of a self-mocking joke at one point. But I’m not gonna lie, it’s become something I’m actually proud of.

What books are on your nightstand?

Right now I’m reading Dana Spiotta’s newest novel Innocents and Others. She is one of my favorite contemporary novelists, and I love her encyclopedic knowledge of film and music, as well as her character portrayals. I also just finished Darin Strauss’ memoir Half a Life, which was difficult to get through (it’s his story of accidentally killing a classmate when he was a teenager), but I have been trying to read more creative nonfiction and that book sort of randomly ended up making the move with me.

What’s next?

Like, what book is next? Or what’s next in life? Next to-read is Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. I can’t wait to pick that up, and I was able to snag a recently signed copy of it at work. I also have a proof of Nell Zink’s Private Novelist. I thought her short novel The Wallcreeper was astounding and hilarious, so I can’t wait to read this one. As for what’s next in the big picture, I am totally still settling into this new exciting life, and putting together a home, but I can’t wait to see what New York adventures are in store for me these next few months.  New York during the holidays seems very cinematic and romantic to me, so I’m definitely looking forward to it as a reality.

colson-whitehead

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