How two SoCal immigrants and Alexander Chee are reinventing the gift box — for books
When the author Alexander Chee agreed to select “American fiction” for a subscription service called Boxwalla, starting with two works arriving in mailboxes this month, he understood an essential perk of receiving curated items.
Chee is the author of acclaimed novels such as “The Queen of the Night” and the essay collection “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel.” He is also a fan of gift boxes. “I like the idea that being surprised is part of it,” said Chee, speaking from Tennessee, where he was teaching at the annual Sewanee Writers’ Conference. “I get the New York Review of Books subscription, as well as a mystery box of comics and graphic novels each month, and you never know what you might receive — and discover.”
Boxwalla was founded in Irvine in 2015 by husband-and-wife partners Sandeep Bethanabhotla and Lavanya Krishnan; their offerings include luxury skin care, coffee and tea, chocolate and even high-end textile. But their first subscription boxes were based on books they loved, and these have always been front and center among their offerings. Now they’re aiming to expand their reading-forward mandate by partnering with authors like Chee — superb writers who also have a deep understanding of the kind of literature they want to share.
Chee’s selections: “Brother Alive” by Zain Khalid and “The Town of Babylon” by Alejandro Varela. Both books, published in recent months, fulfill Boxwalla’s long-term missions, which Krishnan summed up during a phone call with the two founders. “Historically when people talk about taste, there was an element of elitism in it,” she said. “We really don’t think that should be the case. The more you read, the more you experience things, and you learn about what you like, what your taste is.”
Krishnan said they hope to re-create “what you might do 20 or 30 years ago when you’d go to a bookstore, browsing, suddenly realizing you liked something you’d never heard of before.” Boxwalla is, in essence, your friendly local bookseller: “We give people what we think is the best, and then they find their own favorites among our choices.”
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Boxwalla’s model isn’t exactly new; in fact, it joins a recent surge in books subscription series — from a revival of the Book of the Month Club to a newish service, Literati, that draws on influencer recommendations. For years, publishing executives have wrung their hands over the problem of “discovery.” As Amazon replaced the bookstore experience with algorithms while putting smaller stores out of business, how were readers meant to find great reads that would surprise them?
These services are helping to fill the gap. Boxwalla’s niche represents discoveries you may not have read about in magazines or on Twitter — with a focus on translated and multicultural works and power-readers, like Chee, whose to-read piles are higher than most.
Book subscriptions are themselves an old American tradition. Domestic sales soared after Harry Scherman came up with the Book of the Month Club in 1926, smartly anticipating that an exploding middle class would seek out titles curated by a panel of judges. Many club selections became enduring classics, including “A Farewell to Arms,” “Gone With the Wind,” “The Grapes of Wrath” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Although its popularity faded for many reasons by the turn of this century, in 2015 the club was revived, with its selections overseen by an editorial director instead of a judging panel, fresh branding and a new emphasis on accessible fiction.
In 2008, the famous Portland, Ore., independent bookstore Powell’s Books started sending “Indiespensable” boxes. A panel of booksellers would choose one title per month, wrap it in a custom-designed slipcase with the author’s signature and ship it along with small treats — chocolate, a mug, a notebook, a magazine. Though the program shut down in August 2021 due to pandemic-triggered supply-chain issues, plans for a revamped version are in the works. Kim Sutton, Powell’s director of marketing, remembers a bookseller calling this “basically hand-selling” — the traditional term for bookstore recommendations.
Literati, founded in 2017, relies on a slightly different model — one that marries the old-school notion of the chatty bookseller with the era of BookTok. If BOMC could be called literature for the well-read masses and Indiespensable the highbrow option, Literati seems aimed at the influencer-obsessed.
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“Our luminaries select each month’s book themselves, and curate according to their club theme,” says Literati CEO Jessica Ewing. These power-hand-sellers include novelist Roxane Gay, activist Malala Yousafzai, Golden State Warrior Stephen Curry and author Susan Orlean. “Readers suffer from the ‘paradox of choice’ when looking for their next favorite book and simply get overwhelmed by the process,” says Ewing. “We aim to create a better book-discovery experience by assembling some of the world’s most influential minds.”
Boxwalla is taking a similar path with Chee, albeit with an emphasis on taking readers outside their comfort zones. “We wanted to make sure people read translated literature from around the world and understand great literature isn’t written just by English speakers,” said Bethanabhotla. “For some people, that might feel like work initially, but when you start engaging with music or film or books, eventually it’s going to give you pleasure.”
Two of the authors in translation championed in previous Boxwalla offerings are recent Nobel laureates: Svetlana Alexievich, the “nonfiction novelist” from Belarus, and Polish novelist Olga Tokarczuk, author of “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead.” Bethanabhotla discovered Alexievich not via her Nobel victory but while reading in a research journal about the Soviet-Afghan War.
Boxwalla’s founders, who both grew up in Delhi but moved to the United States for graduate school, cite diverse Irvine as a particular inspiration. “The America we see on the streets here has many different sensibilities,” Krishnan said. “People from all different countries speaking all different languages and living their lives. We wanted to reflect that when we decided to dedicate a subscription series to American fiction.”
Chee was the first person they asked to curate a box. “We’d been sending Alex boxes for a while, simply because we loved his taste,” says Bethanabhotla. “He’s also a great champion of other writers.” When he praised Boxwalla’s curations online, “I almost cried,” adds the co-founder. And when he accepted their offer to curate his own box, “We were surprised, and it was amazing because we were all on the same page about what we wanted to do. We’ve been sort of jaded when it comes to American fiction, and reading Alex’s recommendations revitalized the whole thing for us.”
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Khalid’s “Brother Alive” is a sweeping journey that begins in a mosque on Staten Island, N.Y., where an imam has adopted three boys — one Nigerian, one Korean and the third of unknown Middle Eastern origin — and resolves in a transformative trip to Saudi Arabia. Varela’s “The Town of Babylon” follows a gay Latinx professor’s return to his suburban hometown as he works to reckon with a complicated past. Both novels have received acclaim in all the right places without quite breaking through in a tough market — and will surely benefit from Chee’s and Boxwalla’s seal of approval.
Just as importantly, they represent a way forward for U.S. literature as the country (for all the dangerous backlash) continues to grow more heterogeneous. “They were each so different to the other,” Chee said of his selections, “but with both I had the sense while reading them of an America that I recognize but that I don’t see enough of in American fiction.”
The characters in his picks, Chee added, “know America better than America knows them.” The author, whose own heritage is Korean and Scottish, wants to lift up “books that are new to American publishing.” Could these be tomorrow’s classics, bolstered by a book-of-the-month club more diverse and open-minded than the one Harry Scherman founded almost a century ago? Whatever happens, Chee says, “I want to show what I see as the richness of the American literary imagination today.”
Patrick is a freelance critic who tweets @TheBookMaven.
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