Booksellers are Holiday Heroes: Chris Szego, Bakka Phoenix Books
"I liked this book… So what else can you recommend?"
"Give me the names of two other books you like so I can triangulate your tastes."
This was the exchange I overheard when I stopped into Bakka Phoenix Books (84 Harbord Street) to chat with store manager Chris Szego yesterday, and it brought a big happy smile to my face. It smacked of strategy and confidence. As she went through her recommendations, she held each book up and gave an enticing teaser. "A girl wakes in a park surrounded by bodies, with no memory of who she is. She finds a note in her pocket… The body you’re wearing used to be mine." Chris knows how to sell it because she knows her books. She ought to – she’s managed Bakka Phoenix for twelve years, after working in a chain bookstore for years before that. A small business is "ten times as much work," she told me, "But ten times as much fun. Maybe twenty."
Bakka Phoenix serves the very active Sci-Fi and Fantasy reading and writing community in Toronto. Not only do we have a list of awesome SF/F writers – every one of which Chris could tell me about, if I had more than a few minutes – Some of Canada’s most notable SF/Fantasy writers have even been employees of the store – Cory Doctorow, Michelle West (aka Michelle Sagara), and Robert J Sawyer, to name a few. The store hosts signings, readings, and launches as well as a book club. ChiZine also hosts its reading series at the store. This year the store began hosting writing workshops. Sawyer gave the first one in September, and Julie Czerneda will lead one in 2013. Like many independent booksellers, Bakka Phoenix is often invited to provide bookselling services for offsite launches – most recently Adrienne Kress's massive steampunk party at the Gladstone for the launch of The Friday Society. They’re a busy lot, the Bakka Phoenix staff. Store Owner Ben Freiman was also in the store that day, and it was apparent from their chatter why they both work there: they love the books.
When I asked Chris who her favourite kid is – SF or Fantasy – she immediately said Fantasy – not that she doesn’t read SF. She reads everything (and it shows) – except horror. (Too scary.) I asked the impossible question – her favourite author – and she had to go with Terry Prachett because so many of his books have hit so many right marks for her. "He strikes the very difficult balance of being, all at once, profound and original and insightful – and really funny. In a non desperate way."
Here are the answers to the lovely Chris' holiday bookselling questions.
SM: Describe a typical holiday shopper in November.
CS: Thus far, November shoppers have just been... shoppers. With springlike temperatures, there's no urgency at all. Towards the end of the month, when Jim Butcher's new book Cold Days arrives, things will get pretty busy. But that's due to the book and the writer, rather than to the season.
SM: Describe a typical holiday shopper in December.
CS: In December, especially after the snow starts falling, customers tend to ask for more recommendations. Which we love to give, so it's absolutely win-win.
Working in an independent bookstore is a little different than working in a mall or big box store (I've done both). The smaller spaces make for a more personal interaction with customers, which continues throughout the holiday season. People tend to be waaaaay less rude to staff here. Not only because we don't put up with bad behaviour, but also because they're interested in advice, selection, and conversation. That's why they come here -- why we're still in business after 40 years.
SM: Describe your ideal holiday shopper.
CS: Someone who wants our help to find a gift the recipient will love. That sounds cheesy, but it's true.
SM: What is your most memorable holiday bookselling experience?
CS: A couple years ago, a grossly mis-managed window repair meant that we had the glass wall of our store removed for a whole day... just as the temperature dropped sharply below zero. Memorable, if not exactly fun.
SM: What are the most requested books you've had this holiday season?
Joe Abercrombie's long-awaited Red Country. Jim Butcher's Cold Days, as mentioned above. All of the books in George R.R. Martin's 'Song Of Ice And Fire' series, including the book of maps, and the cookbook, and the Insider's Guide to the HBO series. [Ed: BOOK OF MAPS. FOR SACHIKO. TAKE NOTE, INTERNET.] We've also seen a lot of interest in two delightfully subversive pictures books, I’d Really Like to Eat a Child by Sylviane Donnio, and This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen.
SM: What books should people be buying this season?
CS: ALL OF THEM.
In all seriousness, though, I need to break that question down.
For teens, people should buy: Silence, by Michelle Sagara; Above, by Leah Bobet; Unspoken, by Sarah Rees Brennan; The Friday Society, by Adrienne Kress; Anna Dressed in Blood and its sequel Girl of Nightmares, by Kendare Blake; Necromancing the Stone by Lish McBride; Planesrunner, by Ian McDonald; Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman... okay, I'll stop now.
For adults, people should buy: Among Others, by Jo Walton; Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell; Dodger, by Terry Pratchett; Triggers, by Robert J. Sawyer; Epic, edited by John Joseph Adams; Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline; Sherlock: The Casebook, by BBC Books.
For young children, people should buy: I’m Bored by Michael Ian Black, illustrated by Debbie Ohi; Three Ninja Pigs, by Corey Rosen Schwartz, illustrated by Dan Santat; Moustronaut, by Mark Kelly, illustrated by CF Payne; Robot Rumble, by Alexander Gwynne.
SM: Retail can be a stressful environment during the holidays. How are you coping?
CS: We're the chocolate-behind-the-counter kind of staff, rather than vodka-under-the-cash-desk. Honestly, though: we enjoy the season. It's busy but fun.
SM: What books are on your wish list this year?
CS: ALL OF THEM.
I'm saving A Blink of the Screen, Terry Pratchett's short story collection. And I haven't yet started Libba Bray's The Diviners or Captain Vopatril’s Alliance by Lois McMaster Bujold: they're going to be my Christmas presents to me.