A conversation with Skylight Books Events Manager Kelsey Nolan
Nestled in Los Feliz, Skylight Books has been a neighborhood staple of the Los Angeles literary scene for more than twenty years. In a time when (to our great chagrin) bookstores are closing left and right, Skylight has expanded its reach, finding new and innovative ways to not only stay relevant, but to lead the charge in proving why reading, progressive thought, and places of learning are more important than ever.
In the last year alone, Skylight hosted events featuring the likes of Elizabeth Warren and Zadie Smith, launched an in-store nonfiction book club, facilitated fundraising for more than half a dozen human rights causes, made the news as an “oasis of dissent,” and partnered with local groups to put on a cross-city, Harry Potter-themed pub crawl that culminated in a midnight book release party. And of course, sold a lot of books. Whew. And that’s just a glimpse.
At PRFW, we’re all writers who represent writers, so for us bookstores are nothing short of sacred (not to mention we’ve all confessed to each other that we’re steadfast devotees of the printed copy). Because we approach writing from a public relations standpoint, we’re constantly looking to better understand the relationship between booksellers, authors, and the general public. See where I’m going with this? Who better to help elucidate the nuances of these relationships than the booksellers themselves.
I had the great pleasure of sitting down with Skylight Events Manager Kelsey Nolan to discuss the store, the role of bookstores in an increasingly politicized climate, and tips for new authors trying to make it.
Tell us a little bit about Skylight Books, its history, mission, and place in the Los Feliz and greater LA communities.
Skylight Books opened in 1996 on the site of a former 20-year old bookstore, Chatterton’s. The space has been an active bookstore for 40 years. Due, in part to its location, and in part to the staff it employs and the clientele it serves, Skylight Books is a community space, an advocate for progress and dissent, and an integral part of the Los Angeles literary world.
How do you choose which authors and books you carry: does Skylight’s process differ from other stores, and what factors do you consider when making stock decisions?
Skylight Books, just like Los Angeles, and just like Los Feliz, skews left. We focus on literary fiction and nonfiction, graphic novels and comics, books about politics, Women’s-, Black-, Asian-, Native American- and Latino Studies, and, of course, books about LA. With that in mind, we’ve had the same book buyer for the entirety of Skylight’s lifetime. He has watched Los Angeles and our neighborhood change and grow and, with input from the staff, he has maintained a keen eye for what our customers want, respond to, and like to discover. Plus, he does so much with the limited space we have.
I’ve had a lot of reviewers snub self-published work as not being as legitimate as those backed by a house, but we’re seeing an increasing number of self-published authors—is there a place for them in bookstores?
There is definitely a space for them in bookstores, especially indies. I think the stigma was born because, well, anyone can self-pub—which means not all self-published work is going through an editing process, so there is more potential for lower quality work. However, Skylight Books encourages and represents self-created work, particularly in the underground and DIY scene. We have a huge, carefully curated zine section that emphasizes and highlights marginalized voices, non-white voices, etc.
Do you have any advice for authors/publishers who are trying to see their books carried at Skylight or collaborate for an event?
As long as the work being presented is well done, looks nice, and is “Skylight-y” so to say (weird, thoughtful, beautiful, obscure, LA-oriented), there will probably be an advocate here pushing for it to be carried in the store. The title doesn’t necessarily need to be backed from a publishing house, it just needs to be something our community might want. Something different than what one could find a chain bookstore or online. A good example of that is the zine How to Talk to Your Cat About Gun Safety, which the store carried for many years, and is our single greatest selling item. The anonymous author put together more titles (abstinence, evolution) and eventually landed himself a book deal. Another good example is Yumi Sakugawa, a comic book artist who got her start creating the loveliest zines. She produced a ton of different titles before getting enough exposure that the publishing houses started paying attention to her. She’s local to Los Angeles and we feel very strongly about her work being tied to Skylight’s identity. (Check out her new book about Life Hacks! There is gold foil!) There are many authors and artists whom Skylight Books has supported and carried who have gone on to get large scale recognition, whether it is through book deals, national distribution, etc.
Pitching for events is different than a request to be carried in the store. Authors who are self-promoting have it tough. Often, they don’t get enough guidance from their publishers about whom to reach out to, when to reach out, and what pertinent information needs to be included, if they have a publisher at all. For our store in particular, we book events 2-3 months in advance, so we need at least that much time when considering an event in the store. Also, because of the amount of event requests we receive we tend to prioritize new books, ideally, hosting the event no more than 4-6 weeks after the pub date. For authors, this means having a well-thought out “tour” and reaching out to the ideal stores with plenty of lead-time.
Also, a major factor for us is the type of book. Skylight’s audience mostly responds to new, literary fiction and nonfiction and graphic novels so that’s what we generally are beholden to. That’s not a strict rule, but we like to think of it as our bread and butter. We do host poetry events, as well as events for political and social histories. Events we (almost) never host tend to be self-help books, business books, religion and spirituality books. This is to say that as the author is planning her tour, it’s a very good idea to research the bookstores she wants, know what their strengths are and see if her book is right for them. If not, the pitch simply dies on the vine and she will have wasted her time as well as that of the bookstore’s.
Again, none of these are strict guidelines. Timing, ability to draw an audience, and type of book are simply the initial aspects we consider when deciding when to host an event. Ultimately, we like to believe that we want to support someone whose book we believe in, and we think has a chance of finding an audience here at the store, especially given our limited space.
