Alissa York: Meeting the Reader

Last year’s Authors for Indies guest bookseller gig at Book City on the Danforth was a blast—as well as a blast from the past. In the late nineties I worked at McNally Robinson Booksellers in Winnipeg. My co-workers were all readers; some of them, myself included, were writers too. We talked about books a lot—the ones that haunted us, the ones we were currently lost in, the ones we couldn’t wait to read. Of course there was more to the job: the Christmassy joy of receiving new stock; the lingering guilt of culling a section and packing up the returns. Shelving could be a bit dull, but the only task I truly dreaded was stripping—tearing the covers off mass-market paperbacks whose markets had turned out to be less than mass. This was before recycling was the done thing. I swear I heard cries of “Timber!” with every cover I tore.

The customers, too, could be a trial. “I’m looking for this book,” the old bookseller joke goes, “it’s about this big and it’s green.”  Or how about the classic, “If I wanted the manual for Linux 4.715, I would have asked for Linux 4.715!” (I know, not a real thing—though it could be, for all I know.) Luckily, for every space-case or grump who came through the front doors, a dozen loveable book nuts righted the scale. Behold the studious teenage couple camped out in the Sexuality section, pointing to diagrams and reading passages out loud. All hail the old duffer bearing Neruda’s Odes to Common Things to the cash as though it were a nest full of linnet’s eggs.

And then there was my favourite: a woman perhaps ten years my senior who approached the front counter looking lost.

“Can I help?” I asked.

I read this book,” she said. “It’s called The Love of a Good Woman. I just . . . It was so good, and I don’t know how to find any more.”

It was a quiet afternoon. I stepped out from behind the counter, leaving the till in my co-worker’s care.

“Usually I read romances,” my customer added, gesturing to the mass market alcove. “They’re good and everything, but . . .”

I nodded. “What was it you liked about The Love of a Good Woman?”

We must have spent an hour trolling the shelves, her responses to my questions leading us from spine to spine. She bought half a dozen titles; I jotted down twenty more. She left with a bag in each hand and a small, secret smile on her face. Best day on the job by far. The day I met “the Reader” and helped her find something to read.

(c) 2016 Alissa York


Toronto author Alissa York’s internationally acclaimed novels include Mercy, Effigy, (short-listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prize) and, most recently, Fauna. Her new novel, The Naturalist, is due out from Penguin Random House Canada in April of this year. York is also the author of the short fiction collection, Any Given Power, stories from which have won the Journey Prize and the Bronwen Wallace Award. Her essays and articles have appeared in The Guardian, Brick magazine, Canadian Geographic and elsewhere.