NOVEMBER 18, 2014
IOWA CITY — set amid low hills of genetically engineered commercial crop an hour west of the Mississippi, bisected by the Iowa River, afflicted by floods, tornados, downpours of seemingly tropical nature, and winter wind chills dropping into the -50s, graced with hallucinogenic sunsets, convocations of bald eagles along the riverbanks, and upright pianos bolted down on street corners for passersby to play — is a rather odd place.
It is home to the University of Iowa, which in 2013 received the dubious distinction of “Number One Party School” from the Princeton Review. When school is in session, the city nearly doubles in size, and during football season the streets are jammed with undergraduates attired in Hawkeye black and gold, engaging in any number of inglorious activities (shouting, catcalling, vomiting in gutters). Because Iowa holds the first primary elections in the nation, during election years the townsfolk witness many of the principals in political campaigns stopping into local diners to shake hands and deliver sound bites. And, as home to esteemed writing programs like the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the Nonfiction Writing Program, and the International Writing Program, since 2009 Iowa City has enjoyed the distinction of being a UNESCO City of Literature — the third in the world, after Edinburgh and Melbourne.
It is also, unmistakably, a small town, full of neighborly goodwill and vituperative gossip, trustworthy mechanics, sleazy landlords, and local characters who have achieved celebrity status through some combination of longevity, eccentricity, and/or political clout.
The small-town nature of Iowa City is most apparent in the summer, when the students clear out and the downtown streets stretch broad and vast in their emptiness. On a mild evening in June, two cross sections of the populace — the literati and the locals — turned up at Iowa City’s landmark independent bookstore, Prairie Lights, for a book launch.
It’s not unusual for Prairie Lights to draw a crowd, even on a weeknight. The shop, which is often included on “Best Bookstores in the World” lists, plays host to a revolving cast of new and established literary stars. It’s standard for top-billing writers to stop through Iowa City on book tours. Visiting and tenured professors from prestigious MFA programs make regular appearances, as do program graduates, many of whom preface their readings by announcing that they drafted their manuscripts in Prairie Lights’s adjoining café.
On this particular night, the bookstore was crowded and the mood distinctly celebratory. The guest of honor sat beside a tall stack of books, swinging his legs and craning his neck in a manner that belied his 67 years. This was Paul Ingram, an Iowa City–based bookseller for over 40 years, Prairie Lights’s primary book buyer for the past 25, and a local character par excellence.
If Prairie Lights is the wheel around which literary life in Iowa City revolves, Ingram may well be its hub. “Prairie Lights is one of the reasons Iowa City was designated a City of Literature,” UNESCO City of Literature director John Kenyon told me. “And Paul, a true force of nature, is one of the people that helps hold all of this together.”
Both in the bookstore and beyond, Ingram has the status of an icon: part master, part mascot. The epithet “legendary bookseller” is attached to his name so often that it may as well be a formal prefix. Matt Lage, the book buyer at nearby Iowa Book, and a protégé of Ingram’s, told me, “I’ve worked at six bookstores, and I’ve never seen a better hand-seller than Paul Ingram. That person does not exist.” On its culture web page, the University of Iowa describes Ingram as “a landmark inside of a landmark.” Jan Weissmiller, who co-owns Prairie Lights with business partner Jane Mead, calls Ingram “one of the top five booksellers in the country.”
In his decades of bookselling, Ingram has built up a passionate fan base. Fellow booksellers rely on him as a bellwether: if Paul Ingram is excited about a book, it’s likely to do well; if he’s dismissive, good luck. “He’s institutional memory,” says Lage. Readers, meanwhile, credit him with the seemingly magical ability to intuit exactly what they’re looking for before they know it.
“I try to get people to read books that I know to be incredible, but that they’ve never heard of,” Ingram told me. “I like being a tastemaker for the community.” Given that he’s been at it for nearly half a century, that the community in question is one of the nation’s most literary, and that a sizable portion of the customers who’ve received his recommendations have gone on to have illustrious writing careers of their own, it does not seem an exaggeration to say that Paul Ingram’s influence extends to shape contemporary American literature itself.
