Events coordinators have an essential but mighty variable role in the business of selling books. Between mics, projectors and Zoom, they're necessarily tech-savvy, but they're also capable public speakers and charming interlocutors, and detail-oriented enough to keep publishers, publicists, authors and deliveries all moving in a straight line in advance of an event. It's an impressive collection of skills, and I'm grateful for every unflappable and gracious events coordinator I've known.
Last year, I put together a two-store virtual event for Claire Cox and Daniel Lavery to celebrate the publication of Claire's debut novel, Silver Beach. Without the incredible Kelsey Jagneaux, it just couldn't have happened. She's a historian turned indie bookseller and events coordinator at the gorgeous Tombolo Books in St. Petersburg, Fla., where she also co-hosts the store's weekly New Release Tuesday video series with the excellent veteran bookseller Amanda Hurley. She began her bookselling career in May 2020.
What's it like being a bookseller in your city? What have you learned about St. Pete from selling books there?
We are in such a golden moment for indie bookstores in St. Petersburg! Tombolo is lucky to share the stage with a few really stellar indies: Wilson's Book World, Book and Bottle, Cultured Books, Nerd Out Comics and Bess the Book Bus! I would also be remiss if I didn't mention Haslam's Books, which is the largest new and used bookstore in Florida. They closed at the start of the pandemic, and we haven't heard whether or not they're going to reopen yet. It really is a deeply missed St. Pete institution.
Tombolo opened in December 2019, right before the start of the pandemic. It is a testament to the power of indies and to the incredible dedication of our owners that we not only survived, but managed to thrive through it all. I have learned too much to even begin to get it all down here, but I will say one thing: I come from a very small town in south Louisiana where you can't even have a thought without everyone knowing about it. I feel more in tune with St. Petersburg than I ever did in my hometown. I credit that to being an indie bookseller, and even more so to being the events coordinator at an indie bookstore. You meet so many incredible people: authors, readers, journalists, artists. We have hosted everyone from politicians to community activists through our events program. Tombolo has really become this little microcosm of all the wonderful things about St. Petersburg. It's just wonderful to witness from the inside.
I've seen firsthand how special Tombolo is, and I've been incredibly impressed by your colleagues Alsace Walentine and Amanda Hurley for years. Who are your bookselling heroes?
Is it cliché to say my co-workers? I am constantly learning from all of them. Each one of them brings something uniquely their own to the store, to bookselling and to reading in general:
Andrew is the brains behind our incredible social media and is a champion of the small press. Serena runs book clubs like no other and has cultivated an incredible community of sci-fi and fantasy readers. Emily is our newest bookseller but has just picked it up and taken off with enthusiasm and can chat all day about contemporary romance and feel-good fiction. Nicole can just swoop into the bookstore at any moment and handle things (it's incredible!) while also finding time to lead our anti-racism book club. Amanda is just a powerhouse at the job and she's our own personal children's book buyer extraordinaire. And of course Candice and Alsace, our owners, are the glue that keeps it all together. The bookstore is really a reflection of them, and I think that's what makes it so magical.
What kinds of things do you do to promote a book that you really love?
I love this question because I have a really great example of the lengths I will go to to promote a book I love. So, back in October 2020 I read Mieko Kawakami's Breasts and Eggs for the first time and it blew me away! No other book has come close to topping it!
I started recommending it at any chance I got and would just talk about it incessantly to anyone who would listen. I still do, honestly. Then in spring 2021, when her new book, Heaven, was being released, there was an opportunity to pitch a proposal to have her for a virtual event. I of course jumped at the opportunity. I just knew an event would get people excited to read her work, so we sent our pitch to Europa and to really seal the deal, there might have been a mention of something along the lines of "I will probably throw up if Tombolo has the opportunity to host Mieko Kawakami."
We landed the event. I, thankfully, did not throw up, and we were the only indie bookstore in the U.S. to host her for that tour. It was incredible! Now dozens and dozens of Mieko Kawakami fans are roaming around Tampa Bay, and Breasts and Eggs was #3 on Tombolo's bestseller list for 2021!
Are your customers savvy about the difference between Amazon and independents?
I would say for the most part, yes. We are still always ready to gently educate customers about the importance of shopping local and remind them of the value of an indie bookstore in a community, if need be. However, I think anyone who walks into Tombolo and has the experience of being handed a pile of books selected to their individual taste by a bookseller completely sees that value. Through our events program, people definitely recognize the role a bookstore can play in creating a community space. And our customers are loyal and so supportive. We regularly get the "I don't want to get this from Amazon. I want to get this from you!" Customers have also been so receptive to places like Bookshop and Libro as well!
What do you do when you're not in the store?
This question is always so funny to me because the honest answer is: read. More specifically, read on the beach. As someone who is not from Florida, the ease of access I have to a beach has not lost its charm at all, even four years later.
What is your favorite fictional depiction of a bookstore in film or on the page?
I'll let readers guess. Here is your clue: "I'm also just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her." In fact, I love it so much that my Instagram bio reads "I'm just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to move 'cause he is blocking the cheese plate." And I think my version carries the same depth of emotion as the original, don't you? --Jeff Waxman