Meet the ABA Young Booksellers of the Year: Stephanie Beck from Better Read Than Dead
In the week leading up to the Australian Booksellers Association (ABA) 2018 conference, Books+Publishing spoke to each of the five shortlisted nominees for Young Bookseller of the Year ahead of the winner’s announcement on 17 June.
In this first instalment, we talk to Stephanie Beck, full-time events manager at Better Read Than Dead in Newtown, Sydney. Store manager Dean Allan and owner Terry Greer wrote in their nomination, ‘Stephanie has worked with us at Better Read for the past six years and during this time she quickly grew from a casual bookseller to full-time Events Manager, dazzling us with her dedication, passion for bookselling and commitment to all she undertakes in the store. In recent years, Stephanie has carved out a dynamic events program that is well beyond the scope of just one indie store.’
What are the top three things you wish you’d known when you were starting out in the book industry?
When I started working in this industry I was 17 years old, and hired to come in on Saturday to wrap books. I knew next to nothing about bookselling, although I could fold a perfect corner and curl ribbon like a pro. I was also an avid reader (the Matilda sort), and almost everything else I knew about books came from my English teachers, pop culture or my grandmother. I hoped my experience would be a little more Notting Hill, and a little less Black Books. I therefore had this preconceived notion of what bookshop work would be like, which turned out to be fairly inaccurate. I wish I’d known that:
1. I wouldn’t have time to sit down at the front counter and read my book!
2. I would accumulate books at a rate bewildering to myself and to everyone around me. My obsession with complete sets and matching spines and coloured fore edges and limited editions and signed copies would only intensify. Entire paychecks would be spent on books. I’d no longer be able to visit another suburb, town or country without checking out its bookshops, and I now find myself alphabetising, reordering and facing out books wherever I go. Working in a bookshop almost becomes a way of life; taking over my house, my holidays and a lot of my head space!
3. There is so much more to bookshop employment than I imagined. My role as events manager in particular has taken me places I hadn’t anticipated, I’ve been introduced to people I never dreamed I would meet and have been able to support books I really believe in. I love the customer service and retail sides of my work, but being a part of the wider book industry and working alongside publishers and authors has been equally as rewarding. I think booksellers are perfectly positioned between the world of publishing and the world of readers, and can do so much to inspire a love of literature, champion important writing and pioneer change both in the industry and in society more broadly. I am digressing from the question a little here and I don’t mean to gush, but I really do wish I’d realized the potential of my job and the weight of this industry a little earlier.
What has been your biggest achievement or proudest moment as a bookseller?
Building our events profile has been an unbelievably rewarding project, and I am so proud of the events that we’ve hosted in the past three years. I feel so privileged every time we launch a book, provide a forum for an author to speak about their work, serve up a home-made high tea or support a local conference or festival. I have a copy of almost every book I’ve launched on my shelves at home (and by shelves, I refer to the piles and piles of books slowly taking over every surface in my house). From launching Clare Atkins’ Between Us (Black Inc.) at the Asylum Seekers Centre in Newtown and Barry Du Bois’ memoir at the Chris O’Brien Lifehouse to hosting conversations with Holly Ringland, Bri Lee and Kitty Flanagan, we’ve had a wonderful year of events so far. Engaging with local community venues, organisations and charities has also enriched our program. I really look forward to sharing what we have lined up in the second half of 2018!
What’s the most valuable thing you’ve learned on the job?
On my very first day at Better Read, I was so nervous that I didn’t say a word, didn’t speak to any customers, certainly didn’t recommend any books. Overcoming this inexperience—and total lack of confidence—has been so valuable. Learning the ins and outs of this industry, communicating with publishers, authors, booksellers and the media, and being given so much responsibility have helped me develop my confidence—in part out of necessity and in part due to the mentorship of the wonderful booksellers at Better Read. That said, my absolute fear of public speaking is yet to subside.
What do you think this industry could do better?
This is a perfect opportunity to shout out to the incredible small publishers and organisations we work with, including Magabala Books, Giramondo Publishing, Sweatshop and the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, which publish a wonderful array of works by Indigenous people and communities, and who I’ve worked with on a number of events these past few years. I believe more can be done to champion the diversity of Australian voices, particularly through ongoing consultation with multicultural writers and illustrators.
Where would you like to be in five (or 10, or 20) years’ time? And what do you hope the industry will look like then?
I would like to continue to do work that takes books, literature and a love of reading beyond the walls of our store. Bookshops like Better Read make for ideal community hubs. And with an established hub, we can expand and engage in dialogue not only on the retail floor, but also online and in local spaces—reaching out to those who wouldn’t necessarily visit the store. Events are such a big part of this, as is our work with schools and the travel business we’ve built. Even if I am not employed by a bookshop, I would like to work with books, take them places and share them with others. I’m a trained high-school teacher, too, so there is definitely potential to see my two worlds collide!
I hope that the industry will rally behind its bookshops, particularly independent stores like Better Read, and recognise the vital role we play. I may be a little biased here in my support of indies—although I do still carry my near-vintage Dymocks rewards card around in my wallet. Bookshops create buzz, hype, dialogue and all sorts of content and experiences which keep people reading, keep young people engaged and keep books flying out the doors!
The 94th ABA conference runs from 17-18 June at QT Hotel, Canberra.
To read all the interviews with the ABA Young Bookseller of the Year nominees, click here. To stay up-to-date with Australian book industry news and hear about the ABA Booksellers of the Year winners, sign up to our Daily Newsletter and Weekly Book Newsletter.