My first encounter with Ingram came a few weeks after I’d moved to Iowa City. I wandered into Prairie Lights because I’d heard it was famous. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular. I was standing in front of the shelves, absentmindedly scanning the spines, when I heard a gravelly, eager voice over my shoulder inquire, “Looking for something?”
That voice! It is as much a part of Ingram’s celebrity as his prodigious bookselling skills. I have never heard anyone tell a Paul Ingram story without sliding into affectionate imitation. “It’s basically a low, explosive insinuation,” Lage explains. “Everyone does the Paul Ingram. Third graders on the playground at Horace Mann Elementary School, they do Paul Ingram. Ninety-nine-year-old men do Paul Ingram.”
“It’s multi-octave, multi-volume,” says author Elizabeth McCracken, whose friendship with Ingram began nearly 25 years ago, when she was a student at the Writers’ Workshop and he was a relative newcomer to Prairie Lights after stints at Iowa Book and the Union Memorial Bookstore. “It drops to a growling whisper, then suddenly he shouts!”
I’d turned around, startled by the voice, to find a small man with a shock of gray hair, tufted eyebrows, and bright eyes behind round glasses standing — or more accurately bobbing — before me. Ingram is 5’3”, but it’s hard to tell: whether sitting or standing, he’s rarely still. When he talks, he waves his arms through the air as though conducting an orchestra. “A conversation with Paul is a tango,” McCracken told me. “He leans in, he leans out, suddenly he throws an arm around you.” Working the floor, he swans across the expanse of green carpet, limbs akimbo. He charges through the stacks, then abruptly spins on a heel. “Aha!” he’ll exclaim, arriving at a book. “Here, yes, this one!”
I told him I wasn’t sure what I was looking for. A few seconds later he’d clasped his hand loosely around my wrist and was pulling me toward a shelf, leaping to pull a book out, thrusting it into my hands. It was a slim white volume: Sebastian Barry’s Annie Dunne.
In a half-fugue state I found myself at the register, fumbling for my wallet. Years later, I wrote to Ingram to ask what he might’ve said to convince me that I could not possibly leave the store without that book, since I could no longer remember.
“I probably would have asked you if you’d read Sebastian Barry,” he wrote back.
I would have said he was Ireland’s greatest writer in a manner that suggested I knew this for a fact (there was a period of time in which I believed this and I am prone to hyperbole). I would have made chitchat, saying he was better known as a playwright in Ireland and as a novelist in the US of A. Then I would have said Annie Dunne, because it’s the least harsh and melancholy of his books, and I didn’t know you then and might have worried that you might be a depressive sort. They are all fabulous and you would have probably liked them all equally. Did you like it? Have you read it yet? At any rate I was pretty sure you’d be back.
I did come back. We all do. People who’ve moved thousands of miles away make regular pilgrimages to Prairie Lights just so Ingram can tell them what to read next. He’s a master bookseller for his encyclopedic knowledge and quick recall, for the full confidence of his convictions, and for his infectious enthusiasm. But he also exhibits a quality that is passingly rare in retail: a deeply felt concern for his customers as human beings that has absolutely nothing to do with commerce.
I didn’t know you then and might have worried you might be a depressive sort.
“He’s tremendously affectionate,” McCracken told me. “He’s a really loving and lovely person. Except for his actual height, there’s nothing small-scale about Paul. He lives at a brass band level of enthusiasm about the things that he loves at all times.”
On that night in June, Ingram was making his foray into another side of the book industry. After four decades selling other peoples’ books, he was launching his own: a whimsical, illustrated collection entitled The Lost Clerihews of Paul Ingram.
For the uninitiated, a clerihew is something like an abridged limerick: a four-line ditty comprised of two rhyming couplets, loosely biographical in nature. The first line introduces a person of note; the remaining lines play tribute to — or more often poke fun at — that person.
The clerihew, which dates back to the late 19th century, originated with the English humorist and mystery writer Edmund Clerihew Bentley. According to legend, 16-year-old Bentley was sitting bored in his chemistry class at St Paul’s School in London when he composed his first clerihew:
Sir Humphry Davy
He lived in the odium
Of having discovered Sodium.
