Though there’s no wrong time to cozy up with a good book, winter makes it easier. A warm blanket, a favorite drink, and an escape into the pages of a new adventure or a forgotten time in history can help anyone make it through the cold, dark nights of the season.
Choosing the perfect book, though, is not always easy.
The staff at Joseph-Beth Booksellers is a wealth of resources for Cincinnati readers. The store’s seasoned, professional booksellers are the true experts when it comes to choosing the right book for a cozy night alone by the fire or as a Christmas gift for a loved one.
Joseph-Beth is a regional bookseller headquartered in Cincinnati. They have three full-service bookstores — two of them with in-house restaurants — and four hospital gift shops catering to patients and clients. The Joseph-Beth store in Lexington was the first to open in 1986. Their Rookwood location opened in Cincinnati in 1993 and, in 2010, a store opened in Crestview Hills, KY.
At first glance, Joseph-Beth bookstores are what one would expect from a large-scale book retailer. Customers can find everything from national bestsellers to local publications, and the stores also carry a vast selection of periodicals, music, toys, games, and gifts.
Where Joseph-Beth diverges from the average mega-store is its commitment to local authors and artisans, special events, and personalized customer service thanks to a staff of book-lovers and avid readers.
Taking personal shopping to the literary level
Audrey Bullar knows how to recommend a good book. She’s been recommending books to customers at Joseph-Beth for 20 years.
“To sell a book,” she says, “you don’t tell them what it’s about. You tell them how it made you feel.”
Bullar took her job at Joseph-Beth as a seasonal gig. She was exiting a career as a project manager for an insurance company and she wanted something that would get her away from the cubicles and meetings. She thought a bookstore would be a great temporary holiday job.
She had never considered “bookseller” as a profession, but Bullar has a knack for selling a book. It’s become a real labor of love.
“I consider it a real privilege to be involved in so many people’s reading lives,” she says.
In addition to working the sales floor, merchandising, and talking with customers, Bullar leads store book clubs and the kids’ storytime. In her twenty years at Joseph-Beth, she’s gotten to know a lot of customers. She’s seen people get engaged in the store, married in the store, and has even attended memorial services in the store.
“The years have gone by so quickly,” she says. “I’ll help high schoolers with some assignment and they’ll say, ‘You know, I’ve seen you here my whole life’ and I think, ‘Oh, that’s cute.’ But, no, actually,” she admits, “they have seen me here their whole life.”
Michael Link has been at Joseph-Beth for twelve years as the publisher relations and events manager. Prior to this job, he worked as a general manager at a large bookstore in Washington D.C. Before that, he was the host of a morning talk radio show.
He, too, thought his job at Joseph-Beth would be temporary while he considered his next long-term career move. But the job stuck. He’s now been selling books for a total of 18 years.
He remembers when he first realized that he’d found the right job.
“It was as close to a religious epiphany as I’m ever going to have,” he explains. “I started working at a bookstore and, after the end of the first week I said to myself, ‘Oh, that’s what I am. I didn’t know it, but I’m a bookseller.’”
Unlike Bullar, Link doesn’t spend much time on the sales floor; he works out of the corporate office where he coordinates author visits, public programs, and events like the popular Books by the Banks.
With the rise of online realtors, Link says there have been plenty of people predicting the demise of independent bookstores like Joseph-Beth. But, he says, the industry has actually been growing over time. He says that customers grow tired of the impersonal online and big-box stores and want the personal connection of an independent store and their impassioned staff.
“A bookstore is nothing without its community and [you have to be] in concert with your readers and your community,” Link explains, “that’s the different between what we do and an online retailer.”
Customers tell him all the time how they identify with a particular staff bookseller (like Audrey, for example) and appreciate their recommendations. He loves hearing stories from customers about how a book recommendation sparked their love for reading, brought their families closer together, or took them through a difficult season. The personal connection is significant.
“The real magic of the independent bookstore is the independent bookseller,” he says. “We have the privilege of experiencing the transformational nature of literature and how important the right book in the right hands at the right time can be.”
