Meet Independent Bookstore Owner Maryelizabeth Hart

- by BlogMistress

maryelizabethMaryelizabeth Hart is a co-owner of Mysterious Galaxy, an independent genre bookstore in San Diego. Mysterious Galaxy celebrated its sixteenth birthday in early May. Hart’s responsibilities for the store include being the events coordinator, publicity manager, and newsletter editor — but at heart she defines herself as a bookseller, and loves nothing more than reading and
discussing her favorite books with kindred spirits.

Tell us a little about yourself and Mysterious Galaxy.

Mysterious Galaxy just celebrated sixteen years in business as an independent specialty genre bookstore. Our tagline is “books of Martians, Murder, Magic and Mayhem,” which encompasses our favorite genres – science fiction, mystery, fantasy and horror. We also carry a variety of kids’ books in those genres and other associated non-fiction, like books on the writing process, on our shelves on a regular basis. In the past few years we have expanded our galaxy’s borders a little, especially through non-genre books associated with the community events we participate in, usually in partnership with a local non-profit partner.

I have been a fan of mystery and speculative fiction since I was a kid reading my father’s Alfred Hitchcock and James Blish collections. I learned a lot about the nuts and bolts of bookselling working for both independent and chain bookstores. In 1993, my husband, author Jeff Mariotte, and our partner, Terry Gilman, opened Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego to share our enthusiasm with fellow genre fans. While I no longer live in CA, I have been fortunate to be able to maintain my position with Mysterious Galaxy as the publicity manager, events coordinator, and newsletter editor. (More on that below.)

What gets you excited about a new book or author?

I love to be handsold – by another author’s blurb, by an editor’s recommendation, or by a rep’s endorsement.

What are some ways the store guides readers to the books they’ll love?

We are fortunate to have a knowledgeable and enthusiastic staff. Our best tool is being able to talk with readers in the store in person, being able to handsell the books we have recently read and loved (or another staff member, or a fellow IndieBound bookseller has endorsed, and we feel confident recommending). We also have a display of staff picks in the store and on-line, with a variety of reviews and recommendations, as well as contributing to other publications like the Indie Next List, the IMBA’s Killer Books list, or our local newspaper’s occasional bookseller store pick.

What kind of author events work best for you?

The author events that work best are ones where the author is comfortable and enthused about their work and speaking to an audience. We rarely host straight signings, as we believe that it works best for our community to at least have the authors engage in a Q&A with their audience. We have had authors who have had elaborate presentations, and we have had authors who have had the audience enthralled, equipped with nothing more than their wit and a glass of water. Also, we find that we have a fairly narrow window of opportunity, and that events for new books draw an audience, whereas we generally will not see customers respond to an event for book that has been on the shelves for more than a couple of months.

What’s the planning process for these events? Who generally starts the process?

Events generally start with a request, either from Mysterious Galaxy to the publisher or author, or from the author or publisher to us. Then we compare calendars and see if there is a viable date.

Can you share the story of an event that went really well? How about a complete disaster?

Great timing on asking about an event that went really well – our Sixteenth Birthday Bash on May 9! We had a wonderful day with ten spotlight authors, including Shannon and Jim Butcher, Kage Baker, and Kris Saknussemm, cake, a piñata, and about 300 customers! We also occasionally have fabulous but more intimate events, when the number of readers is smaller, but their interactions with the authors are greater.

While we try to avoid the sorts of conflicts we can anticipate – no signings on SuperBowl Sunday, for example – there are always those we can’t. A number of years ago we had about a half-dozen authors visiting in conjunction with a horror anthology they had contributed to. And the afternoon of their scheduled event was the same afternoon that … uh, oh, my lack of sports knowledge may be catching up to me here … the Padres were in their final game for the World Championship, or at least the playoffs, IIRC. There not only were no attendees at the event, but also there were no cars in the parking lot, no one at any of the local businesses – except the local sports bar. But six weeks prior, when the event date was confirmed, who knew?

Do you use author or publisher created promotional items? Do you find that these things make a difference with readers?

We use bookmarks and postcards and other promotional items on a regular basis. The exception – when the promotional item only lists a single source for the title being promoted. Then the item is not only not useful to us, but also to other independents, to other chain bookstores, to mass market retailers, etc.. A catchy bookmark design or a great blurb can definitely engage a reader’s attention.

How do you feel in general about author’s self-promotion?

I think that self-promotion is a great tool, and used wisely, can be the rising tide that lifts all boats – the author’s, the bookseller’s and the publisher’s. I think there is an expectation that authors will work to market themselves today, and that part of that marketing includes accessibility to readers through an on-line presence, etc.. I have seen a few authors who overextended themselves and actually alienated potential readers through an excessive amount of BSP though. Fortunately this is rare, and mostly I am pleasantly surprised by the generosity of authors towards their fans and fellow authors.

How does the internet affect your job?

I literally could not do my job if I did not have electronic communication and internet access. I work, as noted above, from an off-site office, not the store. This was true when I lived 5 miles from the store, and remains the case now that I live 500 miles from the store. I always chose to take my office work – speaking to authors and publicists on the telephone, working on the web site, composing reviews for the newsletter, etc. – out of the store, feeling that it was in conflict with my ability to offer excellent customer service while I was in the store, and now I continue to do so with an electronic commute. I miss not having as many occasions to handsell and discuss books with readers in person, but I am thankful that because of the internet, I can continue to work for Mysterious Galaxy even while living in a much more remote and rural area than San Diego.

We understand that your store reports to the NY Times Bestseller list. Can you tell us about this process from the store’s point of view?

The technical process of reporting to the New York Times has simplified through technology. We are able to create an electronic file that allows us to report our bestsellers to the NYT, to the Southern CA Independent Booksellers Association, and other agencies on a weekly basis, an improvement from the days of submitting via telephone or FAX. And being able to state that we are a NYT reporting store is a benefit when submitting author event requests to publishers.

Thanks to Chris Green for inviting Maryelizabeth to blog with us.

5 comments

  1. Welcome, Maryelizabeth! Thank you so much for this info. We’re always curious about the bestseller lists, LOL. We really appreciate the hard work you guys do to get our books into readers’ hands, too.

  2. Thanks for this interesting post! I’ve never been to MG but many of my friends have. One of these days…

  3. Chris — many thanks for the invitation!

    Pati — we look forward to your visit.

  4. THANKS for Mysterious Galaxy, one of my favorite stores. A pleasure to go into business where things are done well.

  5. Thanks for this great interview. Enthusiastic independent booksellers are the backbone and the brains of …everything?