Emma Straub on the Future of Indie Bookstores
The author of "All Adults Here" talks about her novel and the challenges of running a bookstore during lockdown
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Emma Straub is a New York Times bestselling author and owner of the beloved independent bookstore, Books Are Magic in Brooklyn. Her latest novel, All Adults Here, explores the complexity of love for your family, the love for yourself, and for the town you grew up in.
The story revolves around Astrid and her adult children, all living in a small town where people love to talk but rarely address the unresolved issues they have with one another. The day Astrid witnesses Barbara, a woman whom she doesn’t necessarily like, get hit by a bus everything changes. Astrid starts questioning her role as a mother, lover, and human. Life suddenly seems messier to Astrid, more fragile, without always allowing enough time to say what needs to be said.
But this isn’t a sad book about life’s frailties. Quite the contrary. It’s a feel-good story at its finest, with characters that are humble, real, dysfunctional, and downright delicious. Each one is so finely layered, relatable, and easy to love—flaws and all. The flaws especially. Everyone knows everyone in this cozy little town of Clapham. Childhood friends have long since blossomed into adult ones, neighbors aren’t afraid to get into each other’s business, and the kids are often more in-tuned than the adults think. But everyone has their secrets, which begs the question: how well can we truly know a person?
And although the world, and the people in it, can remain a mystery one thing this book reinstates is the importance of togetherness in one family. Your family is always there for you no matter what. And no matter how crazy they can drive you.
Carissa Chesanek: I love how the book is about family—and a big one at that—relating to the complications and drama, but also the love that is unconditional. Where did the idea behind this particular family come about?
Emma Straub: It starts with one person and then you build it from there. I knew that I wanted it to be multi-generational so I knew the family had to be of a certain size. I wanted sibling relationships, parent to child and grandparent to child. I needed all of those interconnecting and overlapping relationships. I just kept adding people until I felt like the family was there.
CC: Astrid changed after witnessing Barbara get hit by a bus. It ultimately allowed her to grow closer to her children and show more affection while giving her the courage to come out about her relationship with Birdie. Why do you think that is?
ES: I think all of us are holding on to certain things. You know, certain slights or psychic traumas of one kind or another, and we don’t always recognize those things consciously. But I don’t think Astrid would have had Barbara on a list of things that were weighing on her before she got hit. It was seeing this thing happen during this experience that provided a sense of relief and sort of release. It just sets her on her merry way.
CC: I’d like to go back to the subject of affection and relationships for a minute. The story intertwines this sense of love within family and love within personal relationships, which to me, seems similar in a lot of ways. Astrid questions her love for Birdie, wondering if it’s romance or codependence, with this “overwhelming need for another person in order to function.” Yes, that is romantic but that also seems a lot like unconditional love for family. Porter also says “knowing a body so long and watching it change” can be both maternal and martial. Was intertwining the two types of love something you were interested in exploring?
EM: Yeah. My husband and I have been together for almost 20 years. Your partner becomes your family, not just with time or when you get married or whatever. It’s not the symbolic act, but it’s the literal number of days that you spend together under the same roof and the amount you have to trust each other and rely on each other. I think that I do see those things more equivalent maybe than I used to when I was younger.
CC: I’m glad you brought up the past because I feel that’s examined a lot in this story. More specifically, how the past impacts the present within grief, loss, and heartache in general. Astrid and her kids still mourn the loss of Russell, while Porter also grieves the loss of a high school love, and both Nicky and Elliott struggle with their mother’s past reactions that caused them pain. How important were these issues for you when writing this story?
EM: That’s definitely something that I didn’t think about or plan. It sort of evolved. That’s one of the things I love about writing fiction. I started writing this book thinking that I wanted to write this very romantic, small town love story but then as you get to know the characters, things deepen and change. The loss of their father was a thing that I didn’t really figure out until several drafts in when these kids, who are now pushing forty, are in these moments of change in their adult life or in emotional crises, and would think about the parent they were missing in addition to the one who’s still there. And, you know, at least some of them, maybe all of them, would idealize the parent that was gone. Because, you know, how can you not, right?
