Happy Independent Bookstore Day!!!! Author and owner of Books Are Magic Emma Straub answers all of ZIbby’s questions about owning an independent bookstore like how she and her husband got started, what the book-buying process looks like, and their plans for Independent Bookstore Day today. Emma also shares what is different about doing a tour for a paperback release and drops a few hints about her next novel.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Emma. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Emma Straub: Thanks for having me.

Zibby: Congratulations on the paperback of All Adults Here. I see you’re going on some big tour for that as well. How does it feel?

Emma: Let’s put “going on tour” in some major air quotes here. I am going here in my house. The big difference between the pretend tour for my hardcover and the pretend tour for my paperback is that I have, in the last year, done two important things in my house. Number one, I put a door on my office, so now it closes and no one can come in.

Zibby: Love it.

Emma: Also, I organized my shelves behind me. I don’t know why it took me ten months of the pandemic to do this. I do Zoomie, Zoomies all the time with smart writer friends of mine who have their books displayed beautifully behind them. I just was not on that level. I finally did it.

Zibby: You know what? You just have to acknowledge that you are obviously a slacker. You have to just own it. That’s just it. It takes a while to line up all the editions of all your books. It’s tough. I’m proud of you. I have to say, my books used to be a total mess. That was until February. That was eleven months of Zooms, so I’m even worse than you. That was only inspired by having COVID, getting out of bed after nine days, and suddenly needing to touch every book I owned for god knows what sort of psychological weird reason, and then having them all on the floor and putting them back in the different order.

Emma: I’m glad you’re all right.

Zibby: Thanks. You never know what’s going to inspire people to redo their bookshelves. At least now I can see your beautiful book behind you. There you go. Does it feel different talking about the book on paperback when everybody basically already knows what your book is about, or not really?

Emma: Yeah, it does. It does feel weird. The whole thing is so weird. Publishing a book, I don’t know how it feels for you, but to me, it feels sort of like a fever dream, like something that is happening in some imaginary other place, and I own a bookstore. I am connected to the physical reality of selling books more than most authors. Yet even for me, it feels like this weird, fuzzy, cloud world that is not at all real. It still feels that way even though yesterday — Tuesdays are my bookstore days right now. I am in the bookstore all day having back-to-back meetings and just bothering everyone to my heart’s content. I opened a couple of cases of my book and signed them all. Even so, it feels just bizarre.

Zibby: I think you are living my dream come true by owning Books Are Magic. I’ve always wanted to own a bookstore, which probably every book-loving person sort of does in their heart of hearts, but you actually got to do it. I do want to discuss All Adults Here, but I am also just so obsessed with Books Are Magic and the fact that you started this amazing bookstore. What made you actually do it versus everybody else who thinks about doing it?

Emma: There are two answers to this. Number one is hormones.

Zibby: Not what I thought you would say, but okay, let’s go with that.

Emma: In my twenties, I worked at BookCourt, which was our local bookstore here in Cobble Hill in Brooklyn for thirty-five years, family owned. I loved it. I loved it. It was my place. When I was very pregnant with our second child, my family moved closer to BookCourt again. We were living elsewhere in Brooklyn. It sounds crazy to say that we moved to be closer to that bookstore, but it’s not not true. Then I had a baby. We were at BookCourt with the baby and the toddler. I was talking to this man who worked there. He told me that they were closing and that the owners had sold the building. I thought, we have to do it then. In my head, it was, either we could move again or we could open a bookstore. I am really not joking that in my somewhat deranged state I thought it sounded easier and less hassle to open a bookstore and run a small business forever rather than move one time. That’s one answer.

Zibby: Your moving experiences must have been terrible. I have to send you a new mover or something. I’ll give you a name of a really nice mover who will make your life easy.

Emma: The moving, oh, my god. I don’t know how much time we have here. I was seven months pregnant when we moved. It was a complicated time. The other reason is that my husband and I had always talked about it in the way that you just described, as this fantasy that lot of book people have. He was ready for a change, my husband. He had worked as a graphic designer for his whole professional career, mostly in books. We just decided to go for it. It is wild. There are things about it that we were really good at right from the start. We had, obviously, so much oomph going into it. Then there are so many things that we were terrible at that we have had to learn and improve and evolve and change. The store will be four years old in a couple of weeks. I can’t overestimate the amount of stuff that we have learned in the last four years. It makes me understand and appreciate why people go to business school, which is something that I would never have done in one million years even if you paid me to do it.

Zibby: I went to business school. I don’t think I took the right classes or something. I still would need just as much help. Going to business school is not the fail-safe, so don’t regret that decision too much.

Emma: Now I read business books. I read business books. It’s crazy. I was a poetry major.

Zibby: Some business books are really good. Some business books read like fiction, even.

Emma: One really absolutely unintended and unanticipated consequence of opening a bookstore is that my reading habits have changed. One of the ways that they changed is that I do sometimes read business books. I would never have believed you.

Zibby: I won’t tell anybody.

Emma: Just between us.

