A Conversation with Erin Barker from Hooray for Books!

Erin Barker, Buyer & Manager at Hooray for Books

I love being a school librarian and there’s always more to learn in my specific field, but sometimes it’s fun to explore other facets of the book world. To satisfy my bookish curiosity, every so often, I will interview folks who make their living in the book industry.

My very first guest is Erin Barker, buyer and manager at Hooray for Books in Alexandria, Va. I actually worked with her at the store many moons ago, so it was great fun catching up and nerding out on books.

How would you describe Hooray for Books?
We’re an independent bookstore with a focus on children’s books. We doubled our floor space a couple years ago so we’ve grown our selections for adults and we have some sidelines as well.

What is your position? What do you do? How long have worked there?
I’m the buyer and manager. I’ve been there 4 and half years.

How did doubling space come about?
Our owner, Ellen, always had it as a goal in the back of her mind to expand. We expanded in April 2015. The office suite behind us moved upstairs, so it was vacant and it was too good an opportunity to pass up. It’s been really cool. We had a record year last year. People are finally realizing that we have adult books so they’re coming into browse.

Interior of Hooray for Books in Alexandria, Va. after a 2015 expansion that doubled its space.

Do you have programming for adults?
We two book clubs. One is  an adult book club (which just sounds funny!) that reads fiction and nonfiction and another that reads YA. We’ve also had events with established local authors from known houses.

We’ve also had cocktails and coloring events, last year we had a book swap party for adults, and this month we’re doing a blind date with a book.

If you had infinite space what would you add?
I would love display fixtures and features for kids, like a little tree house or something cute and quirky and inviting. And Ellen’s goal is to continue growing the adult section. One great thing about the expansion was that we were able to bring in couches and have more space for people to linger instead of being packed in. We’ve been getting some big author events and we’d love to find some partnerships in the city so we can do some off-site ones.

What do you do better than any other bookstore?
I think a lot of indies do this, but it’s our relationship with kids and customers. We have kids who go through all our book clubs who are now employees! We have regular loyal customers who want to come in and help us do inventory.

[Before the inauguration] one of our regular customers came in and asked if she and her daughter could come in and make posters for the Women’s March in the store. It started with this one customer saying, “Hey can maybe me and 8 of my friends come?” and it turned into 60 people in the store making posters!

What’s the funniest situation you’ve ever had to deal with in the store?
My favorite probably was when we did Where’s Waldo Scavenger Hunt and these two little boys, probably about 5 and 7, came in to look for Waldo. One was explaining it to the other: “You have to find Waldo. It’s like a video game, only we’re in the game and someone else is controlling it.” He paused and then said, “Wait…it doesn’t feel like we’re being controlled…” This seven-year-old was having a mini existential crisis!

How did you get into the bookselling business?
I always loved reading. I used to teach junior high, so literature for that age interests me. And then after teaching I did an MFA in creative writing and I specialized in writing for children and young adults. It’s definitely  always been an interest

I was copy editing patent search reports and one day, I was just like, “I can’t do this anymore!” and I Googled bookstores in my zipcode. I told myself I’d just go in and see if it was an option. Maybe they’d give me 5 hours on Saturday night, that’s all they’d be hiring for. But when I went into interview, they needed someone who could be at the store Monday through Friday, 40 hours a week and I was like, “Pick me!” For the first 6-8 months I was selling books out front, and then I assumed the buying role. It just worked out.

What’s been the biggest surprise about working in a bookstore?
Something I get all the time, like when I meet people at a party,  is they’ll say, “Oh! You get paid to read!” It surprises them when I tell them you don’t get to read on the job.

For me,  the biggest surprise is how busy it is behind the scenes. I do backlist ordering everyday, emails, coordinating with people.  I feel like I live in the smallest town I’ve ever lived in because of our regulars. We see people, we see them regularly, we know their dogs, we know their kids names. I never thought I’d go to Trader Joe’s and see our customers!

