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Litro Magazine puts its energies behind authors, books, editors, and artists who help keep the reading and writing life vital, and we know how important indie booksellers and bookshops are to this mission. Please support independent booskellers!
For this “Interview with an Indy Bookseller,” we talk to Steven Salardino of Skylight Books in Los Angeles, California.
What makes your bookshop unique? Skylight Books has been around for almost 25 years, and I like to believe we have created our own unique atmosphere and personality. Our bookshop is actually two storefronts next door to each other. One store is our Arts Annex, which we opened in 2008. It is full of books on art, photography, film, theater, architecture, fashion, music, graphic novels, and magazines. The other store is our original space, which houses everything else (literature, essays, children’s books, history, philosophy, etc.) We originally opened the main space in 1996 in a building that had previously been Chatterton’s Bookshop for about 20 years. There’s lots of brick and wood and a grand, arched ceiling with (of course!) skylights. We have a tree growing in the middle of the store and a temperamental cat named Franny that fluctuates between cute and cranky. We are more crowded and cozy than cold and minimalist. Our booksellers bring their own diverse tastes to our selection of titles. I am constantly being surprised by the fantastic books they find for us to champion.
How does your bookshop function as a community hub? I think bookstores should be educational as well as entertaining. I hope we provide our community with a place to find both – a place to escape and a place to enlighten. As we have grown over the years, it has been exciting to see our local community and literary Los Angeles grow with us. Our event programming has hosted icons from many fields, and sometimes the energy can even be felt on the sidewalk outside our doors. Viet Thanh Nguyen, Dana Spiotta, Wanda Coleman, Cornel West, Jeanette Winterson, George Saunders…When people pack the store to see one of their heroes (or my heroes), that’s when the sense of community gets electric. But also there are the personal moments – seeing kids who learned how to read in our store come back from college and visit, hosting an event for a debut author that was inspired to write from books we sold them. It is nice to see the magic happen.
Which newly released books would you like to recommend to Litro readers, and why? Two new books that have moved me and that I find to be very timely are Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro and Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness by Kristen Radtke.
Ishiguro is a master storyteller, and this story told from the perspective of an Artificial Friend portrays unique feelings and ideas we are just starting to experience in our current world. I love books that are hard to pin down, and this is one that needs to be experienced. Kristen Radtke’s illustrated essay explores the feeling and stigma of loneliness from a personal and modern historical perspective. She ingeniously circles around the subject, narrowing in and zooming out, speaking to where we find connection and why. Coming out of lockdowns and out from under our masks – this book hit home for me.
Is there a book from the last decade or so would you like to see recommended more widely? The power of the bookseller! What a joy to champion my latest discovery or a forgotten favorite. In Waves by AJ Dungo is an illustrated, graphic memoir dealing with death and grief through surfing and surfing history. A friend of mine knew AJ from school, and that was how I found out about this book, and I was so glad that I did. It is beautiful, incredibly powerful, and Dungo’s description of surfers and surfing made me want to join the tribe. Other authors I love to push on unsuspecting readers are Scott Bradfield, Kathleen Collins, Dodie Bellamy, John Collier, Jim Dodge, Stacey Richter, on and on…so many over the years.
Is there a theme or genre of books that you love and/or promote in your shop? Why? Skylight Books is a general bookstore. That being said, we do have a whole annex full of art books and our largest sections in the store are fiction, political science, regional history, and children’s books. I read much more fiction than nonfiction, and short stories are my jam. When customers ask me for a recommendation I often start by asking what was the last book that they read that they liked, followed by, “Do you like short stories?” Most are looking for novels, but if they are the slightest bit open to a book of short stories, I have a strong arsenal of favorites.
What’s the best part about being a bookseller? I am a bookseller because it involves so many of my favorite things. Particularly the people – everyone in the business is a reader! I love people that love books! And books make me feel so much. Recently I had to pack up my library in boxes for a few months. Not having access to my books is like not having access to my friends. I get the same feeling looking at books that I have read and loved as I get looking at photographs of my pals and I having a good time. Not just a memory, but that feeling in my chest.
What’s your favourite quotation about reading, writing, or bookshops? “The lean days of determination. That was the word for it, determination: Arturo Bandini in front of his typewriter two full days in succession, determined to succeed; but it didn’t work, the longest siege of hard and fast determination in his life, and not one line done, only two words written over and over across the page, up and down, the same words: palm tree, palm tree, palm tree, a battle to the death between the palm tree and me, and the palm tree won: see it out there swaying in the blue air, creaking sweetly in the blue air. The palm tree won after two fighting days, and I crawled out of the window and sat at the foot of the tree. Time passed, a moment or two, and I slept, little brown ants carousing in the hair on my legs.” – John Fante, Ask The Dust
Tell us about any interesting interactions you’ve had with readers or writers in your bookshop.You know what was great? When we first opened Skylight Books, I would be working at the front counter and the author Dennis Cooper (who lived up the street) would walk in and we would visit for a minute. Having a quick laugh with a writer that I admire as well as just like as a person. So many experiences in these walls. The little visits and full-house events, the excited readers, lots of surprisingly enlightened kids and teens, locals and neighbors that are grateful to have an indie bookstore around, a glass of wine with a publisher or editor…This job can be exhausting, frustrating, stressful, confusing, and even boring sometimes but the moments that shine…they are like big, purple sunsets over sunflowers and I can go to sleep with a smile on my face.