Bentley’s friend and fellow student, writer G. K. Chesterton (“one of the dullest and most prolific of English writers,” according to Ingram), brought clerihews to prominence as a polite alternative to the limerick. “His were goody-goody,” Ingram says with a disdainful shrug. “You’ve gotta put penises and stuff like that in or they’re no fun at all.”
Naughty or not, there’s something the tight, jangling rhythm of the clerihew that catches like an earworm. W. H. Auden wrote an entire book of them, Academic Graffiti. Dorothy Parker wrote a few, too. When Ingram’s Lost Clerihews came out this summer, the New York Daily News issued a brief write-up that began, “Paul Ingram gives Dorothy Parker a run for her money,” an assessment he received with visible delight.
Ingram’s own long-running involvement with clerihews began soon after he started working at Prairie Lights. As a bookseller, he spent long hours flipping through catalogs with sales reps, fielding questions from customers, sliding books on and off the shelves. “Thousands and thousands of books, thousands of names would go past me,” he says. “And they started spilling out. It was as though I could not contain them.”
He became afflicted with a sort of clerihew fever. He has described this period as a manic one, with his creative output “more neurological than artistic,” like a Tourettic tic. A name would pop into his mind — Alfred Lord Tennyson, Agatha Christie, Eleanor Roosevelt — and then the rhyme would materialize as if channeled. Tennyson, venison. Christie, frisky. Roosevelt, clothes felt. “If it takes more than two minutes to think up, it isn’t going to work,” he says.
Once the clerihew came together, he’d announce it to anyone in earshot — a customer, a family member, a colleague, passersby. “It’s kind of thrilling to do to a stranger,” Ingram told me. “I’d be selling books to someone and we’d mention Flaubert, and I’d say, ‘Gustav Flaubert / was seldom sober / He wrote Madame Bovary / while in recovery!’ It usually sets the mood, in a good way.”
He scribbled his clerihews on scraps of paper, bookmarks, old receipts, napkins, and sugar packets. He emailed them to friends. Some he never recorded at all, and those dissipated into the ether from which they’d arrived. “The half life of a clerihew is 30 seconds,” he says. “They’re like dreams.” Eventually he swept the recorded scraps into a box, and the box went into his basement. It moldered there for years. Meanwhile his clerihew mania abated somewhat, though it never left him entirely.
Every so often, someone would tell him he ought to collect his clerihews in a book. He’d had the same idea himself, early on. Back in the early 1990s, when they were coming out of him like hiccups, he’d pitched the idea to his friend Elisabeth Scharlatt, the publisher of Algonquin Press in New York. He thought she might be interested because she’d edited a book he adored, Maurice Sagoff’s ShrinkLits. Sagoff’s book had distilled much of the Western canon to pithy doggerel. Beowulf, for instance, was rendered in 14 rhyming couplets with a punchy and irreverent opener:
Monster Grendel’s tastes are plainish.
Breakfast? Just a couple Danish.
Scharlatt liked Ingram’s clerihews but passed on the idea of a book project. “I think I may have encouraged him,” she told me, “But only a little.”
“For a long time, no one was interested,” Ingram says. Then, a few years ago, Steven Semken, publisher of the Iowa City–based Ice Cube Press, read a clerihew that Ingram had posted on Facebook and forwarded it to his sales rep, Bruce Miller. Soon after, the two men asked Ingram if he’d be interested in publishing a collection with Ice Cube Press.
Then it was simply a matter of tracking them down — all those lines scrawled on loose paper, all those rhymes recited to friends and strangers. Ingram couldn’t remember exactly what he’d done with them. Eventually, he came upon the long neglected box in the basement. He called up friends and asked them to retrieve his old emails and letters. The clerihews found their way back to him one by one. He selected his favorites, and Miller’s wife, the artist Julia Anderson-Miller, added illustrations to accompany them.
Ingram dedicated the book to G. K. Chesterton and Maurice Sagoff. Elizabeth McCracken provided a foreword. Such is Ingram’s stature that the book quickly accrued enviable blurbs: authors Jane Hamilton and Margot Livesey, New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast, and author and former Random House editor-in-chief Daniel Menaker contributed commendations along with a number of other high-profile literary figures.
