Handselling: A Curious Alchemy

August 2, 2006 | 4 books mentioned 2 2 min read

There’s a charming story about the power of independent bookstores in the Seatle PI.

Book sales can have a curious alchemy. They have been spurred by all sorts of things, such as happenings in the news or mentions on Oprah, but seldom in the history of bookdom has one title ridden to new readership all because of a T-shirt from Texas.

In this case a customer and a bookseller struck up a conversation because of the t-shirt the bookseller was wearing. The conversation soon turned to books and the customer recommended A Small Death in Lisbon, a World War II mystery from 2002 by Robert Wilson. The bookseller read and enjoyed the book and then set into motion one of the unique and amazing things about independent bookstores. She put it on the “staff recommendations” shelf, and started pushing the book. It wasn’t long before A Small Death in Lisbon was a local phenomenon.

The article reminded me of what was probably my favorite thing about working in a bookstore, the ability to give people my favorite books. At independent bookstores in particular, customers really trust booksellers, who can then have a noticeable impact on the reading community. For example, I remember watching excitedly as books that I recommended — The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis and The Horned Man by James Lasdun were two — climbed the store’s bestseller list. Patrick, a sometime Millions contributor, had people all across town talking about Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim and Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day (both of which I read on his recommendation).

And this is why I love independent bookstores. Chain stores are clean and comfortable like hotel lobbies, but, walking into one, you never feel as though you are about to discover something new. For more on why I like indies better than chains, check out my post on the topic from a couple years ago: What Makes a Bookstore.

created The Millions and is its publisher. He and his family live in New Jersey.


  1. Isn't that how Charles Frazier's "Cold Mountain" became a best seller? I heard that he self-published his book becaues no publishers would buy it, and he sold it to Indie bookstores, who loved it so much that they started pushing it to their customers and putting it on their front desks as staff recommendations. Soon "Cold Mountain" was a best seller across many Indie bookstores, drawing the attention of big time bookstores and publishers, leading to the book being published by a publisher and then climbing the the national best seller list… the rest is history. I love these stories too, their inspiring and about people loving books and not so much about money!!

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