In this series, we talk to creative thought leaders across the globe to gain insights into their passions and process.
Novelist and independent bookstore owner Emma Straub speaks to us about navigating this unprecedented year and why community is at the heart of everything she does.
The Saturday before our Zoom interview was a momentous one in the US. After several days of tense watching, waiting and counting, former Vice President Joe Biden was elected the 46th president of the United States. Biden's running mate, Senator Kamala Harris will make history as the first Black woman and the first Asian American woman to be elected vice president. The results finally came in and I was so happy, I was jumping up and down on my balcony with my seven-year-old and I tore my calf muscle, exclaims Emma Straub, animatedly from her living room in Brooklyn. At least I was really happy about something, there was good news to help recover. But yeah, that's 2020, she adds, laughing.
A New York City native, Emma was brought up on the Upper West Side and always knew she wanted to be a writer. Her father, Peter Straub is a novelist writing horror and supernatural fiction. I think that was a real advantage to me that I always knew writing was a real job, she explains. Writing never seemed romantic to me, it always seemed practical. After graduating from the liberal arts college Oberlin where she studied poetry, Emma moved back to New York and decided to become a novelist.
I wrote a novel that wasn't very good. That got rejected, thankfully, by every publisher that existed at the time. And then I wrote another one and another one, and that happened again and again, she says. Many young writers would, at this point, abandon this career path for something else but for Emma, those initial rejections did not put her off. My parents and my boyfriend who is now my husband were all very encouraging. Everyone in my life seemed to just agree with my narrative that I had come up with, which was that I was a novelist, it just might take some time.
In 2011, Emma's debut collection of short stories, Other People We Married was published, garnering praise for her wry, funny and incisively observant writing. She has since published three New York Times bestselling novels, Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures,The Vacationers and this year, All Adults Here. Emma is currently working on her fifth book, something she has been juggling between looking after her children and running her own independent bookstore, Books are Magic with her husband Michael Fusco-Straub.
The path to bookstore ownership was unexpected. Heavily pregnant and looking for a new apartment, Emma's number one criteria was surprising, at least for those who don't know Emma: moving close to a bookstore. Having worked at Book Court in Cobble Hill previously, she ended up moving just a few blocks away. And then a few months later we found out that they were going to close. It wasn't a sad story, the owners had decided to retire after 35 years and were successful to the end, she explains. For Emma, this left two options: move again or open her own bookstore.
Books are Magic opened in 2017 and has become an integral part of the Cobble Hill neighbourhood. I love my bookstore so much. And it means the world to me to have this space that is for everyone in the neighbourhood to come in and use and to feel comfortable in, and to have a quiet experience in, enthuses Emma. Home to the latest releases in fiction and non-fiction alongside classics, Books are Magic encourages you to linger and learn from the team about books you might not pick up otherwise. There's weekend storytime for children, panel discussions and readings for adults and even gum balls filled with poetry. True to its name, Emma's bookstore feels ethereal and otherworldly, where magic just might be possible.
In this turbulent year of lockdowns, Emma feels lucky to have a thriving online business where virtual events are possible. I recognise that we, as a store and I, as a writer are in a lucky, very privileged position, she says. We already had a robust online presence and we already had the ability to sell books via our website so we were able to pivot quickly. Having said that, Emma admits that there is no replacement for the joy of discovering books in a serendipitous way. If a book is face out on the shelf or on the table, people will look at it, they will touch it, they will pick it up it's a lot harder to make those discoveries by scrolling on the website. It's not just this mercenary business, that's not how bookstores work, she stresses, before adding, I want a place that feels welcoming to everybody and optimistic. During this year, that's what I'm trying to hold onto.
Interview by Andie Cusick.
Photographs by Sam Hillman.
Not local to Cobble Hill, Brooklyn? Discover more about Books are Magic on their website.