No one who’s witnessed Ingram in person will be surprised to learn that his readings are fully embodied performances. He doesn’t recite the clerihews so much as he enacts them, flapping his arms, rising up on his toes, inflecting each syllable with singular emphasis.
The problem of this particular project is that, by Ingram’s own reckoning, the clerihews are best delivered spontaneously and separately. “It’s like a seven-second stand-up routine,” he told me. “Once it’s over, it’s over. You don’t just do another one.”
So, at his Prairie Lights launch and a few nights later at New Bo Books in Cedar Rapids, Ingram used his spotlight to educate his audience on the history of the clerihew, from Bentley and Chesterton to Ingram’s own first encounter with the form.
He’d come across a clerihew in an obscure literary magazine decades earlier. The author was a Canadian poet, Opal Nations (“Now there’s a name!”); the subject was Helen Keller. With a wicked grin, Ingram recited the clerihew that had inspired his own:
Had only a smeller
But through her teacher’s zeal,
Learned to talk like a seal.
“When I read that,” Ingram told his audience, “I thought, This is what I want to do with my life!” He lowered his voice to a stage whisper. “Clerihews are supposed to be disrespectful. Obnoxiously so. They’re supposed to go after people who are beloved by many.”
He clasped his hands behind his back.
“Would you like to hear a few?” His voice had turned hopeful, almost imploring. He looked suddenly boyish and anxious to please.
“Yes!” the audience shouted.
Ingram flipped open the book but didn’t consult the page. He has most of his clerihews memorized. “Mario Lanza / Forgot the last stanza,” he recited. “So he did a soft shoe / And sang poopoopadoo!” At the phrase “soft shoe,” Ingram swung his arms open and shuffled sideways across the floor. He ended with one foot in the air, toes pointed, arms flung over his head. He delivered “poopoopadoo” in a nearly ecstatic shout. The audience cheered.
He turned a page in the book. “Charles Dickens / Had a thing about chickens,” he began, and then paused. “This is one you have to research,” he said. He adjusted his glasses and continued. “He read chicken porn / To his precious Plorn.”
“See,” Ingram said, looking up. “You have to know who Plorn is. Dickens had millions of kids by dozens of women. The only one he ever liked was his youngest, Charles. And for a reason I’ve never been able to understand, they always called him P-L-O-R-N. Now what kind of name is that? But when I see it, I say, It’s going in! I am helpless when I get something like that!”
He opened to another page. “Margaret Mead / Used to fart when she peed,” he said, wiggling his eyebrows. “A fact well known / To every Samoan.” He stopped, and his face lit up. “There is a book out this year about Margaret Mead called Euphoria. It’s a novel, an absolutely terrific novel by Lily King.”
Vintage Ingram: even at his own book launch, he could not resist promoting someone else’s.
“I’ve been a bookseller all my life,” Ingram told me. He was wearing a green T-shirt featuring the phrase AUTHORS ARE MY ROCK STARS above an image of Edgar Allan Poe in Lennon glasses, and we were eating lunch at an Italian café we both liked, a block from Prairie Lights. To the east stood a five-foot-tall sculpture of an open book with deckled pages, ornately painted. To the west, a sculpture of a bird with irrationally bulging pectoral and gluteal muscles below a stabbing beak — a particularly alarming interpretation of Herky the Hawk, the university’s mascot — glowered down the avenue. The sidewalk itself was inlaid with bronze plaques, inscriptions by writers who’d been to, or through, Iowa. One by former Writers’ Workshop director Frank Conroy read: “You must imagine the music in your head. Imagine it shaped and balanced the way you want it. Get it in your head and then believe in it. Concentrate, believe, and your fingers will do it.”
Over iced tea and salads, Ingram told me about his pre–Iowa City life. He is such a staple of the town that it is hard to think of one without the other, but in fact, Ingram grew up outside of Washington, DC. His father worked for the Department of Agriculture and his mother was a schoolteacher. “I always got books from the library,” he recalled. “And then one day I went into the doctor’s office in downtown DC, and we were walking around afterwards. I saw a bookstore, and I said, Can we go in here? And my dad said yes.”
He paused, widened his eyes, leaned forward, and placed his palms flat on the table. “Virtually everything changed in my life then.”
