Los Angeles’ beloved Skylight Books was founded in 1996 on the former site of Chatterton’s Bookshop, an iconic bookstore that had closed two years earlier. Skylight has since added an arts annex, and last fall, they celebrated their 20th anniversary with a well-attended big bash. General Manager Mary Williams came out from her cardboard box (see below) to talk about keeping LA weird, the crowd- and kitten-drawing power of Dave Eggers, and fueling the resistance one book at a time.
How would you describe Skylight Books to the uninitiated?
We’re your neighborhood lovable weirdos. But we’re weirdos who are really serious about bookselling. So we might post a video on Instagram of a staffer dancing in a cardboard box they’ve cut arm and leg holes into, but you’ll also find us doing everything we can to promote translated literature, small press books, or any other great titles that might fly under the radar. (Usually without the box on; the box tends to distract from the handsell.)
If Skylight were a religion, what would be its icons and tenets?
We’d be a pretty laid-back religion; I can’t see us getting too doctrinal. The tree that grows in the middle of our store would have to be the spiritual center of our faith. We’d worship books, of course, with our altar built out of stacks of our favorites, their collective genius radiating a holy glow. Our bible would be made up of shelf talkers with cramped handwriting and too many exclamation points. And our store cat, Franny, would be a kind of Trickster figure, lurking around the edges and finding dead insects to scoop out from underneath bookshelves and fling into the paths of small children.
Which was your favorite event and/or most memorable disaster?
I really don’t think I could choose a favorite, but I’ll describe one of the many that I’m sentimental about: our event with Dave Eggers for Zeitoun. We only had one week’s notice, and it was the first large event I put together from start to finish after recently becoming the events manager. Naturally, I went into this with a barely contained sense of panic. But it all worked out! A big crowd turned up, he gave a phenomenal talk and was so gracious with his fans, and then as an adorable bonus, our brand-new store cat, little 3-month-old Franny, wandered downstairs during the signing and settled herself on a display right behind his head, so she’s in the background of all the photos people took with him.
How does the bookstore reflect the interests of your community?
Like all indies, we strive to provide our customers with a great selection of books, interesting staff picks, and an events program people are willing to attend even though it means circling 20 minutes to find a parking space. But we’re also political in a fairly overt way, from founding a Current Events Reading Group to soliciting donations for Planned Parenthood and the Standing Rock Sioux water protectors to closing the store to allow all our staff to attend the Women’s March Los Angeles. The response we’ve gotten from our customers has been overwhelmingly positive, with dozens of emails thanking us for the work we do and thousands of dollars collected for donation….Our community has indicated that they need and want a bookstore that’s working in solidarity with them toward our shared political goals, and we’re grateful for the opportunity to do so.
What are your top five handsells?
Train Dreams by Denis Johnson for breaking hearts in 117 pages. A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki for its beautiful metaphysical explorations. Boy Snow Bird by Helen Oyeyemi for its brilliant reimagining of Snow White. Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson for blowing minds. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles for enthralling basically everyone.
Karen Schechner is the vice president of Kirkus Indie.