Skylight Books : An Interview with Steven Salardino (Manager of the Bookshop)
Sklight Books is an independent bookstore serving the historic Los Angeles neighborhoods of Hollywood, Los Feliz, Silver Lake, Echo Park…
Sklight Books is an independent bookstore serving the historic Los Angeles neighborhoods of Hollywood, Los Feliz, Silver Lake, Echo Park, and Downtown. Located in the shadow of Griffith Park and its iconic Observatory, the Los Feliz neighborhood is host to many independently owned businesses. Their curated selection features the best of literary fiction, graphic novels, children’s books, California history and culture, political and social sciences, essays and nonfiction, and books on art, photography, film, and music. Their events program is nationally recognized, and features major touring authors, local favorites, and debuts.
Amazon present readers with unlimited inventory of books. However , Ryan Raffaeli (Professor at Harvard University) research suggests that readers feels overwhelmed when presented with too many choices and they tend to seek guidance on how to narrow their options.
Rather than focusing on stocking larger inventories, indie booksellers had shifted their focused towards mastering the art of “handselling” books that are specifically suited to unique taste of bibliophiles who visits the bookshop. (The practice of handselling involves a knowledgeable bookseller asking the readers a series of questions about their recent reading habits, then handing them the “perfect” book.)
To accomplish this objective, independent bookstores employ individuals who are generally Literature , Arts or Creative Writing Major who are themselves voracious readers and possess deep knowledge and passion for books. They try to expose readers to upcoming authors before anyone else, or steer the reader into genres he or she might not venture into without expert guidance. Consequently, they serve the role of matchmaker between a readers and each book on the shelves in the store.
“While artificial intelligence and algorithms are becoming the norm to help businesses anticipate readers buying behaviors, indie bookstores have been able to counter this trend by offering a unique personal buying experience where the readers enters into a relationship with a bookseller, often over a series of ongoing conversations about their evolving reading preferences. Artificial intelligence-based algorithms have yet to fully replicate the human experience associated with the art of handselling that successful independent booksellers have mastered.” says Ryan Raffaeli.
I had a wonderful & insightful conversation and Q&A session with Steven about Bookselling Business Ecosystem and how Skylight books have been weathering the pandemic crisis keeping disruption of Amazon and Technology as a part of an equation.
Excerpts from the Interview :-
Q1) Hi Steven, thank you for doing this interview or Q&A session with me. I am really thrilled for this collaboration. Can you tell us about the history of the bookshop and your role in it? Tell our readers here when and how the bookshop came into existence? How did it become such an institution? What was the mission and vision that the founders had projected when they opened the bookshop?
Steven : Skylight Books opened in the fall of 1996. The building had previously housed Chatterton’s Bookshop for about 20 years. That proprietor of that store passed away and the store closed in 1994. Kerry Slattery was brought on by the owner of the building to help create a new bookstore. The building really feels like it should be a bookstore, I am not sure what else would be quite as cozy in here.
From the beginning we wanted to embrace the local literary and artistic community. We started doing readings and author events. We immediately started to have “regulars”, customers we would see every week or even every day. We are lucky that our street has some other great stores and cafes and even two theaters (film and live). The staff lived close by and loved our neighborhood and the neighborhood started to love us back.
Q2) Tell us about your background. Did you grew up in book — centric environment? When did you decide that you want to be in the bookselling business? Was there a eureka moment in your life when you knew you loved books and wanted to point your career in this direction?
Steven : Storytelling has been where I have found some of my most meaningful connections and inspiring moments. Whether from books, movies, or the newspaper, a good story is capable of being the frying pan that hits me in the face or the love of my life — from my Dr Seuss and Richard Scarry days up to Klara and the Sun. I worked at a bookstore/cafe after college and started at Skylight Books when I was in graduate school. I studied literature, film, and creative writing and still like to participate in the “maker” side but those can be lonely choices and I really like having all the stories and characters inside those books on our shelves seep into me. It turns out what I accidentally chose was to be around people (authors, booksellers, publishers, artists) that constantly amaze me. It is really nice to be selling and promoting something I believe in with my whole core.
Q3) Can you share some insights on your bookselling philosophy?
Steven : You know that store in New York, Books Are Magic? I think it’s true — books are magic. Words are powerful and it is incredible how they work. And I would say bookstores are magic too since we are creating a place where these words and books live. There are many worlds and ideas in these four walls.
Books Are Magic : An Interview with Colleen Callery (Marketing & Communication Director)
If you find yourself around Smith Street in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, and you’ll see it painted on the side of a building…medium.datadriveninvestor.com
I am not sure if this is a philosophy, but it is my belief.
Q4) Booksellers possess a unique ability to find unexpected hidden gems in their stacks — whether it be up-and-coming authors or unexplored genres — that online algorithms have yet to fully replicate. They serve the role of matchmaker between a customer and each book on the shelves.
What considerations does the booksellers at Sky Lights Books keep in mind while curating the shelves for readers? How do they make those “literally a thousand choices” that lead to the displays we see on the shelves?
Steven : Skylight Books has one chief bookbuyer (Charles Hauther) but all the booksellers bring their own tastes and loves onto our shelves. I think, intuitively, we try to keep looking for books that are unexpected — the kind where we really feel like we are turning readers onto something they have not seen before.
