On and Off the Shelves


Nicki Leone

About seven and a half years ago my boss called me into the back office of the bookstore I managed and announced, “we’re closing.” Within thirty days I would be out of a job. In the same week, my landlord chose to inform us that he had sold the house my girlfriend and I were renting, and we would need to move. Neither event was completely unexpected, but the double-shock was still badly felt by us, our ten-year-long relationship starting to show the first serious cracks in its foundation. I worried that I would lose the immersion in books and the literary community that I enjoyed—needed—and that working as the manager of an active, independent bookstore had given me. Stresses over money and the future weighed heavily and the small annoyances we had always tolerated in each other were beginning to turn into large resentments. I found myself frustrated that she booked gigs that didn’t pay. She was frustrated that I preferred to stay at home and read rather than go watch her play them.

We just need a change, I thought, a new start.

The universe seemed to think so too. Within days of the announcement that the store would close, I had been offered a new job in the book industry that paid better and allowed me to work from home. The first week we went hunting for a new place to live, we drove by the house we would end up renting just as the landlord was putting out the “for rent” sign. It stayed up for all of five minutes.  And while I was boxing up all my books to be moved and packing up whatever else was salvageable of our shoddy belongings, I received a note from Lauren Roberts, asking if I’d be interested in writing for a new literary e-zine she was starting, BiblioBuffet.

I had “met” Lauren online, at a book-discussion site called Readerville. I had been chiming in on some of the discussions in a desultory way, whenever I thought I had something useful to say (which wasn’t all that often). On the day I wrote my farewell letter to my bookstore’s customers, I also posted a copy on Readerville and Lauren, liking the letter and taking a chance that I apparently now had some free time on my unemployed hands, asked if I would be willing to write a regular column.

I demurred at first, pointing out that I wasn’t a Writer with a capital W. I was a bookseller, not a book critic. You write about books, she pointed out. Well, yes, I said, I can certainly write about books.  So I agreed to write about books, about my life with books. And that’s what I’ve been doing—hopefully in an entertaining way—for the last seven years.

I feel very grateful that Lauren gave me the opportunity all those years ago to natter on about books in whatever way I liked. I had been worried that there would be no real place to “talk books” in my new life, at my new house working at my new job which mostly consisted of sitting at my old kitchen table with a laptop. Being able to write about what books meant to me was a comfort and a pleasure that has remained steady even when my life was neither comfortable or pleasant.

Seven years later, I still live in the same house and still have the same rewarding job (and a better table), but the relationship did not survive the change. The girlfriend continued to go to gigs that didn’t pay. I continued to stay at home and read. Eventually she tired of this and found someone willing to be a more part of her life in the way she wanted. I kept reading, and writing about it. The “comfort and pleasure” of writing for BiblioBuffet became even more important to me.

Some of the first pieces I ever wrote for this column were about the experience of packing up my library, then unpacking and re-shelving it in a new place. In fact, a fair number of the essays I’ve written here have been about my apparently endless quest to create the perfect home library. I’ve talked about getting new shelves, new books, new chairs and tables. About re-arranging to make room for new subjects and accommodating new interests. About pursuing new passions and recreating childhood memories. About stacking books on the floor, and moving the stacks to tables. So it seems fitting that in my last column I report that I am once again moving the books around.

A hint about why I am doing so is also to be found in many of the columns I’ve published here. One thing about having a biweekly deadline--the essays in “A Reading Life” start to look a bit like a reading diary. Patterns and influences begin to emerge. It would be clear to anyone reading them en masse that my mother is an important part of my reading life, I talk about her quite often. A general attraction to classical literature, Shakespeare, and eighteenth century history is also noticeable. And, as I was skimming over earlier columns while thinking about what to write for this, my very last essay for BiblioBuffet, I realized that I have been reading quite a lot of literature in translation, and most of the books in my “tbr” stacks had originally been published overseas, or south of the border. “I should re-arrange all my fiction by continent,” I thought, on a whim.

And so I am.

Thus it is that seven years after I first wrote about the process of putting all my books up on new shelves, I am now in the process of taking them all down again. If BiblioBuffet were continuing readers could look forward to a steady series of commentaries on how I navigate this latest phase in my reading life: How the first thing that became obvious when I began to take the books down was none of them had really been dusted since they were put up seven years earlier. There would be long ruminations on national versus cultural identities, and whether a writer like Donna Tartt should be shelved in “southern fiction” because she wrote The Little Friend, or somewhere else, because she wrote The Secret History. (“Southern Fiction” as anyone can tell you, is a country unto itself) I’ll dither about whether I think Vladimir Nabokov is a Russian writer, and where books by immigrants, ex-patriots and exiles really belong.

As it is, readers will be spared all this interminable talking to myself about my own books. Except, perhaps, for dear Lauren, who, because she will always be one of my favorite people to “talk books” with, will continue to receive such missives in various stages of completion. It seems a just punishment for the woman who has given me the wonderful opportunity over the last happy seven years to inflict similar pontifications on the reading public at large.


Nicki Leone showed her proclivities early when as a young child she asked her parents if she could exchange the jewelry a well-meaning relative had given her for Christmas for a dictionary instead. She supported her college career with a part-time job in a bookstore, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that her college career and attending scholarships and financial aid loans supported her predilection for working as a bookseller. She has been in the book business for over twenty years. Currently she works for the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance, developing marketing and outreach programs for independent bookstores. Nicki has been a book reviewer for several magazines, her local public radio station and local television stations. She was one of the founders of The Cape Fear Crime Festival, currently serves as President of the Board of Trustees of the North Carolina Writers Network, and as Managing Editor of BiblioBuffet. Plus, she blogs at Will Read for Food. She manages all this by with the loving support of varying numbers of dogs and cats. Contact Nicki.



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