Book recommendations from the experts
Link and Bullar agree that a good book is both the perfect gift and the perfect personal luxury.
They both keep tabs on Joseph-Beth’s inventory, with a running catalog of upcoming, new, and classic books they can recommend to customers at any moment. They say there’s truly something for everyone and they’re always quick with recommendations.
Grab a blanket, take a sip of that tea (or scotch, hot cocoa, or chardonnay), and dig in.
Two of Buller’s easiest current recommendations are I Really Needed This Today: Words to Live By by Hoda Kotb and American Spy by Lauren Wilkenson. The former is what Bullar calls a “non-religious devotional” with daily readings and inspirational quotes for a reader of any age. The latter is a new twist on the political thriller genre. She says it’s smart, funny, and good for anyone who enjoys a classic thriller.
For a book with local ties and historical significance, she recommends The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes. It’s a Depression-era novel based on the true story of a British woman who volunteered to deliver books in rural Kentucky as a part of Eleanor Roosevelt’s traveling library program.
One of Buller’s favorite books of the year (and one often recommended) is The Heartbreak of Wounded Knee by David Treuer. It tells the story of the Native American political experience from the Battle of Wounded Knee in 1890 to the present day. She says it’s a timely conversation about the clash of cultures and offers a different narrative of American life than those most frequently written and read.
For a laugh, she recommends When Life Gives You Pears: The Healing Power of Family, Faith, and Funny People by Jeannie Gaffigan. Most commonly known as comedian Jim Gaffigan’s wife, Jeannie is a skilled writer and comedian in her own right. The book is a funny memoir about how her family rallied around her during her battle with a brain tumor.
Another fun recommendation is Our Rainbow Queen, a casual, color-coded book of photos of the British Monarch with bits of royal trivia and quips throughout. Anyone with an eye on the royal family would enjoy the book, she says. And it would be a great buy for a Secret Santa gift exchange or for someone who’s a bit of a stranger.
For any avid reader or science or literary geek, Bullar recommends the fascinating Reader, Come Home by Maryanne Wolf in which she talks about the science behind how reading printed words engages the mind versus reading digital media.
On Michael Link’s list, one top recommendation is the current bestseller Ghosts of Eden Park: The Bootleg King, the Women Who Pursued Him, and the Murder That Shocked Jazz-Age America by Karen Abbott. It’s a true story of an infamous murder in Cincinnati’s own Eden Park. Link says the book reads like a feature film.
In the world of fiction, Link has five strong recommendations for this season: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates; Testaments by Margaret Atwood (the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale); Red at the Bone by popular children’s and young adult author Jacqueline Woodson; On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, the debut novel by poet Ocean Vuong; and the fun, absurd novel Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson.
For something a little different — or as a gift for someone with offbeat taste — Link suggests Bowie’s Bookshelf: The Hundred Books That Changed David Bowie’s Life by John O’Connell. It chronicles the musician’s own curated list of his favorite books and includes related notes, suggestions for Bowie songs to match each book, and further book recommendations.
A safe (and fun) gift is 1,000 Places to See Before You Die, an around-the-world photographic journey through 1,000 unique places, cultural experiences, and travel destinations. The photos are gorgeous and the written content is concise and easy to thumb through, making it a perfect coffee table book or conversation piece.
Link says a great gift for Cincinnati lovers is the newly released Blink: A Photographic Journey, a commemorative book about the popular event, published by the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber. Joseph-Beth recently held a launch party for the book and is one of only a few places it is available for purchase.
For younger readers, Link had two recommendations. More advanced readers will love the new full-color, illustrated editions of the Harry Potter series, written by J. K. Rowling and illustrated by Jim Kay. Younger readers (and their parents) will appreciate The Important Thing about Margaret Wise Brown, a picture book written by Marc Barnett and illustrated by Sarah Jacoby. This beautifully illustrated book lovingly tells the story of popular picture book author Brown through her own literary form.