14 Authors Who Started Out as Booksellers

Their retail day jobs primed these writers for literary success

Man looking at the shelves in a bookstore
Photo by Ian Muttoo

It is universally-known that if you want to write a book you should read a lot of books, but a piece of unexpected advice for aspiring writers? Work in a bookstore. You can’t go wrong working for a place that pays you to talk about books all day. You learn what’s out there, meet a community of book lovers, and maybe get your big break one day—it worked for all the writers on this list! Here are 14 authors who stocked shelves by day and wrote novels by night (and some who still do).

Jonathan Lethem

Writer of 2018’s The Feral Detective and 2005 MacArthur fellow, Jonathan Lethem has etched himself a place in the hearts of sci-fi and crime fiction lovers. But before he was crafting post-apocalyptic detective stories, he spent over a decade working in Berkeley bookstores like Moe’s and Pegasus Books. Today, he is part proprietor of Red Gap Books, an occasionally espresso-serving bookstore in Blue Hill, Maine. 

Lillian Li

Named NPR’s Best Book of 2018, Lillian Li’s debut Number One Chinese Restaurant invites readers into the Beijing Duck House after its owner passes away, laying bare the fraught relationships of his sons—the restaurant’s successors—and the establishment’s employees. Not only is Li a prize-winning novelist, she also sells books, conducts Q&As and manages the Twitter feed at Literati Books in Ann Arbor, Michigan. 

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Kea Wilson 

Kea Wilson’s We Eat Our Own came out in 2016 to the delight of horror-seeking bookworms everywhere. Its promise of cannibals, use of vivid detail, and roots in true events has earned Wilson praise from publications like The New York Times and Publisher’s Weekly. Wilson began writing her acclaimed debut during her MFA at Washington University but finished it in between shifts at Left Bank Books in St. Louis as their events coordinator. 

Michael Bible

Michael Bible is the author of absurdist fiction, having penned Sophia and Empire of Light. His newest work The Endless Idiot celebrated its book birthday on August 6th and is out now. Bible also worked for many years at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi. 

Louise Erdrich 

Inspired by her half German, half Native American ancestry, Louise Erdrich has written nearly 30 novels, poetry collections, and children’s books on the topic of biracial identity. Her works have earned her several awards and accolades including a Library of Congress Prize in American Fiction and bragging rights as a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize. She is currently preparing for 2020 release of her upcoming novel The Night Watchman and owns Birchbark Books in Minneapolis. 

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Emma Straub 

Book mom to Modern Lovers, The Vacationers, and Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, Emma Straub is not only a celebrated author but a former employee of the Brooklyn bookstore BookCourt. When the Boerum Hill staple closed in 2016, Straub teamed up with her husband to open Books Are Magic, a quirky bookstore (it has a poetry gumball machine!) five blocks from BookCourt’s original home on Court Street. 

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Jamie Kornegay 

Jamie Kornegay made his debut in 2015 with the novel Soil, a story about an environmental scientist whose idealistic plans to establish a sustainable farm go horribly awry. Before Kornegay joined the community of published authors, he was a bookseller, events coordinator, and radio show producer for Square Books. Now, he can be found in the stacks of his own bookstore, Turnrow Book Co. in Greenwood, Michigan. 

Get in Trouble by Kelly Link

Kelly Link 

2018 MacArthur fellow and author of such titles as Magic for Beginners, Pretty Monsters, and Get in Trouble, Kelly Link is notorious for bending the boundaries of genre, mixing fantasy, sci-fi, and horror. She is equally notorious for her love of booksellers, having sold books herself at Avenue Victor Hugo Books in Boston, Massachusetts (now located in Lee, New Hampshire). Link co-founded Small Beer Press with her husband (also a former bookseller!) in 2016. 

The Melting Season by Jami Attenberg

Jami Attenberg 

Jami Attenberg is the author of The New York Times bestseller The Middlesteins as well as the forthcoming novel All This Could Be Yours. Crowned by Kirkus Reviews the “poet laureate of difficult families,” Attenberg was once the fairy godmother of books at WORD Bookstore in Brooklyn.  

Woman No. 17 by Edan Lepucki

Edan Lepucki 

Best-selling author, podcast queen, and Stephen Colbert’s bestie, Edan Lepucki is responsible for the darkly comic If You’re Not Yet Like as well as California and Woman No. 17. She is also a former staffer from Hollywood’s Book Soup

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Justin Torres 

Justin Torres’s 2011 debut We the Animals had been translated into 15 languages before being adapted into an Independent Spirit Award-nominated film. He would go on to receive several accolades and fellowships including The National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 and a Cullman Center Fellowship from the New York Public Library. Now a professor at UCLA, Torres once worked for the Manhattan staple McNally Jackson

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Adam Wilson 

Known for his coming-of-age narratives and humorously nihilistic writing style, Adam Wilson has two books out in the world: Flatscreen (2012) and What’s Important is Feeling (2014). Wilson’s writing journey came full circle when he celebrated the release of his debut novel at BookCourt—his previous employer! 

M Train by Patti Smith

Patti Smith 

Called the “punk poet laureate,” Patti Smith is a celebrated singer-songwriter, performer and novelist. But, once upon a time, she moved from New Jersey to New York City with dreams of becoming an artist. Her first job in the Big Apple? Brentano’s, one of the grand bookstores that studded Fifth Ave in the 1970s.  

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Martha Southgate

Martha Southgate wears many hats: author, essayist, teacher, and Hamilton-lover. She is also a former bookseller! The third former BookCourt employee on our list, Southgate began working at the bookstore only months before the release of her fourth book Taste of Salt. 

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