In 2014, husband-husband duo Scott Seeley and Drew Cohen opened The Writer’s Block, southern Nevada’s only indie general bookstore. The bookstore also runs Codex, an education center, which offers free writing classes for students ages 5 to 18 and a meeting space for book clubs, readings, meet-ups, and more. Cohen describes the store as, among other things, a “literary treasury and artificial bird sanctuary.” Here we talk with Cohen about made-to-order poetry, adoptable artificial birds, and incendiary readings.
How would you describe The Writer’s Block to the uninitiated?
I think that The Writer’s Block is a fairly Vegas sort of bookstore in that we put a lot of work into our presentation. It sometimes borders on installation art. We’ve created an eight-panel history of literature and literacy called Linguistica (it’s all made up); there’s a machine in the back of our store that produces made-to-order haiku; we’re probably best known for our artificial birds, which can be adopted and come with an auto-birdography card. My husband, Scott, does all of our graphic design, and we’ve got an Eames-inspired midcentury aesthetic with a dash of old-school Disneyland. The word “quirky” makes me break out in hives, but I guess that’s what we are.
If The Writer’s Block were a religion, what would be its icons and tenets?
We try, as much as possible, to get folks to shop at our store because they want to and not because they think they should. I sometimes worry that our industry—that is, the indie bookstore scene—banks a little too hard on the civic virtues of shopping locally. Of course, I agree 100 percent that shopping locally is vital to one’s sense of connectedness, of being in the world. And of course, the value of a well-nourished local economy is incalculable.
For our part, we try to cultivate a cool brand, have the best books, and convince customers to shop with us because there’s value to the product and selection and not just because it’s a good thing to do, ethically. I suppose our tenet would be: Shop with us because you want to not because you must.
Which was your favorite event and/or most memorable disaster?
We hosted a reading with Iranian author Hossein Mortezaeian Abkenar…he’s been working on a series of interlocked stories built around the theme of darkness. So for this event, we held the reading in total, pitch-black darkness….We did it radio-drama style, with actors reading each of the roles, and we added sound effects….The first piece that he read involved a man watching his wife have an affair—and some couple actually got up and stormed out of the event! We like to think there was something going on there. The [sound of the] woman’s heels hammering on the floor, in the dark, when she and her partner left was really striking.
How does the bookstore reflect the interests of your community?
This is a natural process. When locals request books that we do not have, I’ll order them—plus extras. We have regulars who are essentially adjunct buyers because their tastes are so distinctive, so helpful, and so accurately represent the interests of other local readers. Of course, I try to carry things that are about Vegas and the Southwest; books relating to water management, to hospitality, or spectacle. But by and large, our selection isn’t super region-specific.
What trends are you noticing among young readers?
Our young readers like books that are edgy, self-aware—and, often, visually striking. Our top-selling YA title in 2018 (thus far) has been The Prince and the Dressmaker, a standout graphic novel about a prince who secretly wears dresses and has the most poignant relationship with his dressmaker. It touches on a lot of social themes but without ever pandering to its readers or congratulating them on their politics. Basically, it’s good art.
Karen Schechner is the vice president of Kirkus Indie.