He said he could remember the first book he ever bought: The Dwarf, by Pär Lagerkvist. Later, he’d tell me it was a bad book, but that hardly mattered; what mattered was that books could be bought and brought home to keep, and along with them, whole universes of possibility.
His childhood was lonely. He has a much younger brother, but they’ve never been close. “I was short and shy, and it was hard for me to make friends. So reading books was essentially all I did,” he told me. “My dad read me Robert Louis Stevenson. Treasure Island and Kidnapped, in my dad’s voice, are some of the greatest readings of my life.”
When he was 14, his father began leaving books for Ingram. These included Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage — “one of the greatest stories of all time, a stunning, moving piece of literature” — and J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. His parents belonged to a Book of the Month club, through which Ingram discovered The Tin Drum by Günter Grass. “That was another life shifter,” he told me. “That one taught me what prose could do. And it can do virtually anything.”
Books helped to ease the sting of a shy and awkward adolescence. Ultimately, though, his social life became bearable only when he discovered a knack for humor and a willingness to perform. He became the secretary of a high school club whose members included the popular kids — athletes mostly — and turned minute-taking into an exercise in crass wit. “I wrote the funniest notes,” he told me. “I was incredibly naughty, and the reading of the notes became the highlight of the meetings. Things that high school boys will think is the funniest thing they’ve ever heard. A lot of penis humor.”
Even in the most hierarchical of societies, of which high school is certainly no exception, there is always a place for the funny guy. His last years of high school were an improvement over his first.
Ingram enrolled in college at the University of Virginia. Toward the end of his first term, his father called and told him to come home for a few days. He arrived to find his mother near death, wasted by cancer he hadn’t known about. “I knew she was in pain, but I didn’t know what it was,” Ingram told me. “In those days the medical standard was, when someone had terminal cancer, you told one person only — the spouse.”
Though Ingram had only been away a few months, by the time his father summoned him home, his mother no longer recognized him. She died soon after, sending him into a spiral of grief and guilt. “My brother and dad were home and had to deal with it, and I was in college, and I didn’t even know about it.” Ingram fell into a profound depression, dropped out of college, and was briefly hospitalized.
Upon his release, he took a job as a messenger at the Library of Congress, but struggled to make ends meet in Washington. Then his best friend’s girlfriend, who had been through the Writers’ Workshop, suggested he go to Iowa City. Ingram’s parents were native Iowans who’d graduated from the University of Iowa; his own relocation seemed to offer both a fresh start and a homecoming.
Ingram entered the University of Iowa as an English major in the late 1960s. “People were teaching Hindu and Buddhist chants, making their own letterpress books, and ‘freaking out the straight people,’” he recalled. He took lessons in Sanskrit from famed postcolonial theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, who was then a novice professor of comparative literature. He switched his concentration to linguistics and entered a manic reading phase, “feeding the beast,” as he puts it. “Norman O. Brown, Alan Watts, Jung, Schrödinger — all these heavy hitters just seemed to explode into me through books.”
After graduating, the old depression returned with immobilizing force. “I could hardly do anything,” he says. He returned to Washington, DC, where he fell in with a commune called Salami Mommy, which sustained itself through the crafting and sale of leather goods. “I was certainly no good at making hats and belts,” Ingram told me. “I never saw the commune thing as an accomplishment. It was more mourning for the fall of what I imagined might be The Revolution.”
Confronted with The Revolution’s imminent decline, or perhaps more accurately, its failure to arrive, Ingram resolved to find a proper career. He returned to Iowa City with a fellowship to pursue a graduate degree in speech pathology, but found the program intolerable. “It was a nightmare,” he told me. “The people in it were awful. They all had teddy bears in their carrels. They’d developed a little cutesy way of talking to kids. And I could not be around them, having taken Sanskrit! You’ve got to understand, the world back then was divided into people who had once been hippies and people who had never been hippies. I had no friends who had never been hippies.”
He revolted, squandering his fellowship money on food and dope. He scrawled graffiti in bathrooms, arguably a progenitor of the clerihews:
In every ear of every human,
sebaceous glands secrete cerumen.
Eventually he withdrew from the program. Not long after, a friend told him about a job opening at Iowa Book and Supply, a happenstance opportunity that shifted the course of his life. “On my first day on the job, I knew exactly what to do,” he says. “And I have never since wanted to do anything else.”
