Nicole Brinkley knew just two weeks into her job at Oblong Books in Rhinebeck, N.Y., that she had found her calling. At the time, Brinkley was fresh out of college and had applied for part-time work at the bookstore to keep her busy while she looked for jobs in the publishing industry. She knew quickly there was nothing she’d rather be doing than connecting readers to new books.
“Being able to connect with the community and put the books that people need into their hands is the best part of my job,” Brinkley, who now manages the bookstore, said. “And I think the best part of any independent booksellers job.”
Some of Brinkley’s memories from childhood involve wandering around the local library system in the Hudson Valley in search of her next read. She talked so much about books with the people in her life that by the time she was a teen, becoming a book blogger felt like a natural next step.
“I loved books so much, I wouldn’t stop talking about them. [Book blogging] was my mother’s suggestion and hope that I would maybe talk to her about them a little less,” she said. “It backfired tremendously.”
It was that early passion for reading that led her to events at Oblong, which soon became one of the literary spaces she regularly frequented.
The store, which originally opened in Millerton, N.Y. as Oblong Books & Records, now has two locations. The booksellers at the Rhinebeck location, where Brinkley works, are involved with their community on both a personal and a professional level. In addition to the donation drives and public events the bookstore organizes, Brinkley is particularly proud of the one-on-one relationships she and her colleagues foster through their work.
In the nearly eight years that Brinkley has worked at Oblong, she’s come to know many regular customers, including book-obsessed kids who’ve known her for most of their lives and college students who make her bookshop a second home for the years they spend in the area. Being able to talk to people one-on-one about the things they love and what they’re doing on whatever day they step into the store “matters a lot,” the bookseller said.
The trick to being a great bookstore, according to Brinkley, is having booksellers with an enthusiastic love of reading.
“We have a staff that reads voraciously and broadly and really cares about its community and connecting to people,” she said. “We’re not just handing people bestsellers. We’re handing people weird backlists from a decade ago that we loved or a midlist book that came out two months ago that The New York Times didn’t notice and nobody reviewed, but we read it and we loved it.”
As a young reader, Brinkley was mostly drawn to what she calls “tropey fiction” — think romance novels and high fantasy — but in recent years, she’s come to love “nuanced and thoughtful nonfiction.”
Memoirs like Issac Fitzgerald’s “Dirtbag, Massachusetts,” this month’s Boston.com Book Club pick, make her reading list because they “examine how complicated is to be a person in the world.”
“I prefer that to be my nonfiction because if I’m reading a made-up story, why shouldn’t there be dragons? But memoirs like Isaac’s or like Lulu Miller’s ‘Why Fish Don’t Exist’ that don’t shy away from the fact that the world is complicated and people aren’t perfect [are] really interesting to me.”
Every great work, regardless of genre, gives readers something to connect to, and for Brinkley, “Dirtbag, Massachusetts” works so well because of how vulnerable it is.
“To open the book up and see how much of himself he put on the page, how much of his own experiences. I think that’s what’s made so many people love it,” she said. “He allows himself to bear of his soul and I think that’s fascinating and important.”
For readers seeking out more nonfiction reads, Brinkley recommends thinking not just about your interests, but about your favorite writing styles. Someone who loves classic literature, for example, can bridge the gap between fiction and nonfiction by reading memoirs with literary prose. If you need help deciding what to read, Brinkley emphasized that your local indie is always the best place to look.
“Booksellers are what make bookstores great and everybody should be supporting their local booksellers,” she said. “Any place can just have books, but no place can connect you to books like an independent bookstore can.”
Join our next virtual discussion
Join Isaac Fitzgerald and Nicole Brinkley on Monday, August 22 at 6 p.m., as they discuss his new memoir.