Zibby: What else has changed about it? One of the things about Books Are Magic that I feel like makes it different from other bookstores is the curation of what you even sell. You’ve taken the guesswork out of picking a good-quality, literary-ish, awesome read. It’s not necessarily the most mainstream, but it’s going to be really well-written. You’ve already passed a test if your book is sold there. I actually don’t even know if my anthology is still there. Now I don’t even want to know.

Emma: Yes, it is. It is, Zibby. It is.

Zibby: Okay, good. Awesome. I’m going to have to come in now that the world is starting again. I would love to. I haven’t been since pre-pandemic. Anyway, so the curation, has that affected your own reading? How does it work?

Emma: At the beginning, I did all the adult buying. We have a children’s book buyer who is amazing and does the kids’ books. Now I do maybe seventy-five percent of the buying. It’s great. It’s so much fun. It’s just like online shopping, only you’re doing it for thousands of people. It doesn’t have to be just my own taste. It’s really fun. The people who shop in our store and the people who work in our store are so smart. They are so much smarter than I am. It is such a pleasure to pick books that I know they’re going to like. If I was picking books that were just for me, it would be really boring, but I’m not. I’m picking books for everybody. It is really just a joy. To answer your question, in terms of what I read and how my reading habits have changed, now almost everything I read is a galley of something that comes out in three months or six months. My memory is a pathetic sieve, and so I never remember anything. In the old days on the book tour when you would be traveling around and people would be like, “What are you reading?” my mind would be a deep, large black hole. Now it’s even worse because I can’t remember and it’s all stuff that doesn’t come out for months and months and months, so it’s totally useless information almost always. What’s fun is that I get — right now, I’m reading the new Colson Whitehead that comes out in the fall. There are things like that, things that just fall into my lap that I’m like, oh. It’s like Christmas. It’s a book that you would be delighted to read anytime. Then it just shows up and it’s got your name on it. It’s really delightful.

Zibby: Wow. I bet it wouldn’t be boring if the store was filled with what you like, but it’s great that you’re shopping for everybody too. That’s awesome. It’s so neat. I just feel like so many authors want to know how to stand out at a bookstore. Even in a bookstore like yours, it’s so hard. Any bookstore you go into, sometimes there’s just one book pushed in the shelf with so many other books. Can you have it on the table? Where is it? What’s going to make somebody pull it out? I always thought my worst job ever that I could ever get would be to be a maître d’ at a restaurant because how would you be able to handle the timing and the people? Where would you put everybody? All those logistics. I feel like the responsibility of even placing a book in a bookstore has such ramifications. An admissions officer in college, I could never do that either. What am I doing to these people’s lives?

Emma: It’s true. It’s not quite Harvard admissions where you’re changing somebody’s life, but it is true that if I buy one copy of something, it goes on a shelf. Someone has to come in looking for it or looking in that section. If I buy six of something or twelve of something, the booksellers really have no choice but to put it on the table because that’s where it’s going to fit. If you put something on the table, people will buy it. It’s not magic. There are books that would not sell in my bookstore, for sure. If we put some conservative white man smoking a cigar, one of those books, no one would touch it with a ten-foot pole. If there’s some book that is amazing that I know our customers are going to love and we put that on the table, it sells. You do feel a little bit drunk with power in a very, very good way.

Zibby: People must try to bribe you. I can’t even imagine some of the stuff. No? Really?

Emma: No.

Zibby: Good. Great.

Emma: There are ways in which the publisher sort of rewards you or gives you credits, basically, based on if you buy a certain number of books sometimes. It’s like, buy five and you get one free, that kind of thing. It’s nothing very exciting. There’s nothing gross about it. I have never had an author come in and try to slip me a hundred bucks to put their —

Zibby: — I didn’t mean cash or anything. I didn’t even mean the authors. I was thinking more the publishers, not that they would slip you cash. Never mind. Forget the question.

Emma: You know what, though? It is a hundred percent true that if an author comes into our store and is terrific — I won’t name names. Maybe I should if I’m just saying nice things. I don’t know. No, I won’t name names. There’s one author who came into the store. She was a debut. She came into the store on her book tour a couple of years ago. She brought a giant package of Korean facemasks for everybody. We were all like, will you marry us? It wasn’t gross. It was just for the booksellers. Sometimes people bake. Sometimes people send us cookies. I am all for that kind of bribery. Bribery that directly makes my booksellers happy I am a thousand percent for. Those are also the people who send thank you notes. People who send thank you notes, I order more of their books. If people come in and are jerks, I’m not going to order as many copies of their next book. I’m not. It’s up to me. It is up to me. There is no corporate overlord who is telling me that I need to support this author who is an asshole. Can I say asshole? Sorry. There’s no corporate overlord who is in charge who I have to sort of run things by. If I think somebody is not cool in some way — I don’t mean not cool as . Then yeah, they don’t get a stack. No way.

Zibby: That is very interesting. I love getting thank you notes. I get a lot of handwritten thank you notes just when I have somebody on my podcast. I’m like, that is so nice. It’s just so nice. It always makes my day. Not to try to solicit more thank you notes.