Ingram fell easily into the art of bookselling, which called upon his inherent qualities — a voracious appetite for books, insatiable curiosity, sharp memory, a keen sensitivity to the interests of others — while shoring up the skills of humor and performance that he’d more conscientiously acquired. “Bookselling made me unshy,” he told me. “Bookselling gave me an excuse to talk to strangers. I got to learn to read people and make guesses about what kinds of books they would appreciate.”
In this context, Ingram’s clerihews are better seen not as neural tics corralled into party tricks, but something more poignant: the organic evolution of a bookish, lonely child’s desire for contact; a depressive autodidact’s longing for community. “I use them for interpersonal communication,” he told me. “They’re a form of humor and human interaction.”
As humor, they’re more Borscht Belt than Broad City, though Ingram’s style — which tends to start in the encyclopedia before swinging toward the gutter — might find favor among Comedy Central’s latest witty, ribald doyennes.
The clerihews are “like funny little truffles, delicious and strange,” Elizabeth McCracken says. “They’re hilarious and pleasingly off-kilter. When I think of the kind of laugh Paul’s clerihews induce, it’s a snigger. There’s this sense of, Oh, that’s naughty, I should not be laughing about that, which makes it more deeply pleasurable.”
The Lost Clerihews of Paul Ingram is thus an impressionistic self-portrait, an askance autobiography. Quoth René Descartes (who has not yet, as far as I know, been immortalized in an Ingram clerihew): Cogito ergo sum. Taken together, Ingram’s clerihews reveal a singularly limber and eclectic mind — one capable of drawing inspiration from medieval mystics, contemporary pop icons, modernist poets, Hungarian composers, and ancient Greek philosophers, all with the same ease and irreverence. Flipping through 10 consecutive pages of The Lost Clerihews, the reader finds tributes to D. H. Lawrence, Margaret Sanger, Mao Zedong, Louis Farrakhan, Diana Ross, Britney Spears, General Custer, William McKinley, Henry Thoreau, and John Stuart Mill.
“There’s nobody like him,” says Jan Weissmiller of Prairie Lights. “He’s funny, he’s hugely well read, hugely energetic. But it isn’t just energy. It’s this vast knowledge. It’s an interest in a lot of different aspects of culture. It’s not only books. He’s interested in so many things.”
In the wake of the Lost Clerihews launch, a clerihew virus seemed to be spreading through Iowa City. Most were in tribute to Ingram.
Charity Nebbe, host of Iowa Public Radio’s “Talk of Iowa,” broadcast hers on the radio:
You know Paul Ingram
Prairie Lights is his Kingdom
Where the lost shopper stands
While Paul talks with his hands.
National Book Critics Circle Award–winning poet D. A. Powell contributed his own as a blurb:
Made portable criticisms
Into pocket-sized witticisms.
“I don’t think he’s written any about me, but I’ve written some about him,” Weissmiller told me. “We did one that went, ‘If you feel in need / Of a book to read / Give us a call / And we’ll lasso Paul.’ But as he would point out, that’s not a real one, because it doesn’t start with the name.”
She laughed. “I put another one on Facebook that went: Paul Ingram’s no Bezos / He sells books without discounts / But as for culture the fact is / He supports it with taxes.”
“I rhymed Jeff Bezos with ‘soups misos’ and felt very proud of myself,” Matt Lage told me.
Ingram’s own takedown of the Amazon founder is included in his book:
Believed he was Jesos,
He left out no detail
In dismantling retail.
“I don’t like talking about Amazon any more than Jews like talking about the Final Solution,” Ingram said to me. Nonetheless, the specter of the massive online retailer looms large for independent booksellers. And maybe I’m being too cynical, but when I think about the reverence with which people talk about Prairie Lights and Paul Ingram, I can’t help wondering if there isn’t something a little precious about it, something like anticipatory nostalgia, a sense that we are living in, bearing witness to, and at the same time eulogizing our own waning era.
