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INTERVIEW WITH OBADIAH BAIRD – THE BOOK BIN (SALEM, OREGON, USA)
What initially got you interested in being a bookseller?
My family has run The Book Bin for over thirty years which means that I grew up in our bookstores. I worked from an early age in our stores and when I wasn’t working I was hanging out in the backroom reading. When I was younger I was thoroughly convinced that I was not going to get into the family business and lived in Portland OR for a decade going to college and working food service jobs. As time went on the idea of some stability became more and more appealing and I eventually decided to give bookselling another try. Luckily for me I love what I do and that has turned out to be the best decision I have ever made. The great thing about being involved in a family business has been the flexibility it has given me to pursue the kinds of opportunities that fascinate and interest me and selling collectible Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror has been far and away my favorite.
My wife, sister and I are in line to take over from my parents as they retire in the next few years and my niece and nephew are both growing up in our stores. We are a genuinely multigenerational business.
What drew you to focus on specific genres?
I grew up hiding out in the back of our stores reading Conan comics and devouring David Eddings Belgariad. My mother read The Hobbit to me when I was very young and amazingly I had a babysitter who read The Lord of the Rings aloud to me and my sister over the summer after first grade. My father has always read Science Fiction and from an early age he would hand me books to read and we still recommend titles to each other. I came to weird fiction within the last decade but have become completely enchanted with the works of Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith and Robert Aickman. As I have moved into selling genre fiction I have also become fascinated with its history and have studied The Futurians and early fandom in general. In my youth I was very much into punk rock and punk fanzines and upon discovering that fan publications have an even earlier genesis within Science Fiction I have begun working to learn more about them as well.
On a more intellectual level I believe that the world we are now living in is most accurately represented and explained by the ideas and themes present in Science Fiction. The things that scare us in Horror fiction help to explain our reactions to the horrors in our own reality and act in some ways to help us come to terms with what is worst in our world. Even our fantasy reflects who we are as a culture and helps us to understand ourselves in ways that mainstream literature has often missed.
What kinds of material are available at your store?
Both our stores are general interest bookstores but both have large genre sections. Science Fiction/Fantasy is our third bestselling section after only Kids and Literature. In our Salem store we have a rare book room and I specialize in Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror with a large selection of rare and collectible titles. I usually have a good selection of Arkham House first editions as well as titles by Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein and most of the other greats. I also make a point of having a large collection of signed first editions by contemporary authors including: Neil Gaiman, John Scalzi, China Mieville as well as many others.
We also have an entire room of vintage genre paperbacks and a large selection of signed SF paperbacks. As well as a large selection of vintage pulp magazines.
How long has your store been in operation?
My family opened The Book Bin in Corvallis 33 years ago. There was previously a location in Albany which is no longer around and the owner brought my father in as a partner to expand to Corvallis. Shortly thereafter the original owner retired and my father bought him out. Our location in Salem has been open 21 years.
What do you find most rewarding about being a bookseller?
I genuinely believe that books and literacy make the world a better place and by extension I believe that in selling books I am making the world a better place. It is not lost on me that many people work in jobs that they are not passionate about. I feel extremely lucky to have a job that I love and that I believe in. Every day I have customers tell me how important my bookstore is to them and their family and it is a privilege to fill that role for so many people.
What do you find most challenging about being a bookseller?
Balancing passion with business is very hard. The reality is that bookselling is a difficult business economically and even the most successful booksellers struggle at times. Passion has to be balanced with solid business acumen but the truth is the book buying and selling is more fun and the decisions are less fraught. When you get into the economics and numbers the decisions can become much tougher and the answers much less clear.
What kinds of books do you enjoy reading personally?
I read almost exclusively Science Fiction, Fantasy or Horror. I find that within those genres there is more than I will ever read in a lifetime and it is what I want to be reading. We have a Science Fiction book club at our store in Salem that is very well attended and I am active in that. I also read a lot of short fiction and will jump from book to book as the mood takes me. I currently am reading short story collections by Thomas Ligotti, Algernon Blackwood, J. Sheridan Le Fanu, Avram Davidson and Ursula K. Le Guin in no particular order.
Is there anything else besides you think people would find interesting about you or your thoughts on the genre?
Along with the enjoyment I have gotten from selling genre fiction I have greatly enjoyed the opportunities that it has given me to meet and interact with so many authors who I love and respect. I think many fans take for granted the level of access that they have to the people who create the work that they love. Within mainstream fiction these opportunities simply do not exist. The tradition of fandom has paved a path that has continued to this day and has allowed me to talk to Connie Willis about her favorite television shows at the Locus Awards, to have dinner with Hugh Howey, to bump into Charles Stross at Powells and have a conversation with him and to get to know William F. Nolan a living legend. I strongly encourage fans and aspiring writers to take advantage of these opportunities.
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