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An author's dream job on Indies First day: selling books

Like many writers, I've imagined myself working in (or owning) a bookstore. On Saturday, for two highly enjoyable hours, I finally got the chance.

It was the first-ever Indies First Day, with hundreds of authors across the United States working at independent bookstores in honor of Small Business Saturday. I put in a two-hour shift at Vroman’s in Pasadena, donning the green apron real Vroman’s employees wear, and answering tough questions like: “Where is the children’s section?” and “Where can I find the calendars?”

Fortunately, I’ve been going to Vroman’s for a few decades now, and I knew the answers. Many of the other half-dozen or so authors who worked there on Saturday also had long connections to the store, which will celebrate its 120th anniversary next year.

“I grew up coming to this bookstore,” said the novelist Michelle Huneven, who worked the shift just before mine. “I’ve had readings here, at the space where my mother and I used to have our books gift-wrapped.”

Building community and supporting independent bookstores were the reason we were all there: the writer Sherman Alexie, a Seattle bookseller, and the American Booksellers Assn. came up with the idea.  

I found Huneven in the place where she’d most liked to peruse books as a customer: the fiction section. The first book she sold on Saturday was to a man looking for something intensely literary. She led him to a work by the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, “Kafka on the Shore.” “He had never read Murakami,” she said.

As for myself, I guided a customer to the section of the store when she could find “a book on writing resumes.” Then I helped another customer find the Pasadena writer Lian Dolan’s latest novel, “Elizabeth the First Wife.”

Funny thing: a short while later, Dolan herself walked in to start her own shift as a volunteer bookseller. She hadn’t been working very long when someone asked her the kind of question every author fantasizes about: “Can you tell me where I can find a book by Lian Dolan?”

Dolan was floored. “Nothing like that has ever happened to me,” she said. “I’ve never even seen someone reading one of my books before.” Dolan happily guided the customer to a copy of her book--and then signed and dedicated it for her.

The idea that we authors would guide customers to our own books was part of the idea of Indies First. There were big holiday crowds at Vroman’s, but they weren’t necessarily swarming around us authors. I sold and signed a handful of my own novels. But more common was the kind of query two women asked me:

“We’re looking for books by a guy our boss told us about. His name is Oscar. We think his last name starts with an H.” A few moments later, I guided them to a shelf with several books by the late, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Oscar Hijuelos.

“This is his masterpiece,” I said, pulling out a copy of “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love.”

A short while later, I saw them headed to the register. I’d made a sale of about $30 for my favorite bookstore.

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hector.tobar@latimes.com

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