In a series of interviews conducted by ABC’s Maria Minaya, we’re going to introduce you to (almost) everyone who works at The American Book Centers in Amsterdam and The Hague.
Books form an integral part of our lives not only because they’re our bread and butter, but because our passion for them came first. Our mission is to pass them on. Most of us are compulsive readers. Both Lynn and Barry will tell you that when no books are around they’ll read anything: jar labels, street signs or cereal boxes! When he was a child Avo would pick up scraps of paper he’d find on the streets of Palestine just to read them. Joe’s dare, “Tell me your top five and I’ll recommend five more,” immediately made me want to challenge him. Some of us grew up without books and now would die without them. By reading these interviews you’ll discover the faces behind your favorite sections and get a glimpse of who we are.
Maria was responsible for the more that fifty interviews conducted with ABC staff that we’re featuring on Do You Read Me? Working side by side with everyone who works in the store, she’s privy to the inside scoop of our quirky, passionate booksellers. She says:
” Strangely, the satisfaction of this project has not been in its completion, but being right in the middle of it listening to my co-workers’ stories about what they do and how the written word continues to be a driving force in their lives. And so hopefully, ultimately, in yours. “
I was born in downtown Manhattan, New York City. Until I was about four years old we moved around two different addresses in the Bronx; Walton Ave, Nelson Ave. After that we moved to Washington Heights on the northern tip of Manhattan. It contains the highest natural point of the island in Bennet Park where the battle of Fort Washington was fought against the British. We lost that battle.
My favorite food was a soup my aunt, Mamy Tita, made and invented. She called it sopa de leche (milk soup). It was bland and comforting, but with the right balance of cooked rice, milk and salt it healed everything. It is one of the earliest flavors I remember. Another favorite food was a soup we use to get at Johnny’s diner next to my mother’s beauty parlor. Every Sunday he had turkey soup. My sister and I resisted because of the name alone. Mom pushed, we tried it and loved it. It was a cream based soup with turkey and vegetables. I remember the small bright squares of carrots floating to the top. So Sunday became turkey soup day.
I can’t remember anything I hated, but there was one instance when I fought to save my life not to eat greenbeans. I use to like them, but my sister and I, around seven and eight years old, were visiting my cousin Aida who lived in Jamaica at the time. The taste of those greenbeans was awful. They were bitter and tough. I remember yelling and screaming, totally perplexing Aida. Her husband insisted I eat them, but she understood my panic and made him back off.
Were you read to as a child?
No, I was not read to as a child at home. I discovered reading later when I went to school. It was the most amazing thing to see and hear someone reading a book, telling story. I remember sitting on the floor with my class in a circle Indian style, looking up and listening. It was very cool. I must have been about four. We have great storytellers in our family who would tell about how they grew up in Puerto Rico and how their life there was different compared to ours in New York City. But I was not read to as part of the ritual of being put to bed.
Did you have books in your house while growing up?
No. There were no books in the house until after my sister and I started going to school. Mom realized how important it was to have books for us so she ordered a set of medical encyclopedias. It took a while, but before that there were no books in our apartment except for one. My mother was a beautician and owned two beauty parlors. So the one book my sister, Angeles, and I had was this beauty culture textbook. It was a huge light blue text book with a hand-drawn woman with puffy hair in spare black lines. Before Angeles and I could read we would flip through it looking at the diagrams of how the sections of hair are separated in order to put in rollers or cut hair. There were a lot of drawings, no photos. It’s the only book I remember having in the house. I think my sister has it now. I still can’t cut hair, but Angeles gives a mean manicure!!!
Quick free associations:
Paperbacks: Cracked spines.
Piano: Steinway & Sons.
Price gun: Gray.
Cash Register: Next!
Discount Card: Red, white and blue.
“I’m looking for a book…”: Give me more.
What is your connection to books and the written word now?
I read a lot. I write short stories so the reading I do now is all fiction and mostly short fiction. Usually on the second reading I analyze plot, form, style and how other writers solve problems I come up against. So my connection to books is enjoyment and learning how to do what others can already do. I write everyday and I’m now working on a love/lust story written in a triptych form; three different scenes reveal two days of a character at a pivotal point in her life.
What sections do you oversee and what are your other responsibilities in the store?
I order the western philosophy, the cookbooks and nutrition. I clean out the special order and reservation books on the second floor. I also edit the occasional text here and there. And I’ve undertaken this project of interviewing everybody in the store. It’s been wonderful, really quite special have spoken to everyone. I’ve developed a different view on and connection to my co-workers. It’s been a special experience, a way to give people back a piece of themselves; to give the company a little bit of its history. The staff talk about where they come from, about books and about working at the ABC. There’s a record, a marker now. In August 2008 these are the many faces of the American Book Center.
What is the best part of your job?
The best part is that I get paid to work with a product I love and people I trust and respect. That I actually get to call this a job is amazing. 80% of the time I’m having fun and the other 20% I’m meeting deadlines. The context from which I work is pleasant and stable. My co-workers are a big part of that; as you’ve read they’re an intelligent and passionate group of people. Sure there’s conflict, gossip and intrigue, but we all agree: The customer always comes first!
How would you describe your customer service, i.e., how do you do your job in terms of: cars (Ferrari or Fiat?), pastries (Hema or Holtkamp?), or shoes (Puma or Prada)?
After working retail in New York City I went through the mill. As a consumer and seller, growing up in the States, the American standards of customer service go deep. My service is professional. If there’s a question I can’t answer or conflict I’m one of the first to call over a manager. Customers should not only leave with the book they wanted, but a positive experience. I strive for that.
How long have you worked at ABC?
Who is your favorite author? Or what are you reading now?
I don’t really have a favorite author. There are writers I really admire like Raymond Carver, James Salter, Lorrie Moore, Junot Diaz and Christina Henríquez. Right now I’m reading A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth and Mercy Road by Dalia Pagani. I’m always reading short stories and am currently reading the special fiction issue of The Atlantic. You can even listen to Mark Fabiano, Jessica Murphy Moo and Christina Henríquez read their stories out loud on The Atlantic website!
At the same time I must admit that reading is not natural to me. There is a small hurdle, probably because I wasn’t read to as a child. Reading will always be something formal for me. I can choose to eat in a diner or a three start restaurant but when I read I always get dressed up in my good clothes to go. I can’t just jump into a book with jeans and sneakers.
What is the opposite of bookselling?
The opposite of bookselling is writing. Being a bookseller I sell books. The opposite of selling the finished product is making the book, writing.
What do you think people should know about ABC?
This question makes an erroneous assumption: that once you know something, you’ll remember it. But knowing something means you can also forget it. My co-workers’ answer to this question can’t be stressed enough. So what I think people should know and may forget is, once you special order a book it’s yours unless, before the book is ordered, you consult with the bookseller and are allowed to order it without obligation to buy. 55+ers get a 10% discount on Mondays. People should also know that our customer service makes us unique and memorable. I was once recognized in an airplane, at 35 thousand feet, by a steward who’s a long-time ABC customer. Thank you for the champagne. A woman at a tram stop approached me and wanted to order a book. I made an exception and politely noted down her information. But please remember, if you see me on the street, I’m off duty!
About Us: Credits:
All interviews by María G. Minaya
All photographs by María G. Minaya except:
Hayley by Hayley,
Ilse by Ilse
María and Steven by Xenia
I’d also like to give a special thanks to Susan, and to David Lee for helping out so much with editing!