Emma: You should.

Zibby: It is, it’s a lost art. Getting mail, it’s like when you’re a kid, it just always makes your day. At camp or something when you’d get a package, it’s the same. Sorry, I really wanted to talk to you about the bookstore, so I’ve just used this podcast for myself, essentially. I’m assuming if I’m interested, other people are interested. Selling books, especially today with everything being closed for the last year, oh, my gosh, it’s a miracle that books can still sell. Are you doing anything special — last question about the bookstore — for Independent Bookstore Day? I think I’m going to release this on Independent Bookstore Day. I’ve just decided.

Emma: We’ve got some stuff to give away. It’s a weird year. It sounds so backwards, but we don’t really want to encourage more people than usual to come. We don’t want there to be more people in the store than would normally be in the store. On the weekends, there’s always a line out the door anyway where people wait to come in, which is nice. We have some new merch that we are going to put on sale and some fun stuff like that. Just stay tuned to @BooksAreMagicBK on Instagram.

Zibby: I use my Books Are Magic mug all the time, by the way. I posted a picture a long time ago, but I should post another one soon. Not that you need it, but just FYI. I love it.

Emma: I love it. Thank you.

Zibby: Your book, for our last two minutes, All Adults Here, so beautifully written. I feel like I know this family, like I could run into them. This whole, bus accidents, the secrets, the train ride up, even the way you talk about driving in a taxi in the backseat and having to get there and be accompanied and her feeling crazy — I feel like I used to always do these unaccompanied trips where my parents were always just sending my brother and me places. We were like, oh, my gosh. It made me think back to that. Just tell listeners a little bit more about the book. Why did you write the book? What made you write All Adults Here?

Emma: I would say a common misconception is that writers are sort of experts about things and write books because they want to tell people stuff. I feel like I write things in order to understand them. This book is very much about understanding how to be a parent and how to be a sibling and how to be an adult child of an aging person and just how to navigate life when you are making mistakes, which we all do all the time. As a person in this sandwiched generation, I think about it all the time. My parents are getting older. I have small children. I feel pulled in both directions. My parents live about a five-minute walk that direction.

Zibby: So do mine.

Emma: My parents don’t live in the house that I grew up in. Even so, when I walk into my parents’ apartment, I kick my shoes off wherever. I take off my clothes. I drop things everywhere. I just open the fridge. I treat it like it’s my space and like I’m a teenager. I think they do because my mom still acts the way she did when I was a child. I’ll be sitting somewhere. All of a sudden, there will be a little bowl of clementines right next to me or something. She’s still mothering me because I’m still her child even though I’m forty years old and I have my own two children. That’s really what the book is about, to answer your question.

Zibby: Love it. Those are the most relatable things in the world. I feel like everybody is dealing with all of that stuff. Even the way you write about parenting in the book, I’m forgetting his name, but the brother who goes to the diner just to escape his crazy twins and hide out there, I’m like, if only moms could sneak out to a diner in the morning, not to generalize. There are many men who are — never mind. If only I could do . There are some mornings when everybody would love to just hang out at the local diner and read the paper and all of that. What are you working on next? What’s coming next from you book-wise?

Emma: I just got notes back on my first draft of my next novel from my editor. I’m trying to synthesize them. I think we’re going to talk tomorrow or later this week about them. I don’t know when it’ll be out.

Zibby: You’re going to order twelve copies of them. It’s going on the table.

Emma: Oh, man, it’s going on the table. It is going on the table, for sure.

Zibby: Can you say anything about it, a little sneak peek of any kind?

Emma: It’s a time travel book. It’s New York City. It’s the Upper West Side. It’s high school and time travel and death and love.

Zibby: Love it. What more can you want? That’s perfect. Throw in a little Zabar’s and you’ve got the whole thing covered. Excellent. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Emma: Finish it. Finish it. Finish it. If you don’t finish it, whatever it is that you’re trying to write, if you’re trying to write an essay, if you’re trying to write a memoir, if you’re trying to write a short story, if you’re trying to write a novel, if you’re trying to write a screenplay, if you don’t finish it, then you can never make it good. I know a lot of aspiring writers who are perfectionists. Perfection is the enemy. Don’t worry about that. Just finish it. Then make it good.

Zibby: Great. Finish it. We will. Thank you. By the way, if you have any interest, I have this new site on Medium called Moms Don’t Have Time to Write. If you have any interest in writing anything for Independent Bookstore Day, we could publish it that day. I thought that might be fun. Actually, it wasn’t even my idea. If you have any interest, I would love for you to do that.

Emma: My phone started ringing. I have another interview that starts right this moment.

Zibby: We’ll talk. I’m going to email you about this last piece.

Emma: Email me.

Zibby: Thank you so much.

Emma: Such a pleasure, Zibby. Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: Thank you so much for coming. Bye.

Emma: Have a good day.

Zibby: You too. Buh-bye.


ALL ADULTS HERE by Emma Straub

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