There is nothing a bookseller hates more than being asked if his or her career — and the brick-and-mortar store that sustains it — is fading into obsolescence. The American Booksellers Association has taken a defiantly positive attitude to the Amazon problem, and reported in May that its membership rose to 1,664 in the past year, that there are more independent bookstores opening (and staying open) than at any point in recent memory. Indeed, many independent booksellers see Amazon as, if not exactly a non-threat, then at least a much-needed incentive for local businesses and communities to mobilize. “Booksellers on their toes, harnessing that nervous energy to innovate, are much better than booksellers on their asses,” said Stephen Sparks, a bookseller at Green Apple Books in San Francisco, in a recent interview.
Rather than attempting to compete with Amazon, independent booksellers have adopted a philosophy described to me by Jeremy Ellis, general manager of Brazos Bookstore in Houston: “We’re successful when we are who we are as hard as we can be. Be the unique creature that you are, and people will respond to that. And if they don’t, then they’re not your target customer anyway, so who cares?”
“Here’s the importance of a Paul Ingram versus an Amazon,” Matt Lage explains.
If you type into your computer, I just read the last Ian McEwan, you get, People who read Ian McEwan also read … And that is, in a way, a valuable algorithm. But Paul Ingram will sell you a book you’d never think of. And then you realize it’s a wonderful book. And then he’s got you hooked, and you go back and say, okay, what else do you have for me?
Ingram is of the old guard, a bookseller who honed his skills decades before the internet changed our reading and consumption habits. Yet those who fear the replacement of personable, knowledgeable salespeople with computer-driven robots may be heartened to learn there’s a generation of younger booksellers across the country who practice their craft in a manner very much like Ingram’s.
“I don’t think the profession has changed that much, fundamentally, in 100 years,” Stephen Sparks told me from San Francisco. Sparks, 37, has been selling books since he was 22. “At heart, what we do now is very old-school and time-honored,” he says. “We talk about books and in doing so forge relationships with people. If there’s anything that will keep this profession viable, it’s this human element.”
On the opposite coast, Josh Cook, 34, is the marketing director at Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Although he’s built up a robust online presence for the store, he told me, “My time on the sales floor hand-selling is the most profitable time I give to the bookstore. I don’t think any of the algorithms that any of the online bookstores have created are remotely as effective as the conversation that happens with a hand-sell.”
At the same time, there’s a sense — particularly among the older booksellers I spoke with — that things are far from rosy, no matter how many new bookstores are joining the ranks of the ABA. One referred to the Association’s posture as “a very utopian perspective.”
Another put it more bluntly: “The American Booksellers Association is a lot like Jim Jones in Guyana saying Drink the Kool-Aid!”
The continued viability of local enterprises — and the vitality of the communities around them — depends on more than the strategies of the shopkeepers. “This isn’t just about changing with technology and staying in touch with younger audiences,” says Stacie Williams, a former bookseller at Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee.
Nor is it reducible to the David vs. Goliath, Indie Bookshop vs. Amazon conversation that’s been rehashed ad nauseam in recent years. “This is a broader conversation about how we as a society and community get our consumer goods,” Williams told me. “What is the value of them? How do they get to us? What are we willing to pay for them? And understanding why certain things are worth paying more for. That’s a conversation that has to be had outside the bookstore.”
At 34, Williams belongs to that younger generation of booksellers who came up thinking of Ingram and his contemporaries as masters. When she began her career at the age of 25, she strived to emulate their legacy. But though she adored the work, she left her position at Boswell recently because, as she put it, “I could not support myself as an adult person in the world.” When we met recently, she was carrying a canvas tote printed with a quote that read: Bookselling is not really a job; it’s a vocation. A vocation is a job where you don’t earn enough to live on.
Josh Cook echoes these sentiments. “It just doesn’t pay well enough to be a viable career,” he told me in an email. “I have been very lucky that my rent hasn’t gone up in nine years and that my partner has been willing to work as an admin to allow me to work for Porter Square Books and pursue a writing career, but many younger booksellers don’t have that luxury.”
“So many people in the industry that I talk to, whether sales reps or editors or publicists, claim that they miss working in a bookstore,” Stephen Sparks told me. “Which is both wonderful and kind of terrible to hear, because in some ways it feels like being a career bookseller is a symptom of some sort of quixotic view of the world that will inevitably come to haunt me.”
