We are basically at the midway point of South by Southwest 2012, when the music portion rightfully displaces the exuberance of Interactive Weeks’ tech-startup panels. Whatever one’s take on the benefits and drawbacks of how SXSW is growing, it’s always fun to take an afternoon to wander a little west and visit Book People, Austin’s landmark independent book store. I spoke with bookseller Nolan Fellows and publicist Julie Wernersbach about SXSW and the reading habits of Austinites.
How does Book People fit into SXSW?
Nolan: In a way we stay out of it because Waterloo Records is across the street from us and we feel like if we put our hands in the music thing we are kind of taking away from what they are trying to do.
Last year we had the Merge Records people come in because they had a book out. So if there is an event that fits with what SXSW is then we’ll make an exception.
Is there a distinct literary community that shows itself at South by Southwest?
Nolan: It’s hard to say if there is a literary community that finds a way into the festival. A lot of the people that come down here during the week are here to use our wi-fi and bathrooms, but while they are here, they seem to be interested in Austin in general and look for Texas-related books like Keep Austin Weird.
Do you get musicians coming in?
Nolan: Yeah, definitely. The guys from Sonic Youth came in during Austin City Limits one year. They were pretty low key and wandered around the store like anyone else. Robert Plant has been coming in a bit lately. He lives here and he’s just a total cargo shorts-wearing, normal looking guy. He’ll buy our random discount B movies, or maps, or will order books that are memoirs of roadies or something. But I hear that he’s a totally nice guy and jokes around with everyone he meets.
We have a little code for employees to say on the intercom. When they say they need “towels” [Ed. — word changed to protect the employees] somewhere it means there is a famous person at that station. But Robert Plant has been making lots of people say “oh my god” recently.
Everyone is interested in how independent bookstores are doing these days.
Nolan: We are doing great. We take a lot of pride in being a community bookstore and are definitely a locale that people have come to know about. With Borders going out of business, the book-selling world is kind of up in the air, but it seems like we’ve been taking a lot of their clientele. And there’s just something about coming into a store and sort of browsing and seeing recommendations. There is no pressure to sell any particular book. It’s more like “we like this book, so we’ll try and sell it.”
Is Austin particularly supportive of this kind of approach?
Nolan: Absolutely. There is that indie mentality here. People want to discover cool things, and they want to be a part of something that isn’t quite known yet. And we’re a good source for that because we are actively looking for interesting books and new authors.
What is selling at Book People at the moment?
Nolan: Michael Ian Black was here last week so we sold a lot of his books. He also shot a sketch with some people here, which we hope is up on the blog soon. Stephen Harrigan is a local Texas author and his books always do well.
Julie: The Tiger’s Wife is also really selling. We can’t keep that book down. It’s the #1 seller in paperback fiction.
Nolan: Not to say we broke her, but she was in here last year.
Do you have any recommendations?
Nolan: There is a book that I really like by Marc Spitz called How Soon is Never. With the South by Southwest crowd it kind of works. It’s about this guy who associates the downfall of his life with the breakup of The Smiths. So he basically goes on this mission to try and reform the Smiths and to save himself and seek redemption.
There is a new book called Steal like an Artist, which is by an Austin local named Austin Kleon. The book talks about what you need to hear if you are an artist. It’s not so much how to become an artist, but it’s words of wisdom in the spirit of “Keep up the good fight. It’s gonna suck a lot, but it’s worth it.”
Julie: The Jenny Lawson book called Let’s Pretend This Never Happened is about to come out, and that’s really, really funny.
We’ve also been hearing lots of good press about Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru. Someone here called him the Dale Earnhardt of literary fiction, though I’m not sure what that means.
There is the traditional press that drives book sales, but do you see your store having this role in the Austin community?
Nolan: Every year there are 3 or 4 books that we, as a collective whole, really like and that we tend to push. The Tiger’s Wife was one of them. Ready Player One was one of the more recent ones. Year Zero is a book coming out soon which we really like. It’s fun, intelligent sci-fi.
Julie: But with a Napster bent.
Nolan: The guy who created Rhapsody wrote it.
Julie: There is also a book called Threats by Amelia Gray, who is a former Austinite that lives in L.A. now. She does a lot of experimental short fiction and this is her first novel. It’s awesome and we’ll be recommending that for sure to people.
Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan has been a good one as well. We weren’t terribly familiar with him when we booked the event, but we actually all ended up really getting into the book. We drew a pretty huge crowd for that one.
Anyone who has been downtown can see that South by Southwest has a very corporate feel. As an independent local business, how do you react to this trend?
Julie: We are the local independent booksellers, and in being this we have maintained our character and personality. We are big, big, proponents of shopping local. Whether it’s us, whether it’s Waterloo across the street, or whatever it is, shopping local makes such a big difference. That’s where our message has always been and where it still is. Come and support the people who live in your community, and are working in your community, and keep your money in your community.
It’s not a sales pitch, but it’s what we believe in. We live here, and we want to have this great city, and we want to have all these wonderful opportunities for creative live events that happen here and other places. To keep that happening you have to keep supporting your local businesses. You don’t keep Austin weird by shopping at Amazon. You keep it weird by supporting local businesses that have this unique personality.