The thing you realize within a few seconds of talking to University Book Store’s Caitlin is that she reads a lot. Like, a lot. She estimates she plows through about five books a week, on average. “I read fast,” she admits. “Partly because when I was in college, I would do theater, and I would also have to read James Fenimore Cooper or Moby Dick” for class assignments. Every time I see Caitlin, she’s gushing about some book that just came out, or that is about to come out, or that will be out in a month or two. Few booksellers in the city are as capable at forecasting the near-future of books as she is; talking to her is a window into your immediate reading future.
Caitlin has been a bookseller since 1994, when she started at a branch of Media Play, a short-lived attempt at a multimedia chain store concept by Sam Goody that she describes as “their answer to Barnes & Noble and Borders.” When I admit that I’ve never heard of Media Play before, Caitlin says that’s not unusual: “they opened a lot of locations really fast and probably too close to each other,” and the chain burned out in a matter of years.
Caitlin had just graduated college with a degree in literature, so she had hoped for a position in the fiction section, but she was assigned to the children’s section. She didn’t know much about kid’s books, but she accepted the challenge gracefully: “I just read the Newbery Award winners and some of the old Newbery winners and the Goosebumps books and dove right in.”
From there, she went on to work at Barnes and Noble — first in Portland and then at the University Village branch — before joining University Book Store in 2007. It was a dream job for her. Even as a Barnes & Noble bookseller, Caitlin spent a lot of time at University Book Store as a customer. “I knew Brad because I would sell him my used books. I found some of my favorite books from their staff recommendations.”
About a year and a half ago, Caitlin became a buyer for the bookstore. She meets with publisher sales representatives and evaluates the prospects of upcoming titles — she’s already buying for summer and fall of this year. Basically, based on sample chapters, sales copy, and advance reader copies, she tries to predict what customers will want to read three to six months from now. A lot of the selection process, she says is based on “a hunch,” though if an upcoming title is “something I love or a coworker loves, it gives me a better feeling for the book.”
So what’s on the horizon? She’s recently read and enjoyed The Door, by Magda Szabo; Heidi Heilig’s fantasy adventure The Girl from Everywhere; and Kill the Boy Band, an upcoming young adult novel by Goldy Moldavsky about “four friends who get a room in a hotel the night a boy band is also staying in the hotel.” Caitlin describes it as a story of “super-fan teens gone mad” that brings to mind “Heathers mixed with the Jonas Brothers.” For upcoming picture books, she recommends Penguin Problems, a September release “about a penguin who has a lot of problems,” and Lane Smith’s There Is a Tribe of Kids, which is out this spring.
Caitlin has worked longer at University Book Store than at any of her other bookselling jobs, in part because it’s “a great place to work. It’s a store that really, really cares about its employees,” which means that “a lot of the employees have been there for a long time,” which in turns creates a sense of continuity that most bookstores can’t replicate. But when you get down to it, she says, “I feel lucky to be surrounded by books. I grew up surrounded by books. I work surrounded by books, and I work with people who love books.” She makes it sound like paradise.