At 9:30 a.m., I kneel on the sidewalk to unlock the door to the bookstore; I kneel again to lock the door behind me. The day has not quite started, but already I have been on my knees twice. I will kneel again, countless times, to shelve books throughout the day, and when I get home my legs will hurt. This is one small material reality of working at a bookstore: kneeling, often with two-foot-high piles of books in one’s hands, in order to restock the shelves. I consider this an inconvenience, if not a small workplace hazard. The Art of Libromancy: Selling Books and Reading Books in the Twenty-First Century by Josh Cook—largely unconcerned with the material realities of work in the 21st century—might regard this kneeling as the kind of sacrifice required from artists, or a form of prayer.
Over the course of 15 essays (or 14 essays and a glossary), The Art of Libromancy attempts to investigate and explain what bookselling is and how we do it. I should say at the outset that Josh Cook pre-empts my disagreement with his project. In the book’s final pages, he writes: “Booksellers care about bookselling and when you care about bookselling, you have ideas about it because you’re thinking about it. It isn’t weird for booksellers to have different ideas about how to be booksellers.”
It is those who are closest to us, most similar to us, with whom we have the greatest disagreements. Mine is this: I do not think bookselling is an art. I think it is a job. I don’t mean this derogatorily; jobs are just as important to analyze as most art, if not more so. But a job is a material thing, a book is a material thing—a product—and if we are going to analyze material things we should set forth on the basic understanding that, as a job, bookselling is a victim to much the same trappings as any other job: the exploitation of its workforce. Bookselling is not a special case, but it does exist at a (somewhat) interesting crossroad between the “artistic” world of literature and the material world of retail, from which I see, in both directions, roads paved with the broken backs of workers, with no eventual culmination to art.
I have been a “bookseller” on and off for about seven years. I put that term in scare quotes even as I use it because I think it is silly. The word smacks simultaneously of self-aggrandizement and of the infantilization of other job titles that retail workers use or are forced to use within their stores: the theatrical “cast” and “crew” at Sephora; the nautical “merchants,” “mates,” and “captains” at Trader Joe’s; the patently false “partners” at Starbucks. If these are not words at which you roll your eyes because they are thin masks on the reality of being a retail salesperson, they strike me as words we would use to make us feel better about ourselves while working behind the cash register. “Bookseller,” though, has a cultish kind of cachet, like “gallerist.” It obfuscates the reality that what we are selling you is a product. Rather, the title implies we are providing you with art. But when we vault our everyday realities to the level of art, we artificially heighten those realities to aesthetic objects somewhat removed from us, suppressing the really difficult conversations that need to be had about labor.
There are curiosities particular to the selling of books that Josh Cook is good at showing the reader: the sometimes fun but always difficult challenge of making a recommendation in “Tell Me Everything You’ve Ever Thought and Felt in Thirty Seconds”; the joy of watching a favorite author’s career grow in “Advocacy and Stewardship, Peace and Destiny.” I too, as in “A Sonnet, A Menu, A Place,” have agonized over shelving to genre—whether, for instance, to shelve a book like Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science-Fictional Universe in Literature or Sci-Fi & Fantasy. (Because Yu won the National Book Award for Interior Chinatown, it goes in Lit, much like Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life moved to Lit after the release of Arrival. I didn’t make these decisions, but it’s funny that someone thought of these authors “graduating” from genre because of some prestige.) While reading “Sour Cream and Other White Mistakes: Bookselling and the American Dirt Fiasco,” I found myself nodding about what I remember as a period of sustained white stupidity in the book world, and agree when Cook writes, “Whether you have the ‘permission’ to write a story is beside the point when you fuck it up.” I agree with a lot of what Cook has written, even when I find his tone weirdly performative and braggy, sounding in my head like Beto O’Rourke sitting backward on a chair. (“At this stage in my career as a bookseller, I move fucking units,” he writes in the book’s first essay. “I upsell like a motherfucker.”) I recognize these experiences and even relate to some of them, but in each instance I can’t shake the feeling that the book is somehow missing the point.
As a fellow “bookseller,” I see the book and say: I feel you. But as a fellow worker in the 21st century, the book’s analysis of labor feels surface-level at best. And at worst, it is dangerously shortsighted and ultimately nihilistic, cowing entirely to the liberal nonimagination of a better society being roughly the same as our current one but slightly more polite regarding the beatdowns.
At work, a man comes into the store. He is there because his daughter wants to be, he tells me. He himself does not read. “Wait for the movie,” he says.
This is a routine interaction, in the same way as a customer demurring that they “can get it on Amazon” because we are sold out of a book they want, or because we don’t price match. (What stores in 2023, selling anything, are insane enough to price match to Amazon?) In much the same way Amazon has been the archetypal Big Bad of late capitalism, it haunts The Art of Libromancy as the biggest potential threat to independent bookstores. And while that’s not wrong, per se—Amazon is often wielded as a threat by customers who just don’t care where their copy of The Artist’s Way is coming from—it is only the foreground. If the threat wasn’t Amazon, it was Borders, or Barnes & Noble, or Ingram. These are the boogeymen people point to as explanations for why things are the way they are: why people are underpaid, why small businesses are dying, why we suffer. But Amazon (and company) can only stand metonymically for the forces of capital. The flag is not the warship itself.
In the book’s third essay, “The Future of Bookselling is Booksellers,” Cook provides a list of potential ways to improve the working conditions of staff at bookstores that are alternatives to giving us what we really want (a raise). These dozen suggestions range from profit sharing to sabbatical and, tellingly, do not include unionizing—though one suggestion, “a seat at the table,” offers: “For larger stores, with more than a handful of employees, you could have the booksellers elect a representative to sit in on management meetings, almost like a union rep.” Almost, but not quite.
In the same essay, Cook asks, “If this business model can only survive through exploitation, does it deserve to survive at all?” It is a good question that he doesn’t really answer, because answering with the best interests of human beings in mind (“No”) would include the necessary work of deconstructing capitalism and finding that “this business model” is that of our society as a whole, and very little of that does deserve to survive.
Ostensibly, The Art of Libromancy presents an argument for progressive bookselling. Its core essay, “The Least We Can Do: White Supremacy, Free Speech, and Independent Bookstores” (published on its own as a chapbook as well), makes the bold claim that bookstores shouldn’t stock books by the racist fascists who dominate the Republican Party but instead should curate their stock to be socially conscious of the communities they want to support. Because, Josh Cook writes, “There is no such thing as an apolitical bookstore.” He’s right, and bookstores should be politically conscious of what they stock. But would that such considerations were all a bookstore needed to live up to a political consciousness. I am not sure that simply not carrying Mein Kampf or The Art of the Deal constitutes a political act, even if each book missing for the neo-Nazi or the MAGA-minded were replaced with books by Claudia Rankine and Christina Sharpe.
Bookstores are retail spaces. They sell products. (That a book can be more than a product is something I can only hope is true, not necessarily see or show you; it seems to me a long time since a book could claim to have changed the world.) Despite such slogans as “Vote with your wallet,” political engagement is not a product that can be bought and sold. In his book of essays Out of the Dark Night, Cameroonian philosopher and political theorist Achille Mbembe writes, “Because the arts and culture have become integral parts of the economic, their capacity to engage critically with the velocities of capital can no longer be taken for granted. Spaces of culture are no longer just aesthetic spaces; they are also commercial spaces.”
And he writes this about arts and culture themselves. If the books themselves do not hold inherent political value when they exist as products, as commercial spaces, how then could the commercial spaces that sell them? What’s tricky about the “progressive” is that it is very easy for something (that is, nothing) to look like progress, especially when our political sights are set so low. Cook himself seems to know this when he writes, “I don’t know if, at this stage, deplatforming white supremacists and fascists from indie bookstores will make much of an impact.”
It won’t. Not carrying American Dirt will not even stop Jeanine Cummins and her publisher from having made a lot of money; ditto for Harry Potter and JK Rowling. Not building a stage is not itself a meaningful act.
Cook doesn’t ignore the forces of capital entirely. In another essay, “The Indie Brand Paradox,” he writes:
Though capitalism is (ostensibly) driven by competition, competition is not an inherently predator/prey relationship. It isn’t (or at least it shouldn’t be) about devouring your competition but outperforming them, generating profit because what you make is better and what you do is better than other businesses offering similar goods and services. Seeking growth through predation is some ways undercuts the entire ideology behind free market capitalism.
