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Five Questions with Gayle Shanks of Changing Hands Bookstore

We love ourselves a good independent bookseller. And when it comes to booksellers that will stop at nothing to get you the most interesting, outside-the-box, see-the-world-a-different way books out there, Gayle Shanks is hard to beat. Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe, Arizona has been going strong since 1974 and isn’t showing any signs of stopping. Lucky for us (and you), Gayle was able to take a few minutes out of saving the world one reader at a time to tell us about “the grandest profession in the world.”

How did Changing Hands come about?

Three friends sat on a front porch and talked about what they wanted to do when they grew up. They were in their early 20s and dreamed of a bookstore carrying only books they wanted to sell: books about politics, the environment, culture, great literature; books chosen from the Whole Earth Catalog about returning to the land, growing food organically; books about sustainability, home childbirth, spirituality, preserving the outdoors for generations to come. It was 1974 and we were idealistic hippies. A used bookstore put up a for sale sign. We bought it and turned it into our dream. That was the beginning of Changing Hands and 38 years later we are still dreaming.

If you had to describe the experience you want readers to have at Changing Hands in just one word, what would it be and why?

This is impossibly hard to coalesce into one word. Maybe enchanting if you force my hand. We want people to enter the store, drop their shoulders, be transported to that wonderful Third Place that reminds them that there is wealth and depth in the written word and that books contain that enchantment.

How much of a role do the staff’s personal preferences play in the titles you stock?

Our staff helps our buyers ensure that the books on our shelves reflect a wide diversity of tastes and genres. The staff is ‘required’ to write quarterly staff picks and the case that contains those picks is one of the most robust cases in the store. Many of our customers go directly to that case when they walk in the door and often seek out the staff person whose name and recommendation appears under a book that catches their interest. They develop relationships with the customers; they share other titles with one another. Whole categories of books grow because of an employee’s interest or expertise. We often make physical changes in sections because of employees’ suggestions based on their own knowledge of a subject. I rely on them to keep the stock interesting and moving.

What do you see as a bookstore’s number one obligation to its community?

I think indie bookstores like Changing Hands provide their community members with a place to gather, to meet authors, talk about books and interact with one another.

What’s your single favorite memory of Changing Hands so far?

There is no single memory that I can single out. It has been the most wonderful job a woman could have. I have memories of Terry Tempest Williams looking up and seeing her high school English teacher in the audience and bursting into tears. Madeleine Albright talking about the remorse she carries for her part in the Rwandan massacres and then coming back again to tell funny stories about her signature pins. I remember Sherman Alexie chastising his Native American brothers and sisters for ‘always being late and having to sit in the back.’ And hundreds of other authors, known and unknown who have found readers and friends in our store. Children who play at our train table until they’re lured away, or who sit in their parents laps to be read stories for the first time and become lifelong readers. Teens who never read before and discover Stephanie Meyer and go on to read Suzanne Collins and anything else we can put into their hands. And ‘discovering’ Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone and telling all my buyer friends across the country that they must read this book. And having my dear friend Betsy Burton, also a bookstore owner, talk with me in a London flat for hours into the night about Nicole Krauss’ book History of Love while our other bookseller friends Cathy Langer and Margaret Maupin listened in from the next room. All memories of books and bookselling, perhaps not the oldest, but certainly the grandest profession in the world.

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About Libby O'Neill

Libby O'Neill is Managing Editor of Atticus Review, as well as this journal's deadbeat granddaddy, the independent press Atticus Books.

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