Today we welcome Andrew Unger to the Book Country blog. Andrew is the Events Manager at BookCourt, the celebrated Brooklyn bookstore famous for its well-stocked events program featuring New York’s most distinguished authors as well as brand new talent. Andrew will be on the “Building a Writing Community Online + Off” panel co-hosted by Book Country on Wednesday night, October 28th, 2015, at 7pm at BookCourt.
Lucy Silag: Tell us about BookCourt and how it fits into the Brooklyn community of writers.
Andrew Unger: “BookCourt is a monument, a university, and a party in slow motion. It doesn’t have to take over the world because it is the world.” — Jonathan Lethem
It’s no surprise that Jonathan Lethem said it best. The store was opened by Henry Zook and Mary Gannett in 1981. It was one room, a former barber shop, with a modest selection of fiction, non-fiction, and children’s titles. They bought the building in 1983. In 1996 Albert, who owned the flower shop next door, wanted to move to Florida and so sold his building to Mary and Henry in 1996. In 2008, they removed the greenhouse behind the old flower shop and added what is perhaps the store’s most defining characteristic, a giant, book-lined reading space. Hoisted above the ceiling, at the apse of the room, is a beautiful skylight. Today the store boasts one of the largest inventories in Brooklyn.
With the addition of the “Greenhouse,” the events series at BookCourt hit a high gear. In the seven years since it was built, the store has grown to accommodate the flush of writers and the wave of gentrification overtaking the neighborhood. In a given week, BookCourt might host ten different authors, four writing workshops, a book club, and a number or stock signings. It is a haven for readers, it’s an intellectual playground to a whole generation of neighborhood children, and it’s a university to writers from across the city.
LS: Why should writers hang out at Bookcourt?
AU: BookCourt is like a living, breathing MFA program. We’ve hosted Junot Diaz, Richard Ford, Don DeLillo, David Sedaris, Lou Reed, Elvis Costello, and I could keep going. It’s such a stupidly impressive list of authors. Those events give you goosebumps. Junot Diaz talked for over an hour about his process, his growth as a writer and listened and responded to almost every single attendee, a room of over 300 people. This is an amazing opportunity. But this isn’t entirely the reason writers congregate at BookCourt.
The events we, the staff, most of us writers, look forward to all month are the ones you might not expect. My all-time favorite reading ever was the launch party for issue two of The Atlas Review. The room was full, 200 or more people, most of them young writers themselves, to hear their friends, writers in their early 20s, reading from their published work. Once a month, Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop hosts readings by their graduates and faculty. Consistently, almost everyone who reads at a Sackett Street reading is propelled into the literary spotlight within a year. There’s a special magic when one of the writers gets behind the podium and begins to read from a novel-in-progress that completely melts your heart. If an aspiring writer were to come to 3 or 4 readings a week (and they do), they would find themselves being taught by some of the greatest writers in the country … for free … and sometimes with a complimentary wine.
AU: My first week at BookCourt, my training was to shadow an employee. That meant I was to stand for 4 hours every day at the front of the store and Emma Straub (who then worked at the store) would show me how to use the register. A few weeks before I had moved across the country from Indiana to Brooklyn with the vague idea that people in Brooklyn talked about books; I wanted to eavesdrop on those conversation. This, though … this was more than I bargained for. I couldn’t believe what I had landed in. There I was not only in one of the arteries of Brooklyn’s literary scene, but learning from a future #1 New York Times bestselling author. I couldn’t be more grateful for Emma’s patience and enthusiasm. She taught me to love every kind of book and every kind of reader. She taught me to listen to what people were reading and react to it. Most of all that week, and in the consequent weeks I worked with her until she left on her book tour, I learned a certain, vital compassion for all booklovers that, thank God, briskly disposed of my stuffy idea of capital-L literature.
Many of my colleagues across the city who organize bookstore events aren’t able to spend much time on the sales floor. Lately, I’ve found myself more and more behind a computer screen and less and less giving recommendations. I desperately miss it; I’ve clung to the time I can spend on the floor with a fierce and sometimes goofy resilience. My favorite part of working at BookCourt is pulling a book off a shelf that I love and handing it to someone who’s never once given it a consideration. When they come back and say they loved it, it feels like we’ve shared something deeply intimate.