“I worry about younger booksellers,” Ingram says. “For me, hand-selling books is as deep a pleasure as I know. It saddens me that what I do and love and am good at has little market value to Americans.”
Independent bookstores aren’t going anywhere, at least not anytime soon, but sustaining them and their staff will require an ongoing and collective effort. As Stacie Williams frames it, you have to keep asking yourself, “What is community and how do you support it? How do you make decisions within your budget that are ethical as a consumer?”
Ingram and his publisher Steve Semken had invited me to come along to a reading at New Bo Books in Cedar Rapids, and so, one evening in late June, the two picked me up at my house in Iowa City.
“Nice porch,” Ingram remarked as I got in the car. “A great porch for smoking dope on!” The porch was dilapidated along with the rest of the house; it had never struck me as great for anything before. I thanked him, and he craned his head toward the back seat to grin at me.
As we pulled onto the highway, Ingram and Semken slid into easy banter while I watched the fields flash by. The corn was still fairly low but in another few weeks it would be towering and the landscape would make a clacking noise whenever the wind picked up.
The two men talked about people they knew, and then about a woman they expected at the reading who was famous for her pies, and then about recipes for pie. Ingram was firmly in favor of using lard for the crust. “If you’re worried about dying, you will not enjoy pie,” he announced definitively.
A minute later: “And if you don’t use lard for biscuits, you’re just stupid.”
For a few minutes we all sat quiet. Then, abruptly, Ingram leapt forward as far as the seatbelt would allow and yelped, “Look at that Chevy!” A cream and maroon ’59 Chevrolet floated past, tail fins gleaming. He stretched his hands toward the windshield as if to grab it.
We pulled into Cedar Rapids a half hour before Ingram was scheduled to read, and stopped into the bookstore to meet the clerk who would be working the event.
An elderly couple entered the store when we did and introduced themselves to Ingram. He shook their hands heartily, and then they cornered him to tell him a rambling story that had something to do with the husband’s family name and the nicknames it had spawned. Ingram nodded enthusiastically, then with waning enthusiasm, and then excused himself to get a coffee at the café next door.
I went with him. He ordered a latte and a sugar cookie, and we sat on a bench to hide out for a few minutes.
Back in the bookstore, a small crowd had assembled. “Come quick,” Semken said, popping his head into the café. “They’re already composing their own clerihews about you.”
“What are they saying?” Ingram asked.
“Paul Ingram, knew how to fling ’em, something something,” Semken said.
“Uh oh,” Ingram said. “We’d better get in there.”
Once inside the bookstore, Ingram made his way between the rows of folding chairs, shaking hands and introducing himself to each person in attendance. A young woman told him that she’d met him many years earlier, as a girl. “You recommended The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros,” she said. “And you were right!”
Ingram tilted his head to appraise her. “Ha!” he said. “You didn’t used to wear so much lipstick. You’ve changed styles!”
Once he’d made his rounds, he returned to the front of the room to read (and incant, and dance) from The Lost Clerihews. The audience, predictably, responded with much cheering and applause.
“The books are $20 and contribute to my retirement,” Ingram said at the end of the reading.
“But we don’t want you to retire,” called an elderly man from the audience.
“Ah,” Ingram replied, “But you’re not me. And you haven’t had the same job for 42 years.”
When we left the bookstore, the setting sun cast the brick warehouses across the street in thick gold light. In the distance, a train whistle blew. Ingram was quieter, introspective. As we headed back toward Iowa City, I asked him what he thought he’d do once he retired.
“Spend time with my grandchildren,” he said without hesitation. “I’ve got three. If you don’t think that’s fun! That’s the happiest I’ve ever been. They’re three, seven, and nine, and they are so wonderful. To watch them grow, their changing personalities … it’s incredible.”
“As soon as I’m completely out of this job, I’m going to be at the computer all the time,” Ingram continued. “I’ve got any number of ideas that I want to work on. It’s really hard to do when you’re selling other people’s books, because your mind is so full of other people’s words. But I have a lot of plans.” He leaned back against the headrest, momentarily still.
Headlights blinked on, though the evening was still bright. Along the sides of the highway, fireflies sparked faintly over the fields.