JE: Skylight Books in LA’s Los Feliz neighborhood (in convenient proximity to the Dresden), is one of my favorite bookstores in the universe, and Emily Pullen is one of my favorite booksellers. In my experience, most publishers don’t appreciate the efforts of passionate independent handsellers like Emily nearly enough. It’s no exaggeration to say that with enough advocacy and word-spreading, a passionate bookseller can single-handedly give a title legs. The fact is, Indie booksellers are the gatekeepers and taste-makers of the industry, so I felt it was time to put them side by side with the authors and the editors, and start asking them to guest-post, as a part of our WWLWWD series (memorable acronym, right?). So, without further ado, meet Emily Pullen of Skylight Books:
Why We Love What We Do: Emily Pullen
I can’t tell of my love for bookselling without sharing first my love for books. I think it’s the first part of my identity that I was aware of and confident in – that love probably predates my own memory. My grandfather always told this story of me: before I could read, when I was barely toddling around, I would gather a towering pile of my mom’s old books at his feet. I would plop down next to him, point at them, and command, “READ.”
As I grew older, books continued to shape my life. Roald Dahl brought on fits of laughter. Diet for a New America made me a vegetarian for 10 years. Motherless Daughters reminded me that I’m not alone. Thoreau taught me that it’s okay to be alone sometimes. Jeanette Winterson reminded me that I have a heart that thumps and a brain that pulses. Faulkner made me pay attention to language and narrative and consciousness.
It may shock you to learn that I wasn’t immediately an english major in college. I think I was in denial about my “major orientation” for quite a while. But my junior year, I finally started coming out to people first as bi-majored and after college identifying exclusively as an English major. Everyone around me had, of course, assumed that was the case from the beginning. Though I could write well, I never really felt compelled to “be a writer.” Around that time, I had a flash of inspiration that perhaps I wanted to be an editor. Maybe that was how I would be involved in books.
The little-girl-from-Iowa in me was terrified of New York City, the eye of the publishing storm, and I knew there were also publishers in Boston. As a city, it felt much more manageable to me. I tried (and failed) to get my foot in the door, but I somehow found an unlocked window into bookselling. I turned down my first offer at a chain store in the International Terminal at Logan Airport. I knew it would have sucked my soul. I then worked for 6 weeks at what I had no idea was the sinking hulk of failing independent bookstore.
I saw an end, and I received a check from reality, right from the get go. And then I saw a beginning. Porter Square Books opened just up the road, a phoenix rising from ashes, created by veteran booksellers with decades of experience under their collective belts. And that is where my true education began. I will always be grateful to them for their willingness to share their knowledge, and their willingness to listen. I think those qualities are what will allow some bookstores to survive in our rapidly transforming landscape. At PSB, I had friends and I had mentors, and I got my first taste for the many different systems that make a bookstore work, and for the many different cogs and wheels that make up the broader book world.
Circumstances then took me from Boston to Los Angeles, and a friend of PSB suggested that I check out Skylight Books. We were in Los Angeles for 5 days to scope out apartments and jobs, and it just happened to be during the July heatwave of 2006. I visited the coffee shop I would work in and a bookstore next to it about which I felt…meh. I hopped on a bus and thought maybe it would be a good idea to walk the two miles from Beverly Boulevard up to Los Feliz. In 100+ degree heat. Stroke of genius. Heat stroke, maybe. But it meant that when I arrived at Skylight Books for the first time, it was an oasis in the desert in oh, so many ways. It had air conditioning! And a tree! And a cat! And it felt familiar in that way that only indies can, despite bearing very little physical resemblance to any other store I’d been in. And it meant that Los Angeles had culture beyond pop culture – it had literary culture. It was a place I could make feel like home.
I knew they weren’t hiring because indies almost never are, but I sent them my resume anyway and began courting them. I spoke to a manager. I started showing up at events. I browsed for hours. And a month later, when I still hadn’t heard anything, I called my old manager at PSB. “I miss it so much!” I told her. “There is no other store for me in LA. I don’t know what to do.” And so she worked a miracle. Apropos of nothing, she emailed the general manager and said something along the lines of “Don’t let this one go.” I got an interview, and 4 years later, here I am still. Here are some of my favorite things from those 4 years at Skylight.
The Skylight crew became like family, and the kaleidoscopic changing of books and faces continues to amaze me every day. And that’s just in the microcosm of the store, and the microcosm of our neighborhood. There’s the macrocosm of the Los Angeles literary world, and the macrocosm of other bookstores and booksellers across the country. And then there’s the even wider universe of authors and editors and agents and publicists and publishers, all of whom I’ve met because of my involvement at Skylight. It seems like such a vibrant world to me, starry-eyed young one that I am, and it amazes me that people are so willing to assert (and accept) that ours is a dying world. Yes, there are many challenges. But that just forces us to be more creative in coming up with solutions. Now, I dream of finding the perfect link between independent bookstores and independent publishers – we’re adapting to the same world and our goals are so easy to align.
Bookselling is somewhat of a unique passion. Unlike professional baseball-playing or watchmaking or taffy-pulling, professional bookselling requires you to hone in, yes, to learn the tricks of your trade and talk the talk and to undoubtedly become an expert in something. But at the same time, it requires you to zoom out constantly because books exist about every possible thing you can imagine – baseball-playing, watchmaking, taffy-pulling – and millions of things you probably can’t, but some writer did. And more writers always will. And booksellers will always find new ways to put that book in the right reader’s hands.