Just down the road from me in Philadelphia, there's a romantic tale to be told of two bright and lovely people who fell in love, but despaired because their work schedules kept them apart more than it brought them together. Christina Rosso and Alex Schneider solved this problem in a way that makes an incredible amount of sense: they opened a bookshop together on one of the best commercial streets in the city--a thriving store that is small, impressively curated and is already becoming one of the sites of literary taste-making in a city full of excellent bookstores. A Novel Idea is my neighborhood shop, the place I stop into between errands and on weekends, whose displays speak directly to the spirit of discovery and curation at the heart of what I think of when I think of independent bookstores. --Jeff Waxman
How does South Philly shape A Novel Idea? How have you collaborated with other businesses and organizations here?
From the beginning, we wanted the shop to reflect the community around us by stocking the books people wanted. The genres that got us talking and the events that made us cheer. Since our store has existed more during a pandemic than not our collabs have been a bit smaller than our dreams. But during our first year, we had a play performed in the shop that was a reimagining of Alice in Wonderland, live music, and a book brunch--all hosted and performed by community members. We also were able to host an outdoor, socially distant reading for Christina's first book, She Is a Beast, at Le Virtu, one of our favorite restaurants in the neighborhood.
|Christina Rosso & Alex Schneider
Alex, your work before this wasn't specifically literary--I remember you mentioning graphic design and Twitch streaming--how did your previous career help inform your work now? How did your passions?
I had the privilege of working across a lot of mediums, from product design and development to print and digital advertising (the list goes on). I worked with a handful of businesses that had everyone wearing multiple hats each day, and owning your own small business is the epitome of that. Multitasking and learning on your feet is the only way you can survive and hopefully thrive.
Christina, what does it mean to you to come to bookselling as an author? What perspectives does it give you as a bookseller?
As an author, I know what it's like to put my work out there and get rejection after rejection. I know what it's like to desperately want people to read and enjoy my books. Getting a book published is not easy! So, as a bookseller, I want to give other authors the chance to have their books spotlighted at A Novel Idea, whether that's through an event or stocking the books at the store.
One of the most striking things about your shop is your commitment to small presses and to genre fiction. It's very purposeful and possibly even political. Tell me about the MANY books you've got that I wouldn't find in a shop dedicated primarily to the Big 5. Tell us about some indie publishers we should know!
Two Dollar Radio is the absolute best! We loved how Night Rooms by Gina Nutt mixed horror films and TV, memoir and the experience of being a woman. The essays were short and presented in an almost disjointed way that worked really well. Madeline Anthes, one of Christina's favorite writers, also reflects what it means to be a woman in such a visceral, truthful way: Madeline makes small moments scream and her prose in Beautiful, Violent Things, published by word west, both haunts and bites.
Vegetarian Alcoholic Press is a really vibrant, fun, experimental press, and last year they published A Love Story by Joanna C. Valente, this haunting and heartfelt poetry collection exploring queerness, identity and the violence often faced by femme-bodied folk. Each story in Christopher Gonzalez's I'm Not Hungry, but I Could Eat oozes with desire, for food, companionship and belonging as Gonzalez explores the lives of bisexual and gay Puerto Rican men navigating the mundane, making life-altering choices, and confronting the perils of dating. We are both so impressed with all the work Santa Fe Writer's Project puts out!
And, even though it's from Scribner, we have to mention Tender Is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica and translated by Sarah Moses. This is one of the most chilling, unsettling books we've ever read and also one of the best. So many reflections and themes on consumption, the control of the government, and humanity's lack of humanity. This book is like a train wreck you just can't stop watching. We love reading books in translation!
The first time we met, you sold this to me! I have since given copies to two friends!
What bookstores served as an inspiration to you at A Novel Idea? What booksellers have aided you on this journey?
The year before we opened A Novel Idea, we visited every bookstore in the Philadelphia area. There are so many great indies in the area (and even more have opened since 2018!), but Big Blue Marble, The Spiral Bookcase and Joseph Fox Bookshop (RIP) were the three that felt the most aligned with what we wanted to do. We also visited some bookstores outside of Pennsylvania that served as wonderful inspiration, like E. Shaver Booksellers in Savannah, Ga, and Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, Vt.
We've received so much support (it's so lovely!) from folks these past three years, but Victoria Mier from The Spiral Bookcase has supported us from the very beginning, with advice and commiseration. We did several happy hour Zoom calls in the past two years to talk through what it was like to be a bookstore owner during a global pandemic. Her friendship has been and continues to be invaluable. We even did a swap with her and worked in each other's stores this winter!
You recently added a couple of staff members; how does having three new booksellers on staff change things? What viewpoints and knowledge are they bringing to the table that excite you?
Having additional team members is really great! We just had our first day off together in six months thanks to them. Being both life partners and small business partners can be really challenging and the personal side of things usually suffers. And as much as we love to read about suffering in books, it's not great for our real lives (cough cough Tender Is the Flesh cough cough).