What are your go-to hand-sells for kids? Adults?
I’ve been handselling A Man Called Ove a lot. It’s been out in paperback for a little bit now, but it’s a good go-to crowd pleaser. It’s heartwarming which sounds terribly cliche. It’s very positive but the humor is dark enough that it doesn’t feel saccharine. It’s a good combo of dark humor but at the end you feel like people are good.

I just finished Prisoner of Geography which is non-fiction and it’s basically an overview of geopolitics. It was a fascinating quick read.

Other favorites to hand-sell:
Crosstalk, by Connie Willis
Short, by Holly Goldberg Sloan
Child of Books, by Oliver Jeffers (good gift for adults)
Panda Pants, by Jacqueline Davies
Ghosts, by Raina Telgemeier
Everyone Loves Cupcake, by Kelly DiPuccio
Salt To the Sea, by Ruta Sepetys
Nanette’s Baguette, by Mo Willems

Do you have any bookstore crushes?
Yes – a lot! I went to Wild Rumpus up in Minneapolis and they have 20 plus pets there. To the point where you go in the bathroom and turn on the light and where the mirror is, it’s a fish tank. There animals everywhere. Guinea pigs, cats, and chickens!

Books of Wonder in New York is really cool. They feel like what I feel is a classic kid’s bookstore. Very upscale, classics. Things you don’t see when you go into Barnes and Noble. It’s a beautiful store and they have huge-name authors.

Other favorites bookstores: Vroman’s Bookstore in the L.A. area., and Politics & Prose and Kramer Books in D.C.

Do you have any book confessions? (Something you should have read? A bad habit?)
I hate hardbacks, which is kind of weird. I know they’re pretty on the shelf and they’re gifty, but I hate them. Like when I was a kid, my arms would get tired. That kind of tells you what a wimpy little kid I was!

Do you track your reading?
Edelweiss is where I do all my reviews, and I’ve started using Goodreads. I don’t write reviews on Goodreads, but  I’ll do the stars for me. I’m actually really terrible at updating currently reading, but I’ll go and mark it later.

What are some of your reading habits? 
If I’m reading nonfiction, I almost exclusively do audio. For some reason, it’s really hard for me to sit down and read nonfiction but I love listening to it.

I’m not a finisher. Before I started at the store, I’d finish 1 book for every 6 I’d start. Now that I work at the store, that number’s gone way up.

What are you reading right now?
I am reading Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton – I’m listening to it. It’s like 35 hours, so it’s what I read in between books. I go back to it for a few hours at a time. I’m also reading a galley called Finding Mighty, by Sheela Chari.

What’s an upcoming release that you can’t wait to recommend?
I’m excited about Dragons Love Tacos 2: The Sequel in picture books. There’s another Goodnight Goodnight Construction Site book. And on the theme of construction, the the author of the Llama Llama books (Anne Dewdney) has one coming out called Little Excavator.

Other upcoming releases to get excited out:
The World’s Greatest Detective, by Caroline Carson
The Hate U Give, by Angie Davis

Anything exciting coming down the pike for the bookstore?
We’re getting Chris Van Deusen for his new book (Hudson and Hattie) and Ann Brashares is coming this spring.

We have also been working with somebody on a new website and it’s on the cusp of going live. I’m excited for a new website!

How can readers find out more about your store?
While a new website is coming soon, the homepage of the current website (http://www.hooray4books.com/)  has a newsletter sign up and that is the best way to find out what’s coming.

One response to “A Conversation with Erin Barker from Hooray for Books!”

  1. Jenny Avatar

    Glenn and I went in to Hooray for Books this afternoon and had a blast! I told Ellen that Kristen is my friend and that got us talking about how great you are 🙂

    Plus, we found out that Deborah Diesen (author of Pout Pout Fish!!!!!) is going to be st the store reading the newest PPF book this coming Saturday! So glad we stopped by since that is by far Ella’s favorite book. To the point where the answers to most questions lately (what do you want to eat? What shirt should we wear? Etc.) are, “Pout Pout Fish!”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *