Dear Oprah | a post by Allison Hill

by Rachel on September 6, 2013

Today’s post comes to you from Allison Hill, CEO & President of Vroman’s Bookstore and Book Soup.  The original article  from 9/6/13 can be seen here on The Huffington Post.

Dear Oprah,

Remember when you first discovered that millions of people would read a book just because you said you liked it? I miss those days.

Oprah Book Club 1.0.

“We have the next Oprah book,” the publisher would call my bookstore and whisper, still in shock. “How many copies do you want to order for the store?” There'd be no mention of the title. They couldn't reveal your selection until you made your announcement. We'd buy based on nothing but your name. A blind buy. Then the bookseller betting would begin. An Oprah Book Club pool. “Which book could it be?” The stakes were high, the betting fast and furious. And then the big day would arrive. The books would be delivered in unmarked boxes. Reporters would call and beg or bribe for access. But we'd keep the titles safely under wraps until you said the word. Finally your show would air, your favorite book announced to thundering applause. Overnight we'd have a new bestseller. Hundreds of people coming into my store to buy the book, hundreds of thousands of people buying it nationwide and around the world. What came to be known as “The Oprah Effect,” an author made rich and famous overnight, and a nation focused on books and reading, if only for a moment.

I was almost on your first book club show. The year was 1996 and you announced your selection: The Deep End of the Ocean, a heartrending tale centered around the moment when an eldest son, charged with watching his younger brother, lets go of the boy's hand in a crowded hotel lobby. You invited readers to send you their thoughts about the book. One day while I was folding laundry, long after I had forgotten about the letter I wrote to you, your producer called me. She liked my letter and wanted to ask me a little about myself and whether I'd be willing, if asked, to come onto the show to discuss the book. I was still processing the words “I'm calling from the Oprah Winfrey show” when my call waiting beeped. Before my husband could even speak I blurted out, “I can't talk right now. I'm on the phone with Oprah,” and hung up. (I always imagined what went through his mind during the 10-minute wait for my return call.)

I didn't go on the show, but I watched from a distance for what turned out to be the next 15 years while every month (or two or three) you introduced the public to a new book, and more importantly, you introduced people to the joys of reading, of sharing thoughts and ideas.

I understood when you stopped. I understand the pressure of choosing a book for everyone to read. Twice a year my store attempts to champion a book we've all read and loved. Not a book that an algorithm told us to choose. Not a book that a publisher paid us to choose. But a book that at least five of us fall madly in love with. The consensus is practically impossible to reach and sometimes we can go two years without a selection. But when we do find one, angels sing. There is such excitement in stumbling across greatness in a world that sometimes seems full of mediocrity. And being able to share your discovery with others, well, as you discovered and booksellers like myself live for, that is one of life's great joys.

I appreciate that you're doing Oprah Book Club 2.0, really I do. And I like that it's multi-platform — radio, magazine, social media. But it's just not the same. Not just because it's not on television (though it was great to have millions participating at the same time), but for other reasons. The timing of the selections (two in 2012, nothing yet in 2013) is just too sporadic to inspire anticipation or furor. And it's e-reader-centric, all digital downloads and online discussions. (I just don't read that way.) Not even an obvious link to buy the physical book. And not one mention of bookstores.

My ongoing fantasy all these years has been that you would have one of your signature aha moments and realize how important bookstores are to reading and the future of books, that perhaps you'd stop championing your Kindle and referring people to Amazon. But that hasn't happened. In your defense, I can only assume that you're a little isolated. I know you're too smart to not understand the repercussions for the future of books and publishing, authors and reading, if bookstores disappear. Bookstores are an endangered species and the entire literary ecosystem is at risk when we're at risk. (This Book Will Change Your Life)

I guess I miss the good ol' days. President Clinton was in office and was frequently photographed with a book in hand, or seen visiting a bookstore. You had your book club. Amazon wasn't slowly pac-manning its way through the publishing and bookselling world. Bookstores thrived.

But I still want to say thank you for everything you've done to support books and promote reading. I know you believe like I do that books and reading are crucial to fostering critical thinking and imagination, culture and community. So I would like to formally invite you to my bookstores, Vroman's and Book Soup. You're welcome anytime. And I'm sure my peers would be happy to extend invitations to their wonderful stores as well. #OprahIndieBkstoreTour! I suspect it's been awhile since you've had the opportunity to visit a bookstore. Bookstores may be the analog version of the digital world you read in, but there's always something special about the original 1.0.

Sincerely,

your fellow book nerd,

Allison

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{ 1 comment }

Bruce 09.15.13 at 12:01 pm

I want to second your comments. I’m the one who would bring my dog to the writers’ appearances. I can’t bring my dog into an eRoom or meet an author face-to-face on Skype or through an instant message. I can’t ask a writer about his/her creative process through a computer. I mean, I could do all of that but it is not a human nor personal contact. I sit at a coffee shop and I need the heft and feel of a book. Perhaps someday I’ll find the joy in an ebook, but that perhaps is in my future, not in the present.

I much prefer a place like Vroman’s, but not a Barnes and Noble store. Perhaps I am a dinosaur in a modern world, but there is a real connection with a writer and book through places like Vroman’s.

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