LS: How do readings at bookstores get set up?
AU: Every event coordinator in the country has a different strategy for organizing their calendar. There are some things we all have in common: an inbox full of e-mails from publishers, agents, and authors; a stack of unread galleys we’re nail-bitingly anxious about; and a bad habit of shamefully answering an urgent e-mail in the middle of an event. Over the past two years I’ve sat down with various publicists and explained my taste and the taste of the store, they’ve brought a variety of authors to the store and we’ve built an invaluable understanding of each other’s authors and audience. These are the most important contacts. BookCourt is somewhat of a living room for a number of awesome writers. The authors in our neighborhood have moved heaven and Earth to make BookCourt the vibrant place that it is. From Julia Fierro to Emma Straub to Joshua Cohen to Martin Amis. They point us in the direction of great new fiction and they share their newest work with us.
Next are the cold calls. I get about a dozen a day and sometimes I get to say yes. On one occasion recently a woman named Allyson Hobbs reached out to us about her book A Chosen Exile. We weren’t able to host her for an event. But her pitch blew me away. I passed it along to the owners and told them I really wanted to get her in the store. They agreed and so I kept her letter on my desk for a few weeks, just waiting for the perfect event. Then, out of nowhere, it fell out of thin air. The Feminist Press was re-releasing an amazing collection of essays about black women in the civil rights movement called But Some of Us Are Brave. They needed a third person for the panel and I pitched them Allyson. It was a perfect fit. Events that unfold like that are, hands down, the most exciting for me.
LS: What advice do you have for a writer who doesn’t have a lot of experience with public speaking?
AU: In an interview, Marcus Mumford (of the band Mumford & Sons) talked about how odd he thought it was that he wrote large portion of a chart-topping album alone in his room in his underwear and suddenly he’s singing those same verses in front of a sea of people. It’s just weird. But think of all that beautiful art you’ve read and heard and seen your whole life. People just like you sat half naked in a room alone and they worked really, really hard to bring it into the world. No one expects to see a charismatic artist; they expect honesty and genuine passion. Sarah Manguso has spoken here a handful of times. No one would ever accuse her of being too loud. But she held the audience rapt because she thought deeply about her work and spoke of it with reverence.
LS: What are the best ways for a writer to publicize an upcoming event?
AU: You made something incredible. Everyone on earth is “working” on a novel or has one tucked away in a file somewhere. The number of people who have impressed an editor so much they’ve been compelled to pay real money to put it in print, is miniscule. It’s not bragging to want to share that. Another way to think of it is this: You’ve sold your manuscript to a publishing house. You’ve sold it. It’s in the hands of someone else, so why not give them a hand. Talk it up to everyone you meet. Access your entire social network, everyone you’ve ever met and tell them that you just sold a book and you’re going to have a massive party to celebrate it. Don’t be shy. This is your moment!
LS: Are you yourself a writer?
AU: Rest assured, there are no avid readers anywhere in the world who don’t write. How could you not? Larry Brown said once in an interview that he used to read a book until he couldn’t help but write. I love that way of looking at it. Great writing is often irresistibly compelling, it comes over without you knowing even the half of how it works and all you want to do sometimes is roll up your sleeves and try your hand at it.
About Andrew Unger and BookCourt
Andrew Unger is the Events Manager at BookCourt, a general interest bookstore in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill neighborhood. BookCourt hosts one of the premier reading series in New York City. Find BookCourt on their website, Twitter, and Facebook.
Offline you can find BookCourt at 163 Court Street, Brooklyn, NY, 11201. Come to BookCourt on Wednesday, October 28th at 7pm for “Building a Writing Community Online + Off,” a panel event co-hosted by Book Country, Pinterest, Tumblr, and the Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, featuring special guest Maris Kreizman of the book and blog SLAUGHTERHOUSE 90210. RSVP here.