But these parentheticals are telling. They are whispered grammatical admittances that the narratives we are sold about capitalism are false. What I see Cook doing here is trying to meet capital at some fabled halfway, trying to make it see by its own logic the error of its ways. But there is no logic to capital. There is not even ideology—capital creates and sells things like “logic” and “ideology”—there is only hunger. How things “should” or “should not” be are inconsequential because the consequences are always the same: capital will devour everything, including our counterarguments.
I read this book during my half-hour lunch breaks in the store’s basement office/break room combo. As my coworkers filter in and out, I ask them whether they think of bookselling as an art. More of them do than I expect (three or four), though with caveats: depending on whether you consider “sales” or “hospitality work” in general an art; depending on which aspect of the job we’re talking about; depending on the day. Other responses are more what I expect: a couple of people just laugh, three others make gagging noises.
More than once while reading I wonder if I disagree with the book because I am just bad at my job. Assuredly, I am less dedicated than Josh Cook. I have done this work for less than half the amount of time he has. As mentioned earlier, I balk at the very term “bookseller,” let alone whatever a “libromancer” is. I have never attended a Winter Institute of the American Booksellers Association. I have—I will allow myself this brag—sold something like 500 copies of Lydia Davis’s chapbook The Cows with my recommendation, but I don’t feel the romance of this for any longer than it takes to say it out loud, let alone as a lifestyle. I get the sense that “bookseller” is Josh Cook’s dream job. It is for a lot of people; it’s an easy job to romanticize. For myself, I do not dream of labor.
I believe that, in much the same way that there is no such thing as a free lunch, there is no such thing as a good book. I don’t mean this cynically or nihilistically or even hopelessly: regardless of our love for a book’s text, we should not let text somehow transcend the material reality of its production, and of its production within an economy that will always place profit above “literature.” The actual, physical thing we hold in our hands, made of paper bound with stitches and glue, is what I am talking about. It is not possible for me to separate the book as a piece of literature from the book as an industrial product. Consider that a book like The 48 Laws of Power has sold more copies than most of the books in the Fiction and Poetry sections combined. There are too many books in the world, when most are the kind of right-wing drivel that Josh Cook and I agree should not even be carried by any self-respecting bookstore. We probably lost acres of old-growth forest to Hillbilly Elegy and American Dirt—and for all there that we lost, what can we say we’ve gained?
Libromancy’s essential problem lies with its preciousness. In another recent book about selling work in an industry (or two industries, or industry in general) that caters to a lot of idealisms, Working Girl: On Selling Art and Selling Sex, Sophia Giovannitti writes, “The fantasy that capitalism is inevitable and rational collides with the fear that if it is, then anything—no matter how sacred—can indeed be bought and sold, with little fanfare.” Assuredly, I feel little fanfare when behind the register at the bookstore, even or especially when selling books that I might, on particularly good days, describe as having changed my life. I am glad you bought Precarious Life or Don’t Let Me Be Lonely; next guest please.
Giovannitti describes a man in her book as “a professorial type—condescending, liberal”; and this, I realize, is how I think of Josh Cook’s Art of Libromancy. When I come to its end, I find that—like the liberal professor—The Art of Libromancy is a largely innocuous book. For those who have not worked in a bookstore (or any other retail environment), it might be an interesting thing to read as you consider how those spaces operate, but perhaps not when considering why commercial spaces operate as they do.
Early in the book’s first essay, Cook writes, “This collection isn’t The Jungle for bookselling.” And no, it is not. What people remember of The Jungle is largely that it shows “how the sausage gets made”: the material conditions of the meat industry during the turn of the century as well as of the migrant workers who toiled in it. What people remember less well is that The Jungle’s ending is a political call to arms in which the novel’s protagonist, Jurgis, discovers socialism and dedicates his life to the cause, because only through such political revolution can a truly better world be made. The novel, in its ending, despite everything—the hardships, the violence, the deaths, the suffering, the family killed and then eaten by rats—offers us a utopian project. The Art of Libromancy offers us the least we can do, which looks more and more to me like nothing at all.
This article was commissioned by Megan Cummins.