Skylight is beloved for its dependability and neighborhood feel, but is also an active proponent of progressive thought—in fact you self-identify as “fiercely independent.” What roles and responsibilities do you feel that bookstores, and Skylight in particular, have given the current political climate?
We feel an immense responsibility to inform the masses, support those who are marginalized, and give voices those who are often underrepresented.
Even before the rise of Donald Trump, Skylight staffers were passionate about dissent, encouraging positive political discourse, and excited about bipartisan, truthful voices. Since the election, Skylight has become even more involved in the community in a way that is truly inspiring. Individually, and on their personal time, staffers work with LA’s homeless population, the Women’s Center for Creative Work, operate a roving feminist library, edit a feminist nonfiction magazine, and regularly attend protests and marches, donate money to organizations like Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, Southern Poverty Law Center, host gatherings such as phone banking, political dinners, and brainstorming sessions about how to create active resistance, and foster intelligent and productive conversations about how to help the world around them, most recently by launching a nonfiction in-store book club.
Skylight also helped raise funds to help support the organizations resisting the Dakota Access Pipeline by selling postcards and collecting donations at the front register of both stores, and perhaps most seismically, closing the store during the Women’s March so that the entire staff could march in support. It’s worth noting that the store issued a statement of values to customers and, upon opening the store later that afternoon, we found a half dozen customers who said they came to the store to shop simply to support us and our position.
We regularly hand-sell books to our customers to help educate people about intersectionality, race, poverty, disability, sexuality, abortion, in particular to those who are new to activism, in particular through our store windows, front register display (currently it reads “You Can’t Gag A Bookstore” with a number of appropriate book selections) and our Current Events display. Teaching our community how to participate and resist in a thoughtful, meaningful way is ingrained in the fierce DNA of our bookstore.
Skylight Books prides itself as being the sanctuary that hosts, facilitates and fosters hope. We’re very grateful and proud to work in an environment like this, at a time like this. Skylight Books feels like a light during a dark time, as it were. According to Amy Goodman, the journalist and host of Democracy Now! “Skylight Books is an oasis of dissent,” and we couldn’t agree more. The more you read, the more you know. The more you know, the better informed you are about your world and the way you move throughout it.
How does Skylight reconcile authors’ right to free speech with its arguably liberal, left-leaning brand?
Skylight Books will order any book in print for any customer because free speech is free speech, and we are the last place that will restrict access to information. However, if we aren’t thought leaders, who will be? And so we are careful to carry books we believe in, that we feel will help inform our customers to the side of decency and inclusion.
We’ve seen a lot of bookstores go under in the past decade, but Skylight is seems to be holding strong—how have you adapted to changing times that increasingly tend towards the digital?
Our community is our cornerstone for success. Because we’re in a walkable neighborhood, we have street traffic other bookstores may not see. Plus, the people in our vicinity find it important to support local businesses, which is vital. And they have responded to what we’ve worked hard to do: support minority voices, expand thoughtful discussion, and get excited about literature they may not otherwise have access to. Plus, e-books sales hit a plateau a few years ago. They’ve remained at roughly 30% which means that digital and print can coexist and the love of holding a book in your hand will never go away.
You put on fantastic events, from a Harry Potter pub crawl culminating in a midnight book release party, to talks by Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. How do you choose your content, and what does it take to coordinate these kinds of massive events?
Well, thank you! It is my great joy. I talked a lot about the right ways to pitch, and what qualifies as “Skylight-y” but in regards to what I like to book, I personally look for the impact in what we produce within our community. Whether it’s a zine that can help someone dealing with depression, an often untold history of the Indigenous People of The United States, a throwback event for adults who never stopped loving Harry Potter, or, of course, an opportunity for Los Angeles to feel brief optimism in the form of our beloved Elizabeth Warren. And, of course, the deep impact that the literary scene is having on Los Angeles is manifesting in the many local authors producing incredible fiction around town, which makes my little writer’s heart sing.
With our Elizabeth Warren event, we blew the single largest event we’d ever produced out of the water in terms of attendees. We are, at the end of the day, still a tiny bookstore, trying to make our footprint as big as possible, and that is a challenge we’re taking in stride. It’s been a labor of love learning the right (and so very wrong) way to operate our events, but the team (David Gonzalez and I) would be nothing without the rest of our staff, who have large hearts and a deep, unmovable passion for literature. And of course, our General Manager, Mary Williams, who gives us room to make these events our own, deserves a shout out. Her faith in us to pull off the impossible is unfailing and for that I’m grateful.
What can we look forward to that Skylight has planned this year—plug away!
What falls RIGHT in line with all this dissent we were discussing is our upcoming event with Naomi Klein! It’s at the Ebell Theatre, mid-city, on June 21st at 7:30pm. She’s been an activist for decades and she wrote a new book about recognizing the dangers of Trump and how best to fight him. She’ll be in conversation with the actress Brit Marling. We’re very excited about it, happy for the opportunity to continue our hard work. Tickets are available on our website.
Learn more about Skylight Books and get tickets to their June 21 event at skylightbooks.com or just swing by at 1818 Vermont Ave.
Kelsey Nolan is editor at Selfish, a biannual feminist zine; check it out at selfishmagazine.com.