Q5) If literature is an ecosystem, then bookstores are its foundation. They’re where literature intersects with community. They introduce people to new and idiosyncratic books while hosting events to support authors. Through it all, they serve as neighborhood community centers for readers and book lovers.
Ryan Raffaelli, a Harvard Business School professor who has studied the resurgence of independent bookstores, says that the key to indie bookstores’ growth in the today’s era is building community.
How Skylight Books has cultivated this idealistic atmosphere?
Steven : It feels like we have taken steps spiraling out from the store. Starting with our immediate community and local literaries then moving outwards towards more of the city and then more of the complete literary landscape. It has been wonderful to host books about local and Los Angeles/California history and culture and to also have worked with some of our favorite international authors. All of this helps make Skylight Books a literary hub that radiates out much further than our walls.
Q6) Every independent bookstore is unique, but many of them have resident cats, attract eccentric regulars and have inspired marriage proposals among the shelves. Successful bookstores are places for people to gather together and where community ties are strengthened.
Tell our readers here about any memorable event or workshop or any interview which happened at the bookshop.
Steven : After almost 25 years of events I have had more than a few memorable moments in this store. I have learned a lot and met some heroes. Being around for the rise of some authors that are now so highly regarded — early events with Zadie Smith, George Saunders, Roxane Gay, and Viet Thanh Nguyen — has made me feel like I am part of something large and alive. Watching my friend Cecil Castellucci publish her first book and then many more after that. Visiting with Dennis Cooper, Kevin Killian, Alicia Erian, Hubert Selby Jr, Kenneth Anger, Aimee Bender, Wanda Coleman…so many others — what a life.
Something I did not expect was watching local children grow up and see how much they have appreciated the bookstore. Some were just babies when we started and now write for television. Or teens that became activists and journalists and even booksellers — these are the rewards that makes all the hard times worth it.
Q7) Is there a novelist that you think deserves more attention/readership than he or she currently receives? Which book do not enough people know about?
Steven : Lately I get excited to remind people about writers that were once more popular but aren’t on the top of people’s reading lists any longer. Especially some of the younger literature fans that have not read John Collier’s stories or Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell. Or someone who doesn’t know the earlier works of Jeanette Winterson. I’m a big fan of Dodie Bellamy. I was turned on to the Italian writer Leonardo Sciascia a few years ago. I have been really digging Ben Passmore’s comics. It’s a wonderful cycle…I get exposed to something I didn’t know about and I get to pass it on and introduce that author or book to someone else.
Q8) Skylight Books is like an art installation that you can live and read in. If you only had to describe your bookstore in three words, what would they be?
Steven : Skylight Books — Come on in
Q9) The reason indie bookstores are making a comeback is the way they connect to the community, and social media is making that easier than ever.
#Bookstagram is creating a thriving space — and community — for bibliophiles on Instagram.
The hashtag #bookstagram has been used by bibliophiles for more than 30 million photos on Instagram. A heavily filtered photo at the local indie bookstore, lost among the towering stacks of books, signals to the world your sophisticated literary preferences. We are spending more time on our devices than ever. The technology backlash has been a boon for books: As people try to tamp down their screen time, they’re turning back to reading more physical books.
How Skylight is embracing Instagram — and the visual appeal of books?
Steven : For us Instagram and other social media are ways to inform the world about what we do. Mostly we use it to promote author events or unique books that other stores might not have. Our booksellers are constantly finding smaller presses or international art books that we can bring into the store. It is nice to surprise people with a book they didn’t know existed.
Q10) What are the challenges usually faced by an independent bookstore in Los Angeles? Could you tell us about the virtual or digital opportunities during the lockdown, and how far the Bookstore team efforts have been successful?
Steven : Even now, only a year later, it is hard to imagine the stress and powerlessness we were experiencing when the pandemic first started. There were a lot of sleepless nights trying to figure out how to keep going and feel safe with so many unknowns. The pandemic and the lockdown did create a demand for a stronger online ordering system. We found ways to improve speed and accuracy which will continue to help us as we go forward.
Los Angeles contains a nice balance of high and low art, in aesthetic and attitude, and that has worked in our favor. We sell esoteric titles as well as bestsellers. But that also poses some challenges, you can’t please everyone. All small businesses (all businesses?) in L.A. have to deal with living in an expensive city. Rents and the cost of living combined with the small margin on books makes for a best case break-even scenario. It takes a lot to support a bookstore and all it’s booksellers. I feel lucky and proud that we are still here.
Q11) And, lastly what are your future plans for the bookstore?
Steven : Twelve years after we opened we were busting at the seams and, luckily, we got a chance to take over a storefront next door to us. That became our Arts Annex and it allowed us to expand our selection of art books and our graphic novel section. It helped cement our reputation an our dedication to the arts. It has now been another twelve years since then and I feel like the bookstore is itching to expand in some way. Whether that is another store or a publishing imprint or something else is still unknown. But I feel it is not too far away.
Thank you so much for collaborating in today’s post Steven!
It’s a pleasure!
If any of my readers here , wish to know more about the bookstore. Do open the links mentioned below . They have a wonderful informative , articulated and well-curated website.
Website : https://www.skylightbooks.com/
Facebook : https://www.facebook.com/skylightbooks/
Instagram : https://www.instagram.com/skylightbooks/
Twitter : https://twitter.com/skylightbooks