Meet the Best Pop-Up Bookseller in the Country
Meet Charlie Pugsley
He's the face behind Bookspace Columbus and I think he's the best pop-up bookseller in the country.
If you've ever longed to shop the bookstalls of Paris markets, you can do so a little closer to home. Charlie Pugsley opened Bookspace Columbus as a traveling, pop-up bookstore, bringing his bookstall to festivals and events around Columbus, Ohio. By the nature of carrying his wares from place to place, the books are extremely well curated, and Charlie has a penchant for social justice literature.
Bookspace recently branched out to add an online shop, so you can still get amazing books at great prices and support the good work Charlie is doing even if you live outside of Columbus. And if you're in Columbus, you can meet him very soon!
I talked to Charlie about what it's like running a pop-up bookstore.
Mandy Shunnarah: One of the things that drew me to Bookspace was that you're shaking up the traditional bookstore model. Tell me about your thought process and what inspired you to be a pop-up bookseller.
Charlie Pugsley: It's funny you put it that way because basically everything I've done, I've just thrown together in whatever way seems like I should. For instance, I'm a pop-up bookseller because I want to sell books but I'm not yet in a place where I can run my own physical store, although that's the goal. But I want to connect people with books, words, and ideas any way I can, so it's been markets, poetry readings, pop-up shops, and other events so far.
As for my selection, I sell books I'm excited about getting out there into people's hands and minds. There are so many great books that I feel like people can benefit from and those are the ones I want to get to people. I'd probably be more “successful” if I sold all the bestsellers, but for me, there's no point being a bookseller unless I can sell the books I want to sell.
MS: You mention on your website that you didn't grow up reading, so tell me about the transition from reading Cliff's Notes to your voracious self-directed learning. What made you change your mind?
CP: I read some books for school when I was a kid, and I remember liking them, but I was never very excited about reading. I think I was too distracted by sports, video games, and other things. And because reading was so tied to the obligation of school and the idea of work, it didn't often occur to me to seek it out in my spare time, even though, deep down, I enjoyed it.
I started to read for pleasure in high school when I began getting over my social ineptitude—caring less about what others thought of me, staying at home reading instead of drinking and going to parties. As I continued to read for pleasure through college (even though the rigorous nature of college really discourages enjoying reading, doesn't it?), it was exciting to realize that I could read about literally anything that interested me. I think it's strange, but it's still something that most people aren't able to realize: there are so many books out there, readily available, that you can read deeply about anything you want.
MS: The books you sell are almost exclusively social justice-oriented. Were you always interested in social justice and activism?
CP: After college, I decided to stop my formal schooling (at least for a while), get a job in a restaurant, and learn about whatever I was interested in. Environmental psychology opened me up in a big brain way. A couple books that have stuck with me are Tyranny of the Moment and The Necessity of Experience.
I was also reading more and more fiction. I tended to gravitate toward late-19th/early-20th century English stuff for some reason—like Thomas Hardy and W. Somerset Maugham. But I was also drawn toward novels written by black American women—Gloria Naylor, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, etc. I was living with my sister in an attic in Victorian Village. She was still in school at OSU, and was knee-deep in English and Women's Studies classes, so we talked a lot about what she was reading, and that influenced my thinking. I remember reading Carol J. Adams, bell hooks, and some articles by other great feminist thinkers. I really regret not taking any Women's Studies classes in college myself, but it's okay because now I can read it all on my own time.
At the same time, I was getting deeper into Columbus's DIY punk scene. I'd loved punk ever since I started liking music in 6th grade, and I'd played in some bands here and there, but I'd never been part of such a unified, welcoming community of people. I rode my bike to basement shows all the time and started a band with a couple friends. The ethos was there: no homophobic, racist, sexist behavior would be condoned or tolerated.
It was very inspiring, and through that community, I was able to tap into the other parts of Columbus's radical community. Columbus is such a wonderful city that way; you get interested in one thing and it just leads you to more cool things, more great people.
Check the Bookspace Columbus website and Instagram for updates.
MS: Speaking of the DIY punk scene, unlike a lot of bookstores, you carry a wide selection of zines. Are zines having a resurrection, kind of like vinyl?
CP: I think they are making a comeback, but not nearly on the same scale as vinyl. But like vinyl, zines have to compete with the ostensibly easier digital medium. I was kind of late to the zine game; I didn't make one until I was 25. I got into them through the punk scene, and unless you're a part of a similar kind of counterculture, you're probably not going to know about zines.
I think people feel like they don't have the patience for things like zines. If they have a thought worth sharing, they type it up and post it on Facebook. And when people see zines, because they don't look perfect and haven't been filtered through a publisher and given a high price tag, I think people assume they're amateurish, and not worth a read. But anyone who reads zines knows how untrue this is. It's kind of sad because zines are an example of a much more vibrant mode of self-expression than the internet. But creative people continue to channel their creativity through Instagram, etc. So often when I see my friends' internet presences, I think, “I wish they'd make a zine!”
The beauty of books (and usually when I talk about “books” I really mean “books and zines”) is that they are so easy to make and share. Maybe it's because I can hardly connect with anything as long as an article if it's on a screen, but I think books are more effective because they're more intimate, more personal. In a lot of other cities, zines are huge, and I think they're getting bigger in Columbus as people look for more meaningful outlets to express themselves.
MS: I'm curious to hear your thoughts about the state of bookselling and publishing today. What are some things you've noticed that the average reader doesn't see or think about? What are some problems you see that need to be addressed by the industry?
CP: Bookselling is a tough business. Like restaurants, it's very hard to make money at it, and if you do, it takes a long time. Think of it this way: walk into a bookstore and look around at all the beautiful books. Those books, for all practical purposes, will never be sold, because when they sell, they have to be immediately replaced by other books on the shelf. So just think of all the books a store has to stock before they can make even one sale, and how long it must take for the sales to catch up with the back-stock of inventory.
I don't pretend to understand business and economics, because it's all very complicated and dictated by capitalist, patriarchal modes of thinking, but stores like Borders (R.I.P.), Barnes & Noble, and now Amazon have completely changed the book market—so much so that the publishers basically have to bend to their whims.
New books almost seem to be a designer product now—a luxury item; they're vastly inaccessible to a lot of everyday people. (I love selling, say, The New Jim Crow because it's such an important book. But I hate having to ask $20 for it.) But books have such a strong historical connection with humans that I know they will never die.
MS: For the people reading this and dreaming about starting their own bookstore, what would you say?
CP: I'd say, read Rebel Bookseller by Andrew Laties. It was very inspiring to me, and he does a great job explaining how the industry works, a good bit of its history in America, and just how much it takes to be successful in it.
Aside from that, I'd say, make sure it's what you really want to do because there's very little glamour in the bookselling world. In this work, I mostly come across people decades older than me who, when I tell them what I plan to do, look at me, kind of chuckle to themselves, and say, “Well good luck with that!”
To say that bookselling is an uphill battle is an understatement. But I know that it's worth it because later I'll have a great conversation with someone about how wonderful Ursula K. Le Guin is and I witness how obviously pleasantly surprised they are to find someone selling a bunch of books that they want to read, and I again feel confident in what I'm doing. I guess if all that sounds good to you, please be a bookseller. We need more of them.
If you love what Charlie is doing, check out more (and buy some books!) on the Bookspace Columbus website.