Young Bookseller Focus: Stephen Sparks

This is the second in an occasional series of interviews of young, smart booksellers who are both the present and the future of bookselling--and whose enthusiasm and presence are encouraging many older folks in the industry who feared they might be a dying breed. Our intrepid reporter is George Carroll, an independent publishers rep and principal of Redsides Publishing Services.

Stephen Sparks, 34, began his bookselling career at Green Apple Books in San Francisco, in 2007, with a brief interlude at Dalkey Archive Press.

You're the self-appointed "seeker of overlooked titles" for Green Apple Books. Are you grabbing what falls through the cracks or are you stealing the catalogues from the other buyers?

It's a little of both. I'm fortunate enough to work for a buyer (Kevin Ryan, one of the store's co-owners) who values the different aptitudes and interests of his staff. We're all encouraged to take initiative to make the store better in whatever we can. In my case, it happens to be doing what I'm interested in: scouring catalogues, keeping in touch with small presses, digging through backlists, etc.

Do you find books on other blogs and websites?

I find books on blogs, websites, in other bookstores, in various newsletters, by word of mouth and a lot of times in other books.

What discovery are you the most proud of bringing into the store?

Of the "overlooked" books I've had a lot of fun selling, I'd have to include Roland Topor's The Tenant (in Centipede's eye-catching edition, now out-of-print) and Juan Rodolfo Wilcock's Temple of Iconoclasts (Mercury House), also tragically OP.

Say that I'm publishing the first English translation of a minor classic by a German author. What's the best way to get your attention?

Send a copy to the store, addressed to me! Something I don't think publishers do enough--I'm aware of the logistics that may prevent them from doing so, but they're by no means insurmountable--is to find those booksellers who are their kind of reader. If you can find a bookseller at a store who is most likely to read what you're publishing, you've already overcome the biggest obstacle, I think, which is getting the book into hands of the right reader.

The store has an aisle of staff recommendations that is, to me, the Vortex of Temptation. It's impossible for none but the strongest to resist its appeal. How do you curate the section?

There are different species of staff recommendations: some books sell themselves by simply being visible in a high-traffic area, others come with such effusive praise that you find yourself convinced into giving them a try, and others are books you may never have heard of or seen in another bookstore, but that strike you as a great discovery. I strive to have a nice array of each of these kinds of books on display.

Many booksellers and publishers know the store from your videos and will recognize you as one of the broadcasters of the Book vs. Kindle Smackdown. Do you have any behind-the-scenes celebrity gossip?

Most of the salacious gossip will be revealed in my as yet unwritten tell-all, but in the interests of drumming up a bidding war, I can reveal that I was not acting. At all.

What's your involvement with the blog Writers No One Reads?

Will Schofield, the man behind the inimitable 50 Watts, started Writers No One Reads as a side project that rapidly attained some renown. In order to keep posting regularly, he asked me if I'd be interested in contributing, which I was happy to do.

Are you a Surrealist at heart or am I misreading your posts on Writers No One Reads?

It's difficult not to. The Surrealists really lend themselves to not being read.

The final questions come from Jeff Waxman, the previous person profiled in this series: What comes next for bookselling? Are you dedicated to preserving the past in the future or are the ideals of the past transferable?

As much as I'm tempted to prognosticate, the best I can do in the space I'm given is to offer my hope that we'll continue to adapt as necessary to the challenges ahead. For all the hand-wringing, I think we're in the midst of exciting times. Rather than seeing ourselves as helpless against the tide of technology that threatens to engulf us, we should remain sanguine about the future. After all, this is a profession that's always been on the brink of extinction. I like to think it keeps us on our toes.


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