Before I started my life as a bookseller, I visited bookstores only to find the science fiction and fantasy sections tucked into corners, hidden away from the floor like the Minotaur in its maze: something people were inexplicably drawn towards, but never something they wanted to look in the eye or admit to needing.
By the time I became a bookseller, things had begun to change—and now, in the bookselling circles I run in, it’s considered as egregious a crime not to carry N.K. Jemisin as it is to not carry Richard Russo.
Oh, yes, there are still booksellers who push against genre fiction. The same people who don’t understand why romance belongs in a bookstore—despite being the largest-selling genre in the publishing industry—often don’t understand why people would want to read about dragons and robots and magic and spaceships when there is perfectly good realistic literary fiction right there.
These people are fools.
It’s not that I expect every bookseller to love science fiction and fantasy. It takes all types. But science fiction and fantasy readers are some of the most passionate in bookselling—and bookselling is all about the connections you form with other readers.
You can buy books anywhere. But the heart of bookselling—and what truly makes independent bookstores special, and makes supporting independent bookstores worthwhile—is the connections that form between readers.
The SFF readers at Oblong Books are some of the most passionate I’ve ever encountered.
It’s the quiet reader who came in, nervous to ask where the fantasy books are, because they didn’t know how big our section would even be—at least, until I brought them over, and offered to give them recommendations, and gushed about our mutual love of Seanan McGuire, and watched the grin split across their face.
It’s the unrivaled energy of a child excited for the new Wings of Fire book, bursting through the door the moment the store opens to snatch it up and find out what their favorite dragons are up to now. Be prepared if you plan on talking to kids about Wings of Fire, though. If you get the details wrong, you will get the most wonderful half-hour long speech on the difference in the dragon types. I would know. It’s amazing.
It’s the reader who wants to try some science fiction, but doesn’t know where to start. There is so much, after all; and when they ask, there’s an expectation from their experiences in other stores that I’ll just drop them in the section and leave them to hunt for themselves. Being able to give them what they want and talk to them about it—creepy aliens? Semiosis! Fun superhero story? Heroine Complex! Here’s why I loved it! Tell me if you do, too; and if you don’t, we’ll find something better next time.—and watching the nervousness fade away into genuine excitement to try something new is an unrivaled joy.
Oblong’s science fiction and fantasy section wasn’t always as large as it is now. It went from two tiny bookcases, crammed together, to a giant bookcase full of staff picks and recommendations. It’s flanked by our growing graphic novel section, which is slowly taking over its giant bookcase and an entire wall display. (We all know that graphic novels are where some of the best SFF is; hello, Animosity.) Part of that is because I showed up, and I was passionate, and I knew what I loved and what I wanted to see in the store.
And part of that is because readers kept coming back. The industry changed because of the readers. Our store changed because of the readers.
Our readers know we invest in them. And they come back. And they’re excited. And we give them recommendations; and they give us recommendations; and we learn what they like, and how to keep an eye out for it, and curate our sections to what we know they’ll love.
Bookselling is one of the best jobs in the world. There are so many things we can do to improve it—as both consumers and booksellers—but nothing will ever compare to the passion of readers, and being able to connect them to the next book they’ll love.
Looking for your next favorite read? Here are four upcoming SFF novels that I can’t wait to handsell.
Pet by Akwaeke Emezi
Monsters perforate our society today: obvious, evil, locking children in cages and letting people die from curable illnesses—but in the city of Lucille, the revolution has happened. Times have changed. The monsters are gone, and the world is safe. But monsters have this way of creeping back into the shadows. When a horned, winged beast climbs out of a painting and tells Jam that a monster has returned to Lucille, Jam doesn’t want to believe it—but that’s exactly what the monster wants, and Jam owes it to her friends to hunt it down. Pet is a brilliant bite-sized novel that fearlessly examines the world around us. As somebody who loves casual explorations of religious imagery against a modern world—hello, Good Omens—Pet hit all of my sweet spots. Here, the fantastical and the familiar align to force readers to look at the unseen corners of their own lives. It’s fast-paced, thoughtful, and utterly unputdownable. Emezi’s ability to craft warm, loving heroes against searing critiques of our culture make them a talent to watch.
Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir
Welcome to the cult of Gideon the Ninth: wholly original, compulsively readable, and absolutely unforgettable. Gideon is ready to abandon her servitude to Harrowhawk Nonagesimus, Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House. The nonstop schlog of reanimated corpses and bloody battles is deathly boring, but when Harrow foils Gideon’s latest attempt to leave, Harrow offers another chance at freedom. If Gideon works with Harrow in a competition against eight other Houses, she will be free—if Harrow succeeds, solidifying her place as an all-powerful bone witch. If they fail, the Ninth House—and Gideon—will die. Gideon the Ninth is the best book I have read in years. I fell in love with the characters, the world, the storytelling—and I’m only devastated that I can’t read it anew all over again. This is the queer gothic space opera you didn’t know you needed.
The Deep & Dark Blue by Niki Smith
Avatar meets The Witch Boy in this stunning middle grade graphic novel from Niki Smith. When a coup destroys their entire noble family, twins Hawke and Grayson flee to the magical sisterhood of the Communion of Blue. While Hawke dreams of reclaiming his old life, Grayce’s heart lies with the sisterhood—but when the chance to avenge their family arises, can Grayce leave her new life behind? This thoughtful, fast-paced fantasy story is a must for readers: a poignant and sweet heart woven with fascinating worldbuilding and a suspenseful plot.
The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow
January Scaller lives between worlds. One half of her heart rests with her father, away on impossible and far-off adventures; and the other resides in the manor of the wealthy Mr. Locke, his hallways full of things as odd as January herself. But as January discovers just where Mr. Locke’s collection comes from, and devours a story that sounds peculiarly like her own, she might just decide that a life between worlds is where she belongs. This magical coming-of-age adventure combines the power of stories with a sharp commentary on how we treat the world. I couldn’t put it down!
Nicole Brinkley has short hair and loves dragons. The rest changes without notice. She is the self-proclaimed Keeper of Keys and Grounds at Oblong Books and the co-chair of the New England Children’s Bookselling Advisory Council. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram at @nebrinkley.