CC: We’ve been chatting a bit about Astrid’s kids, who are not actually kids anymore, but let’s veer toward someone who is in fact, a kid: August, who plays a significant role. August is transitioning to Robin and ultimately shows us the importance of being true to oneself no matter how scary. Can you talk more about this?
EM: Generally, I can just say that I know a lot of young people, who, to me, seem like kids or very recently have been kids, who have transitioned at a point in their life where not only was I not aware of myself at all, but even if I had been, I wouldn’t have made such a brave choice. I’m so amazed by all of the young people I know: kids, teenagers, and young adults who have come out and transitioned.
CC: It is pretty remarkable and inspiring to see.
EM: I just think it’s so beautiful.
CC: I’d like to ask about your Brooklyn bookstore, Books Are Magic. What has it been like running the store during the lockdown?
EM: Running the bookstore during the pandemic has felt like triage—months and months of triage. The whole business changed overnight, once the booksellers were all quarantined at home in March.
I think most people think of bookselling as a vocation, and something that has to do more with the brain than with the body, but in the last three months, all the actual bodily work has fallen on my husband and our two managers, and it is an astounding amount of work. There’s a lot that can happen remotely—our events and marketing folks, for example—but the actual work of getting books into people’s hands requires bodies, whether in our store, or in warehouses, and I feel deeply aware of all the labor that all of us take for granted when we order something on the internet. I will never, ever take it for granted again. Obviously ordering from Amazon is against my religion, but what this period has cemented for me is how important it is to support your local businesses, and to support them with patience and humanity. We are all trying our best to keep our businesses afloat and to make sure our employees have jobs, and to make sure our customers get what they want. But man oh man, we are tired.
CC: I can imagine. Thank you and your team for all that you do. During these strange times, you’ve also had to change the way you hold literary events at the bookstore. How has it been going from in-person to virtual?
EM: My events team has been heroic. They totally changed course overnight and entered the wild word of Zoom. In some ways, I think it’s been great, because obviously now anyone from anywhere can come, and we can host authors from anywhere. Those are exciting things, for sure, but I think like everyone else, there’s some Zoom fatigue. Aren’t you fatigued?
CC: My eyes have never seen so much screen time. The virtual space is a great resource, but it has changed the way we interact with the book world. Besides everything being done virtually these days, how else do you think the bookselling business has changed during COVID-19?
EM: For months, it was all shipping and processing, with almost no staff. Now it’s pick-ups and masks and hand sanitizer. It keeps changing over and over again, and we’re the lucky ones. There are two wonderful stores in NYC that have decided to close: Stories and Bank Street. Both beautiful, meaningful children’s bookstores. I know that’s true across the world, that stores are struggling. It’s so hard to run a business right now. People are scared, the world is scary. We’re trying to be as conservative as we can, and to plan ahead for the long climb back to normal, or to a vaccine, or to whatever’s on the other side of this.
CC: On that topic of “the other side,” what do you think the future of indie bookstores will look like?
EM: Well, I think that indie bookstores are the past, present, and future, that’s for sure. I think indie bookstores are the best way to buy books and to sell books. I think everything else is a pale imitation. The internet doesn’t do it, the big chains don’t do it. Those places will sell you a book, of course, and they’ll do a fine job, but how will you feel about it? And how do you feel finally walking back into your favorite bookstore, and looking at real books chosen by real people just for you? There’s no substitute for that kind of care and attention. And so I feel fine if it’s just a few people in the store at a time for now. We’ll get back to capacity eventually. People have been supporting us wonderfully throughout, and we have never worked harder—-none of us, not the events team, or the booksellers, or my husband and me. I know it’s been the same for many of my bookseller friends. But we’re getting through it. And who knows. Someday, I might even have childcare again. Then there’s no stopping us.